Teardown: Creality Wi-Fi Box

Creality, makers of the Ender series of 3D printers, have released a product called Wi-Fi Box meant to cheaply add network control to your printer. Naturally I had to order one so we could take a peek, but this is certainly not a product review. If you’re looking to control your 3D printer over the network, get yourself a Raspberry Pi and install Gina Häußge’s phenomenal OctoPrint on it. Despite what Creality might want you to believe, their product is little more than a poor imitation of this incredible open source project.

Even if you manage to get it working with your printer, which judging by early indications is a pretty big if, it won’t give you anywhere near the same experience. At best it’ll save you a few dollars compared to going the DIY route, but at the cost of missing out on the vibrant community of plugin developers that have helped establish OctoPrint as the defacto remote 3D printing solution.

That being said, the hardware itself seems pretty interesting. For just $20 USD you get a palm-sized Linux computer with WiFi, Ethernet, a micro SD slot, and a pair of USB ports; all wrapped up in a fairly rugged enclosure. There’s no video output, but that will hardly scare off the veteran penguin wrangler. Tucked in a corner and sipping down only a few watts, one can imagine plenty of tasks this little gadget would be well suited to. Perhaps it could act as a small MQTT broker for all your smart home devices, or a low-power remote weather station. The possibilities are nearly limitless, assuming we can get into the thing anyway.

So what’s inside the Creality Wi-Fi Box, and how hard will it be to bend it to our will? Let’s take one apart and find out.

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Hackaday Links: October 25, 2020

Siglent has been making pretty big inroads into the mid-range test equipment market, with the manufacturers instruments popping up on benches all over the place. Saulius Lukse, of Kurokesu fame, found himself in possession of a Siglent SPD3303X programmable power supply, which looks like a really nice unit, at least from the hardware side. The software it came with didn’t exactly light his fire, though, so Saulius came up with a Python library to control the power supply. The library lets him control pretty much every aspect of the power supply over its Ethernet port. There are still a few functions that don’t quite work, and he’s only tested it with his specific power supply so far, but chances are pretty good that there’s at least some crossover in the command sets for other Siglent instruments. We’re keen to see others pick this up and run with it.

From the “everyone needs a hobby” department, we found this ultra-detailed miniature of an IBM 1401 mainframe system to be completely enthralling. We may have written this up at an earlier point in its development, but it now appears that the model maker, 6502b, is done with the whole set, so it bears another look. The level of detail is eye-popping — the smallest features of every piece of equipment, from the operator’s console to the line printer, is reproduced . Even the three-ring binders with system documentation are there. And don’t get us started about those tape drives, or the wee chair in period-correct Harvest Gold.

Speaking of diversions, have you ever wondered how many people are in space right now? Or how many humans have had the privilege to hitch a ride upstairs? There’s a database for that: the Astronauts Database over on Supercluster. It lists pretty much everything — human and non-human — that has been intentionally launched into space, starting with Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and up to the newest member of the club, Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who took off got the ISS just last week from his hometown of Baikonur. Everyone and everything is there, including “some tardigrades” that crashed into the Moon. They even included this guy, which makes us wonder why they didn’t include the infamous manhole cover.

And finally, for the machinists out there, if you’ve ever wondered what chatter looks like, wonder no more. Breaking Taps has done an interesting slow-motion analysis of endmill chatter, and the results are a bit unexpected. The footage is really cool — watching the four-flute endmill peel mild steel off and fling the tiny curlicues aside is very satisfying. The value of the high-speed shots is evident when he induces chatter; the spindle, workpiece, vise, and just about everything starts oscillating, resulting in a poor-quality cut and eventually, when pushed beyond its limits, the dramatic end of the endmill’s life. Interesting stuff — reminds us a bit of Ben Krasnow’s up close and personal look at chip formation in his electron microscope.

Hackaday Podcast 069: Calculator Controversy, Socketing SOIC, Metal On The Moon, And Basking In Bench Tools

Hackaday editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams march to the beat of the hardware hacking drum as they recount the greatest hacks to hit the ‘net this week. First up: Casio stepped in it with a spurious DMCA takedown notice. There’s a finite matrix of resistors that form a glorious clock now on display at CERN. Will a patio paver solve your 3D printer noise problems? And if you ever build with copper clad, you can’t miss this speedrun of priceless prototyping protips.

Direct download (~65 MB)

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Now Even Your Business Card Can Run Linux

It takes a lot of work to get a functional PCB business card that’s thin, cheap, and robust enough to be practical. If you can even blink a few LEDs on the thing and still hand them out with a straight face, you’ve done pretty well for yourself. So you can imagine our surprise when [George Hilliard] wrote in to tell us about his $3 business card computer that boots into a functioning Linux environment. If this were a bit closer to April, we might have figured it was just a joke…

Of course it helps that, as an embedded systems engineer, [George] literally does this kind of thing for a living. Which isn’t to say it was easy, but at least he keeps close enough tabs on the industry to find a suitable ARM solution at a price that makes sense, namely the Allwinner F1C100s. This diminutive chip offers both RAM and CPU in a single package, which greatly simplifies the overall design and construction of the card.

