Under the Hood – What Does this Board Do?

As interesting as it is to look at the insides of de-capped chips, it is equally interesting to sometimes look at old circuit boards and try to figure out the various sections, their functions, and to look at some of the design practices used. At a local electronics flea market, [daqq] recently chanced upon quite a large PCB that seemed to have come from some HP system, and picked it up for about 6 – the value of the abundant oscillators, crystals, connectors and other miscellaneous components that could be recovered seemed much more than what he paid for the board.

The board in question turned out to be from a HP 9000 Superdome system – part of the PA-8xxx based server series which packs quite a punch. This particular one was the 500MHz system UGUY5-500 board. At this point, most of [daqq]’s analysis is based on what he can visually decipher looking at the chip numbers and associated parts. He’s taken a stab at guessing the function of the board itself, and of the various parts on it. He’s put up high resolution scanned images of the board, for any of our readers who would like to offer an insight in to this board or the system that it was part of. Apparently, he has quite a few more exotic server PCB’s lined up for sleuthing, if you folks enjoy this.

The One Million Dollar Scope Teardown

The Labmaster 10-100zi Oscilloscope is one of the fastest scopes in the world, coming in at a blistering speed of 100GHz with up to 240 Giga samples per second in real time. The scope is made by Teledyne LeCroy, and uses a frequency interleaving technology perfected by LeCroy, which allows it to provide a single 100GHz channel, or two 33GHz channels and a single 65GHz channel. The price tag? One million dollars.

[Shahriar] takes us inside the Teledyne Lecroy factory in Chestnut Ridge, NY where these scope are manufactured, and gives us the grand tour. First, an engineer describes the interleaving frequency technique that allows the lightning fast sample rates. Then they actually tear the million dollar scope down for our viewing pleasure. And if you still want more, they put it back together and run some tests to push the scope to its far reaching limits. Lastly, [Shahriar] takes us on a tour of the plant where the scopes are built.

It’s a lengthy video, so grab your favorite beverage and tuck in! It’s shocking how fast technology progresses. Just about 18 months ago [Shahriar] took us through the then reigning champion of scopes the Agilent DSA-X 96204Q which capturered 160GS/s at 62GHz.

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Teardown: The Android-powered iPhone Case

Cellphones! Cellphone cases! Now that Radio Shack is kaput we need to pick up the slack!

A company named Oaxis has been making cell phone cases for a while now, and they’ve recently rolled out something rather interesting – a cell phone case with an e-ink screen. It’s an interesting idea and [Anton] did a teardown on two new releases. The first one just sends an image to an e-ink screen, and on paper, that’s all the second one does as well. There’s something special hidden under the hood, though: a low-end Android system. What an age to live in.

Something interesting happened when [Anton] was futzing with the battery for the e-ink iPhone case. Somehow, the device booted into recovery mode. Android recovery mode. Yes, iPhone cases now run Android.

Inside the e-ink iPhone case, [Anton] found a board with a Rockchip RK2818 SoC. This is the same chip that can be found in cheap Android cell phones. There’s only one button on the cell phone case, and connectivity is only provided by Bluetooth LE, but the possibilities for modding a cell phone case are extremely interesting.

Reverse-Engineering a Superior Chinese Product

It makes an Arduino look like a 555.  A 364 Mhz, 32 bit processor. 8 MB RAM. GSM. Bluetooth. LCD controller. PWM. USB and dozens more. Smaller than a Zippo and thinner than corrugated cardboard. And here is the kicker: $3. So why isn’t everyone using it? They can’t.

Adoption would mandate tier after tier of hacks just to figure out what exact hardware is there. Try to buy one and find that suppliers close their doors to foreigners. Try to use one, and only hints of incomplete documentation will be found. Is the problem patents? No, not really.

[Bunnie] has dubbed the phenomenon “Gongkai”, a type of institutionalized, collaborative, infringementesque knowledge-exchange that occupies an IP equivalent of bartering. Not quite open source, not quite proprietary. Legally, this sharing is only grey-market on paper, but widespread and quasi-accepted in practice – even among the rights holders. [Bunnie] figures it is just the way business is done in the East and it is a way that is encouraging innovation by knocking down barriers to entry. Chinese startups can churn out gimmicky trash almost on whim, using hardware most of us could only dream about for a serious project.

