Making A Kid-Friendly Computer As A Present: Or How To Be The Cool Aunt At Christmas

This article was meant to be finished up before Christmas, so it’ll be a little late whenever you’re reading it to go and prepare this for the holiday. Regardless, if, like me, should you ever be on the lookout for something to give a toddler nephew or relative, it could be worth it to look into your neglected old parts shelves. In my case, what caught my eye was a 9-year-old AMD laptop catching dust that could be better repurposed in the tiny hands of a kid eager to play video games.

The main issues here are finding a decent selection of appropriate games and streamling the whole experience so that it’s easy to use for a not-yet-hacker, all the while keeping the system secure and child-friendly. And doing it all on a budget.

This is a tall order, and requirements will be as individual as children are, of course, but I hope that my experience and considerations will help guide you if you’re in a similar boat.

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Hacking The FPGA Control Board From A Bitcoin Miner

For anyone serious about mining cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, we’re well past the point where a standard desktop computer is of much use. While an array of high-end GPUs is still viable for some currencies, the real heavy hitters are using custom mining hardware that makes use of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to crunch the numbers. But eventually even the most powerful mining farm will start to show its age, and many end up selling on the second hand market for pennies on the dollar.

Naturally, hackers are hard at work trying to find alternate uses for these computational powerhouses. While it won’t teach an old ASIC a new trick, [xjtuecho] has documented some very interesting details on the FPGA control board of the Ebit E9+ Bitcoin miner. Known as the EBAZ4205, this board can be purchased for around $20 USD from online importers and even less if you can find one used. Since it’s just the controller it won’t help you build a budget super computer, but there’s always interest in cheap FPGA development boards.

The Zynq SoC combines an FPGA and ARM CPU.

According to [xjtuecho], it takes a little bit of work to get the EBAZ4205 ready for experimentation. For one thing, you may have to solder on your own micro SD slot depending on where you got the board from. You’ll also need to add a couple diodes to configure which storage device to boot from and to select where the board pulls power from.

Once you’re done, you’ll have a dual core Cortex A9 Linux board with 256 MB DDR3 and a Artix-7 FPGA featuring 28K logic elements to play with. Where you go from there is up to you.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen FPGA boards hit the surplus market at rock bottom prices. When IT departments started dumping their stock of Pano Logic thin clients back in 2013, a whole community of dedicated FPGA hackers sprouted up around it. We’re not sure the if the EBAZ4205 will enjoy the same kind of popularity in its second life, but the price is certainly right.

[Thanks to Rog77 for the tip.]

Simple MP3 Player Hides Home Automation Brilliance

Like bubble wrap or the corkscrew, plenty of everyday objects have lost almost all ties to their original purpose. It could be that the original product had no market but was able to find one in an unexpected place, or simply that the original use case disappeared. We think that this MP3 player for children might arrive at a similar fate as a home automation controller thanks to a recent project by [Sebastian].

The MP3 player is known as a Jooki and works by using small figurines (and a few buttons) to control the device. Different figurines cause the MP3 player to change playlists, for example, but it turns out that the device is capable of communicating over MQTT. This means that [Sebastian] was able to use the MQTT messages from the Jooki to do all kinds of things beyond its intended use with openHAB, an open-source home automation system, such as dimming the lights and closing the blinds when he puts his son to bed.

This platform has considerable potential for hacking thanks to the lightweight communications system it uses under the hood. The Jooki is a little pricey, but if you happen to have one around, it’s an impressive tool that can go well beyond its original intended use.

Review: Calculator Kit Is Just A Few Hacks From Greatness

While most people are satisfied with a calculator application on their smartphone these days, there’s still something to be said for the old fashioned desk calculator. Maybe it’s the fact the batteries last long enough that you can’t remember the last time you changed them, or the feel of physical buttons under your fingers. It could even be the fact that it keeps your expensive smartphone from needing to sit out on the workbench. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon to see a real-life calculator (or two) wherever solder smoke tends to congregate.

Which is precisely the idea behind this DIY calculator kit. Available from the usual overseas retailers for about $15 USD, it has some hobbyist-oriented features such as the ability to decode resistor color bands, convert hexadecimal numbers, and calculate resistor values for driving LEDs. If you’re going to keep a knock-around calculator on your bench, why not build the thing yourself?

