Building A Pocket Sized Python Playground

Like many of us, [Ramin Assadollahi] has a certain fondness for the computers of yesteryear. Finding his itch for nearly instant boot times and bare metal programming weren’t being adequately scratched by any of his modern devices, he decided to build the PortablePy: a pocket-sized device that can drop him directly into a Python prompt wherever and whenever the urge hits him.

The device is powered by the Adafruit PyPortal Titano, which combines a ATSAMD51J20, ESP32, an array of sensors, and a 3.5″ diagonal 320 x 480 color TFT into one turn-key unit. The PyPortal is designed to run CircuitPython, but the scripts are usually dropped on the device over USB. That’s fine for most applications, but [Ramin] wanted his portable to be usable without the need for a host computer.

For a truly mobile experience, he had to figure out a way to bang out some Python code on the device itself. The answer ended up being the M5Stack CardKB, a tiny QWERTY board that communicates over I2C. Once he verified the concept was sound, he wrote a simple file management application and minimal Python editor that could run right on the PyPortal.

The final step was packaging the whole thing up into something he could actually take off the bench. He designed a 3D printed clamshell case inspired by the classic Game Boy Advance SP, making sure to leave enough room in the bottom half to pack in a charging board and LiPo pouch battery. He did have to remove some of the connectors from the back of the PyPortal to get everything to fit inside the case, but the compact final result seems worth the effort.

While an overall success, [Ramin] notes there are a few lingering issues. For one thing, the keyboard is literally a pain to type on. He’s considering building a custom keyboard with softer buttons, but it’s a long-term goal. More immediately he’s focusing on improving the software side of things so its easier to write code and manage multiple files.

It sounds like [Ramin] isn’t looking to compromise on his goal of making the PortablePy completely standalone, but if your convictions aren’t as strong, you could always connect a device like this up to your mobile to make things a bit easier.

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New Micro YARH.IO Designed For Skilled Operators

A few months back we brought you word of the YARH.IO, an extremely impressive Raspberry Pi portable that featured rugged good looks and a unique convertible design made possible by a removable keyboard. One of the most appealing aspects of the design was that everything was built from off-the-shelf modules; it only took a couple jumper wires and some scrap perfboard to get everything wired up inside the 3D printed enclosure.

The downside of this construction style was that the finished product was a bit chunkier than was strictly necessary. But that’s not the case with the new YARH.IO Micro. The palm-sized portable looks almost exactly like the original, though it had to ditch the removable keyboard in the shrinking process. Gone as well is the touch pad, though with the touch screen capabilities of the Pimoroni Hyper Pixel four inch IPS display, that’s not much of a problem.

What’s the catch? Well, at a glance we can tell you this one is considerably harder to build. For one thing, you’ll need to remove the Ethernet and USB connectors from the Pi 3B+. The USB ports get relocated, but Ethernet understandably has to be left on the cutting room floor. Nothing to worry about with the GPIO pins, the display takes up all of those, but you’ll probably want to wire the I2C lines to the female header on the side of the case so you can add external hardware and sensors.

You also need to nestle an Arduino Pro Micro in there to communicate status information about the battery to the operating system over I2C. If you wanted to save a little wiring you could probably leave off the DS3231 RTC module, but it depends on how often you’ll be able to sync up with NTP.

While it may be more difficult to assemble than its predecessor, it’s certainly not unapproachable. Once again, no custom PCBs or exotic components are required. You might be doing a lot more soldering (and desoldering) than you would have before, but it’s nothing that the average Hackaday reader isn’t capable of. For your troubles, you’ll get a exceptionally portable Linux machine that’s ripe for hacking and modification.

If the time and effort it will take to put together a YARH.IO is a bit more than you’re willing to invest right now, there’s always commercial alternatives like the DevTerm. But whether you go with the original or this new Micro edition, we think the satisfaction of having built the whole thing yourself will be more than worth it.

Exploring The New Super Mario Game & Watch

Nintendo has revived the classic Game & Watch, this time in glorious full-color and running the same Super Mario Bros that first graced the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) back in 1985. Even though it’s only been on the market for a few days, [stacksmashing] has already made some impressive progress towards unlocking the full potential of this $50 retro handheld.

It will come as no surprise to the average Hackaday reader that what we’re looking at here is a pocket-sized NES emulator, but until [stacksmashing] cracked his open, nobody was quite sure what kind of hardware is was running on. Thankfully there wasn’t an epoxy blob in sight, and all of the chips were easily identifiable. Armed with the knowledge that the Game & Watch is running on a STM32H7B0 microcontroller with a nearby SPI flash chip holding the firmware, it was just a matter of figuring out how the software worked.

Connecting to the SWD header.

It didn’t take long to find that an unpopulated header on the board would give him access to the Serial Wire Debug (SWD) interface of the STM32, though unfortunately he found that the chip’s security mode was enabled and he couldn’t dump the firmware.

But he was able to dump the RAM through SWD, which allowed him to identify where the Super Mario Bros NES ROM lived. By connecting the SPI flash chip to a reader and comparing its contents with what the system had in RAM, [stacksmashing] was able to figure out the XOR encryption scheme and come up with a tool that will allow you to insert a modified ROM into an image that can be successfully flashed to the chip.

So does that mean you can put whatever NES ROM you want on the new Game & Watch? Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. The emulator running on the device has a few odd quirks, and it will take some additional coaxing before its ready to run Contra. But we’ve seen enough of these devices get hacked to know that it’s just a matter of time.

