Use a Mini PCI-e 3G Card with USB Instead

Back the late 2000s, when netbooks were the latest craze, some models would come with an inbuilt 3G modem for Internet access. At the time, proper mobile Internet was a hip cool thing too — miles ahead of the false prophet known as WAP. These modems would often slot into a Mini PCI-e slot in the netbook motherboard. [delokaver] figured out how to use these 3G cards over USB instead.

It’s actually a fairly straightforward hack. The Mini PCI-e standard has a couple of pins dedicated to USB data lines, which the modem in question uses for communicating with the host computer. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as just soldering on a four-wire USB cable. The modem relies on the 3.3V power from the Mini PCI-e slot instead of the 5V from USB. No problem, just get a low-dropout 3.3V regulator and run that off the USB port. Then, it’s a simple enough matter of figuring out which pins are used to talk to the SIM card, and soldering them up to a SIM adapter, or directly to the card itself if you’re so inclined. The guide covers a single model of 3G modem but it’s likely the vast majority of these use a very similar setup, so don’t be afraid to have a go yourself.

Overall Mini PCI-e is a fairly unloved interface, but we’ve seen the reverse of this hack before, a Mini PCI-e to USB adapter used to add a 12-axis sensor to a laptop.

[Thanks to Itay for the tip!]

The Best Pi Emulation Console You Can Build

By far the most popular use for a Raspberry Pi is an emulation console. For an educational device, that’s fine – someone needs to teach kids how to plug a USB cable into a device and follow RetroPi tutorials on the Internet. These emulation consoles usually have one significant drawback: they’re ugly, with wires spilling everywhere. Instead of downloading a 3D printed Pi enclosure shaped like a Super Nintendo, [depthperfection] designed his own. It looks great, and doesn’t have a donglepocalypse hanging out the back.

The biggest factor in building an enclosure for a Pi Zero is how to add a few USB ports. There’s only one USB port on the Pi Zero, although if you’re exceptionally skilled, you can solder a hub onto the test points on the bottom of the board. This stackable USB hub solves the problem with the help of pogo pins for the power and USB pair. It’s only $17 USD, too.

With the USB and power sorted, [depthperfection] set out to design an enclosure. This was modeled in Fusion360, with proper vent holes, screw bosses, and cutouts for all the ports. It’s designed to be 3D printable, and with a little ABS smoothing, this enclosure looks great.

For software, [depthperfection] turned to Recallbox, a retrogaming platform that also doubles as a media player. It’s simpler than a RetroPi installation, but for playing Super Mario 3, you don’t really need many configuration options. This is a great project that just works and looks good doing it. The world — and the Raspberry Pi community — needs more projects like this, and we’re glad [depthperfection] sent this one in.

Good USB – Protecting Your Ports With Two Microcontrollers

If you’ve ever needed an example of why you should not plug random USB peripherals into your computer, you need only look at BadUSB. The BadUSB attack relies on the fact that the microcontroller inside every USB device is a black box. If you plug a USB thumb drive into your computer, the microcontroller could quickly set up an additional network interface, forward all your traffic to the attacker’s server, and still keep serving up all those files and documents on the drive. Do you want a thumb drive that attaches a virus to every file? Bad USB can do that.

Until now, there is no cure or fix for a device using an implementation of BadUSB. [Robert Fisk] just came up with the first prophylactic USB device, designed to keep BadUSB off your computer. He’s calling it USG, and it’s basically a hardware firewall for USB devices.

The basic design of the system goes something like this: take an ARM microcontroller with a USB host port, take another microcontroller with a USB device port, and have these devices talk to each other over SPI. The command protocol between these two microcontrollers is very simple, and thus decreases the attack surface.

[Robert] is building USG dongles, but in the spirit of Open Hardware and verifiable hardware, he’s also released a design based on two dev boards wired together. This DIY version is basically two STM32F4 dev boards smashed together with bodge wires. The total cost – less solder and a JTAG programmer – is about $50 USD. No, it doesn’t look as pretty as [Robert]’s commercial version of USG, but it does the same job of keeping your computer safe from BadUSB devices.

Old Thermometer Gets New Eyes

As much as we’d like to have the right tools for the right job all of the time, sometimes our parts drawers have other things in mind. After all, what’s better than buying a new tool than building one yourself from things you had lying around? That’s at least what [Saulius] must have been thinking when he needed a thermometer with a digital output, but only had a dumb, but feature-rich, thermometer on hand.

Luckily, [Saulius] had a webcam lying around as well as an old thermometer, and since the thermometer had a LCD display it was relatively straightforward to get the camera to recognize the digits in the thermometer’s display. This isn’t any old thermometer, either. It’s a four-channel thermometer with good resolution and a number of other useful features (with an obvious lack of communications abilities), so it’s not something that he could just overlook.

Once the camera was mounted to an arm and pointed at the thermometer’s screen, an algorithm running on a computer detects polygons and reports its information into a CSV file. This process is made simpler by the fact that LCD screens like this are very predictable. From there, the data is imported into LibreOffice and various charts and graphs can be made.

