Pineberry Pi HatDrive: Using NVMe SSDs With The Raspberry Pi 5

When the Raspberry Pi 5 launched, many were left chomping at the bit after seeing the PCIe FPC connector alongside the promise that an ‘NVMe SSD HAT would be forthcoming’. Although the official Raspberry Pi NVMe HAT is still a long while off, the Polish company Pineberry Pi is ramping up to release its Top & Bottom versions of its very wittily called HatDrive.

They sent a prototype to [Jeff Geerling], who has been putting his grubby mitts all over them before putting together a video showing off the HatDrive Top, which can accept 2230 and 2242 size NVMe drives.

The primary goal of adding an NVMe drive to the RPi is of course to get rid of those slow and fragile SD cards. Although the SD card standard supports near-NVMe-like speeds with UHS-III, the Raspberry Pi 5 bottoms out at UHS-I, around 100 MB/s. Despite this, using an NVMe drive for booting still takes some work, as [Jeff] lays out in a clear article. Most of this involves tweaking the /boot/config.txt file to enable external PCIe support, editing the onboard EEPROM to change the boot order (in lieu of having a PC-like BIOS screen) and getting the OS image flashed onto the NVMe drive you intend to boot from.

Although things seem to work fine during [Jeff]’s testing, some caveats remain, such as the RPi 5 officially supporting only PCIe Gen 2 x1, with Gen 3 possible, but with potential data integrity issues. There’s also the fundamental limit of having only a single lane of PCIe available. If that’s no problem, then Pineberry Pi offers the aforementioned HatDrive Top for traditional HAT-style mounting, and a Bottom version that can accept up to 2280 format NVMe SSDs. Including the provided ribbon cables, you can order the Top and Bottom for €20 and €25.99 respectively, with the first batch to ship in early December.

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Booting The Raspberry Pi 5 With An NVMe SSD

The Raspberry Pi has come a long way since its humble origins, adding faster processors and better interfaces with each new generation. Now, the Raspberry Pi 5 has a lovely new PCIe port right on board, and [Jeff Geerling] has gone right ahead and slammed in an NVMe SSD as a boot drive.

[Jeff] explains that to use an NVMe to boot, you first have to modify /boot/config.txt to enable PCIe and modify the Raspberry Pi’s boot order. Once the bootloader is appropriately configured, you can boot straight off an SSD with Raspberry Pi OS installed. To get the operating system on to an NVMe drive, he recommends cloning an existing boot volume from a microSD install.

One of the primary reasons you might want to do this is speed. NVMe drives are generally a significant cut above even the best microSD cards, both in speed and reliability. [Jeff] also notes that you can use an NVMe SSD through a PCIe switch on the Pi 5 if you so desire, but you can’t currently boot with this configuration.

It’s a great feature to have on the Pi 5, and it follows on from the earlier implementation on the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4. Video after the break.

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M.2 For Hackers – Expand Your Laptop

You’ve seen M.2 cards in modern laptops already. If you’re buying an SSD today, it’s most likely an M.2 one. Many of our laptops contain M.2 WiFi cards, the consumer-oriented WWAN cards now come in M.2, and every now and then we see M.2 cards that defy our expectations. Nowadays, using M.2 is one of the most viable ways for adding new features to your laptop. I have found that the M.2 standard is quite accessible and also very hackable, and I would like to demonstrate that to you.

If you ever searched the Web trying to understand what makes M.2 tick, you might’ve found one of the many confusing articles which just transcribe stuff out of the M.2 specification PDF, and make things look more complicated than they actually are. Let’s instead look at M.2 real-world use. Today, I’ll show you the M.2 devices you will encounter in the wild, and teach you what you need to know to make use of them. In part 2, I will show you how to build your own M.2 cards and card-accepting devices, too!

Well Thought-Out, Mostly

You can genuinely appreciate the M.2 standard once you start looking into it, especially if you have worked with mPCIe devices for some amount of time. mPCIe is what we’ve been using for all these years, and it gradually became a mish-mash of hardly-compatible pinouts. As manufacturers thought up all kinds of devices they could embed, you’d find hacks like mSATA and WWAN coexistence extensions, and the lack of standardization is noticeable in things like mPCIe WWAN modems as soon as you need something like UART or PCM. The M.2 specification, thankfully, accounted for all of these lessons.

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On the left, the Thunderbolt chip as mounted on the motherboard originally. On the right, the shim installed in place of a Thunderbolt BGA chip, with the IPEX connector soldered on

Macbook Gets NVMe SSD With Help Of A BGA-Imitating PCB

Recently, we stumbled upon a video by [iBoff], adding an M.2 NVMe port to a 2011-2013 MacBook. Apple laptops never came with proper M.2 ports, especially the A1278 – so what’s up? The trick is – desoldering a PCIe-connected Thunderbolt controller, then soldering a BGA-like interposer PCB in place of where the chip was, and pulling a cable assembly from there to the drive bay, where a custom adapter PCB awaits. That adapter even lets you expose the PCIe link as a full-sized PCIe 4x slot, in case you want to connect an external GPU instead of the NVMe SSD!

The process is well-documented in the video, serving as an instruction manual for anyone attempting to install this specific mod, but also a collection of insights and ideas for anyone interested in imitating it. The interposer board ships with solder balls reballed onto it, so that it can be installed in the same way that a BGA chip would be – but the cable assembly connector isn’t installed onto the interposer, since it has to be soldered onto the mainboard with hot air, which would then melt the connector. The PCB that replaces the optical drive makes no compromises, either, tapping into the SATA connector pins and letting you add an extra 2.5mm SATA SSD.

