Watch That Windows Update: FTDI Drivers Are Killing Fake Chips

ftdi-explosion

The FTDI FT232 chip is found in thousands of electronic baubles, from Arduinos to test equipment, and more than a few bits of consumer electronics. It’s a simple chip, converting USB to a serial port, but very useful and probably one of the most cloned pieces of silicon on Earth. Thanks to a recent Windows update, all those fake FTDI chips are at risk of being bricked. This isn’t a case where fake FTDI chips won’t work if plugged into a machine running the newest FTDI driver; the latest driver bricks the fake chips, rendering them inoperable with any computer.

Reports of problems with FTDI chips surfaced early this month, with an explanation of the behavior showing up in an EEVblog forum thread. The new driver for these chips from FTDI, delivered through a recent Windows update, reprograms the USB PID to 0, something Windows, Linux, and OS X don’t like. This renders the chip inaccessible from any OS, effectively bricking any device that happens to have one of these fake FTDI serial chips.

Because the FTDI USB to UART chip is so incredibly common,  the market is flooded with clones and counterfeits. it’s very hard to tell the difference between the real and fake versions by looking at the package, but a look at the silicon reveals vast differences. The new driver for the FT232 exploits these differences, reprogramming it so it won’t work with existing drivers. It’s a bold strategy to cut down on silicon counterfeiters on the part of FTDI. A reasonable company would go after the manufacturers of fake chips, not the consumers who are most likely unaware they have a fake chip.

The workaround for this driver update is to download the FT232 config tool from the FTDI website on a WinXP or Linux box, change the PID of the fake chip, and never using the new driver on a modern Windows system. There will surely be an automated tool to fix these chips automatically, but until then, take a good look at what Windows Update is installing – it’s very hard to tell if your devices have a fake FTDI chip by just looking at them.

FT232RL: Real Or Fake?

232

Above are two FTDI FT232RL chips, an extremely common chip used to add a USB serial port to projects, builds, and products. The one on the left is a genuine part, while the chip on the right was purchased from a shady supplier and won’t work with the current FTDI drivers. Can you tell the difference?

[Zeptobars], the folks behind those great die shots of various ICs took a look at both versions of the FT232 and the differences are staggering. Compared to the real chip, the fake chip has two types of SRAM etched in the silicon – evidence this chip was pieced together from different layouts.

The conclusion [Zeptobars] reached indicated the fake chip is really just a microcontroller made protocol compatable with the addition of a mask ROM. If you’re wondering if the FTDI chips in your part drawers are genuine, the real chips have laser engraved markings, while the clone markings are usually printed.

Rolling your own minimal USB to serial Arduino programmer

usb-to-serial-programmer

[Hans Peter] wanted to move away from using full Arduino boards in his projects. One of the components he rarely used after the development stage is the USB hardware. Once the firmware is flashed to the chip he didn’t need it any longer. So he tried his hand with some really small SMD parts by building this USB to serial Arduino programmer.

The chip he went with isn’t the FTDI part we’re used to. Instead of using an FT232RL, he opted for its smaller cousin the FT230x. This chip doesn’t fully implement the communications protocol of the 232, but it does work with AVRdude and that’s all that really matters. Above you can see [Hans'] creation next to the official Arduino USB-to-serial programmer. He used the same connection scheme, but went with an edge connector for the USB instead of using a mini-B jack.

It’s pretty impressive to see his prototyping work with the 16-pin QFN package. He soldered it dead-bug style to a couple of SIL pin headers in order to test it on a breadboard. The first board he assembled was too loose in the USB port, but he added some tape to the back to make it thicker, and coated the edge connector traces with a bit of solder and that did the trick.

Tiny audio switcher eliminates repetitive plug swapping

usb-audio-switcher

[Phil] uses both his computer’s speakers and a set of headphones while working at his desk, but he was growing tired of constantly having to remove the headset from his sound card in order to insert the speaker plug. He’s been meaning to rig something up to make it easier to switch outputs, but never seemed to get around to it until he recently saw this LAN-enabled audio switcher we featured.

His USB-controlled switch features a single audio input and two audio outputs, which he mounted on a nicely done homemade double-sided PCB. The switch can be toggled using any terminal program, sending commands to the on-board ATtiny13A via an FT232R USB to serial UART chip.

The switch’s operation is really quite simple, merely requiring [Phil] to type in the desired audio channel into the terminal. The ATiny and a small relay do the rest, directing the audio to the proper output.

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