Performing safer AC line voltage measurements using isolated amplifiers

DISCLAIMER: AC line (mains) voltage is not something to be taken lightly! Attempting to safely handle line voltages while minimizing the risk of harmful or fatal electric shock is the main motivator for me to design and build this circuit. However, I am no electronics engineer and I definitely have no formal training on international standards pertaining to high-voltage safety. I accept no responsibility, direct or indirect, for any damages that may occur if you attempt to make this circuit yourself, including personal harm or property damage. Additionally, there is no warranty or guarantee, express or implied, on any content pertaining to this blog post (or any other posts).

UPDATE (November 19, 2018): Added isolation voltage ratings for the amplifier and DC-DC converter.

As seen on Hackaday!

Back in mid-2017 I won a Keysight DSOX1102G digital storage oscilloscope (DSO), a piece of equipment long on my wish list but never acquired until then. One thing I’ve wanted to be able to measure with an oscilloscope for a long time was the waveform of the AC utility (in other words, the wall outlet). However, doing so presents a very real risk of blowing equipment up or shocking yourself (and possibly other people). In order to prevent this, I needed a way to perform measurements on the AC line without being directly connected to it; in other words, I need galvanic isolation.

Isolation Methods

There are many different ways to achieve galvanic isolation. Common methods are the use of transformers and optocouplers, but they each have their own disadvantages.

Optocouplers (aka optoisolators) are a common component used for isolation, but they require a fair bit of external circuitry to work correctly – not to mention its current transfer ratio (CTR) varies with temperature and age, resulting in drifting measurements over time if a feedback circuit isn’t used. They also aren’t very fast; the common Sharp PC123 optocoupler has a cutoff frequency of only 80 kHz and a response time of 3-18 µs (but newer ones can be much faster).

Transformers don’t require active circuitry and would make stepping down voltages simple. However, their inductive nature causes issues when measuring waveforms with low-frequency content and sharp edges (like the output from modified sine wave inverters), resulting in inaccurate measurements due to the ringing and other distortion that the transformer creates. Additionally, common iron-core transformers aren’t very good at capturing frequencies above 20 kHz.

Solution: Isolation Amplifiers!

I settled on using an isolation amplifier to provide the necessary protection from the AC line and the oscilloscope. Several years ago TI provided sample kits for electronic motor drives, with one component being the AMC1200 isolation amplifier; this is the IC that I used in my AC waveform viewer – however, note that there are some limitations that I will address later in this blog post.

The AMC1200 uses TI’s digital capacitive isolator technology, using high-voltage SiO2 (silicon dioxide) dielectric capacitors on the chip itself for high voltage protection. The amplifier’s input is essentially digitized using a sigma-delta modulator, whose output is then sent digitally across the isolation barrier before being demodulated back into an analog output. It is rated for a working isolation voltage of 1200 Vpeak (848 Vrms), and a maximum isolation voltage of 4000 Vpeak (2828 Vrms), well above the typical voltages experienced on a 120V line.

AC Waveform Viewer Construction

 

As with most of my projects, my AC waveform viewer is built on FR4 fiberglass perfboard. The isolation components used are the AMC1200 isolation amplifier by Texas Instruments, and its corresponding power supply is the NXE1S0505MC isolated DC-DC module by Murata. It is rated for reinforced insulation up to 125 Vrms and basic insulation up to 250 Vrms, with a production-tested Hi-Pot rating of 3 kVDC. It does provide reinforced insulation at the voltages used in North America, but is still the weaker link in terms of maximum isolation voltage.

The AMC1200 features differential inputs and outputs, with a maximum input voltage of +/- 200 mV intended for use with low-resistance current shunt resistors.

One potential problem with perfboard is that the through-holes compromise the high-voltage isolation of the circuit (reducing the creepage and clearance distances), acting as multiple series spark gaps. The solution to this is similar to how isolation slots are used on commercial PCBs; that is, drill out the holes! This greatly increases the distance between each side of the circuit and improves the safety of the circuit.

The AC voltage input is scaled down to a manageable level via a resistive voltage divider. I used four high-precision 300kOhm resistors in series, plus a 1kOhm resistor placed across the AMC1200’s input terminals. Since the input is floating thanks to galvanic isolation, I decided to place the amplifier’s input in the middle of the voltage divider (that is, 600kOhm of resistance is present from the neutral and line terminals) to provide some extra protection from harmful electric shock; 120 Vrms / 600 kOhm = 0.2 mA to ground is the maximum amount of current that could possibly flow if I were to contact this floating node on the amplifier (this calculation assumes that my body has zero resistance, but human skin resistance is generally much higher than this). The voltage divider and the AC input terminals of my waveform viewer are further insulated with a layer of clear epoxy for even more protection.

The power supply terminals are fused with a 500 mA fuse before being protected by an SMAJ5.0A TVS (transient voltage suppression) diode and filtered with a 22 uF tantalum capacitor. The AMC1200’s output terminals are protected with 5.1 V Zener diodes at the terminal blocks for ESD and overvoltage protection.

Due to the floating nature of the waveform viewer, this essentially is a differential probe for my oscilloscope (and most high-voltage differential probes actually aren’t isolated!).

Circuit Limitations

No circuit is perfect, and mine is no exception. Here’s a few issues with my circuit that I’d like to address:

Isolation limitations

The AMC1200 only provides “basic insulation“; that is, it will provide protection from electric shock as long as its insulation barrier is not damaged (in other words, there is no redundancy). Circuits that have terminals that can be directly touched by humans needs “reinforced” or “double” insulation to be compliant with international regulations.

The NXE11S0505MC isolated DC-DC converter has a maximum working voltage of 125 Vrms for reinforced insulation and 250 Vrms for basic insulation, with a Hi-Pot test at 3 kVDC. This is lower than the AMC1200’s maximum voltage of 4000 volts, but these should still have enough headroom to keep me safe in the event of a mild voltage spike. It might prove useful to add some sort of surge suppression with a MOV (metal oxide varistor) or similar device.

The perfboard layout is also sub-optimal for the sake of isolation. Despite drilling out a row of holes to increase the creepage and clearance distances, it isn’t quite enough to meet regulations, as the clearance is only 3 mm and the the creepage isn’t much better, around 4 mm. This is still more than enough to withstand normal AC line voltages, but there is always a chance that higher-voltage transients will make their way onto the line and the isolation barrier needs to take this into account.

Output limitations

The AMC1200 provides a differential output that is centred (common-mode voltage) at 2.5 V, which can be an issue with single-ended inputs like that on an oscilloscope. I’ve worked around this by using a floating power supply, like a USB power bank, and connecting the oscilloscope’s ground terminal to the AMC1200’s Vout- pin. Also, the AMC1200 has a limited bandwidth of 60-100 kHz, but for the purposes of waveform monitoring it is sufficient; however, the amplifier’s noise and offset also negatively impacts performance as the high attenuation ratio essentially amplifies these values to the point where the AC waveform looks like a 2 Vdc offset and the noise level is so high that I need to use the averaging or high-resolution acquisition modes on an oscilloscope to get a clean waveform.

Power supply limitations

The NXE1 isn’t quite suited for such a low-power task as operating a single amplifier input. According to the datasheet, the output voltage can rise to twice the rated voltage if it is loaded with less than 20 mA. To combat this, I placed a 5.1 volt Zener diode across the output to provide regulation, which unnecessarily wastes power. Another regulated module like the NXF1 series would be a better choice, and the unit cost at one-off quantities isn’t a huge deal either.

Room for improvement

With this circuit working properly, I had plenty of ideas to make the second iteration even better:

Simultaneous voltage/current inputs

With the ability to measure current, I can perform measurements on the current draw of a device, allowing me to determine the power factor of a device.

True single-ended outputs

Most ground-referenced devices like oscilloscopes are not meant to handle differential inputs directly. Multimeters, especially battery-powered ones, are an exception.

Reinforced insulation rating on amplifier

The AMC1200 is only rated for basic insulation, so having an amplifier rated for reinforced insulation would provide greater electric shock protection. Alternatives like the Silicon Labs Si8920 could be a viable solution.

Waveform captures

 

 

Conclusion

Despite its ubiquity, AC power is a force that must not be taken lightly. Performing measurements on it, especially when viewing its waveform on a non-isolated oscilloscope, requires extreme caution as line voltage (especially in countries where 230 V is common) can easily injure or kill.

Using a voltage divider and isolation amplifier allows for safer measurements of the AC line without introducing distortion, especially compared to transformer-based implementations; this is critical when measuring the waveforms of modified sine wave inverters.

My implementation of an isolated differential probe helps protect me from electric shock when making measurements, while costing much less than a commercial high-voltage differential probe (for example, the CT2593-1, costs almost $330 USD on DigiKey).

