Installing 2.5″ SSD in Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7577)

When shopping for the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7577) I browsed the various configurations available. It was clear the chassis has provision for two storage devices: One M.2 slot (with NVMe support) that is home to a SSD, plus one 2.5″ drive bay that is sometimes populated by a spinning platter hard drive.

This was an attractive feature of the chassis. Having two drives would allow dual-boot  between Windows and Linux while keeping each operating system completely independent. This is how I typically set up my desktop (and luggable) computers, but historically laptops only had one drive bay so this is a new luxury.

Since I don’t intend to use a spinning platter drive, I ordered the configuration with only a M.2 SSD. And while the chassis has provision for a 2.5″ drive, buying with only a M.2 means I’m not guarantee to receive all the support hardware necessary to use that 2.5″ bay. I held my breath when I first opened up the computer and exhaled a sigh of relief when I saw that all the hardware was present.

Here are the 2.5″ bay hardware that Dell shipped in this chassis:

  • Drive installation bracket, featuring metal plates on either side, each with two shock-isolation grommets. The plates are joined by a thin sheet of plastic that I thought was a cosmetic cover, but is actually part of the structure. Don’t rip it out by its perforations like I almost did!
  • Four screws to fasten that bracket to the system chassis.
  • SATA adapter electrically connecting the 2.5″ drive to the system motherboard.

All of these parts are highly specific to this chassis and would have been a real pain to procure separately. I might have been able to fabricate a drive bracket, and maybe find some screws that worked to hold it to the chassis. But the SATA adapter is well beyond my skills to build my own.

Dell 7577 2.5 inch bay hardware

A special happy surprise were these four hard drive mounting screws. They are  standard M3 fasteners and easy to procure separately. (Some 2.5″ drives even come with a set in their package.) But Dell decided it made sense to keep a set on hand inside the computer ready to go. Sitting in a row here, they serve no structural purpose. They’re just waiting for a 2.5″ drive.

Dell 7577 2.5 inch drive screws

The 2.5″ bay accepts only slim 7mm drives, so full size 9mm drives would not fit. I installed an Intel 530 series SSD as it was the most convenient 7mm drive already available on hand.

Dell 7577 2.5 inch drive installed

Unfortunately this drive did not play well with the laptop. 530 Series were known to be finicky and has caused problems in a few of my other computer projects. (Which is partially why it’s sitting around gathering dust…) And the problems continued inside this Dell. It was so unhappy, in fact, that not only would it stop responding to the computer, it would also occasionally knock the M.2 drive offline. Whatever it was doing, it wasn’t good.

I had an Intel 320 series SSD also sitting around, whose metal case would also work in a 7mm bay but it had the plastic spacer to make it fit snugly in a 9mm bay. Removing the plastic spacer was as simple as removing four screws (though it would have voided the warranty if it hadn’t already expired) but it also meant the drive fell apart. I ended up pulling two screws out of the 350 Series drive. That was good enough to hold the drive together in the laptop’s 7mm bay.

The 320 series was much happier working inside the Dell laptop, so now I could proceed to install the latest Ubuntu LTS (18.04) on that drive. Though I ended up having to erase 18.04 and go back to the much older 16.04.4, that story is coming up next.

 

 

Two Notes of Happiness on New Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (7577)

After waiting for almost a year for GPU prices to return to sanity, I gave up waiting for a discrete card I can install in my Luggable PC. I’ve been waiting to get started playing with CUDA-accelerated TensorFlow training and the best way to get an NVIDIA GPU at the moment is to get it inside a laptop. Since it’s not terribly practical (or price effective) for cryptocurrency miners to build huge racks of laptops for mining, the laptop variants of those chips are easier to come by, and at less crazy prices.

The laptop arrived and everything worked as advertised. But two items are worth calling out because they were details not found on a Dell specification sheet. I had my hopes but there’s no way to know until I open it up!

Dell 7577 Happiness

Happiness #1: Memory

Visible in the upper right corner of the picture are the two memory slots on this laptop chassis. Dell only advertised that the machine will come with 8GB of RAM, they did not specify the arrangement. I had expected them to fill up both slots each with an 4GB memory module because that’s usually cheaper for them. The downside of having two 4GB modules is when it comes to upgrade: with only two memory slots, any upgrade means removing an existing module and losing that capacity.

Fortunately, Dell shipped this computer with a single 8GB module, leaving the other slot open for future upgrade. I don’t have to remove any capacity when I upgrade – just plop a new module into that second slot and I’m good to go. This is great news.

Happiness #2: Hardware for 2.5″ Storage Drive

Visible in the lower left corner of the picture is the 2.5″ drive bay. Some configurations of this laptop are sold with a combination of a 2.5″ spinning disk hard drive augmenting the capacity of a small M.2 SSD. This particular model comes with a 256GB M.2 SSD and no hard drive. I had expected the 2.5″ bay to exist in my chassis, but empty. With not just the 2.5″ drive absent but also missing all the support hardware necessary to install one after purchase.

Fortunately, Dell shipped this computer with all the support hardware in place. This includes the metal bracket along with four screws to secure it to the chassis. It also includes the electronic ribbon cable necessary to connect the drive to the motherboard. Both of these items are specific to this laptop chassis and expensive to obtain if they weren’t already included. It’s good to see them present so I don’t have to hunt.

Extra nice touch from Dell: The M3 screws to fasten a 2.5″ drive to the metal bracket is a standard item and easily obtained elsewhere. Given the absence of a 2.5″ drive, I expected I’d have to find standard fasteners on my own. But I don’t need to! The chassis actually has a place to hold these four screws when not in use, and the computer came with these screws, too. This is a feature I’ve only seen before in a premium engineering laptop from their Precision workstation line, never on their consumer Inspiron line.

