New Part Day: Espressif ESP32-S3

Since Espressif Systems arrived in our collective consciousness they have expanded their range from the ESP8266 to the ESP32, and going beyond the original WROOM and WROVER modules to a range of further ESP32 products. There’s a single-core variant and one that packs a RISC-V core in place of the Tensilica one, and now they’ve revealed their latest product. The ESP32-S3 takes the ESP to a new level, packing as it does more I/O, onboard USB, and an updated version of the two Tensilica cores alongside Bluetooth version 5. It’s still an ESP32, but one that’s more useful, and it’s worth a closer look because we expect it to figure in quite a few projects.

Espressif's block diagram for the chip.
Espressif’s block diagram for the chip.

Sadly the data sheet does not seem to have been released, but we do have some tidbits to consider. Espressif are anxious to tell us about its “AIOT” capabilities thanks to the vector instructions in the EXTensa LX7 cores (PDF) that were not present in the previous model’s LX6. They claim that this will speed up software neural networks; this does have an air of marketing about it but we’ll withhold judgement until we see it in use. The new core certainly will offer a performance improvement across the board though, which should be of interest to all ESP32 developers. Meanwhile the ultra-low-power core that existing ESP32 developers will be familiar with remains.

Then there is that USB support, which appears in the feature block diagram but has little information elsewhere. It’s listed as USB OTG which raises the possibility of the ESP32 being the host, but what it should also bring is the ability to emulate other USB devices. We’ve seen badges mount as WebUSB devices using STM32 clones as peripherals for an ESP32, but in future these tricks should be possible on the Espressif chip itself.

Probably the most anticipated piece of the new device’s specification comes in the addition of 10 new I/O lines. This has historically been a weakness of the ESP line, that it’s an easy chip with which to run out of available pins. These extra lines will make it more competitive with for example the STM32 series of microcontrollers that have larger package options, and will also mean that designs can have more in the way of peripherals without the use of port expanders.

In summary then, the latest member of the ESP32 family delivers a significant and useful update, and brings some of the features first seen in the single core version to the more powerful line of chips. Sadly it doesn’t have the hoped-for on-chip RAM boost, but it brings enough in the way of new capabilities to be of interest. At the moment it doesn’t look like the ESP32-S3 is available to order, but we hope to have engineering samples soon and should be bringing you a hands-on report in due course.

New Part Day: Hackboard 2, An X86 Single-Board Computer

From the old Gumstix boards to everyone’s favorite Raspberry Pi, common single-board computers (SBCs) have traditionally had at least one thing in common: an ARM processor. But that’s not to say hackers and makers haven’t been interested in an SBC with a proper x86 processor. Which is why the $99 Hackboard 2 is so exciting. With a modern x86 chip at the core it’s akin to a small footprint desktop motherboard, but with all the extra features that we’ve come to expect in a hacker-friendly SBC.

So what’s the big deal? In a word, compatibility. The fact that these diminutive computing devices shied away from the x86 architecture that most of us have been using on our desktops and laptops since the 1980s originally introduced software compatibility issues, but this was largely outweighed by the advantages of ARM. The latest NVIDIA Jetson is running on an ARM chip for the same reason the smartphone in your pocket is: they’re smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient than x86.

However they’re rarely more powerful. Even the latest and greatest Raspberry Pi 4, often touted as a viable desktop replacement thanks to its quad core Cortex-A72, will get absolutely trounced by the pokiest of Intel’s Celeron CPUs. The performance gap is just too great. While the Pi can admirably handle most of the tasks the hacker community asks of it, there will always be a call for a board that puts raw processing power before anything else.

Sucking down nearly 40 watts at full tilt, the Hackboard 2 isn’t the SBC you’d want to use for a solar powered weather station. But if you’re putting together a set top box to play back video and run the occasional emulator, its Celeron N4020 processor and Intel UHD 600 GPU represent the most powerful combination available for a device of this size.

