Making USBasp Chinese Clones Usable

I don’t have any dedicated programmers. I have been programming Atmel chips using the USB-to-serial bitbang method.

Recently, I thought I’d get one because doing a re-programming cycle is taking quite a bit of time (a disadvantage of serial port bitbanging).

A popular one on Aliexpress seems to be this “USB ISP” one, so I bought one. I chose this one because it has a nice aluminium case, and a pinout diagram imprinted on the case, which is handy. After having so many one-off projects with bare PCBs collecting dust, I now appreciate the importance of having projects in their own box or case.

USB ISP programmer with aluminium case

While it has “USBasp” in the item name, it turns out that this was not a USBasp device, and getting it to work like one takes some effort.

It identifies itself as a zhifengsoft HID device when I plug it into Linux:

usb 3-1: new low-speed USB device number 3 using ohci-platform
usb 3-1: New USB device found, idVendor=03eb, idProduct=c8b4
usb 3-1: New USB device strings: Mfr=1, Product=2, SerialNumber=0
usb 3-1: Product: USBHID
usb 3-1: Manufacturer: zhifengsoft

avrdude does not recognize the device, even after creating an entry with the corresponding vendor/product ID. This particular device was designed to work with their Windows-based UI called ProgISP and will not work with avrdude.

And apparently you can’t just take the USBasp firmware and flash it into this device, because the circuit is somewhat different.

After some research based on the PCB markings, I found these sites that talk about them:


Disassembling the device is simple. While grabbing the side of the case, firmly push the USB connector inwards and the board should slide out the other end. You can then gently pull the board out by the IDC connector.

Disassembly how-to photo

The programmer seems to be based off of the popular USBasp programmer, but modified somewhat (to what end I’m not sure). It lacks some features offered by other USBasp programmers, like the ability to control the target’s clock, or to use 3.3V for certain targets. But at $2 with a nice aluminium case, what more can you ask for?

It’s powered by an ATmega88 (I read that older versions were based on ATmega8). The markings on the board indicate that this is a MX-USBISP-V4.00. You can ignore tHe date because it was never updated; the older V3.02 also has the same date. While the GreenPhotons blog was talking about V3.00, I have verified that this version suffers from the same issue.

USBISP programmer, with aluminium case


Note that there are provisions on the PCB to add a voltage regulator, and the PCB link marked “C” can be cut to separate USB power from the rest of the system. Link “D” can be cut if you wish to disable target power. However, none of these options were used.

The crucial difference with this clone is that the USB D- pin is additionally connected to PD3, shown here highlighted in blue:

Clone difference in schematic view

However, in the USBasp’s main() function, PORTD‘s data direction register was initialized like so:

  /* all outputs except PD2 = INT0 */
  DDRD = ~(1 << 2);

This causes the USB D- line to be actively driven from PD3, thereby impeding communication to/from the USB host.

The rest of this post will talk about (1) correcting this problem in USBasp, and (2) uploading the firmware into your zhifengsoft programmer.

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Paper Shredder Repair

Now is probably a good time to mention that I have a paper shredder. When I was shopping for a shredder, the basic requirement is that it must be relatively “secure”. Straight cut shredders (that produce long straight strips) are definitely not secure.

Ultimately I settled on the CARL DS-3000 personal paper shredder. The DS-3000 is a cross-cut shredder which produces “particles” no larger than 2mm x 4.5mm and this meets DIN security level 4. These days, the NSA mandates 1mm x 5mm “particles” for classified documents.

At this point, it’s probably helpful to show you what my shredder bin looks like:

shredder confetti

From the particles, you can make out various truncated words such as “A/C”, “exp” and the number “5”, but it’s almost impossible to reconstruct any bank balances or personal information from it.

This particular model was the right balance between my budget and the level of security. Plus, the shredder is compact enough to sit on your desk. I bought it in 2009 and I use it every couple of months when I have accumulated enough material that needs to be destroyed.

I was in the middle of shredding papers when it suddenly stopped working. Now the shredder does not respond when I stick paper into its slot. The LED indicator looks dimmer than usual when it is turned on.

But I’m not ready to give up on it just yet…

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CY-20 Cheap Flash Teardown

Following up on my DIY slave flash project, I thought I’d get something more powerful than that tiny Xenon bulb. I bought the cheapest flash on – the CY-20. It has a considerably large bulb and as a plus, it has what looks like a tiny window on the front for automatic output control. The main reason for getting this was the 2.5mm jack on the back of the flash that allows it to be externally triggered.

retaining clips on the CY-20

Opening it was easy. Remove the 4 screws that secure the hotshoe mount and go round the casing to release the retaining clips. Surprise surprise, take a look at the sensing window.

CY-20 open, showing the decorative

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Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter

Recently, Panic noticed the odd output resolution and MPEG-like artifacts with the new Lightning digital AV adapter and decided to take a hacksaw to it. They found an ARM processor inside.

Lightning digital AV adapter

image credit: Panic blog

Shortly after, they received an anonymous comment that explains it all:

The reason why this adapter exists is because Lightning is simply not capable of streaming a “raw” HDMI signal across the cable. Lightning is a serial bus. There is no clever wire multiplexing involved. […] We did this to specifically shift the complexity of the “adapter” bit into the adapter itself, leaving the host hardware free of any concerns in regards to what was hanging off the other end of the Lightning cable.

This system essentially allows us to output to any device on the planet, irregardless of the endpoint bus (HDMI, DisplayPort, and any future inventions) by simply producing the relevant adapter that plugs into the Lightning port. Since the iOS device doesn’t care about the hardware hanging off the other end, you don’t need a new iPad or iPhone when a new A/V connector hits the market.

While I understand what they are trying to achieve, I think it’s sad that this new Lightning system can no longer carry the uncompressed HDMI output. Maybe they could have streamed the raw video output in a format close to what HDMI expects, then have the adapter add headers and trailers to the data, but that would still be tricky since the system needs to stop sending frames while the adapter is doing its work. And what about HDCP?

Just one of the many tradeoffs that engineers need to make.