ESP32 Serial Interface Modernizes Old Equipment

There’s still plenty of useful hardware out there that uses an RS-232 interface, like the Behringer Ultradrive loudspeaker systems that [Lasse Lukkari] works with from time to time. Rather than ditch perfectly good gear because modern computers (to say nothing of phones or tablets) don’t have physical serial ports, he decided to come up with a WiFi adapter for these old devices that he calls SerialChiller.

Inside the SerialChiller is an ESP32, a MAX3232 line driver, a LM1117 linear regulator, and a few passives. The professionally manufactured PCB is housed inside of an enclosure that [Lasse] has repurposed from a cheap DB15 breakout adapter. The USB cable is used to power the board and for programming, though it can also be used to turn the SerialChiller into a USB-to-serial cable as well.

The hardware for this project is pretty straightforward, but what we really like is the direction he’s taken with the software. Rather than using the SerialChiller as a simple serial to WiFi bridge, [Lasse] is actually implementing a complete web-based interface directly on the microcontroller. In the video after the break he demonstrates his firmware for controlling the aforementioned Behringer Ultradrive, but that’s just one possible application for the project. Firmware could be spun up for all sorts of classic devices, breathing new life into hardware that might otherwise be in danger of heading to the landfill.

Of course, using the ESP family of chips as serial adapters is hardly anything new. In fact, that’s what they were designed for. But developing modern user interfaces for old hardware thanks to the power of the ESP32 has some fascinating potential.

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Decapsulation Reveals Fake Chips

A while back, [heypete] needed to get a GPS timing receiver talking to a Raspberry Pi. The receiver only spoke RS-232, and the Pi is TTL level serial. [Pete] picked up a few RS-232 to TTL conversion boards from an online vendor in China. These boards were supposedly based on the Max3232, a wonderchip that converts the TTL serial to the positive and negative voltages of RS-232 serial. The converters worked fine for a few weeks, before failing, passing a bunch of current, and overheating.

On Mouser and Digikey, the Max3232 costs about $1.80 in quantity one, and shipping is extra. You can pick up a ‘Max3232 converter board’ from the usual online marketplaces for seventy five cents with free shipping. Of course the Chinese version is fake. [Pete] had some nitric acid, and decided to compare the die of the real and fake Max3232s.

After desoldering two fake chips from their respective converter boards, and acquiring a legitimate chip straight from Maxim, [Pete] took a look at the chips under the microscope. The laser markings on the fakes are inconsistent, but there was something interesting to be found in the date code markings. It took two to four weeks for the fake chips to be etched with a date code, assembled into a converter board, shipped across the planet, put into [Pete]’s project, run for a little bit, and fail spectacularly. That’s an astonishing display of manufacturing, logistics, and shipping times. Update: The date codes on the fakes had 2013 laser etched on the plastic package, and 2009 on the die. The real chips had a date code just a few weeks before [Pete] decapped them — a remarkably short life but they gave in to a good cause.

Following the Zeptobars and CCC (PDF) guides to dropping acid, [Pete] turned his problem into solution and took a look at the dies under a microscope. The legitimate die was significantly larger, and the fake dies were identical. The official die used gold bond wires, but the fake ones didn’t.

Unfortunately, [Pete] isn’t an expert in VLSI, chip design, failure analysis, or making semiconductors out of sand. Anything that should be obvious to the layman is not, and [Pete] has no idea why these chips would work for a week, then overheat and fail. If anyone has an idea, hit [Pete] up and drop a note in the comments.

Getting A Console And Quake II Running On A Raspberry Pi

Those Raspberry Pi boards are flying into the mailboxes of tinkerers all around the globe, so our tip line is currently awash in a deluge of Raspi hacks. Here’s two that came in over the weekend:

First up is [reefab]’s port of Quake II for the Raspberry Pi. The build is based of Yamagi Quake II and is mostly playable. The Quake III port for the Raspberry Pi is old hat, but we’re happy to relive the pulse-pounding action of Quake II any day.

Next up is [Joonas]’ take on getting a serial console up and running with the Raspi. The Raspberry Pi has a UART serial console on its 26-pin header, but you can’t just connect those pins to a serial port. To shift the +/- 12V down to the 3.3 Volts the Raspi can understand, [Joonas] used a MAX3232 – the 3.3 Volt version of everyone’s favorite RS-232 transceiver. With a breadboard and a couple of caps, it’s easy to connect your Raspi to a serial console. Neat.