The ROM programmer on display, with an OLED screen attached

Relatively Universal ROM Programmer Makes Retro Tech Hacking Accessible

There’s treasures hidden in old technology, and you deserve to be able to revive it. Whether it’s old personal computer platforms, vending machines, robot arms, or educational kits based on retro platforms, you will need to work with parallel EEPROM chips at some point. [Anders Nielsen] was about to do just that, when he found out that a TL866, a commonly used programmer kit for such ROMs, would cost entire $70 – significantly raising the budget of any parallel ROM-involving hacking. After months of work, he is happy to bring us a project – the Relatively Universal ROM Programmer, an open-source parallel ROM programmer board that you can easily assemble or buy.

Designed in the Arduino shield format, there’s a lot of care and love put into making this board as universal as reasonably possible, so that it fits any of the old flash chips you might want to flash – whether it’s an old UV-erasable ROM that wants a voltage up to 30 V to be written, or the newer 5 V-friendly chips. You can use ICs with pin count from 24 to 32 pins, it’s straightforward to use a ZIF socket with this board, there’s LED indication and silkscreen markings so that you can see and tweak the programming process, and it’s masterfully optimized for automated assembly.

You can breadboard this programmer platform as we’ve previously covered, you can assemble our own boards using the open-source files, and if you don’t want to do either, you can buy the assembled boards from [Anders Nielsen] too! The software is currently work in progress, since that’s part of the secret sauce that makes the $70 programmers tick. You do need to adjust the programming voltage manually, but that can be later improved with a small hardware fix. In total, if you just want to program a few ROM chips, this board saves you a fair bit of money.

Continue reading “Relatively Universal ROM Programmer Makes Retro Tech Hacking Accessible”

A Low-Cost ROM Programmer With An AI Twist

There are 0x10 ways to look at ROM programmers: they’re either relatively low-cost tools that let you quickly get about the business of programming vintage ROMs and get back to your retrocomputing activities, or they’re egregiously overpriced on a per-use basis. [Anders Nielsen] seems to land in the latter camp, firmly enough that he not only designed a dedicated ROM programmer for his 65uino ecosystem, but also suffered the indignities of enlisting ChatGPT to “help” him program the thing.

We’ll explain. [Anders]’ 65uino project has been going on for a while, with low-cost ROM programming only the latest effort. To his way of thinking, a $60 or $70 programmer might just be a significant barrier to those trying to break into retrocomputing, and besides, he seems to be more about the journey than the destination. He recently tackled the problem of generating the right programming voltages; here he turns his attention to putting that to work programming vintage ROMs like the W27C512.

Doing so with a 6502-based Arduino-compatible microcontroller requires some silicon calisthenics, including a trio of shift registers to do the addressing using a minimum of GPIO. As for the ChatGPT part, [Anders] thought asking the chatbot to help write some of the code would be a great way to increase his productivity. We thought so too, at least once, and like us, [Anders] concluded that while perhaps helpful in a broad sense, the amount of work you put into checking a chatbot’s work probably exceeds the work saved. But no matter, because in the end the code and the hardware came together to create a prototype ROM programmer for only about $10 worth of parts.

True, the resulting circuit is a bit complex, at least on a breadboard. It should clean up nicely for an eventual PCB version, though, one that plugs right into the 65uino board or even other microcontrollers. Either way, it could make creating custom ROMs for the 65uino a little more accessible.

Continue reading “A Low-Cost ROM Programmer With An AI Twist”

Saving PIC Microcontrollers With DIY Programmer

When working on a project, plenty of us will reach for an Atmel microcontroller because of the widespread prevalence of the Arduino platform. A few hackers would opt for a bit more modern part like an ESP32. But these Arduino-compatible platforms are far from the only microcontrollers available. The flash-based PIC family of microcontrollers is another popular choice. Since they aren’t quite as beginner or user-friendly, setting up a programmer for them is not as straightforward. [Tahmid] needed to program some old PIC microcontrollers and found the Pi Pico to be an ideal programmer.

The reason for reaching for the Pico in the first place was that [Tahmid] had rediscovered these decade-old microcontrollers in a parts bin but couldn’t find the original programmer. Thanks to advances in technology in the last ten years, including the advent of micropython, the Pico turned out to be the ideal programmer. Micropython also enables a fairly simple drag-and-drop way of sending the .hex file to the PIC, so the only thing the software has to do is detect the PIC, erase it, and flash the .hex file. The only physical limitation is that the voltages needed for the PIC are much higher than the Pico can offer, but this problem is easily solved with a boost converter (controlled by the Pico) and a level shifter.

[Tahmid] notes that there’s plenty of room for speed and performance optimization, since this project optimized development time instead. He also notes that since the software side is relatively simple, it could be used for other microcontrollers as well. To this end, he made the code available on his GitHub page. Even if you’re more familiar with the Arduino platform, though, there’s more than one way to program a microcontroller like this project which uses the Scratch language to program an ESP32.

