Bodging on More Flash Memory

[Curmudegeoclast] found himself running out of flash memory on a Trinket M0 board, so he decided to epoxy and fly-wire a whopping 2 MB of extra flash on top of the original CPU.

We’ll just get our “kids these days” rant out of the way up front: the stock SAMD21 ARM chip has 256 kB (!) of flash to begin with, and is on a breakout board with only five GPIO pins, for a 51 kB / pin ratio! And now he’s adding 2 MB more? That’s madness. The stated reason for [Curmudegeoclast]’s exercise is MicroPython, which takes up a big chunk of flash just for the base language. We suspect that there’s also a fair amount of “wouldn’t it be neat?” in the mix as well. Whatever.

The hack is a classic. It starts off with sketchy wires soldered to pins and breadboarded up with a SOIC expander board. Following that proof of concept, some degree of structural integrity is brought to the proceedings by gluing the flash chip, dead-bug, on top of the microcontroller. We love the (0805?) SPI pullup resistor that was also point-to-point soldered into place. We would not be able to resist the temptation to entomb the whole thing in hot glue for “long-term” stability, but there are better options out there, too.

This hack takes a minimalist board, and super-sizes it, and for that, kudos. What would you stuff into 2 MB of free flash on a tiny little microcontroller? Any of you out there using MicroPython or CircuitPython care to comment on the flash memory demands? 256 kB should be enough for anyone.

Sparkfun’s Alternate Reality Hardware

SparkFun has a new wing of hardware mischief. It’s SparkX, the brainchild of SparkFun’s founder [Nate Seidle]. Over the past few months, SparkX has released breakout boards for weird sensors, and built a safe cracking robot that got all the hacker cred at DEF CON. Now, SparkX is going off on an even weirder tangent: they have released The Prototype. That’s actually the name of the product. What is it? It’s a HARP, a hardware alternate reality game. It’s gaming, puzzlecraft, and crypto all wrapped up in a weird electronic board.

The product page for The Prototype is exactly as illuminating as you would expect for a piece of puzzle electronics. There is literally zero information on the product page, but from the one clear picture, we can see a few bits and bobs that might be relevant. The Prototype features a microSD card socket, an LED that might be a WS2812, a DIP-8 socket, a USB port, what could be a power switch, a PCB antenna, and a strange black cylinder. Mysteries abound. There is good news: the only thing you need to decrypt The Prototype is a computer and an open mind. We’re assuming that means a serial terminal.

The Prototype hasn’t been out for long, and very few people have one in hand. That said, the idea of a piece of hardware sold as a puzzle is something we haven’t seen outside of conference badges. The more relaxed distribution of The Prototype is rather appealing, and we’re looking forward to a few communities popping up around HARP games.

PocketCHIP As A Hardware Hacker’s Terminal

Conferences these days can be tricky places to be at – especially hardware and hacker cons. If you aren’t the one doing the hacking, then you can be sure your devices are being probed, pinged and possibly, hacked. It certainly isn’t the place to bring your precious laptop. Besides, as the day wears on and your feet start aching, regular laptops start feeling bigger and heavier. What you need is a burner laptop – one that is lightweight, cheap and that you don’t mind getting hacked. [dalmoz] wrote a short, to-the-point, tutorial on making use of PocketCHIP as a hardware-hacker’s best friend when it comes to UART connections. It’s also handy to use as a stand alone serial monitor for your projects without having to dedicate a USB port and screen real estate.

The PocketCHIP is a dock for the C.H.I.P. microcomputer and adds a LED backlit touchscreen display, QWERTY keyboard and LiPo battery in a lightweight, molded case. For $70, you get a 1 GHz ARM v7 processor, 512MB RAM, Mali 400 GPU, WiFi and Bluetooth. It’s light enough to be hung around your neck via its lanyard slot. And all of the GPIO pins are conveniently broken out, including the UART pins. Right now, it’s in the hands of Kickstarter backers, but the Next Thing Co website indicates availability sometime this month.

On the hardware side, all you need to do is add header pins to TX, RX and GND (and maybe 5 V and 3 V if required) on the PocketCHIP GPIO header and you’re good to go. On the software side, things are equally easy. The UART pins are meant to provide debug access to the CHIP itself and need to be released from internal duty. Once the UART port is identified, a single terminal command frees its status as a debugging interface. After that, use any terminal emulator – [dalmoz] recommends Minicom – and you’re all set. In the unlikely event that all you have is an Arduino lying around, [dalmoz] posted a simple sketch that can be used to make sure you have it working. Great hacking tip, ’cause it is as simple as it gets. If you’d like to know more about the CHIP project, check out its documentation and Github repository – it’s all open source.

Switching: from Relays to Bipolar Junction Transistors

How many remote controls do you have in your home? Don’t you wish all these things were better integrated somehow, or that you could add remote control functionality to a random device? It’s a common starting point for a project, and a good learning experience for beginners.

A common solution we’ve seen applied is to connect a relay in parallel to all the buttons we want to press. When the relay is triggered, for example by your choice of microcontroller, it gets treated as a button press. While it does work, relays are not really the ideal solution for the very low current loads that we’re dealing with in these situations.