With these two thoughtful touches, Dell has made me a happy customer. In the near term I’ll install one of my old 2.5″ SSDs for extra storage capacity (and/or Linux dual-boot) and I’ll keep my eyes on DDR4 memory prices for a future memory upgrade.

Battery: Dell 33YDH

Not exactly a note of happiness, but just one bit of trivia I couldn’t find online: the battery module has a designation 33YDH, useful when shopping for a replacement. All batteries have a cycle life – how many times they can be charged and discharged. Some battery types like lithium-ion also have a calendar life. They will degrade over time no matter how much they are (or aren’t) used. So, in a few years, if I like this laptop enough to want to keep using it, I will need to shop for a replacement 33YDH battery.

Dell 33YDH

 

Learning How To Use Pololu Stepper Driver Modules

My first experience with stepper motors is with this very inexpensive Amazon offering. I’ve since learned that these stepper motors are termed “unipolar” which incurs some trade-offs. From the price tag I knew they were cheap, and from the description I knew they were easy to control from a simple program. What I did not know about is the fairly significant headwinds if one wishes to get beyond the basics.

The simple driver module that goes with these simple motors only works for straightforward on/off control. When I tried to modulate the power to be somewhere between on and off, mysterious electromagnetic stuff started happening causing erratic motor behavior. At the time I decided to postpone solving the issue and to look into it later. Well, now is later and I’m going to solve my problem by ignoring unipolar motors entirely. Because it’s more productive to look at the bipolar stepper motors used by pretty much every halfway decent piece of hardware.

The motors themselves are more expensive, and the drivers are as well. Fortunately economies of scale meant “more expensive” is still only a few dollars. Pololu sells a line of stepper motor driver modules that are popular with the 3D printing crowd. (Or at least that’s where I learned of them.) The module’s physical form factor and pinout has become something of a de-facto industry standard. And a bipolar stepper motor for experimentation is equally easy to obtain as pretty much any stepper motor salvaged from consumer electronics will be a bipolar motor. For the purposes of my experiment, this motor came from a dead inkjet printer’s paper-feed mechanism.

Hooking up the electronics is a fairly straightforward exercise in reading data sheet and following instructions. The only thing I neglected was a capacitor across the motor input pins, something pointed out to me when I brought this experimental rig to a local maker meet. Fortunately I had been playing with a small enough motor that the absence of said capacitor didn’t fry everything.

All I needed to do was generate two data signals: direction and step. This is apparently a fairly common interface, even industrial-type stepper motor controllers accept similar inputs, so a Pololu is a great way to start. I created a small program to run on an 8-bit PIC microcontroller to generate these pulses, and the motor is off and running. It was super easy to get started, and this setup is enough for me to play around and build some basic understanding of stepper motor behavior. How they trade torque for speed, and how they respond to higher voltage/amperage. It’s a good foundation for designing future robotics projects.

Pololu ExperimentComponents on the breadboard, from left to right:

  1. Breadboard Power Supply
  2. Pololu A4983 Stepper Driver
  3. PIC16F18345 with program to generate step/direction based on potentiometer value.
  4. LEDs hooked up in parallel with step and direction signals.
  5. Potentiometer

Microchip’s New XC8 Compiler Appears Incompatible With MCC Boilerplate

For the purposes of experimenting with a Pololu stepper motor driver, I wanted to generate pulses from a PIC running a simple program. This meant downloading and installing the latest tools from Microchip for 8-bit PIC development: The MPLAB X IDE, the XC8 compiler, and the MPLAB Code Configurator (MCC).

With these tools set up, I pulled down my previous PIC stepper motor project intending to use it as a starting point. The stepper driver portion will be different, but I wanted the analog dial capability to adjust speed and direction. Before I start modifying code, though, I hit “Build” to make sure everything still compiled.

It did not.

In file included from mcc_generated_files/mcc.c:74:
In file included from mcc_generated_files/mcc.h:52:
mcc_generated_files/interrupt_manager.h:110:6: error: variable has incomplete type 'void'
void interrupt INTERRUPT_InterruptManager(void);
^
mcc_generated_files/interrupt_manager.h:110:15: error: expected ';' after top level declarator
void interrupt INTERRUPT_InterruptManager(void);
^
;
2 errors generated.
(908) exit status = 1

Since “void” is a very fundamental type for C programs, this error tells me this isn’t the matter of a minor typo, something is wrong at a very basic level. As a test, I created a new MPLAB project with a bare skeleton generated by MCC. This “Hello World” program failed to compile in the same way, indicating the problem is a system configuration issue.

A little digging around found the issue was introduced with XC8 compiler version 2.0, introduced just a few months ago in May. It moves C language support up to C99, keeping up with industry standards. However, this change also broke compatibility with old code. Not just old code sitting on a hobbyist’s Github page, but also old boilerplate code generated by MCC.

I expect that Microchip will eventually update these templates in a future MCC update, but for now, PIC programmers that use MCC for rapid prototyping will need to change their project settings to fall back to the older C90 standards. See xc8 2.0 migration document here for more details on this workaround.

Project Properties

In A Distorted Computer Component Market, Buying Is Better Than Building

The typical rule of thumb is that building your own computer from components is far cheaper than buying a prebuilt machine. Buying parts from Newegg.com, Amazon, Fry’s Electronics, etc. results in a better machine for less money than getting something from Dell. This was certainly true when I embarked on the Luggable PC project but a few notable events have since occurred to make an exception to the rule.

The blockchain fad is the biggest disruption. Cryptocurrency miners’ demand for graphics processors drove up their prices tremendously. At the beginning of my Luggable PC project, a NVIDIA 1060 card with 6 GB memory is considered a good mid-range GPU. (Or an entry-level unit for the more demanding world of virtual reality). A desktop 1060 video card was available for around $200 and I expected its price to drop as I designed and built my luggable PC. Instead, it spiked up to over $400 at times and is now hovering around $300.