Given the dual nature of this product, a DIY electronics kit and a functional desk calculator for electronic hobbyists, it seems only appropriate to review both aspects of it individually. Which is good, since there may be more to this product than just the sum of its parts.

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Teardown: BilBot Bluetooth Robot

Historically, the subject of our January teardown has been a piece of high-tech holiday lighting from the clearance rack; after all, they can usually be picked up for pocket change once the trucks full of Valentine’s Day merchandise start pulling up around the back of your local Big Box retailer. But this year, we’ve got something a little different.

Today we’re looking at the BilBot Bluetooth robot, which over the holidays was being sold at Five Below for (you guessed it) just $5 USD. These were clearly something the company hoped to sell a lot of, with stacks of the little two-wheeled bots in your choice of white and yellow livery right by the front door. With wireless control from your iOS or Android device, and intriguing features like voice command, I’d be willing to bet they managed to move quite a few of these at such a low price.

For folks like us, it can be hard to wrap our minds around a product like this. It must have a Bluetooth radio, some kind of motor controller, and of course the motors and gears themselves. Yet they can sell it for the price of a budget hamburger and still turn a profit. If you wanted to pick up barebones robotics platform, with just a couple gear motors and some wheels, it would cost more than that. The economies of scale are a hell of a thing.

Which made me wonder, could hackers take advantage of this ultra-cheap robot for our own purposes? It’s pretty much a given that the software for this robot will be terrible, and that whatever control electronics live inside it will be marginal at best. But what if we write those off and just look at the BilBot as a two-wheeled platform to carry our own electronics? It’s certainly worth $5 to find out.

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Old Cisco WAN Card Turned FPGA Playground

Many of us think of FPGAs as some new cutting edge technology, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve been around for quite some time. They’ve just traditionally been used in hardware that’s too expensive for us lowly hackers. A case in point is the Cisco HWIC-3G-CDMA WAN card. A decade ago these would have been part of a router valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, but today they can be had for less than $10 USD on eBay. At that price, [Tom Verbeure] thought it would be worth finding out if they could be repurposed as generic FPGA experimentation devices.

So as not to keep you in suspense, the short answer is a resounding yes. In the end, all [Tom] had to do was figure out what voltages the HWIC-3G-CDMA was expecting on the edge connector, and solder a 2×5 connector onto the helpfully labeled JTAG header. Once powered up and connected to the computer, Intel’s Quartus Programmer software immediately picked up the board’s Cyclone II EP2C35F484C8 chip. The blinking LEDs seen in the video after the break serve as proof that these bargain bin gadgets are ripe for hacking.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. After studying the rest of the components on the board, [Tom] eventually came to the conclusion that the HWIC-3G-CDMA has no means of actually storing the FPGA’s bitstream. Presumably it was provided by the router itself during startup. If you just want to keep the board tethered to your computer for experimenting, that’s not really a big deal. But if you want to use it in some kind of project, you’ll need to include a microcontroller capable of pushing the roughly 1 MB bitstream into the FPGA to kick things off.

It might not be as easy to get up and running as the 2019 Hackaday Superconference badge, but it’s certainly a lot easier to get your hands on.

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Build This Handy Leak Detector For $1.02

You’ve probably noticed that modern life has become rather complicated, and the projects we cover here on Hackaday have not been immune to the march of progress. We certainly aren’t complaining, but we’ll admit to the occasional wistful daydream of returning to the days when the front page of Hackaday looked more MacGyver than Microsoft.

Which is precisely why this hacked together water alarm from [dB] is so appealing. Dubbed the “SqueakyLeaks”, this gadget started its life as a simple wireless intruder alarm from the Dollar Tree. When the magnet got far enough from the battery-powered base, a 90 dB warble would kick in and let you know somebody had opened a window or a door they shouldn’t have.

But with a little rewiring and two Canadian pennies serving as contacts, the alarm has been converted to a water detector that can be placed around potential leaky appliances like the water heater or in areas where you want to be alerted to water accumulation such as sumps. They’re basically “set and forget”, as [dB] says the three LR44 batteries used in the alarms should last about two years. Though with a BOM of $1.02 CAD, it’s probably cheaper to just make multiples and throw them out when the batteries die. Continue reading “Build This Handy Leak Detector For $1.02”