Review: uISP programmer for AVR

I got into AVR chips because they are easy to program, and that has become more and more true over the years with the ever-falling cost of programmers. But it’s pretty easy to make a mistake when burning the fuses on the chips and if you don’t have a proper programmer (my first programmer was a horrifyingly slow self-built DAPA cable) you’ll have a brick on your hands. This little board may be able to help in that situation. I gave the USB µISP a try this week. The half-stick-of-gum-sized board flashes firmware like a champ and includes a rescue pin for when you have clock source problems.

My full review is below. All technical information for the µISP can be found in the User’s guide. The board itself is now available to purchase in the Hackaday Store.

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Faster Benchmarks With Slower Hardware

hardware

The Bus Pirate is a cheap, simple, Swiss army knife of electronic prototyping, capable of programming FPGAs, and writing to Flash memory. The uISP is possibly the most minimal way of programming Atmel chips over USB, using less than $5 in components. Although the uISP is using a slower chip and bit-banging the USB protocol, it turns out it’s actually faster when operating as a programmer for SPI Flash memories.

Most of [Necromancer]’s work involves flashing routers and the like, and he found the Bus Pirate was far too slow for his liking – he was spending the better part of four minutes to write a 2 MiB SPI Flash. Figuring he couldn’t do much worse, he wrote two firmwares for the uISP to put some data on a Flash chip, one a serial programmer, the other a much more optimized version.

Although the ATMega in the uISP is running at about half the speed as the PIC in the Bus Pirate, [Necromancer] found the optimized firmware takes nearly half the time to write to an 8 MiB Flash chip than the Bus Pirate.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, considering the Bus Pirate has a dedicated USB to serial chip, the uISP is bitbanging its USB connection, and the BP is running with a much faster clock. [Necro] thinks the problem with the Bus Pirate is the fact the bandwidth is capped to 115200 bps, or a maximum throughput of 14 kiB/s. Getting rid of this handicap and optimizing the delay loop makes the cheaper device faster.