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Espressif Leaks ESP32-C3: A WiFi SoC That’s RISC-V And Is ESP8266 Pin-Compatible

Six years on from the emergence of the Espressif ESP8266 we might believe that the focus had shifted to the newer dual-core ESP32. But here comes a twist in the form of the newly-revealed ESP32-C3. It’s a WiFi SoC that despite its ESP32 name contains a RISC-V core in place of the Tensilica core in the ESP32s we know, and uses the ESP8266 pin-out rather than that of its newer sibling. There’s relatively little information about it at the time of writing, but CNX Software have gathered together what there is including a draft datasheet whose English translation is available as a Mega download. As with other ESP32 family members, this one delivers b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) 5, where it differs is the RISC-V 32 Single-core processor with a clock speed of up to 160 MHz. There is 400 kB of SRAM and 384 kB ROM storage space built in.

While there is no official announcement yet, Espressif has been dropping hints. There’s been an OpenOCD configuration file for it in the Espressif repositories since the end of last month. And on Friday, Espressif Software Engineering Manager [Sprite_tm] answered a reddit comment, confirming the RISC-V core.

ESP-01: Kjerish, CC BY-SA 4.0, RISC-V logo: RISC-V foundation, Public domain.

Why they are releasing the part as an ESP32 rather than giving it a series number of its own remains a mystery, but it’s not hard to see why it makes commercial sense to create it in an ESP8266-compatible footprint. The arrival of competing parts in the cheap wireless SoC space such as the Bouffalo Labs BL602 we mentioned recently is likely to be eating into sales of the six-year-old chip, so an upgrade path to a more capable part with minimal new hardware design requirements could be a powerful incentive for large customers to stay with Espressif.

We’re left to guess on how exactly the rollout will proceed. We expect to see similar developer support to that they now provide for their other chips, and then ESP32-C3 powered versions of existing ESP8266 boards in short order. It’s also to be hoped that a standard RISC-V toolchain could be used instead of the device-specific ones for current Espressif offerings. What we should not expect are open-source replacements for the blobs that drive the on-board peripherals, as the new chip will share the same closed-source IP as its predecessors for them. Perhaps if the PINE64 initiative to reverse engineer blobs for the BL602 bears fruit, we might see a similar effort for this chip.

New Raspberry Pi 4 Compute Module: So Long SO-DIMM, Hello PCIe!

The brand new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 (CM4) was just released! Surprised? Nope, and we’re not either — the Raspberry Pi Foundation had hinted that it was going to release a compute module for the 4-series for a long while.

The form factor got a total overhaul, but there’s bigger changes in this little beastie than are visible at first glance, and we’re going to walk you through most of them. The foremost bonuses are the easy implementation of PCIe and NVMe, making it possible to get data in and out of SSDs ridiculously fast. Combined with optional WiFi/Bluetooth and easily designed Gigabit Ethernet, the CM4 is a connectivity monster.

One of the classic want-to-build-it-with-a-Pi projects is the ultra-fast home NAS. The CM4 makes this finally possible.

If you don’t know the compute modules, they are stripped-down versions of what you probably think of as a Raspberry Pi, which is officially known as the “Model B” form-factor. Aimed at commercial applications, the compute modules lack many of the creature comforts of their bigger siblings, but they trade those for flexibility in design and allow for some extra functionality.

The compute modules aren’t exactly beginner friendly, but we’re positively impressed by how far Team Raspberry has been able to make this module accessible to the intermediate hacker. Most of this is down to the open design of the IO Breakout board that also got released today. With completely open KiCAD design files, if you can edit and order a PCB, and then reflow-solder what arrives in the mail, you can design for the CM4. The benefit is a lighter, cheaper, and yet significantly more customizable platform that packs the power of the Raspberry Pi 4 into a low-profile 40 mm x 55 mm package.

So let’s see what’s new, and then look a little bit into what is necessary to incorporate a compute module into your own design.

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Hands On With A Batteryless E-Paper Display

E-paper displays are unusual in that power is only needed during a screen update. Once the display’s contents have been set, no power whatsoever is required to maintain the image. That’s pretty nifty. By making the display driver board communicate wirelessly over near-field communication (NFC) — which also provides a small amount of power — it is possible for this device to be both wireless and without any power source of its own. In a way, the technology required to do this has existed for some time, but the company Waveshare Electronics has recently made easy to use options available for sale. I ordered one of their 2.9 inch battery-less NFC displays to see how it acts.

