Harrowing Story of Installing Libreboot on ThinkPad

As an Apple user, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned over the past few years. Maybe it’s the spirit of Steve Jobs slowly vanishing from the company, or that Apple seems to care more about keeping up with expensive trends lately rather than setting them, or the nagging notion Apple doesn’t have my best interests as a user in mind.

Whatever it is, I was passively on the hunt for a new laptop with the pipe dream that one day I could junk my Apple for something even better. One that could run a *nix operating system of some sort, be made with quality hardware, and not concern me over privacy issues. I didn’t think that those qualities existed in a laptop at all, and that my 2012 MacBook Pro was the “lesser of evils” that I might as well keep using. But then, we published a ThinkPad think piece that had two words in it that led me on a weeks-long journey to the brand-new, eight-year-old laptop I’m currently working from. Those two words: “install libreboot”.

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iPhone NVMe Chip Reversed with Custom Breakout Boards

Ever so slowly, the main storage in our computers has been moving from spinning disks, to SSDs over SATA, to Flash drives connected to a PCI something or other. The lastest technology is NVMe — Non-Volitile Memory Express — a horribly named technology that puts a memory controller right on the chip. Intel has a PCI-based NVMe drive out, Samsung recently released an M.2 NVMe drive, and the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are built around this storage technology.

New chips demand a reverse engineering session, and that’s exactly what [Ramtin Amin] did. He took a few of these chips out of an iPhone, created a board that will read them, and managed to analize the firmware.

Any reverse engineering will begin with desoldering the chip. This is easy enough, with the real trick being getting it working again outside whatever system it was removed from. For this, [Ramtin] built his own PCIe card with a ZIF socket. This socket was custom-made, but the good news is you can buy one from ITEAD. Yes, it is expensive — that’s what you get with a custom-made ZIF socket.

With the chip extracted, a custom PCIe card, and a bit of work with the NVMe implementation for Linux, [Ramtin] had just about everything working. Eventually, he was able to dump the entire file system on the chip, allowing anyone to theoretically back up the data on their iPhone or MacBook Air. Of course, and especially for the iPhone, this data is encrypted. It’s not possible to clone an iPhone using this method, but it is a remarkably deep dive into the hardware that makes our storage tick.”

Staring at the Sun: Erasing an EPROM

Flash memory is the king today. Our microcontrollers have it embedded on the die. Phones, tablets, and computers run from flash. If you need re-writable long term storage, flash is the way to go. It hasn’t always been this way though. Only a few years ago EPROM was the only show in town. EPROM typically is burned out-of-circuit in a programming fixture. When the time comes to erase the EPROM, just pop it under an ultraviolet (UV) bulb for 30 minutes, and you’re ready to go again. The EPROM’s quartz window allows UV light to strike the silicon die, erasing the memory.

The problem arises when you want to use an EPROM for long term storage. EPROM erasers weren’t the only way to blank a chip. The sun will do it in a matter of weeks. Even flourescent light will do it — though it could take years.

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Don’t Take Photos of Your Arduino 101 Either, It’s Light Sensitive

Wafer level chips are cheap and very tiny, but as [Kevin Darrah] shows, vulnerable to bright light without the protective plastic casings standard on other chip packages.

We covered a similar phenomenon when the Raspberry Pi 2 came out. A user was taking photos of his Pi to document a project. Whenever his camera flash went off, it would reset the board.

[Kevin] got a new Arduino 101 board into his lab. The board has a processor from Intel, an accelerometer, and Bluetooth Low Energy out of the box while staying within the same relative price bracket as the Atmel versions. He was admiring the board, when he noticed that one of the components glittered under the light. Curious, he pulled open the schematic for the board, and found that it was the chip that switched power between the barrel jack and the USB. Not only that, it was a wafer level package.

So, he got out his camera and a laser. Sure enough, both would cause the power to drop off for as long as the package was exposed to the strong light. The Raspberry Pi foundation later wrote about this phenomenon in more detail. They say it won’t affect normal use, but if you’re going to expose your device to high energy light, simply put it inside a case or cover the chip with tape, Sugru, or a non-conductive paint to shield it.

EDIT: [Kevin] also tested it under the sun and found conditions in which it would reset. Videos after the break.

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Analog to Digital Converter (ADC): A True Understanding

Back in the day where the microprocessor was our standard building block, we tended to concentrate on computation and processing of data and not so much on I/O. Simply put there were a lot of things we had to get working just so we could then read the state of an I/O port or a counter.

Nowadays the microcontroller has taken care of most of the system level needs with the luxury of built in RAM memory and the ability to upload our code. That leaves us able to concentrate on the major role of a microcontroller: to interpret something about the environment, make decisions, and often output the result to energize a motor, LED, or some other twiddly bits.

Often the usefulness of a small microcontroller project depends on being able to interpret external signals in the form of voltage or less often, current. For example the output of a photocell, or a temperature sensor may use an analog voltage to indicate brightness or the temperature. Enter the Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) with the ability to convert an external signal to a processor readable value.

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Open Furby Opens The Furby

Remember Furby? The cute reactive robot was all the rage a few years ago, when the strange chattering creature was found under many a Christmas tree. Most Furbys have been sadly neglected since then, but the Open Furby project aims to give the toy a new lease of life, transforming it into an open source social robot platform.

We’ve featured a few Furby hacks before, such as the wonderful Furby Gurdy and the Internet connected Furby but the Open Furby project aims to create an open platform, rather than creating a specific hack. It works by replacing the brains of the Furby with a FLASH controller that runs the Robot Operating System (ROS), making the Furby much easier to program and control. They have also replaced the eyes with small OLED screens, which means it can do things like show a weather forecast, facebook notification, etc.

It is still in the early stages, but it looks like an interesting project. Personally, I am waiting for the evil Furby that wants to kill you and eat your flesh with that nasty beak…

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Mostly Non-Volatile Memory With Supercapacitors

Back in the days of old, computers used EPROMs to store their most vital data – usually character maps and a BASIC interpreter. The nature of these EPROMs meant you could write to them easily enough, but erasing them meant putting them under an ultraviolet light. Times have changed and now we have EEPROMs, which can be erased electronically, and Flash, the latest and greatest technology that would by any other name be called an EEPROM. [Nicholas] wanted an alternative to these 27xx-series EPROMs, and found his answer in supercapacitors.

[Nick]’s creation is a mostly non-volatile memory built around an old 62256 32k SRAM. SRAM is completely unlike EPROMs or Flash, in that it requires power to keep all its bits in memory. Capacitor technology has improved dramatically since the 1980s, and by using a supercap and one of these RAM chips, [Nick] has created a substitute for a 27-series EPROM that keeps all its memory alive for days at a time.

The circuit requires a small bit of electronics tucked between the EPROM socket and the SRAM chip; just enough to turn the 12 Volts coming from the EPROM programming pin to the 5 Volts expected from the SRAM’s Write Enable pin. This is accomplished by a few LEDs in series, and a 0.1F 5.5V supercap which keeps the SRAM alive when the power is off.

As for why anyone would want to do this when modern technologies like Flash can be found, we can think of two reasons. For strange EPROM sizes, old SRAMs abound, but a suitable Flash chip in the right package (and the right voltage) might be very hard to find. Also, EEPROMs have a write lifetime; SRAMs can be written to an infinite number of times. It’s not the best solution in every case, but it is certainly interesting, and could be useful for more than a few vintage computing enthusiasts.

This project makes us think of another where an LED may have been supplying keep-alive power to some volatile memory.