But… which one would you trust more?

eMMC Adventures, Episode 3: Building a custom adapter to use cheap eMMC-based 32GB SSD modules

As seen on Hackaday!

While on my quest for more eMMC-based storage devices, I stumbled upon a few devices that piqued my interest: eMMC-based SATA SSDs! I found two models of particular interest: Dell had M.2 modules with a 2.5″ adapter, and HP had custom boards intended for use in cheap laptops (for example, the HP 14-an012nr). Although the former was easier for me to use (but not acquire), I will be focusing on the latter in this blog post.

Overview of HP 14-am/14-an Series SSD Module

Unlike Dell’s convenient M.2 modules, the cheaper boards from HP (costing about $12 USD when I purchased them) had a physical interface intended for use only with its intended host; despite using a SATA interface, physically it used a 10-pin FFC (Flat Flexible Connector, aka “ribbon cable”) since it was designed to work only with HP’s 14-am/14-an series of  low-cost laptops. The boards are labeled “DINERAMD-6050A2862201-DB-A01” and have a copyright date of 2016 in my case.

The BayHub OZ788WR2 Bridge Chip

These eMMC-based SSDs use a curious little chip, the BayHub OZ788WR2 (labeled 788WR2A on the chip itself). It is an SD/MMC-to-SATA adapter, with an SD UHS-II/MMCplus HS200 device interface and SATA II 3Gbps host interface. Apart from the brief description from the manufacturer, no other data is available for the chip (and even finding the chip online is basically impossible).

It’s a shame that so little is known about this chip (and that it’s so rare to find in actual devices), especially since high-performance SD-to-SATA adapters otherwise do not exist, as they use outdated SD-to-CompactFlash adapter chips that are limited to 25 MB/s speeds. If I had the engineering expertise, time, money, and ability to acquire these chips, I’d totally try to make an SD-to-SATA adapter with this chip… but alas, that will still remain a fantasy.

Step 1: Pinout Discovery

The single connector on the eMMC SSD is a ZIF FFC (Zero Insertion Force, Flat Flexible Connector), with no publicly available pinout or any other information. Perhaps this was why I got them for so cheap – apart from holding only 32 GB, nobody could even use them in their own computer even if they wanted to!

When trying to reverse engineer an unknown connector pinout, one needs to first look for ground pins. This is easily accomplished by using a multimeter with a continuity or diode test function, with the multimeter’s positive lead on a known ground point on the DUT (Device Under Test) – screw holes are often good candidates to look for. Ground pins will read as a short, but active IC and power pins will look like a forward-biased diode – appropriately 0.5 to 1 volt. I found 3 power pins (these are often grouped together on connectors for greater current capacity), 3 ground pins, and 4 SATA data pins. The data pins don’t show up on the multimeter test since they have series AC coupling capacitors, but they are easily located next to the connector and have clearly visible differential pairs leading to them.

The issue now is trying to find what order the SATA data pins are in, and how they relate to a regular SATA interface. As it turns out, the pinout is very simple: it matches the pinout of the 7-pin regular SATA interface! This makes sense as the SSD module and the laptop itself are designed to be cheap to manufacture.

Step 2: Building the Adapter (Take 1)

With the pinout known, the harder part is wiring up the connector. However, without a matching connector for the ribbon cable, I have no choice but to solder to it.

As I soon learned, not all flex cables are made of heat-resistant polyimide (aka Kapton) – this one melted before I could even tin the exposed leads. No matter, I’ll just use my trusty magnet wire and hook up the data and power lines! With the help of a salvaged SATA connector from a dead laptop drive, I was able to cobble together a crude adapter for the eMMC SSD board.

Although I didn’t end up taking a picture of the adapter, it wasn’t pretty. It also wasn’t very functional either – although the eMMC SSD board was able to identify itself (on my PC it showed up as a “BHT WR202HH032G E70211F5”), I couldn’t actually perform any data transfer without causing the OZ788WR2 to log hundreds of interface checksum failures (but hey, it supports S.M.A.R.T. data reporting!).

After some tweaking of the wire spacing, I was able to get the adapter stable enough to work, and encased it in hot glue for protection. It lasted a few weeks but eventually stopped working because one of the data wires broke off inside the blob of hot glue. Additionally, the outer contacts on the ribbon cable connector were peeling away from its plastic substrate. It was time for a rebuild.

Step 3: Building a Dedicated eMMC SSD (the teaser!)

Since I had multiple eMMC SSD boards, I took one, replaced the eMMC with a 128GB one from Samsung (the KLMDG8JENB-B041) and removed the ribbon cable connector. In its place, I used some very thin twinaxial cable from a dead MacBook and used a gutted CFast-to-SATA adapter for a shell. Stay tuned for that in another blog post!

Step 4: Building the Adapter (again!)

Much like my previous attempt, I used a salvaged PCB from a dead laptop drive, but left a lot of it instead of chopping it off directly at the connector. This particular one was a dead Samsung HDD, and it had one particular feature that I could use to make a stronger adapter: it had a TSOP footprint for the DRAM cache, which was just the right pitch for me to solder the ribbon cable to!

With a little help of my hot air rework station, I removed the DRAM cache and DC-DC converter, leaving the SATA AC coupling capacitors and the power input components (filtering choke and capacitors, and input overvoltage protection) behind.

After scraping off some solder mask, I soldered the SATA data wires and the ground wires surrounding them with very thin magnet wire, trying to keep the data pairs as close to each other as possible to minimize the chance of interference causing problems. The power wire was soldered to the power input components, right next to the input capacitor for better power delivery.

After checking with the multimeter that no short circuits were present, I hooked up an eMMC board and plugged it into my PC. It enumerated without issues, and running several tests including CrystalDiskMark, h2testw, and Hard Disk Sentinel’s random read test, amassing several hundreds of gigabytes in reads and writes with zero CRC errors logged in the S.M.A.R.T. data.

With everything checked out, I cleaned the circuit with isopropyl alcohol and covered the exposed end of the ribbon cable and the magnet wires with clear epoxy for protection. I also used a bit of epoxy on the flex connector to re-secure the lifted contacts to the substrate.

Conclusion

With a bit of wire and a circuit board from a dead HDD, I was able to reuse cheap eMMC-based SATA SSDs on computers that they weren’t meant for (and they even had copies of Windows 10 Home with extractable license keys! 🙂 ). Although not as fast as a modern full-fledged SSD, its relatively high 4K IOPS performance means it works well enough as a quick boot drive for running quick tests of OS installation without needing to sacrifice a bigger drive just for testing – and they consume less than a watt even when fully active!

Gaining access to the Windows CE desktop (and Doom!) on the Keysight DSOX1102G Oscilloscope

As seen on Hackaday!

TL;DR – Yes, the Keysight 1000 X-Series oscilloscope runs Doom! The journey getting there wasn’t easy, though.

The oscilloscope is one piece of equipment that any self-respecting electronics enthusiast should have. In short, oscilloscopes let you view the electronic waveforms of a circuit, and digital storage oscilloscopes (DSOs) are especially useful since they can reveal infrequent glitches on signals that an analog oscilloscope or a multimeter wouldn’t pick up.

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Keysight DSOX1102G oscilloscope

The subject of my blog post is the DSOX1102G from Keysight Technologies (formerly Agilent), which is part of their low-end offerings that still offer very good value compared to their competitors. As with most of their oscilloscope offerings, they run an embedded operating system called Windows Embedded CE 6.0 (AKA Windows CE or WinCE), but as with most WinCE applications, you almost never see the Windows interface since it’s hidden behind a custom user interface.

Stage 1: Awakening

When the Keysight 1000-X series of digital oscilloscopes first launched in early 2017, one reviewer on Hackaday noticed that certain data-saving features on the oscilloscope would cause it to crash and reboot, noting that a mouse pointer was visible on-screen for a few seconds before the scope rebooted. That post included a GIF of him attempting to save a file which caused the oscilloscope’s software to crash, but I noticed something peculiar in one frame of the video… there was a Windows taskbar visible right before the black error screen was displayed. Interesting…!

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Freeze-frame of oscilloscope on Windows CE desktop shortly before crashing (image courtesy of Hackaday)

When I won my oscilloscope thanks to Keysight’s Scope Month giveaway program, I didn’t think much of this for a couple months until I encountered the crash screen as well. In my case, I found that the Windows CE title bar was visible on top of the oscilloscope’s crash handler; dragging the title bar simply ghosted the window on-screen and doing this a few times more caused Windows CE itself to hang. This was a pretty infrequent occurrence, so when I encountered subsequent crashes I simply let the oscilloscope’s crash handler scan the internal file systems and reboot the operating system.

