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The Humble Thermostat

Posted 2010.12.12 12.46 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

I’m a big fan of the Thermostat. They’re clever, and all they want is for us to be comfortable.

Even the simplest mechanical ones are really little robots, whos only goal in life is to keep you comfortable. You tell them what you want the temperature to be, and they dutifully turn the furnace (or A/C) on and off all day and night so that your house remains in your comfort-zone.

The programmable ones of course take this to the next level – with a programmable, you don’t even have to tell the thermostat what your desired temperature is. Or rather, you tell it once, what temperatures you prefer throughout the day and the week, and from that point on, it keeps you comfortable. It’s like magic.

What else in the home works so hard to keep us comfortable, yet asks for nothing in return? The only thing that I can think of that comes close, is a chair or a sofa.

Despite all this, however, I’ve been starting to want more, from my thermostat…

The first seeds were planted several years ago. I saw a programmable thermostat that came with two remote controls. It was outrageously expensive, but there is an undeniable appeal to the thought of being able to crank up the heat without getting out of bed, on a cold winter night. The cost, however, was beyond my means at the time. And by the time I could afford it, that unit was no longer available.

Then last year, the local utility company sent out offers to get a thermostat that you could program over the internet. It sounded like a good idea, but at the time, I did not persue it. They sent the offer again this  year however, so I did investigate.

Their unit is a normal programmable thermostat, that has an RF receiver in it – basically a numeric pager unit. This allows one-way communication, so you can send commands to the unit but not retrieve any information. It’s free, but you have to give up some control: they’ll give it to you, if you agree to let them turn off your air conditioner if the demands on the power grid are too high.

Still, it looked hackable so I filled out the application. They never got back to me; I figure its because I use so little power that they’d never recoup their costs of giving it to me.

Finally, last week I spotted a thermostat at Canadian Tire that came with a remote control. It wasn’t too costly so I grabbed it, with the intent of hacking it. It was a Noma model, which I think is CT’s house brand? Whatever. Let’s look inside!

Aside from the generally poor construction, here’s some things to note: The unit uses RF communications, at the 915MHz band. Comms are one way only, with data going from the remote to the base. This allows the base to display the temperature info from wherever the remote is, but the remote cannot display the temperature, mode, current function, or anything else, from the base. The remote allows you to override the base to a maximum of +/- 6 degF (3degC). Finally, both the remote and the base use a cheap thermistor to determine temperature.

So, it’s not perfect. The one-way comms is a real limitation I think. An additional pisser is that you can easily hack into the comms on the base (since the RF is on a daugher board) but on the remote, it would be much harder as none of the communication lines are accessable (damn those black blobs.) So anything you hack in, is easiest to add at the base, meaning you lose the remote aspect – or have to roll your own remote anyways.

Indeed, when I tried to use it as it was intended, it didn’t really work well anyways. It’s a novelty, but not really a very good thermostat. Verdict: Fail.

So what is it that I really want?

Putting together all the various ideas, I want a thermostat that is programmable and runs fine as a stand-alone unit. I also want it to be able to be accessable via remote control, but with two-way communications, so that a remote unit can at least display everything that the base unit can display, plus the remote should be able to alter the temp, maybe switch modes to hold / run, that sort of thing. Finally, it would be really nifty if it could be wired into my home network, so I could access the data and control through my computer, laptop, iPhone, etc.

The solution, then, is to build my own thermostat, from scratch!

Stay tuned, this story is not over.

Dingoo A330

Posted 2010.05.31 20.26 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

It’s the new release from Dingoo Technologies. I got one to satisfy my curiosity, but sadly it disappoints on many levels.

Dingoo A330

I made up a new version of Dingux that takes advantage of the added memory and faster clock speed. To do that, I needed to get a serial port in there for testing. Unlike the A320, the 330 seems to just have half a port; TX but no RX. So you can get debug data out, but you can’t interact with it. Sucky.

Probing for the RX Line

The TX data is found on a single unmarked testpoint that lies beneath the LCD screen, in the upper middle part of the motherboard. In hopes of finding the RX line, I did some probing to the copper traces around the CPU in the area of the TX line, but neither of my two most-promising candidates proved to be RX data. It is probably not connected at all. More sucky.

A330 Motherboard

I stuck the serial port on the left-hand side of the Dingoo, above the reset button. It was the only clear spot on the motherboard, but it turns out the left speaker wants to sit there, and the serial port keeps failing on me – I have to take it apart and fiddle with it to get it working again. The A330 disappoints on many levels.

Dingoo Serial Port Step-by-Step

Posted 2010.05.26 10.05 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

I added another serial port to another Dingoo and this time I took pics of the process all along the way.

