eMMC Adventures, Episode 2: Resurrecting a dead Intel Atom-based tablet by replacing failed eMMC storage

As seen on Hackaday!

Recently, I purchased a cheap Intel Atom-based Windows 8 tablet (the DigiLand DL801W) that was being sold at a very low price ($15 USD, although the shipping to Canada negated much of the savings) because it would not boot into Windows – rather, it would only boot into the UEFI shell and cannot be interacted with without an external USB keyboard/mouse.

The patient, er, tablet

The tablet in question is a DigiLand DL801W (identified as a Lightcomm DL801W in the UEFI/BIOS data). It uses an Intel Atom Z3735F – a 1.33GHz quad-core tablet SoC (system-on-chip), 16GB of eMMC storage and a paltry 1GB of DDR3L-1333 SDRAM. It sports a 4500 mAh single-cell Li-ion battery, an 8″ 800×1200 display, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi using an SDIO chipset, two cameras, one microphone, mono speaker, stereo headphone jack and a single micro-USB port with USB On-The-Go support (this allows the port to act as a USB host port, allowing connections with standard USB devices like keyboards, mice, and USB drives).

Step 1: Triage & troubleshooting

The first step was to power on the tablet to get an initial glimpse into the issues preventing the tablet from booting. I was able to confirm that the eMMC was detected, but did not appear to have any valid MBR or file system; therefore, the UEFI firmware defaulted to entering the UEFI shell (which was of little use on its own as there is no on-screen keyboard available for it).


DigiLand DL801W with UEFI shell

However, one can immediately notice there is an issue with the shell: how do you enter commands without an on-screen keyboard? The solution was to use a USB OTG (On-The-Go) dongle to convert the micro-USB type B port into a USB type A host port.

Using the shell commands, I tried reading the contents of the boot sector, which should end with an MBR signature of 0x55AA. Instead, the eMMC returned some nonsensical data: the first half of the sector had a repeating byte pattern of 0x10000700,  and the second half was all zeroes (0x00) except the last 16 bytes which were all ones (0xFF). The kicker was that this data was returned for every sector I tried to read. No wonder the eMMC was unbootable – the eMMC had suffered logical damage and the firmware was not functioning correctly.

After creating a 32-bit Windows 10 setup USB drive (these cheap low-RAM PCs often use a 32-bit UEFI despite having a 64-bit capable CPU), I opened Hard Disk Sentinel to take a deeper look at the condition of the onboard eMMC.


Malfunctioning Foresee 16GB eMMC visible in Hard Disk Sentinel

The eMMC identified itself with a vendor ID of 0x65, and an MMC name of “M”. It reported a capacity of 7.2 GB instead of the normal 16 GB, another sign that the eMMC was corrupted at the firmware level.


Foresee 16GB eMMC returning corrupted data

Using HDS, I performed a read scan of the entire eMMC despite its failed condition. The read speeds were mostly consistent, staying between 40 to 43 MB/s. A random read test revealed a consistent latency of 0.22 ms.

In order to assess whether the eMMC was writable in its current state, I ran a zero-fill and subsequent read scan. The eMMC appeared to accept writes but did not actually commit them, as HDS threw verification errors for all sectors.

After the tests in HDS, I decided to attempt an installation onto the eMMC to assess its writability. Windows Setup failed to create the disk partition structures, throwing an error message reading “We couldn’t create a new partition or locate an existing one”.

Step 2: Teardown & eMMC replacement

Since the onboard Foresee NCEMBS99-16G eMMC module was conclusively determined to be faulty, there was no point keeping it on the tablet’s motherboard. This also provided an opportunity to upgrade the eMMC to a a larger and faster one. Since this required the tablet to be disassembled, I decided to do a teardown of the tablet before attempting to replace the failed eMMC module (the teardown will be in a separate blog post when the time comes).

After removing the insulating plastic tape on the bottom of the PCB, I masked off the eMMC with some kapton tape to protect the other components and connectors from the heat of my hot-air rework station. With some hot air and patience, the failed Foresee eMMC was gone. This also revealed that the eMMC footprint supported both the 11.5×13 mm and 12×16 mm sizes, but the 12×16 mm footprint did not have the extra 16 solder balls for reinforcement (most eMMC balls are unused so their omission had no negative functional effect).


