An EMMC Gives Up Its Secrets

An increasing phenomenon over the years since mobile phones morphed from simply telephones into general purpose pocket computers has been that of the dead device taking with it some treasured digital resource. In most cases this means the device has died, but doesn’t necessarily mean that that the data has completely gone. Inside the device will be an eMMC flash chip, and if that can be read then the data is safe. This applies to some single board computers too, and thus [Jeffmakes]’ adventures in recovering an eMMC from a dead Raspberry Pi CM4 are particularly interesting.

The whole thing relies on the eMMC presenting the same interface as an SD card, so while it comes in a multi-pin BGA package it can be addressed with surprisingly few wires. Using the PCB from another dead CM4 he traced the relevant connections from eMMC to SoC pads, and was thus able with some very fine soldering to construct an interface for an SD card reader. The disk could then be imaged in its entirety.

This work will be of huge use to experimenters who’ve fried their Compute Modules, but of course the information it contains will also be of use to retrieve those photos from the phone that fell in the bath. It’s not the first time we’ve taken a look at someone’s efforts in this area.

Kved: An Embeddable Key/Value Datastore

At some point when developing embedded applications, you’re going to want to store unique values in non-volatile memory, values that can’t be fixed at compilation time. Many microcontrollers have a small amount of EEPROM memory for this very purpose, but it’s usually rather limited if it’s provided at all. Even if you do have a bit of space on an EEPROM at your disposal, actually formatting your values into the memory and dealing with the pesky problem of wear leveling (necessary for parameters that need to change often) can be a bit of a hassle.

Lucky for us, [Marcelo Barros] decided to share his own implementation, Kved (key/value database) which uses the flash memory instead for such storage. Kved implements a dictionary type data structure, using numeric keys and values, supporting a few integer types. Using the library should be straightforward enough, as [Marcelo] says, all you need are a pair of spare flash sectors and the ability to port the flash the sector read, write, and erase functions. There are plenty of examples of such code available for practically any microcontroller out there, so that should be no barrier. For those who want to play with it right now, the repo currently has ports for the STM32L433RC and STM32F411CE, as well as a simulated version you can compile and run on your computer.

From an implementation perspective, the write algorithm uses a COW (Copy On Write) method. Changed values are invalidated by over-writing the storage location with all-zeros, and re-writing the changed value to a new location, cycling through the unused locations until the sector is full. Data-integrity mechanisms are implemented, preventing corruption of the data structure due to power fail situations, so incorrectly written values will be corrected on start-up and not affect the integrity of the configuration.

When looking around, we found a similar project, Embedis, over on hackaday.IO, as well as this article on the subject of embedded filesystems from a little while back.

Swapped ROM Revives Ailing HP-48S Calculator

Buying broken gear for cheap is time honored hacker tradition, and while we might not always be successful in reviving it, rarely do we come away empty handed. There’s always parts to salvage, and you can’t put a price on the knowledge to be gained when poking around inside an interesting piece of hardware. So we’re not surprised at all to hear that [Tomas Pavlovic] jumped at the chance to grab this faulty HP-48S calculator for a couple bucks.

Luckily for us, the story doesn’t end at the bottom of his parts bin. When he got the HP-48S back home, he immediately set out to see if it could be repaired. After changing out a few choice components and not seeing any result in the device’s behavior, he became suspicious that the problem may be with the firmware; specifically, the soldered-on chip that holds it.

Dumping the original ROM.

After carefully lifting the NEC uPD23C2000GC from its resting place for the last 30 years or so, he wired up an adapter that let him connect the chip to his programmer so its contents could be dumped. Rather than trying to find another ROM chip, he decided to wire in a socket and found a re-writable SST39SF040 that could stand in as a replacement. Flashing a fresh copy of the firmware to the new socketed chip got the calculator up and running again, with the added bonus of allowing [Tomas] to pull the chip and flash a different firmware version should he care to experiment a bit.

Now, we know what you’re thinking. Where was the fix? What exactly brought this piece of 1990s gear back to life? That part, unfortunately, isn’t very clear. You’d think if the original ROM chip was somehow faulty, [Tomas] wouldn’t have been able to so easily pull a valid firmware image from it. That leaves us with some pretty mundane possibilities, such as a bad solder joint on the chip’s pins. If that was indeed the case, this fix could have been as simple as running a hot iron over the pins…but of course, where’s the fun in that?

Update: We heard back from [Tomas], and it turns out that when compared to a known good copy, the dumped firmware did have a few swapped bits. His theory is that the NEC chip is in some weird failure mode where the calculator wouldn’t run, but it was still functional enough to get most of the content off of it. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: February 20, 2022

Sounds like somebody had a really bad day at work, as Western Digital reports that “factory contamination” caused a batch of flash memory chips to be spoiled. How much, you ask? Oh, only about 7 billion gigabytes! For those of you fond of SI prefixes, that’s 7 exabytes of storage; to put that into perspective, it’s seven times what Google used for Gmail storage in 2012, and enough to store approximately 1.69 trillion copies of Project Gutenberg’s ASCII King James Version Bible. Very few details were available other than the unspecified contamination of two factories, but this stands poised to cause problems with everything from flash drives to phones to SSDs, and will probably only worsen the ongoing chip shortage. And while we hate to be cynical, it’ll probably be prudent to watch out for any “too good to be true” deals on memory that pop up on eBay and Ali in the coming months.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: February 20, 2022”

Psion Organiser with a Pico memory pack.