The second disruption is in 3D-NAND flash memory. It is a big step change in price/performance so flash memory makers had no choice but to switch to 3D NAND technology or risk going out of business long-term. In the short-term, chip fabrication facilities have to be taken offline for this conversion, which meant a shortage of flash memory, 3D and otherwise, across the market. Driving up prices of solid state drives.

The third disruption is in DDR4 memory. There isn’t as clearly a single factor here but manufacturing capacity seems to be lagging market demand over the past year or so. Right now, DDR4 memory is nearly double the price of similar capacity DDR3 memory when historically they should be closer to price parity at this stage of technology maturity.

There are a few other factors at play, but the short-term trend is clear: many computer components have risen in price over the past year, counter to the long-term historical trend of ever-cheaper electronics.

Computer manufacturers like Dell deal in large quantities, and therefore they buy through supply contracts whose prices are independent of day-to-day market disruption. The upside of this approach is that, in times of supply shortages, Dell pays far less for their parts than market price.

download (1)
Dell Inspiron 15 7000

Today’s example: a particular configuration of Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop is available for $750 after promotional discount codes. Let’s look at the components and the current (approximate) market price for their desktop counterparts.

  • NVIDIA GTX 1060 with 6GB: Admittedly the laptop variant of this GPU is slightly less capable than its desktop equivalent, but for the purposes of this comparison we’ll count it at the full $300.
  • Intel Core i5-7300HQ: Again this is a laptop-only part. It is similar to the desktop i5-7400 processor in that they both have a peak speed of 3.5 GHz, so $200.
  • 256GB NVMe M.2 SSD: Unlike the other parts, desktop machines are happy to use the exact same M.2 form factor solid state drives using the NVMe interface. 256 is a little cramped but on a laptop it should be fine. (I stuck with 256 until the flash memory crunch eased a bit for me to upgrade to 512.) Let’s call it $100.
  • 8GB DDR4 memory at 2400MHz: The smaller laptop-sized DDR4 modules are a little more expensive than their desktop counterparts, but we’ll round up to $100.

With these rough estimates, we’re already up to $700 and we’re still missing some major components necessary for a working computer.

  • Motherboard with M.2 SSD slot and built-in WiFi: Bottom of the line units are available for $70-80 but a reputable unit will be $100 and up. (It is the backbone of the system so not the best place to economize.)
  • Power supply: We can pinch a bit here, reliable though not super powerful units can be had for around $50.
  • Display: A 1920×1080 IPS monitor will be around $100.
  • Keyboard, Mouse, case (luggable or otherwise) and other miscellaneous parts: Round to $50 for a nice even tally.

That’s $1000 to build a desktop or luggable PC with similar specs as this $750 Dell laptop. And while the screen might be physically larger, the whole computer definitely won’t be as lightweight and portable. Such laptop-only traits – light weight, tight integration, ability to run on battery – usually demand a price premium over equivalent desktops.

But things are weird in a distorted market.

(Cross-posted to Hackaday.io)

Does PocketBeagle Need a Heat Sink? Probably Not.

In the single-board computer field, the Raspberry Pi 3 has been the benchmark for high performance devices: A newcomer SBC has to provably outperform the Pi 3 to build a compelling case on superior performance. One big asterisk in these comparisons is the thermal conditions during comparison. When run hard, a default stock Raspberry Pi 3 can drive itself up to the self-imposed thermal limit of 85 degrees Celsius, at which point it throttles performance.

The BeagleBoard people has released their smallest form factor yet – the PocketBeagle. Performance of their standard sized BeagleBoard are not thermally constrained like the Pi 3. But their claims of BeagleBone level of performance in a small form factor leads to the question whether packing into a tiny space also increased the thermal load. And if so, perhaps a heat sink will help performance as it would on a Raspberry Pi 3.

For this test, we ran a PocketBeagle at 100% CPU using the ‘stress’ tool available as part of its Debian distribution and measured its temperature with a non-contact infrared thermometer over a period of six minutes. The ambient air temperature was 28° C. Two runs were performed, and their average value plotted out against time (in number of seconds).

PocketBeagle Thermal Graph

The temperature rise visibly started to taper off at six minutes. Gauging by the trend, it may approach but is unlikely to surpass 60° C. The Octavo OSD335x datasheet page 28 listed the operating temperature range of 0 to 85°C. We have plenty of thermal headroom on a PocketBeagle without use of any heat sinks when operating at normal room temperature.

Perhaps a PocketBeagle would need a heat sink in some high-temperature environments, but for normal use, anybody trying to sell a heat sink to improve performance is probably just selling snake oil. The thermal profile here is not anything like a Raspberry Pi 3.

Noncontact PocketBeagle Temp

Dell XPS M1330 Battery Pack Teardown

We had an earlier success tearing down a Dell laptop battery pack, where the six salvaged cells still have 70% of original capacity after ten years of service. However, that was from a laptop that could still boot and run from its battery pack. This XPS M1330 battery pack is in far worse shape. How much worse, we were about to find out.

The first critical detail was realizing the battery pack was not the original Dell battery pack. It is an aftermarket type of unknown manufacture. The earlier battery pack tear down yielded Samsung cells, we’re probably not going to get anything nearly as nice this time around.

Once the case was cracked open the suspicion was confirmed: These appear to be generic 18650-sized lithium cells with no manufacturer branding. The nine cells of the battery pack were divided into three modules in series, each module had three cells wired in parallel. The module in the worst shape exhibited severe corrosion and had no voltage across their terminals.

