Build a Microcontroller-Based Mail Client

Does the sheer amount of junk mail that fills your Inbox make you hate everything about e-mail? If so, it’s time to have a little fun with electronic mail by building a compact microcontroller-based mail client system. Alexander Mann designed a system that uses an Atmel ATmega32 and a Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet controller to check continuously for e-mail. When a message arrives, he can immediately read it on the system’s LCD and respond with a standard keyboard.

Mann writes:

My MiniEmail system is a compact microcontroller-based mail client (see Photo 1). The silent, easy-to-use system doesn’t require a lot of power and it is immune to mail worms. Another advantage is the system’s short start-up time. If you want to write a quick e-mail but your PC is off, you can simply switch on the miniature e-mail client and start writing without having to wait for your PC to boot up and load the necessary applications. All you need is an Ethernet connection and the MiniEmail system.

Photo 1: The complete MiniEmail system includes an LCD, a keyboard, and several connections. (A. Mann, Circuit Cellar 204)

HARDWARE

The hardware for the MiniEmail system is inexpensive. It cost me about $50. The LCD is the most expensive part. To keep things simple, I left the system’s power supply, 5- to 3.3-V conversion crystals, and latch out of Figure 1.

Figure 1: This is a block diagram of MiniEmail’s hardware. The arrows indicate the directions of data flow between the devices. The rounded boxes indicate parts that do not sit on the circuit board.

The main components are an Atmel ATmega32 microcontroller and a Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet controller. Because a mail client is a piece of complex software, you need a fast microcontroller that has a considerable amount of program space. The MiniEmail system uses almost all of the ATmega32’s features, including the SPI, internal EEPROM and SRAM, counters, USART interface, sleep modes, all 32 I/O lines, and most of the 32 KB of program memory. The ENC28J60 is a stand-alone Ethernet controller that provides basic functionality for transmitting frames over an Ethernet connection. It has 8 KB of built-in SRAM, which can be divided into transmit and receive buffers as desired, and it provides several interrupt sources (e.g., when new packets have arrived). The ATmega32 also has 128 KB of external SRAM connected as well as an LCD, which is a standard module with a resolution of 128 × 64 pixels.

Take a look at the ATmega32’s pin connections in Figure 2. Ports A and C are used as 8-bit-wide general I/O ports, one of which is latched using an NXP Semiconductors 74HC573.

Figure 2: Here’s the complete schematic for the MiniEmail. The LF1S022 is the RJ-45 connector for the Ethernet connection.

The two ports provide data connections to the LCD and SRAM (U3). For the SRAM, you need three additional wires: write (*RAM_WR), read strobe (*RAM_RD), and the seventeenth bit of the address (ADDR16). The LCD connector (CON1) uses five additional wires (for the signals CS1, CS2, DI, EN, and RW). CS1 and CS2 are taken from the general I/O port A (DATA6 and DATA7) and determine which of the two halves of the LCD is selected (i.e., the two controllers on the LCD module you are talking to). RW (where you can use ADDR16 again) sets the direction of the LCD access (read or write). DI describes the type of instruction sent to the LCD. EN is the enable signal for read and write cycles. For the keyboard, you need only two pins: KEY_DATA and KEY_CLOCK. The clock signal must be connected to an external interrupt pin, INT1. One additional wire is needed to switch the latch (LE).

You are left with eight I/O pins on the ATmega32’s ports B and D. RXD and TXD are connected to a MAX232, an RS-232 level converter that also provides the negative supply voltage needed for the LCD (LCD_VOUT in Figure 2). The ATmega32’s USART functionality is used as a debugging interface. It isn’t needed for normal operation.

SOFTWARE

The firmware for this project is posted on the Circuit Cellar FTP site. I wrote the firmware in C language with a few small parts of inline assembler. I used the open-source software suite WinAVR, which includes the GNU GCC compiler with special libraries for AVR devices and avrdude, a tool for the in-system programming of AVR microcontrollers…

USER INTERFACE

The user interface consists of three control elements: menus, edit fields, and an elaborate text editor. A special screen (the Mail Menu) enables you to quickly browse through your mailbox. After power-up, the system displays a greeting message. After a short while, the Main menu appears (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: This is a screenshot of MiniEmail’s main menu. In the upper-right corner, a clock shows the current time, which is retrieved from the Internet. An arrow to the left of the menu items indicates the selected item. (A. Mann, Circuit Cellar 204)

The Compose Mail, Check Mailbox, and Configuration submenus form a hierarchical menu structure. When the other items listed beneath the respective menu titles in the diagram are activated (e.g., start the text editor), they enable you to input data, such as a username and password, or retrieve mail from the mail server. “Standby” is the only action that is accessible directly from the main menu. All other actions are grouped by function in the submenus.

