Understanding the APA102 “Superled”

A couple of weeks ago I reported about a new type of RGB-LED with integrated controller, the APA102. One of the interesting new features of this device is a two-wire SPI interface instead of the proprietary one-wire protocol of the more common WS2812. Many microcontrollers have hardware SPI functions, which allow easy control of these LEDs, as opposed to timing critical bit banging. But it turned out this was not the end of the story. As pointed out by Bernd in a comment, there is some discrepancy between the datasheet and the actual behavior of the devices when it comes to the “end frame”. Reason enough to subject the APA102 to more scrutiny.

The diagram below summarizes the APA102 protocol as found in the data sheet.

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Follow up on Candle Flicker LEDs

I previously reported on reverse engineering a candle flicker LED. My approach was to extract the “flicker” pattern from the input current variation and to deduce the algorithm from statistical analysis.

Reverse engineering the controller chip

Of course there is another, more involved, approach. And that is to reverse engineer the circuit directly from the die. Andrew Zonenberg from Siliconpr0n decapsulated and imaged the controller chip from one of my LEDs. You can find his report here.

He managed to obtain very high-resolution optical microscopy images of the top-level metal. It turns out that the controller chip is manufactured in a relatively coarse CMOS process with one metal layer and 1-2 µm resolution. This is 1980ies technology. But of course, that is all that is needed for a circuit as simple as a flicker-LED.

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Light_WS2812 library V2.0 – Part I: Understanding the WS2812

WS2812 LEDs are amazing devices – they combine a programmable constant current controller chip with a RGB LED in a single package.  Each LED has one data input and one data output pin. By connecting the data output pin to the data input pin of the next device, it is possible to daisy chain the LEDs to theoretically arbitrary length.

Unfortunately, the single-line serial protocol is not supported by standard microcontroller periphery. It has to be emulated by re-purposing suitable hardware or by software timed I/O toggling, also known as bit-banging. Bit-banging is the preferred approach on 8 bit microcontrollers. However,  this is especially challenging with low clock rates due to the relatively high data rate of the protocol. In addition, there are many different revisions of data sheets with conflicting information about the protocol timing. My contribution to this was the light_ws2812 library V1.0 for AVR and Cortex-M0, which was published a while ago. A V2.0 rewrite of the lib was in order due to various reasons. And, to do it right, I decided to reverse engineer and understand the WS2812 LED protocol to make sure the lib works on all devices.

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Hacking a Candleflicker LED

Let’s reverse-engineer a LED, pedantic mode.

Lately, cheap electronic candles seem to be everywhere. I never paid much attention to them until recently it came to my attention that they actually use a special type of light emitting diode with integrated “candleflicker” controller. Now this is something different – who doesn’t like obscure LEDs? Half an hour later I had managed to score a bag of candleflicker-LEDs from the chinese manufacturer.

Very nice, you can not do that with real candles. But the interesting part is of course: How do they work? Considering that they literally sell for a few cents a piece, there can not be very expensive electronics involved. This raises another question: Are these cheap LEDs really worse than all the self-made microcontroller based LED-candles around the web?

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