Click the thumbnails for enlarged images and details.

Cheers!

P.s. I forgot to publish this earlier, sorry for the delay.

Dingux – Keeping Me Out Of Trouble

Posted 2010.05.05 10.45 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

So the first couple weeks with my Dingoo, I was messing with the native firmware, doing some hacks and coming up with a nice theme/skin for it, that sort of thing. I knew you could run Linux on there but I was sort of avoiding it, trying to just stick to the native firmware.

Then I started looking for a game, to take the place of Star Trek: Tactical Assault on the DS. Something that I could pick up and play for 5 or 10 minutes then leave, something that had challenging fly-around-and-shoot-stuff combat, but didn’t have a huge backstory or a long story-mode. (Yeah I know ST:TA has that, but I never play it, I just use Skirmish mode. I get a ship, the computer gets a ship, and we slug it out.)

So after a bunch of trial and error, it boiled down to an oldie-but-goodie: Star Control 2. Or rather, the modern opensource remake, Ur-Quan Masters. Yeah, long drawn-out story mode. Skip that: Super Melee mode. I get 14 ships. The computer gets 14 ships. We slug it out. Brilliant. The only catch? It’s not available for native firmware, only Dingux – that’s what they call Linux on the Dingoo.

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Dingoo vs. AAC

Posted 2010.04.19 7.38 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

Yes, you can teach an old Dingoo new tricks.

Aside from being a neato mini portable retro gaming platform, the Dingoo is also a little media player. There’s a long list of digital audio formats that it can handle. For some reason I never noticed that AAC (file suffix m4a) was not one of them.

See way back when, AAC was going to be the new big thing. I’d read that it was better than mp3, technically superior, better sounding, and all that jazz. So when I digitized my music collection, I used AAC. Now, over 90% of my collection is in AAC format.

So I was initially confused when I put a bunch of AAC files on the Dingoo, only to have them not show up in the music player. Of course, mp3 files appeared ok, but it was like the AAC files didn’t exist.

In all my bricking & unbricking adventures, I had acquired tools for examining and mucking with the firmware. I could see a list of codecs and there was an AAC codec in there. So why weren’t my files working?

It turns out that the AAC codec is in there for supporting movies. For whatever reason they didn’t set it up to support AAC files on their own. Wierd. But fixable.

So I opened up the main binary file in a hex editor and got to work. Of all the music formats it was set up to work with, I picked a format I’ve never heard of and know nothing about – APE. I then went through the binary and changed all the references to .ape files, into references to .m4a files. These references were in areas of the binary that determine what files are displayed, and how.

Dingoo playing an AAC / .m4a music file.

And voila, my Dingoo recognizes and plays AAC files. I don’t actually think it’s any big deal, since it already had the codec. All I did was fix up the interface so that the AAC files were available to the user.

But then again, maybe it is a big deal? I don’t know. Maybe noone else has done it, and maybe my Dingoo is the only one in the world that can play AAC music files.

Hardcore Electronics Porn

Posted 2010.02.11 8.27 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

Mmmmm…. electronic jiggery-pokery… circuit boards… hacks… blinking lights…

(Found this sexy picture over at HackMii.)

Nintendo DSi

Posted 2009.12.31 20.50 in Computers/Internet/Technology by Stephanie

As I usually spend New Years alone, it has become a bit of a tradition for me to buy myself a new toy that I can disassemble on the 31st of December. In the past, it has frequently been something in the Amateur Radio genre, but this year I opted to do a Nintendo DSi.

I’m not much of a gamer, and I pretty much suck at almost all video games. I’ve had a DS for a while but the only game I was really happy with was the crossword game. Then I gave my DS to my mum so she could play that brain age thing. Anyhow, so I decided to get the DSi so I could take it apart. I like electronic gizmos. I like taking them apart. I like hacking them or breaking them or just finding out how they work.

The DSi has been around for a while now – feels like a year or so. But there’s very, very little info out there about hacking it. Really there’s just one site that has no news, just aggregates info from gaming sites. I don’t want cheat codes or that sort of thing, I want to mess with the hardware. It’s got 256MB of Flash storage, 16MB of RAM, and a 32-bit ARM processor at 133MHz. With the built-in WiFi and dual screens and SDHC expansionality, there’s more than enough oomph in there to run Linux, among other things… (Remember the Zipit?)

There’s no info that I could find about the software – is the DSi operating system a complete customized Nintendo thing? Or maybe the GUI is Nintendo but there’s something else under the hood? The CPU is supposedly custom made for Nintendo so that might preclude it doing other things…

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