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New Part Day: Raspberry Pi Camera Gets Serious With 12 Megapixels & Proper Lenses

The Raspberry Pi Foundation have slipped out a new product, a $50 camera module with a larger sensor that increases the resolution from the 8 megapixels of its predecessor to a Sony IMX477R stacked, back-illuminated 12.3 megapixel sensor, and most interestingly adds a mounting ring for a C mount lens (the kind used with CCTV equipment) in place of the tiny fixed focus lenses of past Pi cameras. In addition there is a standard threaded tripod mount on the module, and an adapter ring for CS mount lens types. The camera cannot be used without a lens, but there are a few options available when ordering, like 16mm telephoto or 6mm wide angle lenses, if you do not already have a suitable lens on hand.

It’s an exciting move for photography experimenters, because for the first time it offers an affordable way into building custom cameras with both a higher quality sensor and a comprehensive selection of interchangeable lenses. We can imagine that the astronomers and microscopists among us will be enthusiastic about this development, as will those building automated wildlife cameras. For us though the excitement comes in the prospect of building decent quality cameras with custom form factors that break away from the conventional, because aside from a period when consumer digital cameras were in their infancy they have stuck rigidly to the same form factor dictated by a 35mm film canister. It’s clear that this module will be made into many different projects, and we are looking forward to featuring them.

At the time of writing the camera is sold out from all the usual suppliers, which follows the trend for Raspberry Pi products on their launch day. We didn’t manage to snag one, but perhaps with such an expensive module it’s best to step back for a moment and consider the project it will become part of rather than risking it joining the unfinished pile. While waiting for stock then perhaps the next best thing is to 3D print a C mount adapter for your existing Pi camera, or maybe even hook it up to a full-sized SLR lens.

New Part Day: An Open Source Ethernet Switch In The Palm Of Your Hand

When you can get a WiFi-enabled microcontroller for $3, it’s little surprise that many of the projects we see these days have ditched Ethernet. But the days of wired networking are far from over, and there’s still plenty of hardware out there that can benefit from being plugged in. But putting an Ethernet network into your project requires a switch, and that means yet another piece of hardware that needs to get crammed into the build.

Seeing the need for a small and lightweight Ethernet switch, BotBlox has developed the SwitchBlox. This 45 mm square board has everything you need to build a five device wired network, and nothing you don’t. Gone are the bulky RJ45 jacks and rows of blinkenlights, they won’t do you any good on the inside of a robot’s chassis. But that’s not to say it’s a bare bones experience, either. The diminutive switch features automatic crossover, support for input voltages from 7 V all the way up to 40 V, and management functions accessible over SPI.

If you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, a fully assembled SwitchBlox is available to purchase directly from BotBlox for £149.00. But if you’re not in any particular rush and interested in saving on cost, you can spin up your own version of the Creative Commons licensed board. The C++ management firmware and Python management GUI isn’t ready for prime time just yet, but you’ll be able to build a “dumb” version of the switch with the provided KiCad design files.

The published schematic in their repo uses a Microchip KSZ8895MQXCA as the Ethernet controller, with a Pulse HX1344NL supplying the magnetics for all the ports in a single surface mount package. Interestingly, the two images that BotBlox shows on their product page include different part numbers like H1102FNL and PT61017PEL for the magnetics, and the Pulse H1164NL for the Ethernet controller.

Make Networks Wired Again

There’s no question that WiFi has dramatically changed the way we connect devices. In fact, there’s an excellent chance you’re currently reading these words from a device that doesn’t even have the capability to connect to a wired network. If you’re looking to connect a device to the Internet quickly, it’s tough to beat.

But WiFi certainly isn’t perfect. For one, you have to contend with issues that are inherent to wireless communications such as high latency and susceptibility to interference. There’s also the logistical issues involved in making that initial connection since you need to specify an Access Point and (hopefully) an encryption key. In comparison, Ethernet will give you consistent performance in more or less any environment, and configuration is usually as simple as plugging in the cable and letting DHCP sort the rest out.

Unfortunately, that whole “plugging in” part can get tricky. Given their size, putting an Ethernet switch into your project to act as an internal bus only works if you’ve got space to burn and weight is of little concern. So as appealing as it might be to build a network into your robot to connect the Raspberry Pi, motor controllers, cameras, etc, it’s rarely been practical.

This little switch could change that, and the fact it’s released under an open source license means hackers and makers will be free to integrate it into their designs. With the addition of an open source management firmware, this device has some truly fascinating potential. When combined with a single board computer or suitably powerful microcontroller, you have the makings of a fully open source home router; something that the privacy and security minded among us have been dreaming of for years.