However, by this point I was intrigued and wanted to find a way to learn more about what’s going on with the underlying Windows CE operating system. I found that the oscilloscope’s USB port is rather sensitive to errors and simply wiggling a USB drive in in the USB port would crash the oscilloscope. This still wasn’t enough for me to gather enough information since I could not get the oscilloscope to do this consistently.

Thus begins my quest to access the Windows CE desktop. Let’s go!

At first I tried a software-only solution, attempting to craft a .ksx firmware update file (in reality it’s just a .cab archive) that would close the oscilloscope software and open Windows Explorer – no dice. The oscilloscope software would simply throw an error message saying that it couldn’t open the update file. As it turns out, this solution wouldn’t have worked even if I could get the oscilloscope to load the update file since the oscilloscope’s software doesn’t exit to the desktop during the firmware update process anyway. Having encountered my first significant roadblock, I set my curiosity aside and simply used the oscilloscope as, well, an oscilloscope for a while.

Stage 2: Looking Deeper

True to my curious nature, one day I decided to see whether the oscilloscope would read and write to 3.5″ floppy disks (or as the young ones might call them, “3-D printed save icons” 🙂 ) using a USB floppy drive – and it did! However, I noticed one very peculiar issue: the oscilloscope would crash on boot if I left the floppy drive in the USB port when I powered it on. Eureka! – I had finally found a means to reliably crash the oscilloscope.

Unfortunately, this is where I hit my second roadblock. This crash-on-boot phenomenon would only occur if the floppy drive was the only device plugged into the USB port; it would not crash if I used a USB hub between the oscilloscope and the floppy drive. This meant that I would have to be very fast in order to switch between the floppy drive and a USB mouse/keyboard. Racing against the clock to unplug the drive and plug in my combination USB keyboard/touchpad in the middle of the boot cycle was getting tiring and frustrating very quickly. I needed a better solution… a hardware solution.

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Custom USB A/B switcher I built to quickly swap USB devices

Using an old USB cable, a dead USB hub and a DPDT (dual-pole, dual-throw) pushbutton switch, I created a USB A/B switcher to make the process of switching between devices fast and easy. Using this method, I was able to try interacting with the Windows CE operating system for the fraction of a second that the taskbar was visible on-screen before the crash handler barged in to ruin my fun. With the magic of my Samsung Galaxy S9’s slow-motion video feature, I was able to determine that I could send keystrokes and Windows CE would act on them accordingly – even while the system was still on the splash screen! I was able to somewhat get information about the system by blindly entering keystrokes and seeing what the output was when the oscilloscope software crashed. Enter roadblock number 2…

The ability to very briefly interact with Windows CE was great, but it was still useless since I couldn’t actually take control of it before the oscilloscope’s crash handler rebooted the system. It appeared that the crash handler had a pretty tight lock on the operating system since no amount of mashing the Windows or Ctrl+Alt+Delete would let me back into Windows CE.

Stage 3: Getting a Foothold

Once again, my random curiosity would come in handy when I decided to use my old Sony Clie PEG-NX73V (a PalmOS handheld PDA dating back to 2003) as a USB drive; it had a Data Import feature which allowed the user to drag-and-drop files onto its memory card as if it were a removable disk.

Much like the USB floppy drive, a similar crash-on-boot effect occurred when I left the PDA plugged in when powering on the oscilloscope. But… unlike the floppy drive, the oscilloscope’s crash handler seemed to interpret the PDA’s file system as a corrupt firmware partition and asked to load a firmware update file from an external USB drive.

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Firmware update prompt

This wasn’t very consistent behaviour, as I found that sometimes the oscilloscope software would load anyway and resulted in a very strange Windows CE window appearing with a bright-cyan mouse pointer that ghosted the screen if I attempted to move it aside. However, in this limbo-like state I was able to drag the InfiniiVision oscilloscope software’s window aside and tried mucking around the operating system that way. However, the oscilloscope software was very aggressive and would regain focus every time I clicked behind its window; after some struggling with the system’s very strange colour palette I was able to somewhat fumble my way around the operating system. I couldn’t browse the file system since I couldn’t wrestle control from the oscilloscope software long enough to do so, but I was able to bring up the System Properties dialog box which revealed that the oscilloscope is based on Windows CE 6.00 and had 100 MB of RAM at its disposal.

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Accessing some Windows CE dialogs while InfiniiVision software still running – what a mess!

I then decided to browse the EEVblog forums, where community members there were hard at work trying to hack extra features into the oscilloscope. From there I found out that the firmware looks for a file called “infiniiVisionStartupOverride.txt” on the USB drive’s root, and if it does this, it will try to load the oscilloscope software from there. Although it appeared that the firmware didn’t actually load the software from the USB drive, it did stop the oscilloscope software from starting up and pulling control away from me. This is where things get really interesting – the crash handler opens an Explorer dialog box, and simply entering *.* into the file name textbox would let me begin browsing the oscilloscope and USB drive’s file systems! This is exactly what I needed to being controlling Windows CE! However, I was once again presented with another roadblock: the oscilloscope would reboot after 60 seconds which limited the amount of time I could browse the operating system.

 

 

After copying a few Windows CE tools like Windows CE Task Manager, I noticed that there were two interesting processes that were still running when the crash handler was visible, “recoverInfiniiVision.exe” and “processStartupFolder.exe”; it seemed like the recoverInfiniiVision process was indeed the crash handler that was preventing me from accessing Windows CE when the oscilloscope software crashed. Killing the processStartupFolder process with iTaskMgr (Windows CE Task Manager’s trial version can’t kill processes) was enough to prevent the oscilloscope from rebooting, and killing the recoverInfiniivision process left us with a blank Windows CE desktop – I was in! Unfortunately, I was unable to restore the taskbar which made navigating the OS quite cumbersome.

After creating a new folder on the desktop to open Explorer, I was finally able to do some real exploration (heh) of the oscilloscope’s file system. The tool Total Commander/CE was of great help since it also had a built-in text editor, which this version of Windows CE lacked.

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Browsing internal file system with Total Commander/CE (no taskbar just yet…)

Stage 4: Full Control

Now that I was able to see the blue sky desktop, all I needed for the full Windows CE experience was to bring back the taskbar. After a bit of Google-fu and browsing Stack Overflow, I whipped up some sample code to turn the taskbar back on. After opening this from Explorer, I had a full Windows CE desktop! YES – finally I had full control over the underlying operating system!

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Freedom at last – a full Windows CE desktop on my oscilloscope!

From there, I began looking through the file system to see what interesting utilities were in store. It appeared that the Command Prompt wouldn’t open at all when I tried to run it, but digging through the Registry with an editor, there was a Registry key at HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Drivers\Console\OutputTo that was set to 0xFFFFFFFF. Setting that key to 0 was enough to make the Command Prompt visible on the desktop, so I created another small program to take care of this as well.

Things were looking good, so I created a batch file with all the commands required to kill the oscilloscope software, the startup folder handler, the crash handler; restore the taskbar; and re-enable the Command Prompt. However, this required I use my PDA to open the crash handler’s firmware recovery menu which prevented others from being able to reproduce this effect.

After some digging around, I found out that as soon as the splash screen appeared and the front panel LEDs began cycling, Windows CE would accept any keystrokes even without a software-crashing device present; pressing Windows and U caused the oscilloscope to hang as I was essentially opening the Start menu and selecting the Suspend option (which I guess the operating system had no means of regaining control since the oscilloscope only had a hardware power switch). With this in mind, I renamed my batch file to “a.bat” for easier typing, and tried to launch the batch file right in the boot process by pressing Windows, R (to open the Run dialog), then “\usb\a.bat” and finally Enter to run the batch file. This only caused the oscilloscope to remain at the splash screen but the Windows CE operating system was otherwise alive even if I wasn’t able to see what was actually going on. As it turns out, the crash handler is the key to making the Windows CE desktop visible, and all I had to do was add some lines in my batch file to launch and subsequently kill the crash handler. With the final touches added to my batch file, I can (semi-)automatically boot the oscilloscope right to the desktop, with just a USB drive, mouse and keyboard!

Stage 5: Yes, it runs DOOM!

Now that I had access to Windows CE, I could finally put an answer to the question “Does it run DOOM?” As a matter of fact, yes it can! It only took a year and a half after the oscilloscope’s launch, but this milestone had finally been achieved.

 

 

Stay tuned for my next blog post where I play around some more with this iconic video game – on a piece of hardware that was never intended to play games in the first place.

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Doom in action at glorious 320×240, 256 colours! On an oscilloscope!

Downloads

I have released the files required for you to try this on your own scope – but be warned, I am not responsible if you brick your scope or anything else bad happens! I have only tested this on my DSOX1102G but I suspect that the rest of the 1000 X-series and other Keysight scopes that have the firmware recovery option may work too. The oscilloscope firmware is laid out such that the Windows CE file system is all in RAM and is not retained upon reboot, so any system-breaking changes to Windows will not brick the scope (the firmware files are found in hidden NAND Flash-resident directories that aren’t accessible from Explorer unless you enter them manually by name). Please leave a comment if you decide to try it yourself, and as to whether or not it works. 