Corroded 18650

The other two modules were in slightly better shape, but they have self-discharged down to approximately 1 volt DC, well under the recommended voltage range. A web search found some details on what happens to overly discharged lithium cells. In short: the chemistry inside the cell starts dissolving itself. If recharged, the dissolved metals may reform in inconvenient ways. Trying to use these cells has three potential outcomes:

  1. Best case: The metals dissolved into the electrolyte will hamper chemical reaction, resulting in reduced capacity.
  2. Medium case: The dissolved metals will reform in a way that damages the cell, causing it to fail as an open-circuit. (As if no battery was present.)
  3. Worst case: The dissolved metals will reform in a way that damages the cell, but causing it to fail as a closed circuit. Short-circuiting the internals will release a lot of energy very quickly, resulting in high-pressure venting and/or fire.

The corroded cells that have discharged down to zero volts have the highest risk and will be discarded. The remaining cells will be slowly (and carefully) charged back up to gauge their behavior.

Dell XPS M1330 Power Port Salvaged Using Desoldering Tool

Recently a dead Dell XPS M1330 came across the workbench. The battery was dead and the machine fails to boot. After some effort at reviving the machine, it was declared hopeless and salvage operations began. Today’s effort focuses on the motherboard port for the AC power adapter.

Dell Octagonal PowerThe power plug on this Dell different from the typical Dell laptop AC adapter: octagonal in shape rather than round. The shape meant it could not be used on other Dell laptops designed for the round plug. However, the dimensions of the octagon are such that an AC power adapter with the typical round Dell plug fits and could be used to charge the laptop. So while the laptop could be charged with any existing Dell-compatible AC adapter, the AC adapter that came with this machine is specific to this Dell.

Once the XPS M1330 died, its octagonal plug power adapter is not useful for other Dell laptops. It still functions as a power supply transforming household AC to ~19V DC so it might be useful for future projects. To preserve this possibility, the octagonal power port will be recovered from the system board.

The solder used in Dell assembly was possibly one of the lead-free types and is definitely reluctant to melt and flow. Trying to desolder the power port using hand tools (desoldering wick and hand suction pump) had no luck. So this project was chosen as a practice run of using a dedicated desoldering tool, in this case a Hakko 808. The tip of this tool heats up to melt the solder, and with a press of the trigger an electric vacuum pump pulls the melted solder through center channel of the heated tip and into a chamber for later disposal.

The desoldering pump was able to remove more solder than hand tools could, but was still not quite enough to free the port. Using a soldering iron, some user-friendly leaded solder was worked back into the joints to mix with the remaining Dell factory solder. Upon second application of the electric desoldering tool, enough solder was removed to free the port from the system board with only minimal damage.

Desoldering Tool

A test with the voltage meter confirmed this port is now ready to be used to provide ~19V DC power to a future project.

Socket Extraction Success

 

Remove Camera From Acer Aspire Switch 10

When the Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) was received in a non-functioning state, it had a sticker covering the webcam lens applied by the previous owner. This is a common modification from owners who are concerned about malicious hackers activating the camera at unauthorized times. Some computer makers are finally meeting customer demand by placing physical shutters over webcams, but until that becomes commonplace, we’ll continue to have stickers/tabs/post-it notes covering webcams.

Removing the camera module would be a far more secure solution if the webcam is not to be used anyway. While impractical for some difficult-to-disassemble devices like an Apple iPad, we’ve already cracked open this Acer and test the concept. It turned out to be a straightforward exercise. The camera module is a distinct unit, the ribbon cable detaches from the motherboard easily, and it was only held in place by what felt like double-sided tape.

Acer Aspire Switch 10 Blinded

With five minutes of removing the back panel of the machine, the camera module was removed. The only lettering on it said CIFDF31_A2_MB and a web search on that designation returned several vendors happy to sell a replacement module. Sadly no technical information was found in a cursory search, so we won’t be trying to drive it with a PIC micro controller or anything. It’ll just sit in a zip lock bag for now.

And this intentionally-blinded Acer tablet is now available for use by house guests who are wary of hackers getting into the camera: no hacker in the world can activate a camera that is sitting in a zip lock bag in another room.

Windows 10 Can Activate With Windows 8 Hardware Key

Our recent project with the Acer Aspire Switch 10 laptop had concluded with one mystery: how did it get the license key? Because we didn’t have the password for the installation of Windows 8 on the machine, the hard drive was wiped clean and Windows 10 installed from scratch. We expected we’d need to purchase a new license of Windows to activate on this computer. Fortunately, Windows 10 proclaimed itself activated without the need for a new license.

At the time we did not understand, but we were also not going to complain.

A second data point came in the form of a Dell laptop, which also shipped with Windows 8 but purchased by someone who decided they did not like it. A Windows 7 license was purchased and installed on this computer, which was then upgraded to Windows 10 during the free upgrade period. The original Windows 8 was lost. Recently a new SSD was installed on this computer and Windows 10 was installed from scratch. And like the Acer, Windows 10 proclaims itself to be activated even though no product license key has been entered.

Curiosity now demands a web search for answers, where we learn both of these computers participated in a new licensing scheme launched with Windows 8. Instead of a counterfeit-resistant license sticker attached to the bottom of the computer, their product license is embedded in the hardware instead. We will never have to worry about the license key becoming illegible, or getting lost and separated from the corresponding hardware.

Windows 8 could access this key and activate itself. Windows 7 installed on the Dell laptop could not. Windows 10 could access this key and, more importantly, are willing to activate on it even though the license was technically for Windows 8. The official free Windows 10 upgrade period has ended but we can still get a free step up under these circumstances.

Windows Key Sticker
The Windows Certificate of Authenticity is now a relic of the past.

Acer Aspire Switch Runs Windows 10 (Fall Creator’s Update)

After Secure Boot discouraged me from putting a Linux variant on the recently revived Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) convertible laptop, I tried to replace the existing Windows 8 installation (locked with passwords I don’t have) with the latest Windows 10.

