Web Serial Terminal Means It’s Always Hacking Time

Arguably one of the most important pieces of software to have in your hardware hacking arsenal is a nice serial terminal emulator. There’s plenty of choice out there, from classic command line tools to flashier graphical options, which ultimately all do the same thing in the end: let you easily communicate with gadgets using UART. But now you’ve got a new choice — instead of installing a serial terminal emulator, you can simply point your browser to the aptly-named serialterminal.com.

Well, maybe. As of this writing it only works on Chrome/Chromium (and by extension, Microsoft Edge), so Firefox fans will be left out in the cold unless Mozilla changes their stance on the whole Web Serial API concept. But assuming you are running the appropriate browser, you’ll be able to connect with your serial gadgets with a simple interface that should be familiar to anyone who’s worked with more traditional terminal software. In a quick test here at the Hackaday Command Center, we were able to bring up the Bus Pirate UI with no problems using Chrome on Linux. Continue reading “Web Serial Terminal Means It’s Always Hacking Time”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: February 6, 2022

Last week, the news was filled with stories of Jack Sweeney and his Twitter-bot that tracks the comings and goings of various billionaires in their private jets. This caught the attention of the billionaire-iest of them all, one Elon Musk, who took exception to the 19-year-old’s feat of data integration, which draws from a number of public databases to infer the location of Elon’s plane. After Jack wisely laughed off Elon’s measly offer of $5,000 to take the bot down, Elon ghosted him — pretty childish behavior for the richest man on the planet, we have to say. But Jack might just have the last laugh, as an Orlando-based private jet chartering company has now offered him a job. Seems like his Twitter-bot and the resulting kerfuffle is a real resume builder, so job-seekers should take note.

Here’s hoping that you have a better retirement plan than NASA. The space agency announced its end-of-life plans for the International Space Station this week, the details of which will just be a run-up to the 2031 de-orbit and crash landing of any remaining debris into the lonely waters of Point Nemo. The agency apparently sees the increasingly political handwriting on the ISS’s aging and sometimes perforated walls, and acknowledges that the next phase of LEO space research will be carried out by a fleet of commercial space stations, none of which is close to existing yet. Politics aside, we’d love to dig into the technical details of the plan, and see exactly what will be salvaged from the station before its fiery demise, if anything. The exact method of de-orbiting too would be interesting — seems like the station would need quite a bit of thrust to put on the brakes, and might need the help of a sacrificial spacecraft.

“You break it, you fix it,” is a philosophy that we Hackaday types are probably more comfortable with than the general public, who tend to leave repairs of broken gear to professionals. But that philosophy seems to be at the core of Google’s new Chromebook repair program for schools, which encourages students to fix the Chromebooks they’re breaking in record numbers these days. Google is providing guidance for schools on setting up complete Chromebook repair facilities, including physical layout of the shop, organization of workflows, and complete repair information for at least a couple of popular brands of the stripped-down laptops. Although the repairs are limited to module-level stuff, like swapping power supplies, we still love the sound of this. Here’s hoping that something like this can trigger an interest in electronics for students that would otherwise never think to open up something as complicated as a laptop.

Back in July, we took note of a disturbing report of an RTL-SDR enthusiast in Crimea who was arrested for treason, apparently based on his interest in tracking flights and otherwise monitoring the radio spectrum. Now, as things appear to be heating up in Ukraine again, our friends at RTL-SDR.com are renewing their warning to radio enthusiasts in the area that there may still be risks. Then as now, we have little interest in the politics of all this, but in light of the previous arrest, we’d say it pays to be careful with how some hobbies are perceived.

And finally, aside from the aforementioned flight-tracking dustup, it’s been a tough week for Elon and Tesla. Not only have 817,000 of the expensive electric vehicles been recalled over something as simple as a wonky seatbelt chime, but another 54,000 cars are also being recalled for a software bug that causes them to ignore stop signs in “Full Self-Driving” mode. We’re not sure if this video of this Tesla hell-ride has anything to do with that bug, but it sure illustrates the point that FSD isn’t really ready for prime time. Then again, as a former Boston resident, we can pretty safely say that what that Tesla was doing isn’t really that much different than the meat-based drivers there.