You will need to format a USB drive with FAT or FAT32 and extract the .zip archive of my tool, Scope Liberator (click here!), to the drive’s root. Instructions are found in readme.txt.

If you’re interested in the source code for the support programs to re-enable the taskbar and local command prompt, I have made them available as well (they’re literally lines derived from sample code, but at least the icons for ShowTaskbar.exe and EnableLocalCmd.exe are original!).

Upgrading a passive Power over Ethernet splitter with 802.3af compatibility

As seen on Hackaday!

If you haven’t heard of Power over Ethernet, chances are you’ve experienced its usefulness without even knowing about it. Power over Ethernet (PoE for short) does exactly as the name implies: power is sent over the same Ethernet cable normally used for data transfer. This is often used for devices like IP phones and wireless access points (often you see these APs in restaurants and other establishments mounted to the ceiling to provide Wi-Fi access), as it is far easier, cheaper and safer to provide low-voltage power instead of wiring in AC power which requires the help of a licenced electrician.

A (Very Simplified) Background on Power over Ethernet

The actual PoE standards (click here to learn more) IEEE-802.3af (up to 12.95 watts), 802.3at (up to 25.5 watts) and the newest 802.3bt (up to 60-90 watts) standards provide vendor-independent methods for sending and receiving 48-volt DC power over the Ethernet cable without frying the device on the other end if it’s not equipped to receive power. The PSE (power sourcing equipment) manipulates the Ethernet pairs to sense the presence of a PD (powered device), then queries what power level it should provide; after this negotiation phase, the PSE finally sends 48 volts to the PD (usually on pins 1/2 and 3/6, called Alternative or Mode A) and all is merry, thanks to the help of “phantom power“. However, cheaper devices are available which skip this and simply shove DC power over the Ethernet cable with no regard to the safety or well-being of the remote device – this is called “passive PoE”. There are no regulations regarding passive PoE, but they generally send DC power (often 12, 24 or 48 volts) over Ethernet pins 4/5 and 7/8 (called Alternative or Mode B), usually shorting the two pins on each pair for easy power transmission at the expense of being limited to 10/100 Mbps speed.

Many years ago (I’m talking back in high school, over 6 years ago), I bought some cheap PoE equipment – a D-Link DWL-P200 PoE injector and splitter kit – assuming it was compatible with 802.3af due to its use of 48 volts… it wasn’t. Since I bought this on a trip to the US and I live up in (the arguably nicer 🙂 ) Canada, I couldn’t be bothered attempting to return it to the Fry’s that I bought it from; it served some use powering a wireless router for a few years before I ditched it in favour of a ZyXEL GS1920HP-48HP 802.3at-compatible switch and Ubiquiti UAP-AC-PRO access point. It then sat in my junk bin for a while before I took it back out and conjured up a solution to make the splitter compatible with the PoE standard; this way I could tap into my existing 802.3at-compatible infrastructure I wired into my house (or perhaps use it to siphon a couple watts in other places 🙂 ).

Note I am using the word “compatible” and not “compliant” since this definitely does not attempt to comply with all of the electrical specifications contained in the 802.3af/at standards; however, I have tested this on 802.3af and 802.3at Ethernet switches and have had no issues with the upgraded splitter. One significant attribute is that true PoE requires electrical isolation and my splitter certainly does not provide it; for my use this isn’t an issue and even some commercial splitters omit this feature to reduce cost.

Modifying the D-Link DWL-P200 for 802.3at Compatibility

The DWL-P200 is a near-ideal candidate for conversion to 802.3af/at (I’ll call it “active PoE” from now on) since it already uses 48 volts for power – all it really needs is an active PoE-compatible front-end which requires an Ethernet isolation transformer, two diode bridges, a TVS (transient voltage suppression) diode, a 802.3af PD controller chip (and a partridge in a pear tree?). Easy enough, right… right?

Step 1: Prepare the Power Interface

The DWL-P200 splitter does not use a diode bridge on its power input (pins 4/5 are positive and pins 7/8 are negative), but active PoE requires that PDs include diode bridges for polarity-insensitive operation. Additionally, the splitter does not have an isolation transformer normally used for Ethernet; rather it had 10 ohm resistors on pins 1/2 and 3/6 as series coupling between the input and output – these were removed to provide a spot to install the centre-tapped isolation transformer that active PoE requires for Mode A (power on pins 1/2 and 3/6).

After harvesting an Ethernet transformer from a dead MacBook (seriously, dead computers make for great component stores), I scraped away insulation on the differential data pairs and used 40-gauge magnet wire to connect each pair to the transformer, and used 30-gauge Kynar wire for the power lines which are connected to the centre tap of each pair. To affix it, I used a blob of hot glue (which turned out to be pretty useless since this board runs HOT!), and ran the wires off to one of the diode bridges in the front-end I built.

The data output pins (1, 2, 3 and 6) are terminated to an AC-coupled ground using 75 ohm resistors, often referred to as “Bob Smith termination” to help reduce noise.

Step 2: Build the PoE PD Front-End

The actual front-end was built as two separate boards: the first was the power input board; the second was the 802.3af active PoE PD controller, which had its own construction considerations that I’ll address in a bit.

The power input board is pretty simple and was comprised of two Bourns CD-HD201 60-volt Schottky diode bridges and a SMAJ58A 58-volt TVS surge suppression diode to help overcome voltage spikes that can occur when a cable is unplugged due to the inductance in the cable itself. The inputs of the diode bridges were then connected to the centre taps of the Ethernet transformers and the original pins 4/5 and 7/8 on the power/data input of the splitter.

The second board is the PoE PD controller, which is responsible for negotiating with the 802.3af/at PSE controller at the other end of the cable. I used the Texas Instruments TPS2378 PoE PD controller, which was meant for 802.3at Class 4 (25.5 watts maximum) but I’m only using it for 802.3af Class 0 (up to 12.95 watts). The TPS2378 has a heat-sinking “PowerPAD” on the bottom which must be connected to Vss (ground); I used solar cell tabbing wire underneath and created a sort of fin-like arrangement on the unused area of the DipMicro SOIC/TSSOP-to-DIP adapter board (they don’t sponsor me – I just really like their adapter boards!). The external PoE detection and power class signal resistors were soldered to the DIP pads on the adapter to save space.

Step 3: Put it Back Together Again

Once the two boards were assembled and connected to the original FP5001 DC-DC converter‘s input, the boards were nestled inside the original case and some Kapton tape was wrapped around the case since I damaged some of the plastic clips that held it together during disassembly.

Conclusion

With the active PoE upgrades installed, the splitter now works with 802.3af, 802.3at and passive 48 volt PoE power sources. However, the internal construction of the splitter means it only supports 10/100 Mbps Ethernet. Additionally, I find that the board gets very hot under full load (I’ve measured internal temperatures well above 100 degrees C when the case is closed) which negatively impacts its efficiency, but I consider it a fair trade-off considering this was never meant to work on active PoE in the first place.

WordAds Adventures, Episode 4

Oh my, it has been a while since the last update, hasn’t it?

Results for February to June 2018

Since my last report, I managed to earn $45 in one month after getting my blog post featured on the r/hardware subreddit, which then made its way to Hacker News (a news aggregation site), bringing the most traffic to my site in many years; March 2018’s view count was the second highest on record, bested only by June 2014’s 25,051 views which were not monetized. I even received my first payout on May 29th.

However, the rest of the months have been less fruitful, especially as of late. Since May, my monthly ad revenue has dropped below $10 USD/month. I thought that the boost in traffic from March would result in more views after the fact – I could not have been more wrong.

Let’s look at the data (note that am now also tracking statistics for ads per viewer and visitor):

Payout Period Earnings Ads Served Views Visitors $ Per
Impression
Ads Per
View
Ads Per
Visitor
0 Nov 2017  $     5.03           4,648     8,533      3,833  $  0.00108219 0.545 1.213
Dec 2017  $   15.18         17,369     9,734      4,344  $  0.00087397 1.784 3.998
Jan 2018  $   11.96         17,887     9,428      4,359  $  0.00066864 1.897 4.103
Feb 2018  $   11.20         18,532     7,980      3,595  $  0.00060436 2.322 5.155
Mar 2018  $   45.89         74,754   23,933    14,537  $  0.00061388 3.123 5.142
Apr 2018  $   10.99         20,100     8,017      3,595  $  0.00054677 2.507 5.591
1 May 2018  $     9.88         20,046     7,700      3,522  $  0.00049287 2.603 5.692
Jun 2018  $     7.78         16,699     6,704      2,967  $  0.00046590 2.491 5.628
WordAds Earnings Nov 2017 to Jun 2018

WordAds monthly earnings (November 2017 to June 2018)

WordAds Rate Nov 2017 to Jun 2018

WordAds monthly pay-per-impression rate (November 2017 to June 2018)

Since my last update, I noticed that my pay-per-impression rate was steadily decreasing, and that has not changed since; although it has leveled off mostly, it is still decreasing.

