Comparing Bare Silicon On Two Game Boy Audio Chips

We always look forward to a new blog post by [Ken Shirriff] and this latest one didn’t cure us of that. His topic this time? Comparing two Game Boy audio chips. People have noticed before that the Game Boy Color sounds very different than a classic Game Boy, and he wanted to find out why. If you know his work, you won’t be surprised to find out the comparison included stripping the die out of the IC packaging.

[Ken’s] explanation of how transistors, resistors, and capacitors appear on the die are helpfully illustrated with photomicrographs. He points out how resistors are notoriously hard to build accurately on a production IC. Many differences can affect the absolute value, so designs try not to count on exact values or, if they do, resort to things like laser trimming or other tricks.

Capacitors, however, are different. The exact value of a capacitor may be hard to guess beforehand, but the ratio of two or more capacitor values on the same chip will be very precise. This is because the dielectric — the oxide layer of the chip — will be very uniform and the photographic process controls the planar area of the capacitor plates with great precision.

We’ve decapsulated chips before, and we have to say that if you are just starting to look at chips at the die level, these big chips with bipolar transistors are much easier to deal with than the fine and dense geometries you’d find even in something like a CPU from the 1980s.

We always enjoy checking in with [Ken]. Sometime’s he’s taking apart nuclear missiles. Sometimes he is repairing an old computer. But it is always interesting.

Decapsulating A Dual Triode

We see quite a bit of work where people decapsulate ICs or other solid state devices to expose their inner workings. But how about hollow state? [Tomtektest] had a dual triode that has lost its vacuum integrity — gone to air, as he calls it — and decided to open it up to better expose its inner workings. (Video, embedded below.)

Of course, you can always see the innards through the glass, but it is interesting to have the envelope out of the way. Apparently, how you remove the glass is a bit tricky if you don’t want to damage the working bits as you remove it.

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Reverse Engineering CMOS

ICs have certainly changed electronics, but how much do you really know about how they are built on the inside? While decapsulating and studying a modern CPU with 14 nanometer geometry is probably not a great first project, a simple 54HC00 logic gate is much larger and much easier to analyze, even at low magnification. [Robert Baruch] took a die image of the chip and worked out what was going on, and shares his analysis in a recent video. You can see that video, below.

The CMOS structures are simple because a MOSFET is so simple to make on an IC die. The single layer of aluminum conductors also makes things simple.

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Hackaday Links: Some Sort Of Fool’s Day, 2018

A few years ago, writing for a blog called Motherboard of all things, [Emanuel Maiberg] wrote PC Gaming Is Still Way Too Hard. The premise is that custom building a gaming PC is too hard, because you have to source components and comparison shop. Again, this was written for Motherboard. Personally, I would have shopped that story around a bit more. Now, the same author is back again, telling us PC Building Simulator is way more fun than building a real computer. It’s my early nomination for worst tech article of the year.

Speaking of motherboards, This is a GoFundMe project to re-create the Amiga 4000 mainboard, with schematics. Building PCs is too hard, but the Amiga architecture is elegant. Some of these boards are dying due to electrolytic capacitor and battery leakage. This project is aiming to deconstruct an original A4000 board and turn it into Gerbers and schematics, allowing new boards to be manufactured. Building a PC is way too hard, but with this GoFundMe, you won’t have to design an entire system from scratch. Don’t worry, I already tipped off the Motherboard editors to this one.

Alright, story time. In 6th grade science class, the teacher was awesome. On the days when there was really no chance of any learning happening (the day before Christmas break, the last day of school), the teacher broke out the Electric Chicken. What’s an Electric Chicken? It’s a test tube rack, two wires, and a Wimshurst generator. “Here, grab ahold of this for as long as you can.” It got even cooler when you get a bunch of kids to hold hands and tell them pride is better than pain. Here’s a Kickstarter for a mini Wimshurst generator. It’s made out of PCBs! Hat tip to [WestfW] for finding this one.

It’s no secret that I get a lot of dumb press releases. Most of these are relegated to the circular file folder. It’s also no secret I get a lot of ICO announcements hitting my email. These, also, are trashed. I recently received a press release for an ICO that goes beyond anything else. ONSTELLAR is a blockchain-powered social media network for paranormal and metaphysical enthusiasts.  It’s the crypto for Coast to Coast AM listeners, UFO enthusiasts, and people who think PKE meters are real. This is it, we’ve reached peak crypto.

If you want to decapsulate an IC — and why wouldn’t you? — the usual way of doing things involves dropping acid, ego death, toxic chemicals, and a fume hood. There is another way. Here’s [A Menadue] decapping a quartz watch IC with just fire. The process is about as ‘hold my beer’ as you would expect. Just take a small butane torch, heat up a chip, and recover the die. A bit of ultrasonic cleaning later and you get a pretty clean chip. Microscope not included.

How To Reverse Engineer A Chip

Have you ever wondered how you could look at a chip and map out its schematic? [Robert Baruch] wants to show you how he does it and he does in a new video (see below).  The video assumes you know how to expose the die because he’s made a video about that before.

This video focuses on using his Beaglebone-driven microscope stage to get high-resolution micrographs stitched together from smaller shots. A 3D-printed sample holder keeps the part from moving around. Luckily, there’s software to stitch the images together. Once he has the die photo, he will etch away the metal to remove the passivation, the metal layer, and the silicon dioxide under the metal and takes another set of photos.

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Popping The Top Of A Ceramic IC

If you’ve ever wanted to open up an IC to see what’s inside it, you have a few options. The ceramic packages with a metal lid will succumb to a hobby knife. That’s easy. The common epoxy packages are harder, and usually require a mix of mechanical milling and the use of an acid (like fuming nitric, for example). [Robert Baruch] wanted to open a fully ceramic package so he used the “cooler” part of a MAP gas torch. If you like seeing things get hot in an open flame, you might enjoy the video below.

Spoiler alert: [Robert] found out the hard way that dropping the hot part isn’t a great idea. Also, we are not sure what the heat does if you want to do more than just inspect the die. It would be interesting to measure a junction on the die during the process to see how much heat actually goes to the device.

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Project 54/74 Maps Out Logic ICs

Integrated circuits are a fundamental part of almost all modern electronics, yet they closely resemble the proverbial “black box” – we may understand the inputs and outputs, but how many of us truly understand what goes on inside? Over the years, the process of decapping ICs has become popular – the removal of the package to enable peeping eyes to glimpse the mysteries inside. It’s an art that requires mastery of chemistry, microscopy and photography on top of the usual physics skills needed to understand electronics. Done properly, it allows an astute mind to reverse engineer the workings of the silicon inside.

There are many out there publishing images of chips they’ve decapped, but [Robert Baruch] wants more. Namely, [Robert] seeks to create a database of die images of all 5400 and 7400 series logic chips – the eponymous Project 54/74.

These chips are the basic building blocks of digital logic – NAND gates, inverters, shift registers, decade counters and more. You can build a CPU with this stuff. These days, you may not be using these chips as often in a production context, but those of you with EE degrees will likely have toyed around a few of these in your early logic classes.

There’s only a handful of images up so far, but they’re of excellent quality, and they’re also annotated. This is a great aid if you’re trying to get to grips with the vagaries of chip design. [Robert] is putting in the hard yards to image as many variations of every chip as possible. There’s also the possibility of comparing the same chip for differences between manufacturers. We particularly like this project, as all too often manufacturing techniques and technologies are lost and forgotten as the march of progress continues on. It looks like it’s going to become a great resource for those looking to learn more about integrated circuit design and manufacture!