WRITING MAIL

With respect to the firmware, sending mail is much easier than reading it, so let’s first focus on the Compose Mail menu. The first item in the menu starts the text editor so you can enter the body of your letter. You then enter the recipient’s mailing address and the subject of your e-mail, just like you would do when sending e-mail from your PC. Additional fields, such as CC or BCC are not included, but since this requires only one more line in the header of the mail, it is not difficult. Your e-mail also needs a reply address, so the recipient knows who sent the mail. The reply address is normally the same for all of the messages you write. The text you enter in this edit field is stored in the ATmega32’s EEPROM, so you don’t have to type it every time you write a letter. After you select the last menu item, “Send” initiates the dispatch of the mail and displays a message that indicates whether or not it was successful.

CHECKING FOR MAIL

What makes this part more sophisticated is the ability to handle not only one e-mail at a time, but also fetch mail from the server. The system can determine which messages are new and which messages have been read. It can also extract data such as the sender, subject, or sent date from the header of the mail and then display the information.

The amount of mail the firmware can handle is limited by the size of the external SRAM. The maximum number of e-mails is currently 1,024. (If you’ve got more mail, you will be so busy answering it that you won’t have time to build your own MiniEmail client—or you should delete some old mail). Note that 1,024 is the number of unique identifiers that the system can remember. The server assigns a unique identifier to each piece of mail. The system uses the identifiers to keep track of which letters are new on the server, which have already been read, and which have been marked for deletion.

All of the header data for all of the 1,024 messages cannot be held in SRAM at once; only the most recent (about 50) mail headers are held. When you want to browse through older e-mails, the firmware automatically reconnects to the server and fetches the headers of the next 50 e-mails.

When you select Check Mailbox in the main menu, you get to a submenu where you can retrieve and read mail. Before you can collect your mail, you must enter your username and password, which can be stored in EEPROM for your convenience. The firmware then retrieves the headers and displays the Mail Menu, where you can browse through your e-mail. Apart from the size and the date, the first 42 characters of the subject and the mail sender are shown. In the first row, additional icons indicate (from left to right) whether a message is new, has been marked for deletion, or has been read. You can view the content of the selected message by pressing Return. When the mail is fetched from the server, it is prepared for viewing. The header and HTML tags, as well as long runs of the same character, are stripped from the mail and base64 decoding (used to encode 8-bit characters) is performed, so the content of the message is as readable as plain text. Binary attachments (e.g., images) can’t be handled. Following this, the mail is viewed in the text editor (with editing disabled).

A similar action is performed when you press “r” in the Mail Menu. In that case, you can edit the text so you can add your reply. Leaving the text editor will bring you back to the Send Mail menu, where the reply address and subject will be filled in so your mail will be clear for take-off. To delete a message, simply press D to mark it for deletion….

OUTLOOK

I hadn’t imagined how many details would need to be considered when I started this project more than a year ago. It has been a very interesting and challenging project. It has also been a lot of fun.

The MiniEmail system provides all of the basics for communicating via email, but such a project is never really finished. There are still dozens of items on my to-do list. Fortunately, the ATmega32 can be replaced with a new member of the AVR family, the Atmel ATmega644, which is pin-compatible to the ATmega32 and has twice the flash memory (and internal SRAM). That will provide enough space for many of my new ideas. I want to get rid of the static IP address, add CC and BCC fields, use a bigger display or a smaller (variable-width) font, improve the filtering and display of mail content and attachments, and add an address book (it would be best in combination with an additional external EEPROM with an SPI, such as the AT25256).

This project proves, rather impressively, that the ATmega32 and the ENC28J60 are a powerful combination. They can be used for many useful Internet applications. My e-mail client system is surely one of the most exciting. I can think of many other interesting possibilities. At the moment, my MiniEmail assembly serves as an online thermometer so I can check my room’s temperature from anywhere in the world…

Mann’s entire article appears in Circuit Cellar 204, 2007. Type “miniemailopen”  to access the password-protected article.

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