Foresee eMMC removed from DL801W’s motherboard

Instead of a barely-usable 16 GB of eMMC storage, I opted to use the Samsung KLMBG4GEND-B031 – a 32 GB eMMC 5.0 module. This chip boasts more than 2000 IOPS for 4K random I/O, which should be a boon for OS and application responsiveness.


Replacement Samsung KLMBG4GEND-B031 eMMC installed

A little flux and hot air was all I needed to give the 32 GB eMMC a new home. Time to reassemble the tablet and try installing Windows 10 again.

Step 3: OS reinstallation

After spending a few minutes cleaning the board and reinstalling it in the tablet, it was time to power the tablet back on, confirm the presence of the new eMMC and reattempt installing Windows.


Installing Windows 10 from USB drive via USB-OTG adapter

The eMMC replacement proved to be successful; within minutes, I was off to the races with a clean installation of Windows 10.



DL801W restored, running Texas Instruments’ bqSTUDIO software

This was a pretty fun project. With some electronics and computer troubleshooting skills, I had a tablet capable of running desktop Windows programs. Its low power consumption and USB host capabilities made for a great platform to run my Texas Instruments battery hardware and software without being tethered to my desktop.

However, I was not finished with this tablet. The 1 GB of onboard RAM made Windows painfully slow to use, as the CPU was constantly bogged down performing memory compression/decompression. The 32GB of eMMC storage I initially installed began feeling cramped, so I moved to a roomier 64GB (then 128GB) eMMC.

I won’t go into the details of how I upgraded the RAM in this post, as it’s a long story; simply put, soldering the RAM ICs was the easy part.


Pick a Card, Any Card: Fast and easy Windows logon using any NFC smart card

After finally reinstalling Windows on my main PC (the smart card components in the old install were trashed), I dusted off the old smart card reader and started looking into smart card-based logon options again.

Windows logon screen using a smart card

Windows logon screen using a smart card

After finding a way to force convince the installer for EIDAuthenticate, a program that lets you use smart cards to log on a Windows computer without the use of domains and Active Directory, to run on Windows 7 Professional (Microsoft DreamSpark only lets me obtain the Professional editions of Windows), I found a program called NFC Connector Light that lets you use any NFC-compatible smart card as a means of authentication.

Virtual smart card with certificate installed

Virtual smart card with certificate installed

NFC Connector Light links the unique identifier in an NFC-based smart card to create a virtual smart card on the local computer (no data is stored in the card itself), and that virtual card can be used like a real smart card within Windows. When paired with EIDAuthenticate, logging on is as simple as placing the smart card on the NFC reader and entering a PIN. This is especially useful when you set the Windows smart card policy to lock the computer when the card is removed (and it feels kind of cool to be able to lock your computer simply by taking your card off the reader).

Tearing down and modifying the Mars RPB60 power bank

A while ago I mentioned purchasing a very cheap battery pack that obviously didn’t live up to expectations. However, I didn’t get a chance to write about a more capable power bank, the Mars RPB60. It was branded as a SoundLogic/XT power bank, and holds 4400 mAh of battery capacity, with two USB ports (one labeled for 1 amp and 2.1 amps) and a micro-USB power input.

The power bank

The power bank from the outside looks pretty nondescript, with two USB ports, a micro-USB input, a button and four blue LEDs. Initially it seemed that there wouldn’t be any easy way to open up the casing without damaging it, so I tried to pry away the plastic covers at the ends. Doing so revealed plastic plates held in with small Phillips screws. Disassembly from that point was a cinch.

Removing covers reveals hidden screws

Removing covers reveals hidden screws

The PCB portion of the pack is of a stacked design. The two halves are connected with a set of small pin headers, with one side being the main DC-DC converter and USB output, and the other being the “gas gauge” and charging circuitry. The reason I put the phrase ‘gas gauge’ in quotes is that it’s only going by pure voltage thresholds, making it inaccurate when under load (like charging a phone and tablet, for example).