Conclusion

The data sends a clear message: in order to continue receiving an appreciable amount of ad revenue, I need to keep posting and getting my blog posts published on various outlets; additionally, returns from existing content is not steady but instead continuously declines even if viewership does not appreciably fluctuate from month to month. (Granted, that’s probably common sense and I just need to get back in gear and make more posts – many of which are still in draft form.)

Status Update: Of Phones and Fire

Things might be on a bit of a hiatus for the next little while. My trusty Sony Xperia Z5 Compact literally went up in flames a few hours ago, and I need to find a replacement very soon, as well as recover any data that wasn’t saved to my SD card. Thankfully, apart from a sore throat and burning eyes from battery smoke, I am doing fine (as well as my house).

IMG_4711

My Sony Xperia Z5 Compact… after the lithium-ion battery fire.

Once things settle down, I’ll hopefully have a juicy story about lithium-ion battery fires and (failed) eMMC data recovery.

UPDATE (May 18, 2018): I upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy S9 a couple days ago. The eMMC chip I desoldered from the Z5 Compact is effectively bricked, as it only identifies itself but no data can be read – I suspect that the intense heat must have “baked” the NAND flash and result in too many uncorrectable bit errors that the firmware couldn’t recover from. There goes my progress in Angry Birds 2 (among other data)…

Tutorial: Recovering Cookie Clicker saves from an offline installation/backup of Google Chrome

Update (August 29, 2018): Turns out cleaning out your cookies/cache will erase your Cookie Clicker save. Who would’ve thought…

Cookie Clicker saves: You don’t realize the importance of saving your progress until you lose your save data. A few days ago I opened Chrome to my always-running instances of Cookie Clicker, but found that all of my progress was deleted (and it was showing a “Don’t forget to back up your save” message just to add insult to injury).

My heart sank when I realized that one of my runs, over three years old, had suddenly vanished into thin air. I tried restoring Google Chrome’s data via a Shadow Copy; no dice. I tried using my Windows Home Server 2011 backups, but realized that it would take over an hour to restore my Chrome folder. After much frustration, I decided to retrieve and examine Chrome’s Local Storage folder and see whether I could retrieve my save files that way – and it worked! Here’s how to recover your own Cookie Clicker saves…

Retrieving an older version of Google Chrome’s data folder

If you have Shadow Copy (aka Previous Versions) enabled, you may be in luck if the restore point(s) available have intact game save information. If you have an offline backup solution, that may be usable as well. If you have neither, you could try it on your current Chrome installation but your chances of recovery are much slimmer.

For Windows, Google Chrome’s default Local Storage folder located at: %USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\Default\Local Storage

There will probably be a large number of files ending in .localstorage and .localstorage-journal – these are unlikely to contain your saves, and if they are present, they will be many months out of date; Google has begun storing websites’ local storage in a LevelDB database. The database in question is stored in a folder called leveldb.

If you are attempting to retrieve the data from a current Chrome installation, close Chrome before continuing.

Copy this “leveldb” folder to another (safe) location as to avoid any accidental overwrite of the database while trying to recover the game saves. Download and install the FastoNoSQL database browser software (it’s a trial, but for our purposes it will do just fine – just follow the registration instructions and you can whip up a temporary email address if you need to).

Browsing the LevelDB database

When FastoNoSQL is opened for the first time, the Connections window will appear. Click the “Add connection” button (it looks like a green button with a + symbol on it); even though we’re just browsing some database files, it’s considered to be a “connection” to the database. Select “LevelDB” and choose the folder that holds the “leveldb” folder that was previously copied.

Once the database is opened, note the number of database keys (in my case it was 1212), right-click the “default” database in the Explorer tree on the left-hand side of the FastoNoSQL window, and select “Load content of database”. Enter the number of keys previously noted into the “Keys count” field, then click OK.

In the “Search…” box, enter this text (select all the text in this box):

\\x5f\\x68\\x74\\x74\\x70\\x73\\x3a\\x2f\\x2f\\x6f\\x72\\x74\\x65\\x69\\x6c\\x2e\\x64\\x61\\x73\\x68\\x6e\\x65\\x74\\x2e\\x6f\\x72\\x67\\x00\\x01\\x43\\x6f\\x6f\\x6b\\x69\\x65\\x43\\x6c\\x69\\x63\\x6b\\x65\\x72\\x47\\x61\\x6d\\x65

This cryptic-looking text is a hexadecimal-escaped version of the string _https://orteil.dashnet.org, an SOH (Start of Header) character, and CookieClickerGame.

If your saves are found, you will see one or two entries, depending on whether or not the normal and/or Beta saves are present. The first entry will be the normal version of Cookie Clicker, and the second one, with a slightly longer key (ending in “\x42\x65\x74\x61”) is the for the Beta. Right-click the desired entry and choose “Edit…” to view the game save data. Copy the contents of the “Value” field into a text editor (Notepad, etc.), and delete the very first character before “Mi4w” – this is an SOH (Start of Header) character and we don’t need it to restore the game save. Save this text file so you have a backup of your game save, and import the file into Cookie Clicker (either by copy-pasting the text or using the “Load from file” button).

The game save should look like this (look for the bolded characters to ensure the game save data is intact):
Mi4wMDQ1fHwxNTI [... text omitted ...] OkwoDCgAR8%21END%21

If everything works out, your Cookie Clicker game save should be restored from the brink of destruction!

Completed: Self-discharge test of Kentli PH5 1.5V Li-ion AA (Part 6)

Looking for the teardown or how well the Kentli PH5 battery performs under load? Click the links to learn more.

It’s finally happened – the self-discharge test of the Kentli PH5 Li-ion AA battery has finally come to an end… and it only took almost 3 years!

 

april 29 2018 stats

Kentli PH5 self-discharge test statistics

Self-Discharge Rate

I never anticipated this test would run for so long; although the PH5 did not have a manufacturer-specified self-discharge rate, marketing materials suggested that the batteries had a storage life that was “3-5 times longer than Ni-MH batteries”. Wikipedia states that after one year, normal Ni-MH batteries lose about 50% of their capacity, and low-self-discharge (LSD) Ni-MH batteries lose 15-30%.

Correlating this with the data collected from the Texas Instruments bq27621-G1 fuel gauge, the battery lost 40% of its charge within one year, placing it in between the standard and LSD Ni-MH chemistries. Using Excel’s SLOPE() function, the self-discharge rate was calculated to be 0.10108%/day.

Experimental Improvements

There is some error in State of Charge measurement when using the bq27621 fuel gauge. As it uses the Impedance Track algorithm, open-circuit voltage is used to determine a battery’s state of charge upon gauge initialization. This OCV curve is chemistry-specific, with slightly different formulations requiring different chemistry ID codes. The bq27621 has a fixed Chemistry ID of 0x1202 (LiCoO2/LCO cathode, carbon anode), but experimental data revealed a better-matched Chemistry ID of 0x3107, 0x1224 or 0x0380; the first two chemistries pointed towards a LiMnO4/LMO cathode chemistry which I was somewhat skeptical of, but did not test further.

Using another gauge with a different, programmable Chemistry ID could have led to a straighter SoC curve. This wouldn’t be too difficult to reproduce, as the battery voltage can be fed to the gauge in order to recompute the state of charge. Additionally, the bq27621 has a Terminate Voltage of 3.2 volts (the gauge considers this voltage to be the point in which it reads 0% SoC), which is higher than the battery’s protection voltage of 2.4 volts (granted, there is very little charge difference in this area of the discharge curve).

My test setup was not temperature-controlled; I live in a house without air conditioning and room temperatures can vary from 15 to 35 degrees C (59 to 95 degrees F), depending on the season. However, I doubt that this would have had too much impact on discharge rate, and this would better represent real-life scenarios where a constant temperature may not necessarily be guaranteed.

Finally, this test was performed on a new, uncycled battery. I suspect the discharge rate would be significantly higher on an aged battery that was subject to a lot of charge cycles and day-to-day wear.

Conclusion

This was the longest-running experiment I’ve ever conducted on this blog. The Kentli PH5’s self-discharge rate lasts longer than a standard Ni-MH battery, but a LSD (low-self-discharge) Ni-MH battery would still last longer, albeit with a lower terminal voltage. The battery, when new, should be expected to last almost 3 years without a charge (although there won’t be any charge left by then); it will hold about 60% of its capacity after 1 year of storage.