Adding an NVMe drive is an underappreciated way to speed up your old laptop, and since they’re all PCIe under the hood, you can really get creative with the specific way you add it. You aren’t even limited to substituting obscure parts like Thunderbolt controllers – given a laptop with a discrete GPU and a CPU-integrated one, you could get rid of the discrete GPU and replace it with an adapter for one, or maybe even two NVMe drives, and all you need is a PCB that has the same footprint as your GPU. Sadly, the PCB files for this adapter don’t seem to be open-source, but developing a replacement for your own needs would be best started from scratch, either way.

We’ve seen such an adapter made for a Raspberry Pi 4 before, solderable in place of a QFN USB 3.0 controller chip and exposing the PCIe signals onto the USB 3 connector pins. However, this one takes it up a notch! Typically, without such an adapter, we have to carefully solder a properly shielded cable if we want to get a PCIe link from a board that never intended to expose one. What’s up with PCIe and why is it cool? We’ve talked about that in depth!

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Developing Your Own Digital Film

In the olden days, you would have a roll of film that you could take to your local drug store and have them develop it. But a serious photographer would likely develop their own photos to maintain complete creative control. While photo editing software has largely replaced the darkroom of old, the images are still held on physical media, and that means there’s room for improvement and customization. In an article for photofocus, [Joseph Nuzzo] shows how you can make your own CFexpress card — the latest and greatest in the world of digital camera storage tech — for less than $100 USD.

The idea here is pretty simple, as CFexpress uses PCIe with a different connector. Essentially all you have to do is get a M.2 2230 NVMe drive and put it into an adapter. In this case [Joseph] is using a turn-key model from Sintech, but we’ve shown in the past how you can roll your own.

Now you might not give it much thought normally, but NVMe devices get pretty hot. This usually isn’t problem inside a large computer case, where they often have large amounts of air blowing over them. But inside a camera you need to dissipate that heat, so thermal compound is a must. With everything screwed together, you have your own card that’s faster and cheaper than commercial offerings.

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of love for NVMe. It’s easy, fast, and adaptable. Since the M.2 slot format includes SATA and PCIe, there’s a likely chance there is a PCIe bus in many cameras. The PCIe bus on the Pi has been convenient for hacking, and we wonder what sort of hacks are out there for cameras.

NVMe Boot Finally Comes To The Pi Compute Module 4

Since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4, power users have wanted to use NVMe drives with the diminutive ARM board. While it was always possible to get one plugged in through an adapter on the IO Board, it was a bit too awkward for serious use. But as [Jeff Geerling] recently discussed on his blog, we’re not only starting to see CM4 carrier boards with full-size M.2 slots onboard, but the Raspberry Pi Foundation has unveiled beta support for booting from these speedy storage devices.

The MirkoPC board that [Jeff] looks at is certainly impressive on its own. Even if you don’t feel like jumping through the hoops necessary to actually boot to NVMe, the fact that you can simply plug in a standard drive and use it for mass storage is a big advantage. But the board also breaks out pretty much any I/O you could possibly want from the CM4, and even includes some of its own niceties like an RTC module and I2S DAC with a high-quality headphone amplifier.

Once the NVMe drive is safely nestled into position and you’ve updated to the beta bootloader, you can say goodbye to SD cards. But don’t get too excited just yet. Somewhat surprisingly, [Jeff] finds that booting from the NVMe drive is no faster than the SD card. That said, actually loading programs and other day-to-day tasks are far snappier once the system gets up and running. Perhaps the boot time can be improved with future tweaks, but honestly, the ~7 seconds it currently takes to start up the CM4 hardly seems excessive.

NVMe drives are exciting pieces of tech, and it’s good to see more single-board computers support it. While it might not help your CM4 boot any faster, it definitely offers a nice kick in performance across the board and expands what the system is capable of. Continue reading “NVMe Boot Finally Comes To The Pi Compute Module 4”

NVMe Blurs The Lines Between Memory And Storage

The history of storage devices is quite literally a race between the medium and the computing power as the bottleneck of preserving billions of ones and zeros stands in the way of computing nirvana. The most recent player is the Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe), something of a hybrid of what has come before.

The first generations of home computers used floppy disk and compact cassette-based storage, but gradually, larger and faster storage became important as personal computers grew in capabilities. By the 1990s hard drive-based storage had become commonplace, allowing many megabytes and ultimately gigabytes of data to be stored. This would drive up the need for a faster link between storage and the rest of the system, which up to that point had largely used the ATA interface in Programmed Input-Output (PIO) mode.

This led to the use of DMA-based transfers (UDMA interface, also called Ultra ATA and Parallel ATA), along with DMA-based SCSI interfaces over on the Apple and mostly server side of the computer fence. Ultimately Parallel ATA became Serial ATA (SATA) and Parallel SCSI became Serial Attached SCSI (SAS), with SATA being used primarily in laptops and desktop systems until the arrival of NVMe along with solid-state storage.

All of these interfaces were designed to keep up with the attached storage devices, yet NVMe is a bit of an odd duck considering the way it is integrated in the system. NVMe is also different for not being bound to a single interface or connector, which can be confusing. Who can keep M.2 and U.2 apart, let alone which protocol the interface speaks, be it SATA or NVMe?

Let’s take an in-depth look at the wonderful and wacky world of NVMe, shall we?

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