Tear down of a cheap external USB battery

I recently received an external USB battery as a promotional gift (see image below). While I always thought of these as a superfluous gimmick, I realized that these devices could be quite useful as mobile power source for various projects. After all, dealing with lithium ion batteries in your own projects can be dangerous and you need additional circuitry to ensure charging and voltage conversion.

External USB batteries can be charged with a normal micro-b USB charger and are supposed to output stabilized 5V at above 1A. And they come fully integrated at a price point where it is difficult to get even the battery alone. See Aliexpress for example and many others. Since there is little reason to trust hardware at this price point, I decided to tear the device down to see whether all the necessary parts are there.

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µ-Wire – USB on an ATtiny 10

Atmels AVR ATtiny10 are surprisingly powerful devices that come in an extremely tiny SOT23 package with only 6 pins. The have 1kb of flash, 32 bytes of SRAM and use the reduced AVR core which only supports 16 instead of 32 register. It seems like Atmels idea of these devices is to use them as an advanced blinker, and to replace tiny logic circuits. But other people have shown that much more is possible. For example the noiseplug (video), a chiptune player, and a Simon Says game.

I previously used the ATtiny10 in the TinyTouchbutton, a touchbutton controlled light with WS2812 LEDs. This time I aimed higher: Is it possible to turn the ATtiny10 into a USB compatible device? My goal was to implement a subset of the little-wire functionality, to control a WS2812 LED by USB. This takes 3 I/O lines, which is exactly the number of free pins on the ATtiny10.

Littlewire supports several functions to control WS2812 LEDs on arbitrary I/O ports. I simplified this to only supporting a single LED on a specific pin, however still retained protocol compatibility. This means that all the little-wire host-programs still work. The finished device can, for example, be used as an RGB indicator LED similar to the Blink(1).

My test setup is shown below. The ATtiny10 is almost the smallest part of the circuit. There are some discrete components on the rear-side of all PCBs, so do not be surprised about missing decoupling capacitors, zener diodes and resistors.

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Interrupt free V-USB

Starting with V2.0, Micronucleus is going to use an interrupt free modification of the software USB implementation V-USB. This provides significant benefits for the bootloader, as it is not necessary anymore to patch the interrupt vector of the user program. A surprising side effect was a speed up of the V-USB data transmission,  which may also be helpful in other applications. Here, I try to give a rough overview about the meandering work that led to this achievement.

Previous versions of Micronucleus (and also the Trinket bootloader) use an ingenious mechanism devised by Louis of embedded creations to patch the interrupt vector transparently to the user program. Although this approach works very well, it still adds a lot of complexity to the bootloader, will add a couple of cycles of interrupt delay, and carries the risk of breaking the user program in a few rare cases. Removing this burden allows for a drastic reduction in code size and improved robustness. Continue reading

Follow up on Candle Flicker LEDs

I previously reported on reverse engineering a candle flicker LED. My approach was to extract the “flicker” pattern from the input current variation and to deduce the algorithm from statistical analysis.

Reverse engineering the controller chip

Of course there is another, more involved, approach. And that is to reverse engineer the circuit directly from the die. Andrew Zonenberg from Siliconpr0n decapsulated and imaged the controller chip from one of my LEDs. You can find his report here.

He managed to obtain very high-resolution optical microscopy images of the top-level metal. It turns out that the controller chip is manufactured in a relatively coarse CMOS process with one metal layer and 1-2 µm resolution. This is 1980ies technology. But of course, that is all that is needed for a circuit as simple as a flicker-LED.

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New member of the WS2812 family

There is a new addition to the popular WS2812 family of RGB LEDs with integrated controller: A 8mm through hole version. Right now they seem to be in pilot production stage. The only place that has them is Soldering Sunday where they are called PixelBits. My understanding is that they will also be available at the usual sources later this year. I got a couple of them to test for compatibility with my light_ws2812 library.

What’s pretty cool about these LEDs is that they are diffuse – no more blinding unidirectional light. This might be very useful for indicator lights. Furthermore, you can easily wire them freeform without a pcb. I see a lot of RGB LED cubes coming up…

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Light_WS2812 library V2.0 – Part II: The Code

After investigating the timing of the WS2812 protocol in the previous part, the question is now how to use this knowledge for an optimized software implementation of a controller. An obvious approach would be to use an inner loop that uses a switch statement to branch into separate functions to emit either a “0″ symbol or a “1″ symbol. But as it is often, there is another solution that is both more elegant and more simple. Continue reading

Light_WS2812 library V2.0 – Part I: Understanding the WS2812

WS2812 LEDs are amazing devices – they combine a programmable constant current controller chip with a RGB LED in a single package.  Each LED has one data input and one data output pin. By connecting the data output pin to the data input pin of the next device, it is possible to daisy chain the LEDs to theoretically arbitrary length.

Unfortunately, the single-line serial protocol is not supported by standard microcontroller periphery. It has to be emulated by re-purposing suitable hardware or by software timed I/O toggling, also known as bit-banging. Bit-banging is the preferred approach on 8 bit microcontrollers. However,  this is especially challenging with low clock rates due to the relatively high data rate of the protocol. In addition, there are many different revisions of data sheets with conflicting information about the protocol timing. My contribution to this was the light_ws2812 library V1.0 for AVR and Cortex-M0, which was published a while ago. A V2.0 rewrite of the lib was in order due to various reasons. And, to do it right, I decided to reverse engineer and understand the WS2812 LED protocol to make sure the lib works on all devices.

ws2812_compared Continue reading