How To Program A Really Cheap Microcontroller

There are rumors of a cheap chip that does USB natively, has an Open Source toolchain, and costs a quarter. These aren’t rumors: you can buy the CH552 microcontroller right now. Surprisingly, there aren’t many people picking up this cheap chip for their next project. If there’s no original projects using this chip, no one is going to use this chip. Catch 22, and all that.

Like a generous god, [Aaron Christophel] has got your back with a working example of programming this cheap chip, and doing something useful with it. It blinks LEDs, it writes to an I2C display, and it does everything you would want from a microcontroller that costs a few dimes.

The CH552, and its friends the small CH551 all the way up to the CH559, contain an 8051 core, somewhere around 16 kB of flash, the high-end chips have a USB controller, there’s SPI, PWM, I2C, and it costs pennies. Unlike so many other chips out there, you can find SDKs and toolchains. You can program the chip over USB. Clearly, we’re looking at something really cool if someone writes an Arduino wrapper for it. We’re not there yet, but we’re close.

To program these chips, [Aaron] first had to wire up the microcontroller into a circuit. This was just a bit of perf board, a resistor, a few caps, and a USB A plug. That’s it, that’s all that’s needed. This is a fairly standard 8051 core, so writing the code is relatively easy. Uploading is done with the WCHISPTool software, with options available for your favorite flavor of *nix.

But it gets better. One of the big features of the CH552 is USB. That means no expensive or weird programmers, yes, but it also means the CH552 can emulate a USB HID device. The CH552 can become a USB keyboard. To demo this, [Aaron] programmed a CH552 board (DE, here’s the Google translatrix) loaded up with touch pads and LEDs to become a USB keyboard.

If you don’t feel like soldering up one of these yourself, there are some suppliers of CH554 dev boards, and the files for [Aaron]’s projects are available here. Check out the videos below, because this is the best tutorial yet on programming and using some very interesting chips that just appeared on the market.

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New Part Day: The Twenty Five Cent USB Microcontroller (With A Toolchain!)

Last year, Jiangsu Yuheng Co., Ltd introduced a new microcontroller. The CH554 is a microcontroller with an E8051 core with a 24 MHz clock, a little more than 1 kB of RAM, and a bit more than 14 kB split between the code and data Flash. In short, it’s nothing too spectacular, but it makes up for that with peripherals. It’s got SPI and ADCs and PWM, UARTs, and even a few capacitive touch channels. It’s also a USB device, with some chips in the series able to function as a USB host. You can buy this chip for a quarter through the usual retailers.

Normally, this isn’t huge news. The 8051 is the most copied microcontroller on the planet, and there are probably billions produced each year. Cheap parts are only cheap if your time is free; you’ll usually spend ages trying to digest the datasheet and get a toolchain up and running. That’s where this chip is a little different. There are multiple efforts to bring an Open Source toolchain to this chip. And they’re doing it in Windows and Linux. Someone really cares about this chip.

The current best option for an SDK for this chip comes from Blinkinlabs, with a port of the CH554 SDK from Keil to SDCC. There are real, working code examples for this chip using an Open Source toolchain. Sure, it might just blink a LED, but it’s there. If you can blink a LED, you can do just about anything from there. Programming the chip happens over USB with the ‘official’ WCHISPTool (Windows) or LibreCH551 (command line). The end result is a completely Open Source toolchain to program and upload a hex file to a cheap chip.

There are a few more chips in the CH554 series, ranging from the CH551 in an SOP-16 package to the CH559 in an LQFP48 package, with more features available as the chips get bigger. It’s an interesting chip, with some somehow implementing a USB hub, and could be a very cool chip for some low-level USB hacking.