The first thing to check is to look in the BIOS and verify the CPU is not a member of the ill-fated Intel Clover Trail series, whose support was dropped. Fortunately, the machine uses a newer CPU so I can try installing Windows 10 Fall Creator’s Update. I had an installation USB flash drive built with Microsoft’s Media Creation Tool.

I needed an USB OTG cable to start the installation. Once in progress, I deleted the existing Windows 8 system partition (~20 GB) and the recovery image partition (~7 GB), leaving the remaining two system partitions intact before proceeding.

When Windows 10 initially came up, there were significant problems with hardware support. The touchscreen didn’t work, there was no sound, and the machine was ignorant of its own battery charge level. Fortunately all of these hardware issues were resolved by downloading and running the “Platform Drivers Installer” from Acer’s support site.

Acer Win10

After the driver situation was sorted out I started poking around elsewhere on the system and found a happy surprise on Windows licensing. Since I couldn’t get into the Windows 8 installation, I couldn’t perform a Windows upgrade. Because I performed a system wipe, I thought I lost the Windows license on this machine. But I was wrong! I don’t know exactly what happened, but when I went to look at the computer’s information, it claims “Windows is Activated.”

The sticker on the bottom of the machine says it came with Windows 8 Pro. The new Windows 10 installation activated itself as Windows 10 Home. It is technically a step down from Pro to Home but I am not going to complain at the unexpectedly functional Windows license.

The machine outperformed my expectations. It handily outperformed my other computers with Intel Atom processors. I think the key part is its 2GB of RAM, double the 1GB RAM of the other Atom machines. The machine is surprisingly usable relative to its Atom peers.

Some credit is due to Acer for building a low-end computer in 2014 that is still capable on the software of 2017 (almost 2018.)

Acer Aspire Switch is Linux Unfriendly

Now that the hardware of an Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) is back up and running, the focus turns to software. Windows 8 is installed but locked with passwords I don’t have. I didn’t care much for Windows 8 anyway, and whatever data exists is not mine to recover. So – a clean wipe is in order.

As with the Latitude X1, my first thought was to turn this little old machine into an almost-Chromebook with Neverware CloudReady. And just like with the Latitude X1, the attempt was foiled. The Latitude X1 was too old and did not support some processor features required by CloudReady. The Acer problem is just the opposite – the hardware is too new and deliberately blocks the installation.

The blocking mechanism is Secure Boot, which according to its own web site is a “security standard developed by members of the PC industry to help make sure that a device boots using only software that is trusted by the Original Equipment Manufacturer.” I would describe it with different terms. Either way, trying to install CloudReady – or a Linux distribution – results in the error screen “Secure Boot Error”.

Intentional or not, this puts the Acer in a bad state. It gets stuck neither fully on nor off, the screen dark but burning battery power and making itself warm. I had to disassemble the computer again to pull the battery from the main circuit board in order to reboot the machine.

In theory Secure Boot can be disabled, but various efforts by other people on the internet indicated this isn’t straightforward. I certainly had no better luck when I tried it: I can see the menu option, and I could change it from black on white (disabled) to white on gray (enabled) by creating an admin password, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually change the Secure Boot mode out of “Standard”.

Acer Secure Boot Menu

And it might not even be worth the effort, as forum traffic indicates there is very poor Linux driver support for this class of hardware. Probably related to the secure boot barrier but either way I’m giving up. I’ll stay with Windows on this machine.

Dell Latitude X1: A 2005 Laptop Tries To Fit In 2017

I thought it might be fun to try to get the twelve-year-old Dell Latitude X1 laptop up and running. My expectations were not high, but when I looked over the hardware specs I found the out-of-date hardware surprisingly within reason to run current software.

The computer came with Windows XP, which is long out of service. The previous owner of this laptop switched to running Ubuntu 11. Since that’s far out of date as well and I had no login information anyway, a clean wipe is in order.

I thought I’d jump straight to the latest Ubuntu 17.10, but was unable to find a 32-bit installer. The lack of a 32-bit installer turns out to be an intentional omission, part of Ubuntu’s plans to phase out 32-bit support. So I installed an older version (16.04 LTS) which did have a 32-bit installer, and upgraded from there. The resulting system was quite sluggish. After using it a bit, I decided part of the problem was the spinning-platter hard drive but there’s also the old graphics chip struggling to handle the visual effects of a modern OS.

To isolate the latter, I installed Ubuntu MATE, a variant of Ubuntu with the MATE desktop. MATE is a simpler alternative which is supposed to run better on lower-end hardware. That part was true – after installing Ubuntu MATE, the Latitude X1 didn’t spend as much chugging through graphical transitions. But the overall experience was still slow – the spinning platter hard drive remains a significant influence on performance.

Switching to MATE would have made a larger difference if I had a larger screen (or multiple monitors) running multiple windows. But since the Latitude X1 screen was so small, I only have one window at a time running full-screen, reducing the influence of the desktop environment.

The Latitude X1’s performance on modern software is held back by the spinning-platter hard drive. Which led to the next idea: can we upgrade the hard drive to a SSD? I have a few old SSDs available for such a project.

Dell always publishes excellent manuals for working with their machines. They also keep them online and available, even for twelve-year old machines. So getting to the hard drive was no problem. As soon as the hard drive was visible, though, I knew I was in trouble. The drive is much smaller than the standard laptop hard drive.

HDD18HDD35

Even if the SSD could physically fit, it did not have the correct data interface. The interface connector is unlike anything I’ve seen in a laptop hard drive. The closest thing I can recall is a CompactFlash connector.

