Unbricking a TI-83 Plus calculator with a link buffer overflow

Friday, 2nd June 2023

A few years ago I started running into problems with my TI-83 Plus graphical calculator. I was unable to install applications – it would keep locking up when "defragmenting". In the end I attempted to reinstall the operating system to see if that would cure matters, but that failed too and in the process left the calculator in a state where it wouldn't boot at all. Switching it on you'd be presented with a screen prompting you to reinstall the OS:


Please install
software now.

If you tried to install the OS over the link port it would switch to a progress screen but then get permanently stuck at the 0% mark until you pulled a battery out.

I eventually found a program called Overflow by Brandon Wilson which described similar symptoms and a possible cause – a corrupt certificate page. Considering the problems I'd been having with the flash ROM before attempting the OS reinstallation it seemed possible that my certificate page might have become corrupt and that was preventing me from reinstalling the OS.

The Overflow program describes a technique whereby it can transfer a user-supplied program to the target calculator by sending a very large variable packet and taking advantage of a lack of bounds checking in the calculator's boot code. Unfortunately, I was unable to get it to work on my TI-83 Plus, in spite of many repeated attempts. I eventually bought a replacement calculator, though being a newer model and built to a much cheaper standard I was always a bit disappointed that my original calculator was lingering, bricked, in a drawer.

Photo of the repaired calculator (right) next to the its temporary replacement (left)
Photo of the repaired calculator (right) next to the its temporary replacement (left) – note the missing ID on the repaired calculator.

More recently I decided to revisit the problem, got a better understanding of just how the Overflow program worked and found a way to get it work on my original TI-83 Plus. The photo above shows the two working calculators I now have, though as I ended up having to erase the certificate page on the one on the right it now lacks an ID.

How Overflow works

The basic technique exploited here is that the TI-83 Plus boot code does not bounds-check the length of the link packet we're sending it, so by sending a very large packet we can overflow the intended buffer right up to user memory, send over a program we wish to execute, and then overwrite the Z80 stack with the address of our program so that when the link routines return it executes our program rather than returning to the boot code.

Overflow satisfies this process by filling up the memory as described above, then sending some correcting data so that the checksum for the oversized packet is equal to zero, and then sending a constant stream of zeroes until the transfer fails. The last two bytes of a transfer are the checksum, and by previously correcting the packet's checksum to zero this means that the packet will be seen as valid.

At this point the transmitting calculator detects the link error and tries to read back the acknowledgement from the receiving calculator, and all should be well.

Unfortunately, the TI-83 Plus seems to be more fussy about how it handles linking errors and once the attempt to send too many zero bytes has failed it just displays an error message and switches off, rather than letting us receive the acknowledgement before executing our payload.

Looking at the documentation for Overflow it seems to have been intended more for the TI-84 Plus series calculators, so it could be that they are more forgiving of the linking errors.

Trial-and-error with zero padding

If the problem is that we're sending too many zero bytes, one option is to count how many zero bytes we can send successfully. Once the attempt has failed, we can then make sure that on our next attempt we only send just the right number of zero bytes (based on our previous count) and no more, then check for the acknowledgement from the receiving calculator. To my delight this strategy works well, and is provided by the application's -zeropad option.

Unfortunately as over 30,000 zeroes need to be sent each time the exploit packet takes a long time to transmit and as we now need to do it twice this can really slow things down! Once a safe number is known this can be specified with -zeropad=<count> but it's still a time-consuming process.

Fixed-size packets for quicker transmission

The problem here is not knowing the size of the packet we're transmitting. The packet does start with a length parameter, however as the "number of bytes left to receive" counter is stored on the calculator's stack by the receiving routine we end up overwriting that with our exploit payload and the total number of bytes left to receive will end up depending on the particular stack level at the time.

In my testing the variable ends up being stored on the stack at the same address ($FFC1 for normal transfers, $FFBF for ones where the flash was previously unlocked). Knowing this means that as we trample over the stack deploying our exploit we can at least make sure that we leave that value in the state it should be for the current point in the packet transfer.

This is implemented in the program with the -fixed parameter, which executes much more quickly than the -zeropad one and only needs to run through once. It is however reliant on knowing exactly where on the stack the "number of bytes left to receive" variable is stored; if it's different from the two presets baked into the program it can be changed with -fixed=<hex addr>.

The program itself

Screenshot of the running BootExec program

In case it helps anyone else out, the program can be downloaded from this link. It's a .NET application and requires a computer with a serial port and a "black link" compatible serial cable (I use a home-made cable), which I appreciate is not exactly the most modern solution but is what I have access to.

It will allow you to transfer a standard "noshell" TI-83 Plus assembly program to the target calculator, with or without flash unlocked. As this is a potentially risky operation (especially with flash unlocked, which would allow you to completely brick the calculator by damaging the boot code) any such programs are left as an exercise to the user to be used at their own risk. The original Overflow program contains much more useful information, including a sample program that can erase the certificate page, though be warned that as written is is not designed for the TI-83 Plus and will erase the wrong page and so will need to be modified before use. This is only recommended as a last chance for calculators that are otherwise bricked and unusable!

Update 4th June 2023: The program now supports the USB "Silver Link" cable, though you will need to temporarily replace TI's driver with a generic WinUSB driver using Zadig. The download link is the same as before.

Update 7th June 2023: The program will now try to use TI's driver for the "Silver Link" USB cable, if available. This avoids the need to temporarily replace it with the WinUSB driver.

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