Although perhaps not the most elegant of hacks, sometimes you have to work with the supplies that are on hand at the time. Sometimes the tools you need are too expensive, politically dangerous, or too impractical to obtain. To that end [Saulius]’s hack is a great example of what hacks are possible with the right mindset.

60 Watt USB Soldering Iron Does it with Type-C

Some time back we ran a post on those cheap USB soldering irons which appeared to be surprisingly capable considering they were really under powered, literally. But USB Type-C is slated to change that. Although it has been around for a while, we are only now beginning to see USB-C capable devices and chargers gain traction. USB-C chargers featuring the USB-PD option (for power delivery) can act as high power sources allowing fast charging of laptops, phones and other devices capable of negotiating the higher currents and voltages it is capable of sourcing. [Julien Goodwin] shows us how he built a USB-C powered soldering iron that doesn’t suck.

He is able to drive a regular Hakko iron at 20 V and 3 Amps, providing it with 60 W of input power from a USB-C charger. The Hakko is rated for 24 V operating voltage, so it is running about 16% lower power voltage. But even so, 60 W is plenty for most cases. The USB-C specification allows up to 5 A of current output in special cases, so there’s almost 100 W available when using this capability.

It all started while he was trying to consolidate his power brick collection for his various computers in order to reduce the many types and configurations of plugs. Looking around, he stumbled on the USB-PD protocol. After doing his homework, he decided to build a USB Type-C charger board with the PD feature based on the TI TPS65986 chip – a very capable USB Type-C and USB PD Controller and Power Switch. The TI chip is a BGA package, so he had to outsource board assembly, and with day job work constantly getting in the way, it took a fair bit of time before he could finally test it. Luckily, none of the magic smoke escaped from the board and it worked flawlessly the first time around. Here is his deck of slides about USB-C & USB-PD [PDF] that he presented at 2017 Open Hardware Miniconf early this year. It provides a nice insight to this standard, including a look at the schematic for his driver board.

Being such a versatile system, we are likely to see USB-C being used in more devices in the future. Which means we ought to see high power USB Soldering Irons appearing soon. But at the moment, there is a bit of a “power” struggle between USB-C and Qualcomm’s competing “Quick Charge” (QC) technology. It’s a bit like VHS and Betamax, and this time we are hoping the better technology wins.

The USB Killer: Now Faster, Better, More Anonymous

A few years ago, [Dark Purple] built the USB equivalent of an RJ45 connector wired into mains power. The USB Killer is a simple device with just a FET, a few high voltage caps, a DC/DC converter, and a USB connector. Plug this device into your computer and -220V is dumped directly into the USB signal wires. This kills your laptop dead.

Over the years we’ve seen the USB Killer evolve from a hand-etched PCB to something less discrete but more discreet. It was a crowdfunding campaign run by a company in Hong Kong, and a few months ago this new commercial version was released.

Now, the USB Killer V3 is out. It provides 1.5 times the power to your poor USB ports, with power surges twice as fast. There’s also an anonymous version that looks like every other USB thumb drive sourced from Hong Kong. This is your warning: never, ever plug an unknown USB thumb drive into your computer.

While a product announcement really isn’t news, it is extremely interesting to take a look at how something that should not exist is being marketed. As with all electronic destructive devices, it’s on your Amazon recommended products list alongside tactical kilts, fingerless gloves, beard oil, and black hoodies. This is pentesting gear, with an anonymous edition for your friend, the hacker called four chan. Don’t think too much about how you’re going to get data off a laptop you just killed, or how you would go undetected by destroying equipment; this is cool hacker stuff.

In addition, the USB Kill 2.0 is FCC and CE approved. This allows you to, “test in complete safety” (their emphasis, not ours).   We have no idea what this actually means.

How To Add More Games to the NES Classic

The hype around the NES Classic in 2016 was huge, and as expected, units are already selling for excessively high prices on eBay. The console shipped with 30 games pre-installed, primarily first-party releases from Nintendo. But worry not — there’s now a way to add more games to your NES Classic!

Like many a good hack, this one spawned from a forum community. [madmonkey] posted on about their attempts to load extra games into the console. The first step is using the FEL subroutine of the Allwinner SOC’s boot ROM to dump the unit’s flash memory. From there, it’s a matter of using custom tools to inject extra game ROMs before reburning the modified image to the console. The original tool used, named hakchi, requires a Super Mario savegame placed into a particular slot to work properly, though new versions have already surfaced eliminating this requirement.

While this is only a software modification, it does come with several risks. In addition to bricking your console, virus scanners are reporting the tools as potentially dangerous. There is confusion in the community as to whether these are false positives or not. As with anything you find lurking on a forum, your mileage may vary. But if you just have to beat Battletoads for the umpteenth time, load up a VM for the install process and have at it. This Reddit thread (an expansion from the original pastebin instructions) acts as a good starting point for the brave.

Only months after release, the NES Classic is already a fertile breeding ground for hacks — last year we reported on this controller mod and how to install Linux. Video of this ROM injection hack after the break.

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