HDD18Plug

The label on the drive proclaims itself to be a Toshiba MK3006GAL. Sadly, unlike Dell, Toshiba does not keep documentation online for old hardware. I remain ignorant of the details and industry specification for this specific hard drive interface and form factor. Maybe it is rare enough that there would be no SSD upgrade possible at all. Since I was not planning to spend money on this project, though, the details are irrelevant. This old computer will stick with its old spinning platter hard drive.


If I had to make a prediction 12 years ago about how well the Latitude X1 would hold up to the years, I probably would have predicted the CPU speed as the largest bottleneck, followed by the quantity of RAM. I would not have guessed that the growth of cheap tablets would demand that operating systems continue to run on a 1 gigahertz processor and within 1 gigabyte of RAM.

I also would not have guessed that solid state drives would have dropped in price and become such a cost-effective boost to overall system performance. The hard drive turned out to be the most significant sign of age in this twelve-year-old laptop.

Dell Latitude X1 is Almost a Teenager

Today’s new toy is actually an old toy: a Dell Latitude X1 ultra-portable laptop that was originally released in early 2005. The fact that it is still running twelve years later is fairly impressive. I was once skeptical of the price premium Dell charged over their consumer product line, but I’ve seen enough consumer Dell die off while their business Dell counterparts kept trucking to change my mind. While I still might not choose to pay that premium, I now believe the price difference buys a more durable product.

Or perhaps the credit should go to Samsung? When I searched for reviews of this old laptop, I found this review which claimed the laptop is a rebadged Samsung Q30. The article even helpfully included a picture of the Q30 so we can see cosmetic similarities (and the differences.)

There are dings and dents from over a decade of service, but aside from the expected degradation in battery capacity, the machine seems to be running much as it did over a decade ago. I booted it up to verify that it could still do so (Looks like the previous owner installed Ubuntu 11) before I started digging into the hardware.

Looking into the BIOS, I find the processor is an Intel Pentium M ULV 733, a 32-bit single-core low-power processor running at a modest 1.1 GHz. It is definitely out of date in the current age of 64-bit multi-core multi-gigahertz CPUs but we might still be able to work with it.

There is 1.2 gigabytes of RAM, an unusual amount that I’m sure it was quite a luxurious amount in its day. Not so much today, but not as bad as it could have been. In the days of Windows Vista there was an expectation that computer memory baseline would keep moving up, 2 then 4 then 8 gigabytes and beyond, but it hasn’t panned out that way. Demand emerged to run on lower-end hardware so recent builds of Linux and Windows 10 both included provisions to run on inexpensive tablets with 1 gigabyte or less of RAM.

The same break in the capacity trend also applied to storage. This machine has only a 30 gigabyte hard drive, and hard drive capacity have grown to multiple terabytes within the past decade. But the advent of solid-state storage plus the desire for inexpensive tablets with modest storage meant operating systems had to stay slim.

All the remaining accessories follow the same trend – definitely out of date but surprisingly still within the realm of relevance. A screen with resolution of 1280×768, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Ethernet and USB, SD card reader, all the trappings expected of a modern laptop.

There are a few amusing anachronisms: a CompactFlash reader in addition to the SD reader. There is no HDMI video out port – just VGA. And the best one of all – a telephone jack for dial-up modem connectivity.

LatitudeX1Modem

 

 

Microchip “Curiosity” Development Board and its Zero Ohm Resistors

When I purchased my batch of PIC16F18345 chips, Microchip offered 20% discount off standard price for its corresponding Curiosity development board (DM164137). I thought it might be interesting and added it to my order, but I hadn’t pulled it out of its packaging until today.

Today’s motivation is the mTouch button built onto the board. As part of my investigation into projects I might tackle with the Hackaday Superconference 2017 camera badge, I found that the capacitive touch capabilities of the MCU is unused and thought it might be interesting to tie it into the rest of the camera badge. Before I try to fabricate my own touch sensors, I thought it’d be a good idea to orient myself with an existing mTouch implementation. Enter the Curiosity board.

Looking over the board itself and the schematics on the user’s guide, I noticed a generous scattering of zero ohm surface-mount resistors. If I had seen zero ohm resistors in isolation, I would have been completely mystified. Many electronics beginner like myself see a zero ohm resistors as something that does nothing, take up space, and there’s no point. For those beginners, a web search would have led them to this StackExchange thread, possibly the Wikipedia article, or maybe the Hackaday post.

Curiosity Zero OhmsBut I was not introduced to them in isolation – I saw them on the Curiosity board and in this context their purpose was immediately obvious: a link between pins on the PIC socket and the peripheral options built on that board. If I wanted to change which pins connected to which peripherals, I would not have to cut traces on the circuit board, I just had to un-solder the zero ohm resistor. Then I can change the connection on the board by soldering to the empty through-holes placed on the PCB for that purpose.

This was an illuminating “Oh that makes sense!” introduction to zero ohm resistors.

Reading the PIC32MX1XX Datasheet As A PIC16F18345 User

A review of the Hackaday Superconference 2017 “camera badge” hardware provided adequate orientation but no lightning strike of project inspiration. Today I did find the project page for last year’s Supercon badge as well as a summary page of some things people have created with the 2016 badge. People have done some really cool things with that badge serving as foundation. I’m feeling intimidated but also determined to keep trying to see what I can devise.

Today’s tactic: Dive into the data sheet for the Microchip control unit at the heart of the 2017 badge, the PIC32MX170F256D. No matter what else happens, it would be good to have an overview of what the chip can and can’t do. I was also hoping that a review of the data sheet will unveil something about the chip that would inspire a project. Since I’ve already read the PIC16F18345 data sheet back-to-back, I hoped the familiarity with Microchip conventions will give me a head start.

The first surprise was the size (length) of the data sheet. Only 344 pages when the much simpler PIC16F18345 chip had a 491 page document. It didn’t take long for me to figure out why, since every feature section started the same way: a disclaimer that the data sheet was only the summary and tells me I need to do more reading if I want the details.