2014-01-05 00.25.02The main microcontroller is an unmarked 14-pin SOIC (likely an OTP-based PIC clone) and a TP4056 Li-Ion charging IC. The DC-DC converter is a DFN package that I couldn’t find any data on, but from what I can tell it integrates the DC-DC converter control circuitry and the switching MOSFETs.

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Blurry photo of microcontroller/charger PCB, taken with a potato for a camera. 😛

2014-01-05 00.27.16 Cells

The cells themselves seemed to be of good quality, but the bastards at Mars decided to black out the branding and model number of the cells! However, I was unphased at their attempt to cover up what cells they were using. With a careful cleaning with flux remover and some Kimwipes, I found that this pack uses ATL INR18650 cells with a DW01-based protection circuit. These cells hold 2200 mAh each, and the INR prefix means that these are high-power cells intended to provide heavy output currents. This is desirable as a 10 watt load like an iPad would definitely put heavy strain on the batteries. Considering the good cells they used, I don’t understand why they’d want to hide the markings on the cells (and in a half-assed way too!)…

The initial capacity was at about 4800 mAh (greater than the rated capacity 😀 ) with an average ESR of about 63 milliOhms. However, after a dozen charge-discharge cycles, the capacity has decreased to 4630 mAh and has an average internal resistance of 190 milliOhms. I’ve got a feeling charge cycle endurance may be an issue with this battery pack. Time will tell…

Gas gauge hacking

Since this battery pack didn’t have the gas gauge capabilities I wanted (voltage threshold-based gauging isn’t enough!), I decided to put in my own. I built a small bq27541-V200 gauge board with an external thermistor and current-sense resistor, using the breakout board itself to hold all the SMD passive components required for the gauge to function. The thermistor is taped to the cells to get an accurate temperature reading, and the current-sense resistor is attached in series between the cell’s negative terminal and the negative contact of the protection circuit.

Gas gauge chip added

Gas gauge chip added

This is where the hacking happens. I connected the I2C lines to the left USB port’s data lines. The voltage divider used for Apple devices is very high-resistance and makes for good I2C pullup resistors. The device still appears as a normal device charger but works just fine when the I2C signals are hidden behind the USB lines.


However, the design for my gauge is definitely not the best one. I noticed that with heavy use (and not even one full discharge cycle), the gauge had reset 4 times without me knowing. Of course, I’m not expecting great performance from this gauge since it’s extremely susceptible to EMI (long wires looping around are just asking for trouble 🙂 ) in its current state. Given how I basically hacked this together in a matter of a few hours, it works well enough. Next up is to go into Altium Designer and make a proper gas gauge board with good EMI and RFI mitigation (and perhaps sell them on Tindie; the hobbyist community needs better gas gauges and stop being so paranoid about Li-Ion batteries).

Further testing showed that certain phones put pulses on the USB lines which has occasionally caused the bq27541 to crash and reset as well.

Additionally, I’ve noticed that the DC-DC converter circuit is quite inefficient. It has 5-7 mA of quiescent current draw and has about 60-80% efficiency. At a full charge, it will take only one month before all the charge is drained from the cells and the protection circuit disconnects the cells.

Future plans

Since this battery pack has a nicely built casing, I intend to gut the battery pack, design new PCBs inside with good DC-DC conversion, an Impedance Track-based fuel gauge, and an onboard microcontroller with some battery-logging capabilities (perhaps to an EEPROM or an SPI Flash ROM), accessible through the micro-USB port. I also plan to use some higher-capacity cells, like the 3400 mAh Panasonic NCR18650B.

If not, then at least I want to replace the microcontroller with one that will read the bq27541’s state of charge readings and display them on the LED bar graph.

Convenient chips but even more inconvenient packages – Fail, fail, fail and fail again: Trying to solder the TPA2011D1 speaker amplifier

I was doing some prototyping of the TI TPA2011D1 3 watt Class-D amplifier that’s in a 1.2 x 1.2 mm 9-ball BGA package. Unlike my tries with the bq27421, these chips are downright painful to solder. Out of 5 chips that I’ve tried to solder, only one of them actually worked. That’s a 20% success rate. Bummer. The only thing that’s preventing me from being any more angry about these chips is that my back and shoulders hurt quite a bit after hunching over to try and solder these bastards for a good 6 hours.

“Thumbs down!” –Dave Jones

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