ESP32 Hands-On: Awesome Promise

The ESP32 is looking like an amazing chip, not the least for its price point. It combines WiFi and Bluetooth wireless capabilities with two CPU cores and a decent hardware peripheral set. There were modules in the wild for just under seven US dollars before they sold out, and they’re not going to get more expensive over time. Given the crazy success that Espressif had with the ESP8266, expectations are high.

And although they were just formally released ten days ago, we’ve had a couple in our hands for just about that long. It’s good to know hackers in high places — Hackaday Superfriend [Sprite_tm] works at Espressif and managed to get us a few modules, and has been great about answering our questions.

We’ve read all of the public documentation that’s out there, and spent a week writing our own “hello world” examples to confirm that things are working as they should, and root out the bugs wherever things aren’t. There’s a lot to love about these chips, but there are also many unknowns on the firmware front which is changing day-to-day. Read on for the full review.

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Review: Monoprice Maker Ultimate 3D Printer

A few months ago, a very inexpensive 3D printer appeared on Monoprice. My curiosity for this printer was worth more than $200, so I picked one of these machines up. The Monoprice MP Select Mini is an awesome 3D printer. It’s the perfect printer to buy for a 13-year-old who might be going through a ‘3D printing phase’. It’s a great printer to print a better printer on. This printer is a sign the 3D printing industry is not collapsing, despite Makerbot, and foreshadows the coming age of consumer 3D printers.

The MP Select Mini isn’t Monoprice’s only 3D printer; the printer I bought was merely the ‘good’ printer in the good-better-best lineup. Since my review of the MP Select Mini, Monoprice has introduced their top of the line, the Maker Ultimate 3D printer. Monoprice asked if I would like to take a look at this offering, and I’m more than happy to oblige.

After a week of burn-in, I can safely say you’re not wasting your money on this $700 3D printer. It’s not a starter printer — it’s one that will last you a long time. 2016 is the beginning of the age of consumer 3D printers, and the Monoprice Maker Ultimate is more than proof of this.

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New Part Day: ATtiny102 and 104

Atmel put out some new, small microcontroller chips early this year, and we’re just now starting to think about how we’d use them. The ATtiny102 and ATtiny104 (datasheet) sell for about a buck (US) and come in manageable SOIC packages with eight and fourteen pins respectively. It’s a strange chip though, with capabilities that fit somewhere between the grain-of-rice-sized ATtiny10 and the hacker-staple ATtiny25-45-85 series.

The ATtiny104 has a bunch of pins for not much money. It’s got a real hardware USART, which none of the other low-end AVRs do, and it’s capable of SPI in master mode. It has only one counter, but it’s a 16-bit counter, and it’s got the full AVR 10-bit ADC instead of the ATtiny10’s limited 8-bit ADC. The biggest limitation, that it shares with the ATtiny10, is that it has only 1 KB of program flash memory and 32 bytes (!) of RAM. You’re probably going to want to program this beast in assembler.

Read on for more reviews, and check out [kodera2t]’s video review at the end.

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MicroPython on the ESP8266: Kicking the Tires

Scripting languages are for large computers, right? “Real” embedded device work is a hellish, never-ending cycle of code, compile, and re-flash. Well, I used to think so too, but with the proliferation of scripting and other interactive languages to microcontrollers over the last few years, the hurdle to interactive development on the small chips has gotten a lot lower.

On the ESP8266 platform, I’ve tried out NodeMCU’s Lua and ESP8266 BASIC. (For the last half-year, I’ve been using the awesome Mecrisp-Stellaris almost exclusively on the STM32F1xx and F4xx chips, but haven’t dipped into ESP8266 Forth yet.)

NodeMCU is great because it’s got everything you could want built in, and through cloud services it’s easy to get a tailored build made that maximizes free flash memory for your projects. I just don’t dig the asynchronous Lua thing (you might, try it!). ESP BASIC has a different set of libraries, and is missing MQTT for my purposes. Still it’s pretty slick, and worth a look.