OnlyASummary

Well, that explains the size! For my purposes today, it’s no big deal. In fact it is helpful since the summaries mean I don’t have to press “Page Down” as often.

There are some comfortable commonality with the PIC16F18345 I’m familiar with: Timers and comparators. Digital I/O and analog input (ADC.) Communication via SPI, I2C, UART. And all these peripheral modules are mapped into a memory space so everything is accessed via memory reads and writes. And finally: a big focus on power management.

There are some differences that I might miss in the PIC32MX1XX:

  • PWM seems to have gone missing, unless there is a much more advanced component that can serve similar purposes but I don’t recognize it as such.
  • I/O pins are much less powerful. The PIC16F can handle up to 50mA on any single I/O pin and up to 250mA total. The PIC32MX can only handle 15mA per pin with 200mA total.
  • Narrower voltage range: Unlike the super flexible and relaxed PIC16F that is happy to run with anything from 2.3V to 5.5V, the PIC32MX prefers to stay within 2.3V to 3.6V. The maximum is listed as 4.0V, so it might be dicey to run this thing on a single rechargeable lithium cell – the nominal voltage is 3.7V but a fully charged cell might be up to 4.2V.

The PIC32MX uses a different instruction set (MIPS32 M4K) and that’s no surprise. I expect to be mostly isolated from this fact by writing in C and letting the XC compiler worry about the instruction set. The PIC32MX also requires more support circuitry. Whereas the PIC16F can literally connect directly to a battery and it’ll start running. Again I’m mostly isolated in this case because the camera badge is already built for me and all the support components are already on board.

And now, on to the things that might be interesting. I started with the title description: “32-bit Microcontrollers (up to 256 KB Flash and 64 KB SRAM) with Audio and Graphics Interfaces, USB, and Advanced Analog

The first thing to catch my eye: USB, backed by this promising-sounding bullet point on the cover page: “USB 2.0-compliant Full-speed OTG controller“. USB OTG would let us plug-in USB peripherals and greatly expand the possibilities of what we can do. Alas, my hopes were dashed when page 2 clarified that USB OTG is only on the PIC32MX2XX series and absent on the PIC32MX1XX we have on the camera badge. So that’s out.

The “Advanced Analog Features” bullet items seem to mostly center around support for capacitive touch sensing, mostly around their “mTouch” design. Since their reference implementation involves copper traces and plates on a printed circuit board, that won’t be directly applicable to me. But perhaps this type of support circuitry can be hacked into something fun.

I have yet to explore the world of audio electronics, so sadly the audio interface features are mostly gibberish to me. I had higher hopes for the “Graphics Interfaces” side of that claim and… I came up empty-handed. There’s nothing that obviously said “graphics” to me on the feature set. The closest thing I can find is the PMP (Parallel Master Port) peripheral which is good for talking to display panels, and is indeed already employed on the camera badge to drive the 128×128 OLED screen.

So in the category of “stuff that the chip can do, but isn’t already being used” the best candidate at the moment is the analog circuitry to support capacitive touch. Since I don’t have time for a OSH Park PCB, it’ll have to be something creative. Perhaps something as primitive as taping down loops of wire to cardboard or 3D-printed plastic parts.

The gears in the brain keep churning…

 

Supercon 2017 Badge – Hardware Orientation

Today was spent getting orientated on the hardware components making up the camera badge for Supercon 2017. The starting point is the project documentation’s “hardware description” page, which gave a basic overview that helps me decide where I want to dig deeper.

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The CMOS sensor at the heart of the OV9650 camera module claims to support up to 1280×1024 resolution, which isn’t bad for such an inexpensive component. The sample image posted on the project file section, however, is only 128×96 resolution. It’s not immediately clear where >99% of the pixels disappeared to or how feasible it’d be to bring them back.

Perhaps that resolution was chosen to match the OLED screen, which has 128×128 pixels of resolution controlled by a SSD1351 chip. If this is the case, and more pixels can be captured from the camera with minimal effort, that opens up project ideas such as having the little screen pan across a larger image. (a.k.a. the Ken Burns effect.)

We have multiple tiers of storage that makes different capacity/speed trade-offs. First we have some space for data on the PIC itself, then we have a Microchip 23LC1024 serial RAM, and finally a microSD card.

There’s an LIS2HH12 accelerometer on board which might enable some cool projects, though I’m struggling to think up one that captures my fancy. Maybe in a bit.

The chip that orchestrates all of this is a PIC32MX170F256D. Fortunately for me, I already had the tools on hand to develop for it thanks to my time playing with the PIC16F18345. They’re very different chips, but since they’re both from Microchip I would write code to both using the same MPLAB X IDE albeit with different C compiler underneath: XC8 vs XC32. The PIC32 is set up to run a .hex file off the microSD card, so it’s not necessary to have a PIC programmer. But if I need to flash at a more direct level, the board has headers to connect the same PICkit 3 programmer I use for the PIC16F18345.

All in all, a decent set of hardware. Now I just need to think of a really cool project to do with it all.

Supercon Badge – Initial Exploration

Supercon 2017 is coming up soon and I now have a ticket to attend. Part of the fun is the badge which, unlike SIGGRAPH or WestTec, is not a printed piece of paper. In the case of Supercon (and a few similar conferences) it is actually a circuit board with some functionality. The Supercon 2017 badge is a very minimal low resolution digital camera. Why would we want such a thing when most of us carry cell phones with far superior cameras? Because it is only the start: conference attendees are invited (expected?) to use it as a starting point and build something cool.

Which means I have only about 10 days to do my homework – what would I build with the badge? As a first-time attendee I’m not sure what to expect. Last year I saw brief glimpses of the badge under construction, but I didn’t see any of the projects built by conference attendees.

