2023-08-08

ESP32-S3

I have worked through a few of these processors - starting with the ESP8266. I moved to the ESP32 quickly and have not looked back - initially with the WROOM module (which can be hand soldered), to the PICO module (which is smaller and needs solder stencil and paste).

But finally the ESP32-S3 (version 3 of the silicon) is available as a module, the ESP32-S3-MINI-1, so I am finally starting to use that. The fact that the ESP32-PICO-MINI seem to suddenly be out of stock, seems like the time to upgrade designs.

The S3 has several improvements which may be useful.

Size matters

A key difference is size. The ESP32-PICO-MINI (i.e. S1) is 13.2mm square plus antenna, but the ESP32-S3-MINI is 15.4mm square plus antenna. So 2.2mm wider and longer.

For almost all of my designs this slight change does not matter, and indeed, for some the other changes actually make things smaller. There are exceptions - the module to go in to the case of a Galaxy keypad may be too big as there is very little space.

However, there is one useful side effect of this extra size. I have a small 5 pad footprint for serial programming - it uses the same 5 pins as the Shelly, and is pretty much the minimum you can have for serial programming and debug (see on image above on the right of the components). Now the module is slightly bigger than can actually fit behind the module, so effectively taking no extra space on a single signed board. This is one of those small details that saves space - e.g. the design show above is now a couple of mm shorter as a result.

General purpose I/O

Another change is the GPIO. The S1 modules have fewer GPIO (27), but several of them are input only - all of one side of the module has no output GPIO. There are also a number of NC pins.

The S3 has more GPIO (39), and all of them are input and output. There are no NC pins (apart from GPIO26 when using the PSRAM based module). This means all three sides of the module have lots of usable GPIO. This is perfect for tracking as you can easily track to the nearest convenient GPIO, which saves space.

USB

This is where it gets both interesting and slightly disappointing.

The S3 has USB built in, so direct connection of D- and D+ pins to specific GPIO. It can be disabled, and it can be used in s/w as USB server or client side as needed, which is very cool. This saves space on many designs if no UART needed.

The default, starting point, is USB JTAG with USB serial. This appears on my Mac, for a totally un-programmed module, as a USB serial port. I can connect to it and see the boot loader serial output. This is excellent as it means I can use a much simpler interface to the module - no need for a UART. As many of my modules have USB for programming and debug, this makes it a lot simpler.

However, there is a snag, it seems. Whilst this works as you would expect as a serial console port over USB, it seems it does not provide the normal connection for RST to reset, and DTR to boot mode (GPIO0). So you can only really use it to load code if you have a button for GPIO0 and RST on your board. This is a lot of board space, and really is silly.

 UPDATE: I don't know what was wrong with my first test boards, but this is working, so, all OK! I think perhaps I simply had out of date tools on my Mac (e.g. esptool).

Now, there are a few rays of sunshine.

  1. It seems when un-programmed it does work in boot mode and so can be flashed, even though no RST or DTR working. That said, it seemed oddly intermittent, so I plan to do more testing on that. It may mean I can use USB for the initial loading of code and fuse settings.
  2. Obviously as a USB JTAG interface it may be that there are ways to force a reset and boot mode or load code over JTAG, but this is not obvious from the documentation. If I can work that out I can make boards which do not also need my 5 pad serial header, which is what I was aiming for.
  3. It is possible to internally detach this USB JTAG/serial and run USB from code in the module - this can handle code loading as a feature you compile in it seems (though even that suggests GPIO0 needed - why?!). I have not sorted that yet. My main concern is that if the code in the module does not have this, or is crashing, or whatever, I will have no fall back unless I have my serial header.

So more to do, and any help welcome. If there is a fallback for the USB JTAG working that allows code loading without having to do GPIO0 and reset, that would be really nice. For now, I'll keep my 5 pad serial, under the chip itself, as a fallback.

In theory OpenOCD is loaded, and should work for the JTAG. No idea how to use that yet, but that is a different matter as it does not work - some obscure error which sounds like a libusb issue on modern Macs. Arg!

Security

One small concern - JTAG is usually a very powerful interface on a system. If the chip is left with USB JTAG set up, perhaps because that is the only way to load code sensibly, it may also mean it can be controlled such as to allow secure boot and flash to be accessed. I.e. single stepping code after loading, etc. It may be that for security it needs the JTAG USB disabling (a one time e-fuse setting). I need to investigate. As a whole my security threat considerations have generally be based on physical access being a reasonable challenge, as the serial interface represents a similar risk in some cases, but it depends on the application.

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