As it turns out, there are a few simple ways to solve this problem. In this article, we’re going to focus on using common bipolar junction transistors instead of relays to replace physical switches. In short, how to add transistors to existing electronics to control them in new ways.

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The ESP32… On A Chip

The new hotness in microcontrollers is the ESP32. This chip, developed by Espressif, is the follow-on to the very popular ESP8266, the cheap, low-power, very capable WiFi-enabled microcontroller that came on the scene a few years ago. The ESP32 is another beast entirely with two powerful cores, WiFi and Bluetooth, and peripherals galore. You can even put an NES emulator in there.

While the ESP32 is significantly more powerful, it has for now been contained in modules. What would really be cool is a single chip loaded up with integrated flash, filter caps, a clock, all on a 7x7mm QFN package. Meet the ESP32-Pico-D4 (PDF). It is, effectively, an ESP32 on a chip. It’s just the ticket if you’re trying to cram wireless, fast microcontroller wizardry into a small package.

At its heart, the ESP32-Pico is your normal ESP32 module with a Tensilica dual-core LX6 microcoprocessor, 448 kB of ROM, 520 kB of SRAM,  4 MB of Flash (it can support up to 16 MB), Wireless with 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.2, and a cornucopia of peripherals that include an SD card, UART, SPI, SDIO, LED and motor PWM, I2S, I2C, cap touch sensors, and a Hall effect sensor. It’s quite literally everything you could ever want in a microcontroller.

Disregarding the just barely hand-solderable package and the need for a PCB antenna, the ESP32-Pico requires very few support components. Really, the only thing going on in the reference schematic is a bunch of bypass caps. This is, by far, the easiest and smallest method to put WiFi, Bluetooth, and a powerful microcontroller in a project. It will surely be a very, very popular chip for hobbyist electronics for years to come. Of course, it will be even more popular if Espressif also manages to put this chip in a QFP package in addition to the QFN.

Unfortunately, apart from the PDF released by Espressif, the details on the EPS32-on-a-chip are sparse. We don’t know when we’ll be able to get our grubby hands on a tray, tube, or reel of these chips. That said, there’s enough information here to start designing a breakout board. Have at it — we’d love to see what the community comes up with.

Shout out to [Dave] for the tip.

A BluePill for Arduino Dependence

Arduinos are helpful but some applications require more than what Arduinos can provide. However, it’s not always easy to make the switch from a developed ecosystem into the abyss that is hardware engineering. [Vadim] noticed this, which prompted him to write a guide to shepherd people on their quest for an Arduino-free environment, one BluePill at a time.

With an extended metaphor comparing Arduino use and physical addiction, [Vadim’s] writing is a joy to read. He chose to focus on the BluePill (aka the next Arduino Killer™) which is a $1.75 ARM board with the form factor of an Arduino Nano. After describing where to get the board and it’s an accompanying programmer, [Vadim] introduces PlatformIO, an alternative to the Arduino IDE. But wait! Before the Arduino die-hards leave, take note that PlatformIO can use all of the “Arduino Language,” so your digitalWrites and analogReads are safe (for now). Like any getting started guide, [Vadim] includes the obligatory blinking an LED program. And, in the end, [Vadim] sets his readers up to be comfortable in the middle ground between Arduino Land and the Wild West.

The debate for/against Arduino has been simmering for quite some time, but most agree that Arduino is a good place to start: it’s simpler and easier than jumping head first. However, at some point, many want to remove their “crippling Arduino dependency” (in the words of [Vadim]) and move on to bigger and better things. If you’re at this point, or still cling to your Uno, swing on over and give Vadim’s post a read. If you’re already in the trenches, head on over and read our posts about the BluePill and PlatformIO which are great complements for [Vadim’s].

Dumb STB gets smart

[Vincent Deconinck] gave a fresh lease of life to an old set top box by adding a few Euro’s worth of hardware and some software smarts. The device in question is an old VOOcorder – a Cisco set-top box provided by VOO, his cable service provider in Belgium.

The VOOcorder doesn’t have any WiFi hardware or browser / app based interfaces. It’s a simple device controlled either via an IR remote or front panel buttons. [Vincent] added an ESP8266 and hooked it up to the IR receiver on the set-top box. He also set it up as an SPI slave to the front panel VFD display controller and connected it to the debug serial interface of the VOOcorder as well. The software, on the other hand, required a lot more work consisting of code running on the ESP itself, several HTML pages and JavaScript code for the browser front end, and a few scripts running in the background.

The result was bidirectional interactivity from within a browser, allowing him to send commands and receive status information as well as providing a user-friendly search interface. Further, his browser interface was integrated with information from the service providers website letting him do scheduling and recording of programs. The stuff that interested us is how he sniffed out the IR signals, figured out the SPI protocol used by the front panel controller, and implemented SPI-slave mode for the ESP8266. [Vincent] was surprised that such a cheap device could handle three distinct web servers while parsing two message streams without a hitch.

It’s a great hack showing us how to use super cheap electronics to upgrade and modernize old hardware. Check out the two videos after the break – showing a demo of the hack in action, and a walk through of the hardware modifications.

Continue reading “Dumb STB gets smart”