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Counting Transistors In The Playstation

Over in Russia there are a few people doing extremely in-depth technical teardowns, and the latest is one of the most ambitious ever seen. The PSXDEV team is tearing into the heart of the original PlayStation (Google translatrix), looking at 300,000 transistors, and re-implementing the entire console in a logic level simulator.

While the CPU in the PSX is unique to that specific piece of hardware, a lot of this custom silicon can be found in other places. The core – a RISC LSI LR33300 – is documented in a few rare tomes that are somehow available for free on the Internet. Other parts of this chip are a little stranger. There is a bizarre register that isn’t documented anywhere, a Bus Unit that handles the access between various devices and peripherals, and a motion picture decompressor.

The reverse engineering process begins by de-encapsulating the CPU, GPU, sound processing unit, and CD-ROM controller, taking very high magnification photos of the dies, and slowly mapping out the semiconductors and metals to figure out what cells do what function, how they’re connected, and what the big picture is. It’s a painstaking process that requires combing through gigabytes of die shots and apparently highlight gates, wires, and busses with MS Paint.

The end result of all this squinting at a monitor is turning tracings of chips into logic elements with Logisim. From there, the function of the CPU can be understood, studied, and yes, eventually emulated down to the gate level. It’s an astonishing undertaking, really.

If this sort of thing sounds familiar, you’re right: the same team behind PSXDEV is also responsible for a similar effort focused on the Nintendo Entertainment System. There, the CPU inside the NES – the Ricoh 2A03 – was torn down, revealing the 6502 core, APU, DMA, and all the extra bits that made this a custom chip.

Thanks [Rasz] for the tip.

Photographing a Display Controller Die

Who doesn’t like integrated circuit porn? After pulling a PCD8544 display controller from an old Nokia phone, [whitequark] disrobed it and took the first public die shot.

As we’ve seen in the past, removing a die from its packaging can be a challenge. It typically involves nasty things like boiling acid. Like many display controllers, the PCD8544 isn’t fully encapsulated in a package. Instead, it is epoxied to a glass substrate.

Removing the glass proved to be difficult. [whitequark] tried a hot plate, a hot air gun, sulphuric acid, and sodium hydroxide with no success. Then the heat was turned up using MAPP gas, which burned the epoxy away.

After some cleaning with isopropanol, the die was ready for its photoshoot. This was done using a standard 30 mm macro lens. Photo processing was done in darktable, an open source photography tool and RAW processor.

[whitequark] plans to take closer photos in the future using more powerful magnification. These high resolution die photos can be useful for a number of things, including finding fake chips and reverse engineering retro hardware.

EEVblog Tears into the White Van Speaker Scam

[Dave Jones] shows us just how bad audio equipment can get with his white van speaker scam teardown (YouTube link). Hackaday Prize judge [Dave] has some great educational videos on his EEVblog YouTube channel, but we can’t get enough of his rants – especially when he’s ranting about cheap electronics. Check out his world’s “cheapest” camcorder teardown for a classic example

This week [Dave] is tearing down some white van speaker scam A/V equipment. The White Van Speaker Scam (WVSS) is an international hustle which has been around for decades. A pair of guys in a white van stop you in a parking lot, gas station, or other public area. They tell you they’ve got some brand new A/V equipment in the back of their van that they’ll give you for a “great deal”. The speakers are always in fancy packaging, and have a name that sounds like it could be some sort of high-end audiophile brand worth thousands.

Needless to say anyone who buys this equipment finds they’ve been duped and are now the proud owner of some equipment which only sounds good when hitting the bottom of a dumpster. Coincidentally, a dumpster is exactly where [Dave] found his WVSS equipment.

The case of his “Marc Vincent” surround sound system turned out to be nothing more than thin chipboard hot glued together. The electronics were of such shoddy quality that few words describe them – though [Dave] is always ready to improvise. From the ultra cheap subwoofer driver to the 1990’s era vacuum fluorescent display, everything was built down to the lowest cost while still looking nice from the outside. Even the ground wire was just tack soldered to the frame. We especially liked the three vacuum tubes that weren’t even soldered in. The leads were bent over to hold them onto a PCB, while a blue LED lit the tube from below.

Click past the break to see what [Dave] found inside his “3D Optics” projector.

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