Flashing TI Chips With An ESP

Texas Instruments is best known to the general public for building obsolete calculators and selling them at extraordinary prices to students, but they also build some interesting (and reasonably-priced) microcontrollers as well. While not as ubiquitous as Atmel and the Arduino platform, they can still be found in plenty of consumer electronics and reprogrammed, and [Aaron] aka [atc1441] demonstrates how to modify them with an ESP32 as an intermediary.

Specifically, the TI chips in this build revolve around the 8051-core  microcontrollers, which [Aaron] has found in small e-paper price tags and other RF hardware. He’s using an ESP32 to reprogram the TI chips, and leveraging a web server on the ESP in order to be able to re-flash them over WiFi. Some of the e-paper displays have built-in header pins which makes connecting them to the ESP fairly easy, and once that’s out of the way [Aaron] also provides an entire software library for interacting with these microcontrollers through the browser interface.

Right now the project supports the CC2430, CC2510 and CC1110 variants, but [Aaron] plans to add support for more in the future. It’s a fairly comprehensive build, and much better than buying the proprietary TI programmer, so if you have some of these e-paper displays laying around the barrier to entry has been dramatically lowered. If you don’t have this specific type of display laying around, we’ve seen similar teardowns and repurposing of other e-paper devices in the past as well.

29 thoughts on “Flashing TI Chips With An ESP

  1. I will be devil’s advocate. Advantage of having TI obsolete calc is certainty of its output. If there was any bug, it will be found in 30 years by countless engineers. Not so much with app written by some anonymous dev.

      1. Implementing a library of extended precision math, in a small cheap microcontroller, is a non trivial task.
        There are efforts to update the code in the old HP48 models, and it’s a ongoing process even now.

      2. Maybe obsolescence is not the best term for the process, but newer calculators are much more capable. Earlier calculators were often very bound by the one-line computer paradigm, and shifting away from that into more practical types of interfaces is the ‘innovation’ that TI seems to be doing with their calculators now.

    1. Ti calculators are the most widely used in high school and college, they are well supported and all math and science teachers are familiar with them and can teach students how to use them effectively. I’ll take that “obsolescence” anytime for students.

  2. The advantage of TI calculators is that they are not smartphones so cannot be used to cheat on exams for which they are required because the advantage of TI calculators is that they are not smartphones so cannot be used to cheat on exams for which they are required because the advantage of TI calculators is that they are not smartphones so cannot be used to cheat on exams for which they are required because …

    1. The best thing on calculators: they are build to be a calculator nothing more. Keys for *every* function you need without searching in menus or dropdowns.

      I love the new one (Casio not TI) that I bought to make math with my son – there is such an improvement in user input and functionality. All that I once hat to program on my HP48 (or download via telnet from HP ;-), when I was studying, is now implemented – for less than 1/10 of the price – and size and weight of the calculator.

      I am still searching for a useful todo for my old programmable calculators. Suggestions for a HP48GX or a Casio PB2000C?

      1. Like 8 years ago for grades 10-12 I needed to get a TI calculator. But a TI n-Spire CX graphic one. And that does indeed has functions hidden in sub menus and drop downs.
        On the plus side you could run lua scripts and thus play games. (I’ve heard you could also use a modified OS and run GBA games in an emulator, but who knows).
        And the current generation AFAIK uses iPads and CAS apps.

    2. If you have the data cable you can easily upload cheatsheets and such to the calculators. Also who is to say there is not a pi zero running a calc emu inside the case and connected to the internet via hotspot or something?

      1. When I were a lad the teachers would come around the desks to witness you performing a factory reset on the calculator to clear any possible cheats.

        … so we wrote a program that emulated the menu system and looked as if it cleared the memory but in fact did nothing.

  3. It’s a bad start to the article. The average person wouldn’t care that TI made ICs.

    You might as well mention that TI made TTL popular, with its 7400 series, and the databooks to match. Not known to the public, but more important to readers here.

    1. While most readers here know TI’s MCUs, the analog sector is much bigger in the industry.

      I work at TI and if I got 1 euro every time someone says “so you built calculators” I could afford one by now!

  4. My 2nd scientific calculator was an SR-50 (my first was a Lloyd with vacuum fluorescent display stolen a few months after buying it) back when I could still actually read its microscopic red LED display. I still have it, but haven’t upgraded its battery pack from NiCd to NiMH or LiPo — yet.

    So, why badmouth TI’s semis? TI second sourced the 8051 and other Intel micros, like so many other semi companies then when Intel abandoned their customers multiple times. TI is far from guilt-free in that, but no one is. The 8051 family of parts is still crazy popular.

    I liked and used an TI “home-grown” 16 bit MSP430 at work back in 2011 for a simple project. It was cheap, capable, and from a stable source, TI (Intel had already several times kicked us to the curb with their embedded parts — which they did again a few years ago to all experimenters).

    I used TI’s original $4 dev kit “on a USB stick” for the MSP430F2013 (see: https://hackaday.com/2011/01/30/hands-on-with-ez430-f2013/) and it was cheap and available, unlike a lot of other options at the time. When we had a critical need to get a simple project out the door, I got it written, debugged and tested in record time (although, right after that, everything went crazy in the SW world for critical embedded systems).

  5. Astounding. An entire comment section complaining about a single calculator reference.

    Does anyone know if someone’s used an ESP to flash AVR chips? Is there a generic implementation of the serial protocol? Hell, does the arduino-as-icsp example work when run on an ESP?

    1. Calculators can be cool. I wrote my first program on a HP41.
      If there was a mechanical keyboard with a built in display, chances are someone would add a calculator function to the microcontroller.

      Considering the power available in something like the Teensy, someone could already be working on this.

        1. Not all of DLP is consumer market. There are automotive products for head lights and it’s possible that some bigger cinema customers may be considered industrial, idk.
          The projector that you can buy is personal electronics.

          Btw, DLP and calculators are part of the ‘other’ sector that makes 6% of TI revenue (analog 77%, embedded 17%) but these are the two best known outside the industry.

          source: https://investor.ti.com/static-files/285c885f-42b8-4fb2-a7e3-8284f9413f2f

  6. I was a long time ago using an Bluetooth module based on a TI CC2540 for an Arduino, and, after looking for the specs while searching for some documentation, I was like “Why am I using this only for its bluetooth, when it’s as powerful as an arduino”. With some effort on the part of TI, it could become the next ESP8266, which was before only used as a wifi module for arduinos, if I remember well.

    1. As I understand it, the problem is licensing of the TI bluetooth stack and other libraries, as well as non-existence of a decent/compatible C++ compiler for 8051 architecture. There was a project to make BlueBasic, which would be an implementation of Basic for the CC2541 micro with added bluetooth support, compiled using the licensed compilers, with the intention of making it possible to write your own code for the device without having to agree to TI’s licenses, or pay for the expensive compiler.

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