Take The Minimal Pain Out Of ESP32 Programming

Perhaps without many of us realising it, our single board computers perform the task of making programming their processor or SoC a lot easier. They take care of setting the right lines or commands to put the chip in programming mode, they deal with timings, such that we simply fire our code from our dev environment without having to expend much thought. It’s not as though it’s difficult to program most microcontrollers, but there is usually a procedure to set the chip in programming mode. Tired of pressing buttons to achieve this with the ESP32, [DoganM95] took the time to create an all-in-one USB ESP32 programming board.

It’s a straightforward enough CH340C design that also has a USBC-PD chip on-board allowing powering of an attached ESP32 from PD sources. It’s all the stuff you’d find incorporated on a little dev board, without the ESP32, so while it’s nothing earth-shattering it’s also a neat and useful little addition to your arsenal. Unsurprisingly it’s not the first time someone’s created a similar board for a commercially available ESP32 module.

RFM9x module held in an adapter board with flexipins

FlexyPins Might Help With Those Pesky Castellated Modules

[SolderParty] just announced FlexyPins (Twitter, alternative view) – bent springy clips that let you connect modules with castellated pins. With such clips, you can quickly connect and disconnect any castellated module, swapping them without soldering as you’re prototyping, testing things out, or pre-flashing modules before assembly. They’re reportedly gold-plated, and a pack of ~100 will set you back 6EUR, shipping not included.

Of course, this is basically “fancy pieces of wire”, purpose-shaped, gold-plated and, hopefully, made out of material that is springy enough and doesn’t snap easily after bending a few times. We’ve seen this concept used for prototyping before, with random pieces of wire doing a pretty good job of maintaining connectivity, but these clips bring it that much closer to production-grade. It also makes us wonder – just how hard it is to solder 30-40 of them into a circuit? Do they self-align enough with the footprints given, or do you have to hold them with tweezers at a peculiar angle as you solder them? Time will tell, of course.

Continue reading “FlexyPins Might Help With Those Pesky Castellated Modules”

This Debug Connector Brings Your Issues To The Edge

Given an unknown PCBA with an ARM processor, odds are good that it will have either the standard 10 pin 0.05″ or 20 pin 0.1″ debug connector. This uncommon commonality is a boon for an exploring hacker, but when designing a board such headers require board space in the design and more components to be installed to plug in. The literally-named Debug Edge standard is a new libre attempt to remedy this inconvenience.

The name “Debug Edge” says it all. It’s a debug, edge connector. A connector for the edge of a PCBA to break out debug signals. Card edge connectors are nothing new but they typically either slot one PCBA perpendicularly into another (as in a PCI card) or hold them in parallel (as in a mini PCIe card or an m.2 SSD). The DebugEdge connector is more like a PCBA butt splice.

It makes use of a specific family of AVX open ended card edge connectors designed to splice together long rectangular PCBAs used for lighting end to end. These are available in single quantities starting as low as $0.85 (part number for the design shown here is 009159010061916). The vision of the DebugEdge standard is that this connector is exposed along the edge of the target device, then “spliced” into the debug connector for target power and debug.

Right now the DebugEdge exists primarily as a standard, a set of KiCAD footprints, and prototype adapter boards on OSHPark (debugger side, target side). A device making use of it would integrate the target side and the developer would use the debugger side to connect. The standard specifies 4, 6, 8, and 10 pin varieties (mapping to sizes of available connector, the ‘010’ in the number above specifies pincount) offering increasing levels of connectivity up to a complete 1:1 mapping of the standard 10 pin ARM connector. Keep in mind the connectors are double sided, so the 4 pin version is a miniscule 4mm x 4.5mm! We’re excited to see that worm its way into a tiny project or two.

We’ve seen plenty of part-free debug and programming connectors before. Have a favorite? Let us know in the comments!

Turning The Raspberry Pi Into A MCU Programmer

Once you graduate beyond development boards like the Arduino or Wemos D1, you’ll find yourself in the market for a dedicated programmer. In most cases, your needs can be met with a cheap USB to serial adapter that’s not much bigger than a flash drive. The only downside is that you’ve got to manually wire it up to your microcontroller of choice.

Unless you’re [Roey Benamotz], that is. He’s recently created the LEan Mean Programming mAchine (LEMPA),¬†an add-on board for the Raspberry Pi that includes all the sockets, jumpers, and indicator LEDs you need to successfully flash a whole suite of popular MCUs. What’s more, he’s written a Python tool that handles all the nuances of getting the firmware written out.

After you’ve configured the JSON file with the information about your hardware targets and firmware files, they can easily be called up again by providing a user-defined ID name. This might seem overkill if you’re just burning the occasional hex, but if you’re doing small scale production and need to flash dozens of chips, you’ll quickly appreciate a little automation in your process.

Of course, if you’re just trying to flash some code in a pinch, there are some more expedient options out there. We’re particularly fond of using a development board to program the bare MCU.

Continue reading “Turning The Raspberry Pi Into A MCU Programmer”