To download a copy of the self-discharge test data, click here.

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).

DSC_2191

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.

DSC_2198

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.

DSC_2199

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).

DSC_2215

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.

DSC_2219

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.

DSC_2221

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.

Conclusion

DSC_2223

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.

WordAds Adventures, Episode 3

Another month has passed and that means another round of ad revenue trickling in.

Results for January 2018

This is rather interesting – despite getting more views than December 2017, the pay rate was lower than before!

Curious to see what the dollar-per-impression rate was for each month, I tabulated the results and graphed them:

Period Earnings Visitors Views Ads Served $/Impression
Nov 2017  $     5.03 3833 8538 4648  $ 0.00108219
Dec 2017  $   15.18 4344 9732 17369  $ 0.00087397
Jan 2018  $   11.96 4359 9458 17887  $ 0.00066864

WordAds Rate Nov 2017 to Jan 2018

That is a pretty linear drop in dollar-per-impression rate. Perhaps this is due to ad market fluctuations, or maybe WordPress is “incentivizing” increased viewership to maintain ad revenue. Who knows? Either way, it will be interesting to track this trend as time goes on.

Mini-Ramble: WordAds – I think it’s working!

Over a month has passed since my first post about seeing where the WordAds train will take me and my blog, and the first (meaningful) payout numbers have rolled out.

Current Earnings

ss (2018-01-05 at 12.42.57)

WordAds earnings for 1/3 of November 2017, and all of December 2017.

Not too bad – in 1 1/3 months, I’ve earned $20.20 USD in ad revenue. In December alone I earned $15.18 from 17,369 attempted ad impressions; with 9,732 views in December this equates to an impression-to-view ratio of 1.785.

Assuming that I receive the same number of views per month, $15/month * 12 months = $180 USD/year. With this amount of revenue, my blog can finally run itself!

Blog Budget Breakdown (yay, alliteration!)

Item  Value 
Yearly Ad Revenue ($15 USD * 12 months)  $ 180.00
Domain Name Registration (1 year for 3 domains, assuming CAD-to-USD conversion rate of 0.8x)  $  (76.80)
G Suite (1 year, assuming CAD-to-USD conversion rate of 0.8x)  $  (48.00)
Final Balance (USD)  $   55.20

If I assume that my current view count doesn’t change, this would leave me with a little over $50 USD in pocket change by the end of the year. Perhaps this money could be put to use to buy some more things to make blog posts with – maybe some iPhone batteries or an eMMC module or two…

Once again, thanks to all of my readers – I couldn’t have done any of this without you! 😀

Packing Boxes & Stomachs: Edible foam packing peanuts?!

Earlier today I picked up my replacement fire extinguisher from Kidde (check out the recall here) and noticed the packing peanuts weren’t the pearlescent S-shaped Styrofoam peanuts I was used to seeing – rather, they looked like fluffier versions of Cheetos (cheese puffs). This piqued my curiosity… can you eat these?

To see whether these were at least water-soluble, I poured a small amount of water on one of these peanuts, and it dissolved within seconds. Now that I’ve determined that these packing peanuts are indeed the biodegradable type, it’s time to take the taste test…

DSC_2709

A biodegradable (and edible!) foam packing peanut.

… So, how do they taste?

Perhaps surprisingly, they taste faintly of popcorn; I was expecting them to taste more unpleasant like cardboard, but these had a fairly agreeable yet neutral flavour and I suspect that they can be seasoned with a dry popcorn seasoning with little issue, but they may need a light spray of cooking oil in order to make the seasoning adhere to the peanut.

There are multiple manufacturers of biodegradable packing peanuts (one example is Puffy Stuff), and these are made from some form of starch like corn. However, these packing peanuts are basically devoid of any significant nutritional value, making them less attractive to animals and/or pests. Reference.com says that they are not manufactured under food-safe conditions, and are therefore not recommended for human consumption.

… I’m still going to eat these anyway. 😛 *crunch munch*

Self-discharge test of Kentli PH5 1.5V Li-ion AA (Part 5)

It’s amazing – 894 days (and counting) have elapsed since the start of my long-term experiment, documenting the real-world self-discharge behavior of the Kentli 1.5V Li-ion AA battery… and it’s still ongoing! How have things fared so far?

Surprisingly, even after spending nearly 30 months on the shelf, there is still 12% capacity left. The voltage has dropped from 4.216 to 3.692 volts according to my bq27621 Li-ion fuel gauge; the State of Charge (SoC) has dropped 50% since my last update.

november 28 2017 stats

The linear end date prediction is holding pretty steady, having changed slightly to an estimated 0% charge date somewhere in February 2018.

On that note, I’m impressed by how much attention this little battery has received, even years after my initial review. Every day I see a handful of views checking out the teardown and performance metrics, and there seems to be hardly any sign that this will change anytime soon. To everyone who stops by to check out my blog posts: thank you! 🙂

Mini-Ramble: So… WordAds!

I’ve finally done it – I took the plunge and tried to find out if I can enable advertisements on my blog (*gasp*) through the WordAds program – and as it turns out, yes!

Given what I’ve seen online, WordPress has always been vague on one of their acceptance criteria: views per month. They state on their own FAQ that they require “thousands of pageviews each month to earn meaningful revenue”. There were no clear answers from other bloggers either. In my case, I’ve had a paltry 8,000 views/month on average ever since I registered my domain, ripitapart.com (I had over 10,000 views/month when I was using the free WordPress domain). Given that I tend to blog about relatively niche topics (who really cares about battery fuel gauges, anyway?), this is not particularly unexpected; this isn’t helped by the fact I haven’t been posting frequently as of late (so far I have dozens of draft posts, with some that probably won’t be completed as they have essentially gone ‘stale’).

Application for WordAds

I submitted an application request for the WordAds program on November 20, 2017. Immediately after filling out the form I was given an automated message that I was initially declined due to insufficient viewership (but they would keep my request open until I had achieved enough page views per month). However, the next morning I awoke to an email that read “Welcome to WordAds!” – a pretty nice way to start the day. I’m guessing that the number of outstanding applicants were low, and that my content is original enough to warrant acceptance into the WordAds program. Perhaps there is a manual component to reviewing these applications?

So, what about earnings?

Given that it hasn’t even been a week since I was accepted into WordAds, it’s far too early to say how much I’ll actually get out of these advertisements; on that note, since I use WordPress’ Free plan/tier, there were always advertisements on my site (I didn’t get any revenue from those ads, however). Given how most people likely use an ad blocker (myself included), this will further reduce the amount of revenue I can generate from this blog. WordAds will only pay out advertisement revenue when earnings accumulate past $100, which means I won’t actually receive anything until that point… and who knows how long that will be.

Unlike other advertisement platforms, I do not get real-time analytics of ad traffic, and statistics for the month are only updated near the end of the next month (in my case, this means I will not see any information on November’s earnings until the end of December). One common complaint about WordAds is the lack of customization for ads that will be shown; on the flip side, the advertisement system does all the back-end work so I don’t need to lift a finger in that regard.

Your thoughts?

This is the first time I’ve ever tried online traffic advertisements and site monetization, so saying I’m inexperienced in this field is a bit of an understatement. However, I’m curious as to where this will go, and how this will affect my reader base.

What’s your experience with ads on my blog? I’d love to hear your comments on it, especially as time goes on.

Ramble: Photobucket & Poor Judgment – How NOT to notify your users of a policy change!

Earlier today, I was searching through my spam inbox and noticed a particular email that appeared to be sent from Photobucket, notifying me that they no longer allow third-party links or embedding of any images on a free account. They offered a link to upgrade to a “Plus 500” account, and even included a section reading “Are my pictures still safe?” which reads much like a ransom note rather than a Terms of Service (ToS) update! What struck me as very odd is that they used the domain name of “PBDeals.com” which looks highly suspicious – especially at first glance. In my opinion, it’s a particularly poor choice for domain name, a few steps away from “GiveUsMoneyOrYourPicturesWillNeverSeeTheLightOfDayAgainLovePhotobucket.com” 😛 .

clip (2017-07-18 at 04.48.57)

Photobucket third-party hosting notification email

Is this for real? Considering that Gmail has already flagged it as a spam email (as with other emails from that domain), I decided to do some investigation.

The verdict? It’s for real, alright. Their cheapest paid plan (Plan 50) costs $6/month or $60/year, but their Plan 500 costs a whopping $40/month or $400/year!

Despite their unprofessional-looking email, I understand where Photobucket is coming from. Hosting is not cheap, and if their statement that 75% of their operational costs comes from free account users is true, I can see why they want to receive recurring payments in order to keep their server drives spinning. (Granted, I can’t exactly say I’m innocent, considering that I’m still on WordPress’ free tier although I am paying for three domain names over two blogs.)