Well, with any project, the first step is to look for documentation. The official source of information is, naturally, the camera badge’s own project page on Hackaday.io. I felt intimidated on first look: my own adventures in electronics hardware hasn’t covered anything to do with cameras, OLED panels, or the like. About the only thing I am vaguely familiar with is the microcontroller at the heart of the device. It is a Microchip PIC, though from their PIC32 series which is higher-end and more capable than the PIC16F chips I had been playing with.

Fortunately, it uses the same MPLAB X IDE for development. I had to download and install the XC32 compiler corresponding to the PIC32 chip, but that was relatively easy. After changing the path separators from the author’s Windows machine (‘\’) to the Ubuntu I’m working on (‘/’) the project builds successfully.

That’s a good start. The next step is to go digging through the code base and look for something interesting for me to do.

cambadgebuild

 

A 3D-Printed Enclosure to Take My LED Project On The Go

For the Connect Week event put on by Innovate Pasadena, the Hackaday LA group is hosting the “Bring-A-Hack” event where attendees are encouraged to bring projects (in any stage of completion) for show and discussion. Since I’ve been building my LTC-4627JR driver board as a learning project, I wanted to bring it in for show-and-tell.

Now I could just bring the assembled circuit board and pass it around as an inert object, but what fun would that be? I wanted to bring in something that shows it doing something, and provide some way for people to interact with the whole contraption. Looking at my parts on hand, it seemed easiest to rebuild my thermometer test project. I can have a simple Python program run on the Raspberry Pi, reading temperature from the Tux-Lab Si7021 breakout board, and sending it out to my display. That makes 3 circuit boards, plus they’ll need portable power. I will enlist my Amazon purchases: the 3-cell lithium ion battery pack protected by a S-8254A IC, and the MP1584 buck converter to translate the battery pack’s power into Raspberry Pi friendly voltage.

They present a logistics challenge. There are many parts and while it’s fine to just connect them with wires on my work table, it’s too unwieldy to carry on the Gold Line to Pasadena. I’m going to need some kind of enclosure to carry the whole thing.

To Fusion 360 we go! I just needed a simple enclosure so it was pretty fast to draw up. The bottom tray is for power: it holds the battery cells, their protection board, and the buck converter to 5 volt output. The upper tray holds the Raspberry Pi. The lid of the tray holds my custom LED circuit board, and a few clamps holds it all together. The clamps should be easily removable so I could disassemble the box to show people what’s inside.

ShowandTellBox

I had originally intended to mount the Si7021 breakout board as well, but ended up deciding it would be more fun to have it dangling out for people to play with it. Here are the layers without the clamps, so they can be taken apart and show off the insides.

IMG_5273

And here’s the “travel configuration”, with clamps holding the pieces together.

IMG_5274

This setup worked well. I was able to carry it in my backpack without worrying about tangling up or shorting out wires. Once I arrived, the project was fairly well received and lots of people had fun playing with the thermometer.

PIC Controller for LTC-4627JR LED Now Accepts Strings

Now that our circuit board from OSH Park is populated and running, it’s time to evolve the PIC code beyond displaying a test pattern. The objective of the exercise all along was to display data sent to the unit over I²C, but the exact details of what to send hasn’t been finalized.

Stage 1: Raw Bits

This was the easiest and so was the first thing we implemented. It is the lowest-level way to communicate between the host and the display. The host sends data in the form of raw bytes. Each bit in a byte correspond to the 8 segments in a single digit. The host sending 4 bytes will fill 4 digits. We send that byte directly out to PORT C on the PIC micro controller, which are connected to 8 segments of a LED digit.

This method is powerful in the sense it allows the host to display arbitrary patterns. But it is terribly unfriendly to use. The program running on the host has to tailored to the implementation details of our display: the host has to know which bit corresponds to which segment, and whether a bit value of 0 or 1 corresponds to light or dark. Which means if the user wants to swap out to a different display, they would have to rewrite the host code.

This system served its purpose to prove we could light the LED, but it is not a good way forward.

Stage 2: Hexadecimal Decode

In this system, the bytes sent by the host is decoded into their hexadecimal representation and displayed on screen. Since a hexadecimal digit represents 4 bits, the host sending 2 bytes (16 bits) will fill the 4 digits. This is actually a pretty useful mode in certain debugging operations where we do want to see those values. However, it is very difficult to represent human-friendly information this way. We’re also unable to make full use of the LTC-4627JR this way: there’s no way to represent the decimal point or the colon in the middle.

Since it is useful for machine-level (not human-readable) data debugging, we might want to retain this capability in the form of a special mode later. In the meantime, let’s move on.

Stage 3: Binary-Coded (Hexa)Decimal

The next evolution resembled binary-coded decimal system, which separated out each digit to its own byte. This makes the host program easier to write because each character can be treated individually instead of having to pack 2 characters into the upper/lower 4-bits of a byte. Unfortunately it also shares the limitation that we couldn’t represent the decimal point or the colon.


Which brings us to the latest approach:

Stage 4: String

Since most computer operations that result in human-readable information end up with the string data format, we’re going to try using that as our I²C protocol. It is established, well-understood, and a piece of cake to use from high-level programming languages like Python. The downside is that it is much more verbose. The character sequence to light up all the LED is 8.8.:8.'8. which requires 10 bytes to represent. This is a five-fold increase in bandwidth relative to the 2 byte hexadecimal decode. Will this added bandwidth cause problems? I don’t know yet, we’ll find out.

But for now, we have a very user-friendly interface. Sending the string “79.2F” resulted in the picture attached to this post. The easy interface also enabled a very short example program.

(The project discussed in this blog post is publicly available on Github)

IMG_5272