Degrees Of Freedom: Booting ARM Processors

Any modern computer with an x86 processor, whether it’s Intel or AMD, is a lost cause for software freedom and privacy. We harp on this a lot, but it’s worth repeating that it’s nearly impossible to get free, open-source firmware to run on them thanks to the Intel Management Engine (IME) and the AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP). Without libre firmware there’s no way to trust anything else, even if your operating system is completely open-source.

The IME or PSP have access to memory, storage, and the network stack even if the computer is shut down, and even after the computer boots they run at such a low level that the operating system can’t be aware of what they’re really doing. Luckily, there’s a dark horse in the race in the personal computing world that gives us some hope that one day there will be an x86 competitor that allows their users to have a free firmware that they can trust. ARM processors, which have been steadily increasing their user share for years but are seeing a surge of interest since the recent announcement by Apple, are poised to take over the personal computing world and hopefully allow us some relevant, modern options for those concerned with freedom and privacy. But in the real world of ARM processors the road ahead will decidedly long, windy, and forked.

Even ignoring tedious nitpicks that the distinction between RISC vs CISC is more blurred now than it was “back in the day”, RISC machines like ARM have a natural leg up on the x86 CISC machines built by Intel and AMD. These RISC machines use fewer instructions and perform with much more thermal efficiency than their x86 competitors. They can often be passively cooled, avoiding need to be actively cooled, unlike many AMD/Intel machines that often have noisy or bulky fans. But for me, the most interesting advantage is the ability to run ARM machines without the proprietary firmware present with x86 chips.

Continue reading “Degrees Of Freedom: Booting ARM Processors”

Netbooks: The Next Generation — Chromebooks

Netbooks are dead, long live the Chromebook. Lewin Day wrote up a proper trip down Netbook Nostalgia Lane earlier this month. That’s required reading, go check it out and come back. You’re back? Good. Today I’m making the case that the Chromebook is the rightful heir to the netbook crown, and to realize its potential I’ll show you how to wring every bit of Linuxy goodness out of your Chromebook.

I too was a netbook connoisseur, starting with an Asus Eee 901 way back in 2009. Since then, I’ve also been the proud owner of an Eee PC 1215B, which still sees occasional use. Only recently did I finally bite the bullet and replace it with an AMD based Dell laptop for work.

For the longest time, I’ve been intrigued by a good friend who went the Chromebook route. He uses a Samsung Chromebook Plus, and is constantly using it to SSH into his development machines. After reading Lewin’s article, I got the netbook bug again, and decided to see if a Chromebook would fill the niche. I ended up with the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, codename Scarlet. The price was right, and the tablet form factor is perfect for referencing PDFs.

Two Asus Netbooks and a ChromeOS tablet.
Behold, my netbook credentials.

The default ChromeOS experience isn’t terrible. You have the functionality of desktop Chrome, as well as the ability to run virtually any Android app. It’s a good start, but hardly the hacker’s playground that a Linux netbook once was. But we can still get our Linux on with this hardware. There are three separate approaches to making a Chromebook your own virtual hackspace: Crostini, Crouton, and full OS replacement.

Continue reading “Netbooks: The Next Generation — Chromebooks”

Why Is Your Cellphone Not A More Useful Computer?

Sometimes when you are browsing randomly through the tech feeds, up pops an article that just crystallizes a nascent thought that had been simmering below the surface for a long time, and is enough to make you sit up and say “Yes! I agree completely with that!”. Such a moment came with [Cheapscatesguide]’s post: “My Fantasy: A Cellphone I can Use as a Desktop Computer“, in which the pertinent question is asked that if smartphones are so powerful, why are they not much better at being more than, well, smartphones?

Readers with long memories may recall that the cellphone-as-computer idea is one that has been tried at least once before. The Motorola Atrix appeared in the early years of this decade, and was a high-end smartphone that could be slotted into both desktop replacement and netbook-style base stations and used as a Linux-based personal computer. Unfortunately it was both eye-wateringly expensive and disappointingly slow due to a hobbled operating system, so it failed to set the market alight. There was a brief moment when unsold Atrix netbook docks were available on the surplus market and became popular platforms as a Raspberry Pi desktop interface, but this experiment seems to have put paid to the idea of one device to truly rule them all.

