(Part 2 of 2) Microdrive Adventures: Looking into (and butchering) the Hitachi Microdrive and Seagate ST1 CompactFlash hard drives

(Part 1 viewable here)

Content advisory: electronics gore! 😀

refundI sent screenshots from Hard Disk Sentinel to the seller of the microdrives, and they refunded my money but didn’t want the drives back. Even then, it’d probably be a good idea to destroy the drives since re-use of them would be a bit… fraudulent after getting refunded. I decided to throw the drives around to see how well they’d hold up to physical abuse.

The Microdrive died when I whipped it against the concrete floor of my basement, go figure. The impact was strong enough to bend the steel frame but not enough to shatter the glass hard disk inside. Obviously, the disk didn’t spin up or enumerate in Hard Disk Sentinel. Now that the drive’s murder has been accomplished, it’s autopsy time!

The Seagate ST1 was put through a similar treatment, but it died much less gracefully when plugged in. The main controller chip (I think) shorted internally, and after about 15 seconds of being powered up, it released the magic smoke. The board’s plastic liner was melted where the chip shorted out. The drive internals weren’t much different than the Hitachi drives so I didn’t bother taking pictures of the drive’s insides.

After the damage was done, the drives were promptly put in a small plastic bag to be put in an electronics recycle bin.

(Part 1 of 2) Microdrive Adventures: Looking into (and butchering) the Hitachi Microdrive and Seagate ST1 CompactFlash hard drives

A few weeks ago I decided to hop onto eBay and buy a couple microdrives for fun. If you haven’t heard of the term, a microdrive is a hard disk drive that fits into a CompactFlash slot. These were intended to be the future in mobile storage, with 20 GB drives being the biggest around 2006. Of course, these drives proved to be very delicate, and besides, now we get 128 GB microSD cards!

The drives I purchased appeared to be pulled from some old iPod minis. The seller tried to remove the Apple logo with some sort of solvent, but left the smudges behind.

The problem with the iPod mini drives is that their CompactFlash interface is disabled. That is, the drive is really just a PATA drive in a CompactFlash’s body. Few devices that aren’t PCs support CompactFlash cards in this mode.

Being the curious type, I popped the drives into my Sony Clie NX73V, which I still carry with me even though it’s 11 years old 🙂 . It has support for CompactFlash Type I and II (thin and thick, basically), and, according to the properties window in the OS, uses the ATA protocol to talk to the cards. This means it should interface with the cards just fine… right?

First, I popped the Hitachi Microdrive in my Clie. One second after inserting the card, I see a question mark in the memory card’s taskbar icon. No dice.

Then, I moved on to the Seagate ST1. It spun up, but the Clie hung for about 30 seconds before finally displaying “The card cannot be recognized”. However, it did at least enumerate with the OS and I could pull up the manufacturer and model number of the drive.

Hm, well those ideas were dashed pretty quickly. Later, I bought a CompactFlash-to-PATA adapter, and a PATA-to-SATA adapter so I could hook it up to my laptop. From there, I used Hard Disk Sentinel (great software, by the way!) to analyze the drives and see if they have S.M.A.R.T. health reporting…

… and they do, alright! In fact, the drives I purchased were both soon to be dead. The Seagate drive had hundreds of bad sectors and a failing disk head/head actuator. The Hitachi drives had so many reallocated sectors that the drive literally ran out of spares. Too bad the Microdrive didn’t report how many sectors were reallocated though…

The drives themselves were in really bad shape, as seen below:

In the next part, I’ll show the aftermath of both drives. (Content Advisory: electronics gore)

Convenient chips, inconvenient packages: Making use of the Texas Instruments bq27421-G1 lithium-ion battery fuel gauge chip

As seen on Hack A Day!

I ordered some sample chips from TI a few weeks ago, most of them being lithium-ion battery “fuel gauge” chips. These chips are used in electronic devices to determine exactly how much energy is in the battery, and if the chip’s sophisticated enough, provide a “time until empty” prediction.

The bq27421 from TI is packaged in a tiny 9-ball grid array, packaged as a wafer-level chip scale package (WLCSP). This means there is no epoxy covering like normal ICs, making for a compact design that’s a good thing for space-constrained applications like modern cell phones. I’ll talk about this chip later on in this post.

The tiny BGA package means that prototyping with these chips is difficult if not impossible, depending on how large the chip is that you’re working with. The bq27421 is about 1.6 mm x 1.6 mm, which is less than 1/3 of the size of a grain of rice. No way you’d be able to put that on a breadboard… right?

2013-06-14 15.51.58Well, you can, with a small breakout board, some magnet wire, epoxy (a bigger deal than you might initially think), patience and steady hands. I mounted the chips in what I call a mix between dead-bug (where the contacts face up as if the chip was like a dead bug on the ground) and chip-on-board construction (where the chip is glued directly to a board, wire-bonded and then covered in epoxy). I used some SOIC-to-DIP boards from DipMicro Electronics (link). I often use these boards when doing work on prototyping board since using these surface-mount parts reduce the board’s height compared to using actual DIP packaged chips (which are much less common for modern ICs anyway).

The chip is first affixed to the breakout board using a small amount of epoxy and allowed to cure for several hours. The epoxy, from what I’ve found, is crucial to your success; superglue and other adhesives won’t stand up to the heat of a soldering iron, and if it loosens you can end up ruining your chip and wasting your time spent working on it.

After letting the epoxy cure, I then prepare the bond pads around the chip. I place a liberal amount of solder on each pad to allow easy connection with the iron later; I want to minimize the stress on the tiny 40-gauge magnet wire because once the connection is made, the solder ball that the chip came with won’t be as easy to solder to the second time around.

Next up is the actual soldering process. I created a pinout for the board in PowerPoint to help plan out how I’ll solder the wires. After tinning a long length of 40-gauge magnet wire, I then solder the wire first to the solder ball on the chip, then solder the other end to the pad I previously put solder on. To minimize the stress on the wire afterwards, I use a small utility knife to cut the end of the wire where the pad is. I then complete this for the rest of the contacts. This took me an hour and a half the first try, but took me about 20 minutes the second time around. Also, for my second try, for the BAT and SRX pins, which carry the full current for any loads connected, I used 30-gauge wire-wrapping wire to allow a bit more current-carrying capacity. It probably is overkill since the maximum current rating for the bq27421 is 2 amps continuous, but I felt a bit more at ease connecting the pins this way.

After checking for short and open circuits with a multimeter I then placed headers onto the board and put it into my “evaluation board” that I created just for this chip. Using an EV2400 box from TI, used to connect to their vast range of battery-management chips, I connect the box to my PC and run their GaugeStudio software to verify that the chip works.

… and it does, like a charm! I was able to communicate with the chip and also view its operation in real-time.

One thing that was causing me trouble before was that after removing the battery and putting another one in, I found that the gauge chip sometimes wouldn’t be recognized by the PC. Being unsure why it was doing this, I dug through the reference manual, and found one tiny part in the manual that showed me why it wasn’t working consistently.

gpoutThe GPOUT pin was left floating on my board, and the chip requires a logic high signal before it starts up. This brings back memories of my digital electronics class in college; these floating inputs can cause all sorts of trouble if you’re not careful, and in this case, it was mentioned only once in the reference manual. After using a 1 megohm resistor to pull up the pin, the chip worked flawlessly. Now that I verified that the chip was working, I mixed up some more epoxy and covered the chip, making sure that the bond wires and chip were covered to prevent damage.

After all that, I had a couple working highly-advanced battery gauges that I could fool around with, and also learned a couple things about deadbugging SMT components and also the basics of chip-on-board construction.