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Raspberry Pi Makes A Practical Tricorder

What do you get when you add a thermal camera, a software-defined radio dongle, and a battery to a Raspberry Pi? If you are [saveitforparts] you make a tricorder for sniffing radio signals and viewing heat signatures. He admits, the videos (see below) aren’t exactly a “how-to” but it will still give you some ideas for your next build.

You can sense the frustration with some Linux configuration issues, but [saveitforparts] admits he isn’t a Linux or Raspberry Pi guru. Version 1 seemed to be a bit of a prototype, but version 2 is more polished. We still aren’t sure we’d see Spock carrying a case like that, but some 3D printing could spiff that right up.

Of course, a real tricorder is a McGuffin that does whatever the plot calls for. This one is a bit more practical, but it can monitor thermal and RF energy and could accommodate more sensors. This is a great example of a project that would have been very hard to do in the past but is much easier today. The availability of cheap computers and ready-made modules along with associated software open up many possibilities.

If you want to do your own Tricorder hacking you could take over a commercial model. Then again, there’s an official replica on its way that seems like it might have some similar features.

Official Arduboy Upgrade Module Nears Competition

We’ve been big fans of the Arduboy since [Kevin Bates] showed off the first prototype back in 2014. It’s a fantastic platform for making and playing simple games, but there’s certainly room for improvement. One of the most obvious usability issues has always been that the hardware can only hold one game at a time. But thanks to the development of an official add-on, the Arduboy will soon have enough onboard storage to hold hundreds of games

Even the rear silkscreen was a community effort.

The upgrade takes the form of a small flexible PCB that gets soldered to existing test points on the Arduboy. Equipped with a W25Q128 flash chip, the retrofit board provides an additional 16 MB of flash storage to the handheld’s ATmega32u4 microcontroller; enough to hold essentially every game and program ever written for the platform at once.

Of course, wiring an SPI flash chip to the handheld’s MCU is only half the battle. The system also needs to have its bootloader replaced with one that’s aware of this expanded storage. To that end, the upgrade board also contains an ATtiny85 that’s there to handle this process without the need for an external programmer. While this is a luxury the average Hackaday reader could probably do without, it’s a smart move for an upgrade intended for a wider audience.

The upgrade board is currently available for pre-order, but those who know their way around a soldering iron and a USBasp can upgrade their own hardware right now by following along with the technical discussion between [Kevin] and the community in the “Project Falcon” forum. In fact, the particularly astute reader may notice that this official upgrade has its roots in the community-developed Arduboy cartridge we covered last year.

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Custom Portable N64 Embraces Modern Making

In the beginning, there was hot glue. Plus some tape, and a not inconsiderable amount of Bondo. In general, building custom portable game consoles a decade or so in the past was just a bit…messier than it is today. But with all the incredible tools and techniques the individual hardware hacker now has at their disposal, modern examples are pushing the boundaries of DIY.

This Zelda: Ocarina of Time themed portable N64 by [Chris Downing] is a perfect example. While the device is using a legitimate N64 motherboard, nearly every other component has been designed and manufactured specifically for this application. The case has been FDM 3D printed on a Prusa i3, the highly-detailed buttons were printed in resin on a Form 3, and several support PCBs and interface components made the leap from digital designs to physical objects thanks to the services of OSH Park.

A custom made FFC to relocate the cartridge port.

Today, those details are becoming increasingly commonplace in the projects we see. But that’s sort of the point. In the video after the break, [Chris] breaks down the evolution of his portable consoles from hacked and glued together monstrosities (we mean that in the nicest way possible) to the sleek and professional examples like his latest N64 commission. But this isn’t a story of one maker’s personal journey through the ranks, it’s about the sort of techniques that have become available to the individual over the last decade.

Case in point, custom flexible flat cables (FFC). As [Chris] explains, when you wanted to relocate the cartridge slot on a portable console in the past, it usually involved tedious point-to-point wiring. Now, with the low-volume production capabilities offered by companies like OSH Park, you can have your own flexible cables made that are neater, faster to install, and far more reliable.

Projects like this one, along with other incredible creations from leaders in the community such as [GMan] are changing our perceptions of what a dedicated individual is capable of. There’s no way to be sure what the state-of-the-art will look like in another 5 or 10 years, but we’re certainly excited to find out.

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Will 2020 (Finally) Be The Year Of Electronic Paper?

These days paper is being phased out whenever possible, and while we’re still far from being a completely digital society, the last decade or two has seen a huge reduction in the amount of paper the average person deals with on a daily basis. At the very least, we seem a lot closer to a future without the printed page than we are flying cars or any of the other concepts we generally associate with the far-flung future.

That said, there’s still something undeniably appealing about reading on paper. The idea of squirting ink on a piece of thin wood might seem increasingly archaic to us, but it sure does look nice when you hold it in your hand. Which is exactly why so much effort has been put into recreating the look of printed paper in electronic form; we all love the experience of paper, but the traditional execution doesn’t align itself particularly well with modern sensibilities.

Of course electronic “eReaders”, most notably the Kindle line from Amazon, have gone a long way towards making this a reality. At least for reading books, anyway. But what about magazines, newspapers, or even the lowly notebook we keep by the bench to jot down measurements or ideas? A PDF datasheet, with graphics where the grey tones matter? Being able to carry a whole bookshelf worth of novels in your bag is incredible, but despite what science fiction has promised us since 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’re still consuming plenty of media off of dead trees.

But that might be changing soon. This year will see the release of two tablets that promise to deliver an experience much closer to reading and writing on traditional paper than anything we’ve seen previously. They certainly aren’t cheap, and it’s too early to tell how much is just hype, but these devices could end up being an important step towards the paperless future we’ve been dreaming of.

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