Down the Rabbit Hole and Back Out Again: Serial Over Headphone Jack

[ttsiodras] tells an epic tale of getting a custom Debian kernel installed on an Asus MemoPAD (ME103K) tablet. Skipping to the end of the saga, he discovers what looks like serial data coming out on the headphone jack when the system boots, but the signal was so distorted that he couldn’t simply interpret it. The solution turns out to be attaching a level-converter chip.


A level converter is a non-inverting amplifier, usually with a Schmitt trigger for immunity against noise. In this case, it acts like a “binarizer” — outputting a high voltage when the input rises above a threshold, and a low when it drops below. It’s the right part when you need to clean up a messy digital signal, and in this case works just fine because the capacitive distortion effects slow down both the leading and trailing edges of the signal, keeping the serial data’s timing intact.

That was the spoiler. If you want to read up on putting a custom Linux on an Android device, check out [ttsiodras]’s first post where he backs the machine up, and the second where he gets his custom kernel up and running. If you’re ever faced with an Android tablet that hasn’t been owned yet, or if you just have a DIY streak, this should help you get started.

Using the audio jack for serial is actually not uncommon, and discovering a serial terminal that listens at boot time is our favorite way to wedge a Linux OS into odd devices. So when you see a funny, distorted signal coming out at 115,200 baud, take a moment to clean its edges up and see what you’ve got.

Quad Serial Adapter

Despite concerted efforts to kill them, serial ports are alive and well, especially in embedded system. True, most of them end in a USB port, these days, but there’s still a lot of gear with a DE-9 (it isn’t a DB-9, despite the common use of the word) or a TTL-serial port lurking around. [James Fowkes] got tired of managing a bunch of USB to serial adapters, so he decided to build his own FT4232 breakout board that would provide four serial ports from a USB connection.

The small board has transmit and receive LEDs for each port along with EMI and ESD protection on the USB port. The ports are all TTL serial, serving the modern hacker, and the 3.3V pins are 5V tolerant.

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Cute USART Trick Brings PWM to IR LEDs

We love little tricks like this. Suppose that you want to generate an IR remote’s signal. It’s easy, because most of the codes are known. But it can be slightly harder because most IR remotes and receivers modulate the on pulses with a square wave at roughly 38 kHz for background lighting immunity.

With a competent PWM generator on a microcontroller, you can create this carrier modulation easily enough yourself. Set the PWM frequency to 38 kHz and the duty cycle somewhere in the 33%-50% range, and you’re set. But what if you don’t have a competent PWM generator? Such was the case that prompted [AnalysIR Blog] to fake it, with USART.

Here’s the trick. You set up the serial port to communicate at ten times the desired carrier frequency, and then transmit “special” data. (The number ten comes from eight bits of data plus a start and a stop bit.) If you want a 50% duty cycle, you simply send 0b11110000, as fast as the microcontroller will allow, for a mark and nothing for a space.

There’s some extra detail with inverting the signal if, as most do, your USART idles high. But that’s really it. It’s a cute trick for when you’re desperate enough to need it. And if you’d like to brush up some more on your asynchronous serial skills, check out our guide on troubleshooting USART, and the great comments that ensued.

What Could Go Wrong: Asynchronous Serial Edition

It’s the easiest thing in the world — simple, straightforward serial data. It’s the fallback communication protocol for nearly every embedded system out there, and so it’s one that you really want to work when the chips are down. And yet! When you need it most, you may discover that even asynchronous serial can cost you a few hours of debugging time and add a few gray hairs to your scalp.

In this article, I’m going to cover most (all?) of the things that can go wrong with asynchronous serial protocols, and how to diagnose and debug this most useful of data transfer methods. The goal is to make you aware enough of what can go wrong that when it does, you’ll troubleshoot it systematically in a few minutes instead of wasting a few hours.

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Audio Out Over UART

There’s a reason that the bog-standard serial port will never die. It’s just so robust and simple. When you need a console that will absolutely work with minimal software and hardware, UART is the way to go. Because of this, UART hacks abound. Here’s a new one to us, and a challenge to our readers.

[Tiziano Bacocco] decided to use UART signals as a type of PWM to create audio. That’s right, he’s plugging the serial TX line straight into a speaker. This gives you eight possible PWM output voltage levels. The trick is using some Python code (using the awesome pyserial module) to down-quantize the audio data to fit these eight possible values and then push them out at the correct sampling rate. ffmpeg is used to pre-process the files.

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Monitor A Serial Port From Anywhere

This simple WiFi serial port monitor would have saved us a lot of trouble. We can’t count how many times where being hooked into an Arduino with USB just to get the serial out has nearly been more trouble than it’s worth. Times where we sat cross-legged on the floor and could choose comfort or accidentally shifting the set-up and ruining everything, but not both.

[Frenky]’s set-up is simple and clever. The Ardunio’s serial out is hooked to an ESP8266. The Arduino spams serial out to the ESP8266 in its usual way. The ESP8266 then pipes all that out to a simple JavaScript webpage. Connect to the ESP8266’s IP with any device in your house, and get a live stream of all the serial data. Neat.

As simple as this technique is, we can see ourselves making a neat little box with TX, RX, GND, and VCC screw terminals to free us from the nightmare of tethering on concrete floors just for a simple test. Video after the break.

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Adafruit Interviews The CEO Of FTDI

When it comes to electronic hobbyists and EEs, there is no company that deserves a few raised eyebrows than FTDI. They made their name with USB converter chips, namely USB to serial chips that are still very popular today. So popular, in fact, that clones of these chips are frequently found in the $2 Arduinos from China, and other very low-cost devices. A little more than a year ago, a few clever people noticed FTDI drivers were bricking these counterfeit chips by setting the USB PID to 0000. The Internet reacted to this move and FTDI quickly backed down from that position. The Windows driver was fixed, for about a year until the same shenanigans were found again.

Adafruit recently sat down with [Fred Dart], CEO of FTDI, giving us all the first facts and figures that aren’t from people frustrated with Windows’ automatically updated drivers. The most interesting information from [Fred Dart] is how FTDI first found these counterfeit chips, what FTDI chips are being counterfeited, and how many different companies are copying these chips.

The company first realized they were being cloned when they couldn’t reproduce results of a Chinese-made ‘FTDI’ USB to RS232 cable that behaved strangely. A sample of the cables were shipped to FTDI and after inspecting the chip inside, FTDI found it was a clone with a significantly different architecture than a genuine chip.

So far, the counterfeiters appear to only be counterfeiting the SSOP version of the FT232RL and occasionally the older FT232BL chip. From what FTDI has seen, there appears to be only one or two companies counterfeiting chips.

As the CEO of FTDI, [Fred] has a few insights into what can be done to stop counterfeiters in China. The most important is to trademark the logo. This isn’t just the logo for a webpage, but one that can be laser etched onto the plastic package of the chip. US Customs has been very amenable to identifying counterfeit components, and this has led to several shipments being destroyed. Legal action, however, is a bit hard in China, and FTDI is dealing with a gang that counterfeits more than FTDI chips; there’s a high likelihood this gang was responsible for the fake Prolific PL23o3 chips a few years ago.

As far as FTDI bricking counterfeit chips is concerned, [Fred Dart] wasn’t silent on the issue, he merely wasn’t asked the question and didn’t bring it up himself.