DIY Bluetooth Keyboard Breakout for $10

You could get an excellent Bluetooth keyboard controller from Adafruit called Bluefruit EZ-Key which allowed super easy creation of projects that sent keyboard presses (for example a gamepad) just by connecting some switches to the pins. However, the EZ-Key cost $20 and is now discontinued. And in any case, Bluetooth-capable devboards are now available from AliExpress for a few dollars, so $20 today feels on the steep side. “Could it be done cheaper?” I wondered…

I have honestly about a dozen cheap wireless devboards lying around, many based on ESP8266 which only have Wi-Fi, but some also with ESP32 which includes Bluetooth. I spent some time trying to configure a Chinese ZS-040 serial Bluetooth module to function as a keyboard, but the AT command set was a very small subset of what the similar HC-05 / HC-06 modules have. After an evening of trying, I decided to give up on that. There are instructions how to flash HC-05 modules with RN-42 firmware to get Bluetooth HID capability, but it will require quite a few steps.

I also took a look at esp32_mouse_keyboard project, but for some reason or another, abandoned that avenue. Don’t recall if there were obstacles or the project was still incomplete a year ago, might also be that the ESP32 only had BT LE which technically didn’t support HID (Human Interface Device). Throw me a comment if you have that working!

Meanwhile, another idea dawned to me:

A Cheap Bluetooth Keyboard Must Contain A Bluetooth Module

Enter the wonders of AliExpress: While you cannot source an easy BT keyboard module from US under $20, you can get a full mini Bluetooth keyboard for $9.50 (at time of writing) including postage! This package ought to contain:

  • A fully compliant Bluetooth board that pairs with iOS, Android and PC devices
  • Full functioning keyboard and case
  • Presumably, a battery and a way to charge it

Sounds a too good deal to be true? Well, let’s find out! The keyboard has a solid metal backplate that is easily screwed open with micro cross head screwdriver. Once inside, it reveals a very professional layout with a flat ribbon cable (or “FCC cable”) coming from the mechanical part into the controller module, And a small (most likely LiPo) battery.

Taking the tape off and turning the board around reveals a bit spacious, but very professional looking PCB with clear markings. There are easily usable on/off switch and connect button on the PCB, a connector for the keyboard switches, and obviously some kind of microcontroller wired to the connector, as well as another smaller chip that is most likely a voltage regulator or charging chip.

I Googled around to find out if the “YC1026” MCU would have a datasheet to help me along the way, but unfortunately I only got Chinese web pages (most likely the manufacturer) without any documentation. Time to dig out my trusty Picotech 2000 scope and do some old-fashioned reverse engineering!
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