With a root filesystem that weighs in at just 2.4 MB, the environment on the card is minimal to say the least. There’s no networking, limited I/O, and forget about running any heavy software. But it does boot in about six seconds, and [George] managed to pack in a MicroPython interpreter and a copy of the classic Unix dungeon crawler rogue.

Oh yeah, and it also has his resume and some samples of his photography onboard. It is, after all, a business card. All the user has to do is plug it into the USB port of their computer and wait for the virtual serial port to pop up that will let them log into the system running on the card. It also shows up as a USB Mass Storage device for recipients who might not be quite as adept at the command line.

In addition to the high-level documentation for this project, [George] has also prepared a deeper write-up that goes into more technical detail for anyone who might be looking to follow in his footsteps. Thanks to all of the source code that he’s made available, it should be a lot easier for the next person to get their own disposable pocket computer up and running.

We’ve seen all manner of electronic business cards over the years, but never anything quite like this. Which, of course, is quite the point. If you’re ever given a business card that doubles as a computer running a full-fledged operating system on it, you aren’t likely to forget it anytime soon.

Worn Out EMMC Chips Are Crippling Older Teslas

It should probably go without saying that the main reason most people buy an electric vehicle (EV) is because they want to reduce or eliminate their usage of gasoline. Even if you aren’t terribly concerned about your ecological footprint, the fact of the matter is that electricity prices are so low in many places that an electric vehicle is cheaper to operate than one which burns gas at $2.50+ USD a gallon.

Another advantage, at least in theory, is reduced overal maintenance cost. While a modern EV will of course be packed with sensors and complex onboard computer systems, the same could be said for nearly any internal combustion engine (ICE) car that rolled off the lot in the last decade as well. But mechanically, there’s a lot less that can go wrong on an EV. For the owner of an electric car, the days of oil changes, fouled spark plugs, and the looming threat of a blown head gasket are all in the rear-view mirror.

Unfortunately, it seems the rise of high-tech EVs is also ushering in a new era of unexpected failures and maintenance woes. Case in point, some owners of older model Teslas are finding they’re at risk of being stranded on the side of the road by a failure most of us would more likely associate with losing some documents or photos: a disk read error.

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The Linux Throwie: A Non-Spacefaring Satellite

Throwies occupy a special place in hardware culture — a coin cell battery, LED, and a magnet that can be thrown into an inaccessible place and stick there as a little beacon of colored light. Many of us will fondly remember this as a first project. Alas, time marches inevitably on, and launching cheerful lights no longer teaches me new skills. With a nod to those simpler times, I’ve been working on the unusual idea of building a fully functional server that can be left in remote places and remain functional, like a throwie (please don’t actually throw it). It’s a little kooky, yet should still deliver a few years of occasional remote access if you leave it somewhere with sunlight.

A short while ago, I described the power stages for this solar-powered, cloud accessible Linux server. It only activates on demand, so a small solar cell and modest battery are sufficient to keep the whole show running.

Where we left off, I had a solar cell that could charge a battery, and provide regulated 12 V and 5 V output. For it to be a functional device, there are three high level problems to solve:

  1. It must be possible to set up the device without direct physical access
  2. You must be able to remotely turn it on and off as needed.
  3. It needs to be accessible from the Internet.

The funny thing is, this hardware reminds me of a satellite. Of course it’s not meant to go into space, but I do plan to put it somewhere not easy to get to again, it runs off of solar power, and there’s a special subsystem (ESP8266) to tend the power, check for remote activation, and turn the main computer (Raspberry Pi 3) on and off as necessary. This sounds a lot like space race tech, right?

As I have a bit more code than usual to share with you today, I’ll discuss the most interesting parts, and provide links to the full firmware files at the end of the article.

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Introduce Yourself To A PocketBeagle With BaconBits

The PocketBeagle single-board computer is now a few months old, and growing fast like its biological namesake. An affordable and available offering in the field of embedded Linux computing, many of us picked one up as an impulse buy. For some, the sheer breadth of possibilities can be paralyzing. (“What do I do first?”) Perhaps a development board can serve as a starting point for training this young puppy? Enter the BaconBits cape.

When paired with a PocketBeagle, everything necessary to start learning embedded computing is on hand. It covers the simple basics of buttons for digital input, potentiometer for analog input, LEDs for visible output. Then grow beyond the basics with an accelerometer for I²C communication and 7-segment displays accessible via SPI. Those digging into system internals will appreciate the USB-to-serial bridge that connects to PocketBeagle’s serial console. This low-level communication will be required if any experimentation manages to (accidentally or deliberately) stop PocketBeagle’s standard USB network communication channels.

BaconBits were introduced in conjunction with the E-ALE (embedded apprentice Linux engineer) training program for use in hands-on modules. The inaugural E-ALE session at SCaLE 16X this past weekend had to deal with some last-minute hiccups, but the course material is informative and we’re confident it’ll be refined into a smooth operation in the near future. While paying for the class will receive built hardware and in-person tutorials to use it, all information – from instructor slides to the BaconBits design – is available on Github. Some of us will choose to learn by reading the slides, others will want their own BaconBits for independent experimentation. And of course E-ALE is not the only way to learn more about PocketBeagle. Whichever way people choose to go, the embedded Linux ecosystem will grow, and we like the sound of that!