Proto-PDA Regains Its Memory With The Help Of A Raspberry Pi Pico

Remember the Psion Organiser? If you do, chances are you were an early adopter, as the 8-bit pocket computer had its heyday in the mid-1980s. Things have come a long way since then, of course, but just how far is illustrated nicely by the fact that a Raspberry Pi Pico can stand in for the Psion’s original memory packs.

Like many of the early attempts at putting a computer in your pocket, the Psion II had removable modules, which were dubbed “Datapaks”. The earliest versions of the Datapaks were little more than an EPROM chip on a small PCB, and the technical limitations of the day plus the quirky way of addressing the memory made it possible for [Amen] to mimic a Datapak using a modern microcontroller.

The first version was a breakout board that extended out of the Datapak slot significantly, with a Pico, OLED display, SD card slot, and a bunch of pushbuttons. That prototype proved that the Pico was indeed fast enough to fool the Psion into thinking a legit Datapak was plugged in. [Amen] later refined the design by making a board that stuffs everything into the Datapak slot, with the exception of the OLED which still dangles out where it can be seen. He puts the faux memory to the test in the video below.

It’s great to see groundbreaking tech of yesteryear like the Psion being taken care of and returned to use. We’ve seen others try before; here’s a hack that uses a Pi to connect a Psion Organiser to the internet through its RS-232 serial port.

Continue reading “Proto-PDA Regains Its Memory With The Help Of A Raspberry Pi Pico”

School Surplus Laptop BIOS Hacked To Remove Hardware Restrictions

Why did [Hales] end up hacking the BIOS on a 10 year old laptop left over from an Australian education program? When your BIOS starts telling you you’re not allowed to use a particular type of hardware, you don’t have much of a choice.

Originally [Hales] planned on purchasing a used Lenovo X260 to replace his dying laptop, but his plans were wrecked. A pandemic-induced surge in demand that even the used laptop market caused prices to bloat. The need for a small and affordable laptop with a built in Ethernet port led to the purchase of a Lenovo Thinkpad x131e. Although the laptop was older than he liked, [Hales] was determined to make it work. Little did he know the right-to-repair journey he was about to embark on.

Problems first arose when the Broadcom WiFi adapter stopped working reliably. He replaced it, but the coaxial antenna cable was found to be damaged. Even after replacing the damaged cabling, the WiFi adapter was still operating very poorly. Recalling past problems with fickle Broadcom WiFi adapters, it was decided that an Intel mPCIe WiFi adapter would take its place. When power was re-applied, [Hales] was shocked to find the following message:

Unauthorized network card is plugged in – Power off and remove the miniPCI network card

And this is where things got interesting. With off the shelf SOIC8 clips and a CH340 programmer, [Hales] dumped the BIOS from the laptop’s flash chip to another computer and started hacking away. After countless hours of researching, prodding, hacking, and reverse engineering, the laptop was useful once again with the new Intel WiFi adapter. His site documents in great detail how he was able to reverse engineer the BIOS over the course of several days.

But that’s not all! [Hales] was also able to modify the hardware so that his slightly more modern mPCIe WiFi adapter would come back on after the computer had been put in Hibernation. It’s an elegant hack, and be sure to check [Hales’] site to get the full details. And at the end, there’s a nice Easter egg for anybody who’s ever wanted to make their laptop boot up with their own logo.

We applaud [Hales] for his fine efforts to keep working equipment out of the landfill. We’ve covered many hacks that had similar goals in the past. Do you have a hack you’d like to share? Submit it via the Tips Line.

Cloned Memory Module Fixes Broken Scopemeter

Finding broken test gear and fixing it up to work again is a time-honored tradition among hackers. If you’re lucky, that eBay buy will end up being DOA because of a popped fuse or a few bad capacitors, and a little work with snips and a soldering iron will earn you a nice piece of test gear and bragging rights to boot.

Some repairs, though, are in a class by themselves, like this memory module transplant for a digital scopemeter. The story began some time ago when [FeedbackLoop] picked up a small lot of broken Fluke 199C scopemeters from eBay. They were listed as “parts only”, which is never a good sign, and indeed the meters were in various states of disassembly and incompleteness.

The subject of the video below was missing several important bits, like a battery and a power connector, but most critically, its memory module. Luckily, the other meter had a good module, making reverse engineering possible. That effort started with liberating the two RAM chips and two flash chips, all of which were in BGA packages, from the PCB. From there each chip went into a memory programmer to read its image, which was then written to new chips. The chip-free board was duplicated — a non-trivial task for a six-layer PCB — and new ones ordered. After soldering on the programmed chips and a few passives, the module was plugged in, making the meter as good as new.

While we love them all, it’s clear that there are many camps of test gear collectors. You’ve got your Fluke fans, your H-P aficionados, the deep-pocketed Keithley crowd — but everyone loves Tektronix.

Continue reading “Cloned Memory Module Fixes Broken Scopemeter”