Despite my feelings of sympathy for Photobucket, what I cannot understand is why they would use a domain name that is shared with their online store for esoteric cheap-looking goods. If it weren’t for the Photobucket logo in the top left-hand corner, I’d have assumed this was a spam domain and exited the site immediately; I still did, but not before taking this screenshot:

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PBDeals online front page

Pretend that the Photobucket logo isn’t there. Would you stay on that site? I know I wouldn’t.

In conclusion…

Photobucketplease write your Terms of Service notifications with a little more professionalism next time! Thanks for helping me make my decision – I think I’ll stick with the free plan for now.

--- END OF RANT ---

Domain Get… again!

Another domain? You betcha!

My blog is now also accessible at http://jasongin.com. There isn’t any real different content if you follow the link; it just links to my normal domain at http://ripitapart.com.

But why another domain?

In a nutshell, it’s for the ability to register a more professional email address for work-related use (think resumes and so on). Coupled with WordPress G Suite integration, this allows me to easily create an email address that is truly unique (since a similarly named Gmail address has already been taken 😛 ).

The cost isn’t too high, about $100 CAD for a year’s worth in subscription fees.

Now, for formal communication, I am reachable at jason.gin@jasongin.com but any other conversation should be directed towards my personal email, ginbot86@gmail.com.

eMMC Adventures, Episode 1: Building my own 64GB memory card with a $6 eMMC chip

As seen on Hackaday!

There’s always some electronics topic that I end up focusing all my efforts on (at least for a certain time), and that topic is now eMMC NAND Flash memory.

Overview

eMMC (sometimes shown as e.MMC or e-MMC) stands for Embedded MultiMediaCard; some manufacturers create their own name like SanDisk’s iNAND or Hynix’s e-NAND. It’s a very common form of Flash storage in smartphones and tablets, even lower-end laptops. The newer versions of the eMMC standard (4.5, 5.0 and 5.1) have placed greater emphasis on random small-block I/O (IOPS, or Input/Output operations per second; eMMC devices can now provide SSD-like performance (>10 MB/s 4KB read/write) without the higher cost and power consumption of a full SATA- or PCIe-based SSD.

MMC and eMMC storage is closely related to the SD card standard everyone knows today. In fact, SD hosts will often be able to use MMC devices without modification (electrically, they are the same, but software-wise SD has a slightly different feature set; for example SD cards have CPRM copy protection but lack the MMC’s TRIM and Secure Erase commands. The “e” in eMMC refers to the fact that the memory is a BGA chip directly soldered (embedded) to the motherboard (this also prevents it from being easily upgraded without the proper tools and know-how.

When browsing online for some eMMC chips to test out, I found a seller that had was selling 64 GB eMMC modules for $6 Canadian per pop; this comes out to a very nice 9.375 cents per gigabyte (that’s HDD-level pricing right there!). With that in mind, I decided to buy a couple modules and see what I could do with them. A few days later, they arrived in the mail (and the seller was nice enough to send three modules instead of just two; the third module’s solder balls were flattened for some reason).

Toshiba eMMC Module

Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII eMMC 4.41 modules

Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII eMMC 4.41 modules

The Flash memory I used is a Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII. According to a Toshiba NAND part number decoder:

  • TH: Toshiba NAND
  • G: Packaged as IC
  • B: Vcc (Flash power supply) = 3.3 V, VccQ (controller/interface power supply) = 1.8 or 3.3 V
  • M: eMMC device
  • 4: Controller revision 4
  • G9: 64 GB
  • D: MLC NAND Flash
  • 8: Eight stacked dice (eight 8 GB chips)
  • G: 24nm A-type Flash (appears to indicate Toggle Mode interface NAND)
  • BA: Lead-free and halogen-free
  • I: Industrial temperature grade (-40 to 85 degrees Celsius)
  • I: 14 x 18 x 1.2 mm BGA package with OSP (Organic Solderability Preservatives)

Given the low, low price of the eMMC chip, I had to make sure that I wasn’t given counterfeit Flash memory (often fake flash would have only 4 or 8 actual GB usable, with most of the address space looping over itself, causing data loss with extended usage). This involved find a way to temporarily connect the eMMC to my computer. I had a USB 2.0 SD/MMC reader on hand as well as a laptop with a native SD host interface, so now all I needed to do was break out the eMMC signals on the BGA package so that I can connect it to the reader.

eMMC Pinout… or is it Ball-Out?

There are plenty of pinouts for eMMC on the Internet, but they all show the pinout for a top view. Since I’m not soldering the eMMC to a PCB, I need to get a bottom view. I took a pinout diagram from a SMART Modular Technologies eMMC datasheet, rotated it to a landscape view, flipped it vertically, then flipped each row’s text in order to make it readable again. I then copy-pasted this into PowerPoint and traced out the package and ball pinouts. This allowed me to colour-code the different signal and power lines I’ll need to implement, including the data, clock, command and power lines. Curiously enough, one of the ground pins (VssQ, or controller/MMC I/O ground) was not a ground pin like the standard required; because of this, I decided to leave that pin open-circuit. Additionally, there were several pins that were not open-circuit, but did not have a known purpose either (these are probably used as test pads for the internal NAND Flash interface – perhaps they could be reused as raw NAND with the right controller, but the exact purpose of these pads will need to be reverse engineered).

Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII eMMC pinout (solder balls facing up)

Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII eMMC pinout (solder balls facing up)

eMMC Reader: Take 1 (Failed!)

For the first reader, I cut open a microSD-to-SD adapter, exposing the eight pins inside. I soldered a cut-up UDMA IDE cable and glued them in place. Despite my careful work, I still melted a hole through the thin plastic shell of the adapter; thankfully this did not affect the adapter’s ability to be plugged in.

I used double-sided foam adhesive tape and a piece of perfboard to create a small “test bed” for the eMMC module. Using some flux, solder wick, and a larger soldering iron tip, I removed all the (lead-free) solder balls on the center of the IC and replaced them with leaded solder bumps to make soldering the tiny 40-gauge magnet wire easier.

After bringing out the minimum wires required (VCC/VCCQ, GND, CLK, CMD, and DAT0 for 1-bit operation), I soldered the wires of my quick SD adapter, and plugged it into the SD card slot of a (very old) Dell Inspiron 9300.

Calling this board’s operation flaky doesn’t do it justice. It would fail to enumerate 9 out of 10 times, and if I even tried to do anything more than read the device capacity, the reader would hang or the eMMC would drop off the SD/MMC bus and show an empty drive in Windows. It was clear I had to do a full memory card “build” before I could verify the usability of the eMMC Flash memory.

eMMC in an SD Card’s Body: Take 1 (Success… half of the time)

I had a 16 MB (yes, megabyte) SD card lying around somewhere, but as usual, I couldn’t find it among all the clutter around my desk and workspace. Instead, I found an old, slow Kingston 2 GB SD card that I felt would be a worthy “sacrifice” since it was an older type that still had a thin PCB inside (most SD cards nowadays are monolithic, which means it’s one solid chunk with a few pads exposed). After opening up the case carefully with an Exacto knife, I wiggled out the old PCB. I desoldered the orignal 2 GB NAND Flash, and began work on breaking the SD card controller from the PCB as it was a chip-on-board design. It took a while, but I was able to ensure that none of the old SD card hardware would interfere with my rebuild.

I removed the eMMC from the board I made previously, and tested the thickness of it to ensure that it would fit inside the SD card case. It did, although the 0402 surface-mount decoupling capacitors I intended to install would cause a few bumps to be visible through the thin plastic SD card casing.

With my eMMC and SD card pinouts on hand, I used a small bead of epoxy to affix the eMMC to the PCB, balls-side up. I used magnet wire to connect the data lines (4 wires for 4-bit operation which is the maximum that the SD standard supports), and used the unused pads on the eMMC as a kind of prototyping space where I could install ceramic capacitors as close to the module as possible. I used a 0.1 µF 0402 size ceramic capacitor across the VDDi (eMMC internal regulator) and a neighouring GND pad. The rest of the power pads were wired in parallel with a few extra 0.1 µF capacitors added. I made use of the existing three 1 µF capacitors on the PCB as both extra decoupling and connection points for VCC and VCCQ. To prevent shorting of the inner CMD and CLK pins, I only removed the enamel coating from the magnet wire at the very end so I could solder them but avoid the issue of shorting those pins against the other signal and power lines. I then soldered these wires to the terminals on the other side of the PCB.

After spending about ten minutes wriggling the PCB into the SD card casing without damaging the wires, I used a multimeter to ensure all the pins were connected (use a multimeter in diode mode, with the positive lead connected to ground – any valid pins should read ~0.5 volts), and also ensured that there were no polarity reversals or shorts on the power pins.

