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Electronic Junk Mail Teardown

I recently got some very surprising junk mail that contained a full-fledged embedded computer. This was a first for me, but I wonder if there will be more to come? Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to tear it apart and see what was inside.

The mail was something related to “The New Arconic”, which appears to be a proxy fight over control of the Arconic corporation (formerly Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America). They want me to vote for new candidates for the board of directors – blah blah boring. But instead of sending me a persuasive letter or glossy brochure, they mailed a purpose-built video player with a 3 inch TFT screen and control buttons built into a small cardboard envelope.

Nothing happened when I pressed the power button. Dead battery? I located a micro-USB connector on the side, plugged in a charger, and waited. After a few minutes, the distinct aroma of fried electronics began to fill the air, and the cardboard was extremely hot. Doh! Of course, the only thing left to do was tear the paper apart and see what was inside.

The guts contained a TFT display module, with a piece of paper glued to the back, and a small circuit board affixed to the paper. Everything was connected by point-to-point wiring, and appeared to be hand-soldered. A 500 mAh 1.85 Wh LiPo battery powered the system. Five standard 12 mm tactile switches were taped around the edges, and a circular element in the corner I’m guessing was a piezo speaker. The only component I couldn’t identify was a tiny circuit board containing a single 3-pin chip, attached to a 1cm circular metal disk. It’s labeled Q5, and I’m guessing it’s the transistor used to enable power to the main board. [It’s actually a magnetic relay that turns on the power when you open the box cover.]

The burnt part of the circuit was clearly identifiable, in a corner of the main board near what looked like two inductors.

The main board contained three large chips: a Toshiba FV194 14399AE, a Hynix _Y5DU561622DT-J, and an unbranded E200 GC137DA. The first letter of the Hynix part number was obscured by burnt crud. I couldn’t find any info on the Toshiba chip, but based on its appearance and by process of elimination I’m guessing it’s a flash ROM containing the video file to be played. The Hynix part is DRAM of some type, though I couldn’t find an exact match on the part. The E200 is a PowerPC based system-on-a-chip. While searching for info about it, I found this Hackaday article from 2014 describing a teardown of very similar hardware. It looks like this is a standard platform for disposable electronic advertising, and the Italian company that makes them is here.

Given that they mailed me a fire hazard that needs to be specially recycled, I’m not too sympathetic to New Arconic’s advertising.

Read 9 comments and join the conversation 

9 Comments so far

  1.   May 8th, 2017 9:30 pm

    That’s crazy. 90 % of them will probably get thrown away without ever being opened (at least I probably would think it’s just paper, I never give junk mail a second look). And all that for something that could be achieved by a QR code.

    From the build quality, it really looks like a prototype, not something that you produce in greater quantities…

  2. Buddy May 8th, 2017 11:20 pm

    Could you salvage the screen or anything?

  3. Benjamin Gillies May 9th, 2017 1:18 am

    I’d be curios to see if it could be repair and re purposed…

    The Hynix part of a 256 Mb DDR SDRAM (Missing letter is a H)
    Given that I’d hazard a guess the Toshiba chip os a flash chip.. I looks like one the flash chips found in old memory cards(I guess lots of chips look like that thou….)

    One would imagine if this were a mass produced advertising peice, you could easily program it with either a video or a full os, I doubt it would be hard coded..

  4. Steve May 9th, 2017 5:43 am

    Yes, it looks like the guy who started the Hackaday thread was successful in finding the video file in the flash memory, though I’m not sure he was able to edit it. The main board on this one is toast, but I’ve saved the battery, switches, LCD, and magnetic relay for possible use in a future project. The “relay” is especially interesting: it’s a very tiny Hall effect sensor with a digital output. Just supply power between 2 and 6 volts, and it will give you back a digital 0 or 1 to inform you if a strong magnetic field is present. Could be used as a cover switch, or a rotation sensor, or…

  5. vito May 11th, 2017 5:35 am

    I am the guy of the Audi flyer. It would play any .mp4 file loaded in the folder, once the hall sensor was triggered. I have scavenged all the parts, I even found the pinout of the tft display, it should still be in that forum somewhere, then I lost interest in the thing because it required too much time.

  6. Jeff W May 11th, 2017 5:45 am

    Last year I received a similar package from HP regarding data security. Mine had the same basic PCBA, but used a 7.5″ color TFT (presumably)LCD and had a 3.7VDC 1800mAh battery.
    There was liberal use of hot glue, foam, hand wiring, and recycled card stock formerly used for “Shape Eyebrow Pencil” marketing to house the electronics package. It has the same active/passive components yours had.
    The package also had 4 tactile switches, a magnetic switch which started the video when the promo page was turned open, mini-USB socket for charging, main PCBA, battery, speaker and the aforementioned speaker.
    It was quite a surprise to see this much electronics sent via snail mail to promote a service I didn’t need…

    If you’d like a picture I can send via PM

  7. Arnc May 11th, 2017 4:49 pm

    For clarity, this mailing is part of a media campaign by an activist investor (Elliot Management) who is agitating for CEO and board member changes at Arconic.

  8. Doktor Jeep May 13th, 2017 1:27 pm

    We are truly at an apex of our civilization when we can just throw away computers like this.

    Hopefully a day won’t come when kids are bringing broken calculators to us and asking what it was, and we get to tell them “well once we had so many of them we would throw them away..”

  9. Peter May 19th, 2017 1:50 pm

    I received this package and researched the mailing which is how I found this forum. Seems like Elliott Management is irresponsibly trashing the environment by sending these electronics around. The least they could have done is include a prepaid mailer to return this to the circuit-board recycling company. Now I have a package waiting for a visit to Best Buy according to their instructions, but I’m skeptical this will work.

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