So when the MicroPython folks announced that they were releasing the binary builds for the ESP, I thought it was time to give it a spin. I’ve used Python for nearly twelve years now, so it’s like a comfortable shoe for me. Would MicroPython be the same on the ESP8266? The short answer is yes and no.

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Books You Should Read: The Car Hacker’s Handbook

I just had my car in for an inspection and an oil change. The garage I take my car to is generally okay, they’re more honest than a stealership, but they don’t cross all their t’s and dot all their lowercase j’s. A few days after I picked up my car, low and behold, I noticed the garage didn’t do a complete oil change. The oil life indicator wasn’t reset, which means every time I turn my car on, I’ll have to press a button to clear an ominous glowing warning on my dash.

For my car, resetting the oil life indicator is a simple fix – I just need to push the button on the dash until the oil life indicator starts to blink, release, then hold it again for ten seconds. I’m at least partially competent when it comes to tech and embedded systems, but even for me, resetting the oil life sensor in my car is a bit obtuse. For the majority of the population, I can easily see this being a reason to take a car back to the shop; the mechanic either didn’t know how to do it, or didn’t know how to use Google.

The two most technically complex things I own are my car and my computer, and there is much more information available on how to fix or modify any part of my computer. If I had a desire to modify my car so I could read the value of the tire pressure monitors, instead of only being notified when one of them is too low, there’s nowhere for me to turn.

2015 was the year of car hacks, ranging from hacking ECUs to pass California emissions control standards, Google and Tesla’s self-driving cars, to hacking infotainment systems to drive reporters off the road. The lessons learned from these hacks are a hodge-podge of forum threads, conference talks, and articles scattered around the web. While you’ll never find a single volume filled with how to exploit the computers in every make and model of automobile, there is space for a reference guide on how to go about this sort of car hacking.

I was given the opportunity to review The Car Hacker’s Handbook by Craig Smith (259p, No Starch Press). Is it a guide on how to plug a dongle into my car and clear the oil life monitor the hard way? No, but you wouldn’t want that anyway. Instead, it’s a much more informative tome on penetration testing and reverse engineering, using cars as the backdrop, not the focus.

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USB Soldering Iron is Surprisingly Capable

We know what you’re thinking. There’s no way an 8 watt USB-powered soldering iron could be worth the $5 it commands on eBay. That’s what [BigClive] thought too, so he bought one, put the iron through a test and teardown, and changed his mind. Can he convince you too?

Right up front, [BigClive] finds that the iron is probably not suitable for some jobs. Aside its obvious unsuitability for connections that take a lot of heat, there’s the problem of leakage current when used with a wall-wart USB power supply. The business end of the iron ends up getting enough AC leak through the capacitors of the power supply to potentially damage MOSFETs and the like. Then again, if you’re handy to an AC outlet, wouldn’t you just use a Hakko? Seems like the iron is best powered by a USB battery pack, and [BigClive] was able to solder some surprisingly beefy connections that way. The teardown and analysis reveal a circuit that looks like it came right out of a [Forrest M. Mims III] book. We won’t spoil the surprise for you – just watch the video below.

While not truly cordless like this USB-rechargeable iron, we’d say that for the price, this is a pretty capable iron for certain use cases. Has anyone else tried one of these? Chime in on the comments and let us know what you think.

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Pine64: The Un-Review

Even before the announcement and introduction of the Raspberry Pi 3, word of a few very powerful single board ARM Linux computers was flowing out of China. The hardware was there – powerful 64-bit ARM chips were available, all that was needed was a few engineers to put these chips on a board, a few marketing people, and a contract manufacturer.

One of the first of these 64-bit boards is the Pine64. Introduced to the world through a Kickstarter that netted $1.7 Million USD from 36,000 backers, the Pine64 is already extremely popular. The boards are beginning to land on the doorsteps and mailboxes of backers, and the initial impressions are showing up in the official forums and Kickstarter campaign comments.

I pledged $15 USD to the Pine64 Kickstarter, and received a board with 512MB of RAM, 4K HDMI, 10/100 Ethernet and a 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex A53 CPU in return. This post is not a review, as I can’t fully document the Pine64 experience. My initial impression? This is bad. This is pretty bad.

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