Now… the moment of truth. At this point my USB 2.0 card reader still wasn’t cooperating with me, so I tried the only other ‘fast’ reader I had at the time – an SD to CompactFlash adapter.

To my relief, I finally got a (mostly) usable card. It appears this particular model has been pre-formatted with FAT32. Viewing the MBR in Hard Disk Sentinel shows nothing notable, apart from the fact that it’s pretty blank and is indicative that it wasn’t formatted for use as a PC boot medium.

Things began to fall apart after I tried running speed tests, as the card would hang if it experienced a lot of write activity at once. I suspected this was a power supply-related issue, so I modified my layout to add more capacitance. For good measure, I added 56 ohm termination resistance for the DAT0-4 data lines, using a small resistor network harvested from an old dead MacBook motherboard.

After these modifications, performance was much, much better. Now that the card was usable, I could finally run some speed tests.

eMMC in an SD Card’s Body – This time, with more feeling decoupling!

After adding several 100 nF and 1uF 0402-size ceramic capacitors on the eMMC package, I was able to get a stable card that could be read by (most) SD card readers. As I was rather anxious to get a decent benchmark from the eMMC, I decided to forego the cheaper Amazon Prime route, and go to my local PC parts store to buy a USB 3.0 card reader – the Kingston FCR-HS4.

After placing the eMMC and SD card PCB back into its plastic casing, I was relieved to see that Windows immediately recognized its presence. All I had to do then was open CrystalDiskMark and run the benchmark. Drum roll please…

Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII/064G4A benchmark in CrystalDiskMark

Toshiba THGBM4G9D8GBAII/064G4A benchmark in CrystalDiskMark

Although I was happy to get a usable benchmark score, my belief that all eMMC devices inherently had better 4K random I/O speeds than their SD counterparts was immediately busted. My guess is that random I/O wasn’t considered to be a priority until eMMC 4.5 or 5.0, and my eMMC modules are only version 4.41.

eMMC module listed as version 4.41

eMMC module listed as version 4.41

After the speed test, I ran the card through the popular Flash memory testing tool h2testw to make sure that I was not given a counterfeit device.

H2testw showing flash memory is good

H2testw showing flash memory is good

Excellent – it’s a genuine device. Despite the slower performance than expected, I’m happy that the memory capacity is as it should be.

“eMMC identification and CSD data, please”

As is the case with any USB memory card reader, I cannot access any of the eMMC device information (that is, the CID/Card Information Data and CSD/Card Specific Data registers). I took a spare SSD from my collection and got a quick Windows 10 installation running on one of my laptops that had a native SD host interface.

eMMC identified as Toshiba 064G4A MMC

eMMC identified as Toshiba 064G4A MMC

Interesting. The eMMC identifies itself as a Toshiba 064G4A MMC card. Googling that information brought up literally zero information, so it appears I’m the only one to have found (or published) any information about it. Although eMMCs support some degree of S.M.A.R.T. health reporting like mainstream SSDs and HDDs, no (easily-available) software (for Windows at least) is available to read it.

Linux has the ability to report the CID and CSD data as long as the native SD host interface is used, as opposed to a USB card reader.

CID: 11010030363447344100151344014e00
CSD: d00e00320f5903ffffffffef96400000
date: 04/2011
enhanced_area_offset: 18446744073709551594
erase_size: 8388608
fwrev: 0x0
hwrev: 0x0
manfid: 0x000011
oemid: 0x0100
preferred_erase_size: 8388608
prv: 0x0
raw_rpmb_size_mult: 0x2
rel_sectors: 0x10
serial: 0x15134401

With the help of Gough Lui’s CID and CSD decoders, I was able to gain some more information about the eMMC device, but not too much as the information I was originally interested in was already collected by this point.

Out of the Reader and Back Into the (CF) Adapter

Now that I know what the eMMC is capable of, I decided to try putting it back into my SD-to-CF adapter and doing another benchmark.

eMMC in FC-1307A SD-to-CF adapter. Note the limited performance of this chipset.

eMMC in FC-1307A SD-to-CF adapter. Note the limited performance of this chipset.

This test highlights one of the biggest limitations of the FC1306T/FC1307A chipset that so many adapters use: their performance is limited to a maximum of 25 MB/s per channel. Good thing I purchased that USB 3.0 reader…

Conclusion

This was quite the learning experience. I not only learned that eMMC flash memory does not necessarily have the near-SSD performance that the latest devices offer, but I learned how to “exploit” the unused pads of a BGA device as a sort of “prototype area” for soldering small components onto.

Did I save any money by rolling my own Flash storage device? Absolutely not – given how much time I spent on this, if I paid myself minimum wage ($12 per hour where I live), I could have bought at least three higher-performance 64GB SDXC cards with none of the frustration of trying to adapt an embedded memory device as a removable memory card. But where’s the fun in that? 🙂

Domain Get! – New domain, same great content! RipItApart.com is now live.

It’s about time – I’ve finally registered a proper domain name for my blog. Thanks to everyone’s input, I’ve decided to go with http://ripitapart.com.

Existing links from https://ripitapart.wordpress.com should automatically redirect to the new domain.

Self-discharge test of Kentli PH5 1.5V Li-ion AA (Part 4)

“It’s been a long time… How have you been?”

It’s been almost a year since I started my discharge test of the Kentli PH5 Li-ion AA battery, and the battery has lost almost 40% of its capacity due to self-discharge.

The discharge curve has gotten a lot less… linear since the last time I posted a self-discharge update. The battery is down to 62% state-of-charge, and its voltage has dropped down to 3.89 volts. Still, there’s a lot of time left until this battery reaches empty… but when?

I’m no statistician, but doing a linear extrapolation in Excel gives an approximate end date of January 2018, and the SLOPE() function in Excel gives me an average drop of 0.111%/day. Of course, this can easily change over the course of this test, but only time will tell…

Ramble / Poll: The State of Rip It Apart; Domains & Monetization?

2016 has flown by with considerable speed as of late – it’s already near the end of March the beginning of April, and I haven’t published a single blog post…

“So, what’s up with you?”

I will admit it – much of the radio silence on my blog stems from my own complacency. My desk/work area had accumulated vast amounts of detritus, many of them being half-done projects that never reached completion and years of deprecated audio equipment that wasted a good 1/3 of my entire desktop area – not to mention plenty of dust. All of this resulted in a workspace that made typing for any extended period of time quite uncomfortable; even attempting to play computer games had the risk of me breaking something, or vice versa.

This school year has been going pretty well. I’ve left Electronics Engineering and have started Broadcast Systems Technology; it’s essentially a mix of basic electronics, IT, radio and audio/video equipment. With that sort of fresh start (and extra credits that allowed me to free up considerable amounts of time), I’ve begun to clean up my area – a process that started in January and only recently has progressed to a point where I could “re-format” my desk space to maximize its usability.

Now that I’ve finally cleaned up my workspace, I can finally type in comfort again. I have several draft posts in various stages of completion, and I want to be able to get them finished up and published sometime soon (of course, no hard deadlines are set as I likely wouldn’t meet them anyway).

Domains & Advertisement Monetization

Over the years that I’ve been running this blog, my viewership has increased to levels I would have never anticipated when I first started writing blog posts on here, and I’d like to thank all of my readers for that.

As of late, I’ve averaged around 10,000 views per month, with significant peaks now and then. Because I’m currently running on the WordPress with a non-Premium account, most of my pages have advertisements in them that I have no control over. I can pay a hefty fee to go Premium and remove the advertisements completely, but I would like to at least to be able to get something out of those advertisements.

After looking online about WordAds, I’ve found out that I would need to register a proper domain name for this blog, which makes total sense – why bother putting branding on a .wordpress.com subdomain? Because of this requirement, I need to register my own domain… but what should I choose?

The whole issue of picking a domain for registration was one reason that I’ve been putting it off for so long. I could go with a domain with my name on it (literally!) in a similar vein as Gough Lui’s blog (disclaimer: I have absolutely no affiliation with him; I’m simply using his domain as an example… but on that note, his content is definitely worth checking out!), or perhaps simply remove the .wordpress portion of my blog’s URL.

With that decision in mind, then comes the choice of whom to register with. WordPress has their own service that ties seamlessly with their blogging platform, but incurs a higher cost than other providers. Alternatively, I can choose a lower-cost provider, but then I would need to manually connect that domain with WordPress’ platform. Admittedly, I have little experience when it comes to Web hosting; it’s why I started my blog on WordPress in the first place, and also one of the largest factors in my reluctance to register a domain for it in the first place.

Voice Your Opinion

Either way, domain registration and advertisement controls are decisions that can be put aside until later. On that note, if I were to register a domain, what do you think would be a good choice? Leave your choice in the poll below!

-Jason