If we had to hazard a guess as to why this has failed to happen, we’d finger both the manufacturer’s desire not to undermine their lucrative sales in other sectors, and both their and the carriers’ desire to lock down the devices as much as possible. A manufacturer such as Apple will for example never  produce an iPhone that can replace a desktop, because it would affect their MacBook sales. Oddly in another form we’re nearly there, this piece is being worked on with a Chromebook, a device that has a useful browser, a functional Android layer, and (because it’s a 64-bit model) an officially supported and useful Debian layer. We don’t expect this to translate into a phone any time soon though.

From another angle, we’ve asked in the past why we aren’t hacking old cellphones.

Moto Atrix lapdock picture: ETC@USC [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Via Hacker News.

Chromebook Trades Camera For WiFi Freedom

There are a number of companies now providing turn-key computers that meet the Free Software Foundation’s criteria for their “Respects Your Freedom” certification. This means, in a general sense, that the computer is guaranteed not to spy on you or otherwise do anything else you didn’t explicitly ask it to. Unfortunately these machines often have a hefty premium tacked on, making it an unpleasant decision between privacy and performance.

Freedom-loving hacker [SolidHal] writes in to tell us about his quest to create a FSF-compliant laptop without breaking the bank. Based on a cheap Asus C201 Chromebook, his custom machine checks off all the appropriate boxes. The operating system was easy enough with an install of Debian, and the bootloader was rid of any Intel Management Engine shenanigans with a healthy dose of Libreboot. But there was one problem: the permanently installed WiFi hardware that required proprietary firmware. To remedy the issue, he decided to install an internal USB Wi-Fi adapter that has the FSF seal of approval.

As the Chromebook obviously doesn’t have an internal USB port, this was easier said than done. But as [SolidHal] is not the kind of guy who would want his laptop taking pictures of him in the first place, he had the idea to take the internal USB connection used by the integrated webcam and use that. He pulled the webcam out, studied the wiring, and determined which wires corresponded to the normal USB pinout.

The FSF approved ThinkPenguin Wi-Fi adapter he chose is exceptionally small, so it was easy enough to tuck it inside some empty space inside of the Chromebook. [SolidHal] just needed to solder it to the old webcam connection, and wrap it up in Kapton tape to prevent any possible shorts. The signal probably isn’t great considering the antenna is stuck inside the machine with all the noisy components, but it’s a trade-off for having a fully free and open source driver. But as already established, sometimes these are the kind of tough choices you have to make when walking in the righteous footsteps of Saint Ignucius.

Internal laptop modifications like this one remind us of the Ye Olden Days of Hackaday, when Eee PC modifications were all the rage and we still ran black and white pictures “taped” to the screen. Ah, the memories.

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: May 17, 2015

Here’s a worthwhile Kickstarter for once: the Prishtina Hackerspace. Yes, that’s a Kickstarter for a hackerspace in Kosovo. Unlike most hackerspace Kickstarters, they’re already mostly funded, with 20 days to go. If we ever get around to doing the Istanbul to Kaliningrad hackerspace tour, we’ll drop by.

Codebender is a web-based tool that allows you to code and program an Arduino. The Chromebook is a web-based laptop that is popular with a few schools. Now you can uses Codebender on a Chromebook. You might need to update your Chromebook to v42, and there’s a slight bug in the USB programmers, but that should be fixed in a month or so.

Here’s a great way to waste five minutes. It’s called agar.io. It’s a multiplayer online game where you’re a cell, you eat dots that are smaller than you, and bigger cells (other players) can eat you. [Morris] found the missing feature: being able to find the IP of a server so you can play with your friends. This feature is now implemented in a browser script. Here’s the repo.

The FAA currently deciding the fate of unmanned aerial vehicles and systems, and we’re going to live with any screwup they make for the next 50 years. It would be nice if all UAV operators, drone pilots, and everyone involved with flying robots could get together and hash out what the ideal rules would be. That’s happening in late July thanks to the Silicon Valley Chapter of AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International).

SOLAR ROADWAYS!! Al Jazeera is reporting a project in the Netherlands that puts solar cells in a road. It’s just a bike path, it’s only 70 meters long, and it can support at least 12 tonnes (in the form of a ‘fire brigade truck’). There’s no plans for the truly dumb solar roadways stuff – heating the roads, or having lanes with LEDs. We’re desperately seeking more information on this one.