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p44-ledchain for MT7688

This is a kernel module for the MT7688 SoC (as used in Omega2/Omega2S modules, but also in Linkit Smart 7688, VoCore2, HLK-7688 etc.) which makes use of the SoC's hardware PWM to drive individually addressable WS281x-type RGB and RGBW LED chains.

(c) 2017-2019 by

How does it work

The main goal was to produce the WS281x timing without ever blocking IRQs for longer periods of time.

Fortunately, the MT7688 has 4 PWM units (2 of them can be used on the Omega2) that can produce a sequence of 64 precisely (25ns resolution) timed low and high periods. Sadly, there's no DMA to produce longer sequences. So p44-ledchain uses the PWM interrupt to push the next 64 bits into the PWM. The interrupt response time is fast enough (~5 µS) in most cases to still meet the LED chain timing requirements but not in all cases. That's why the driver measures the interrupt response time and when it detects that it has failed to meet the timing, it will retry updating the chain from beginning. This prevents flickering at the possible cost of a reduced frame rate depending on system load.

At this time, p44-ledchain is extensively tested with WS2813 LED chains up to 518 LEDs in a large project. The driver also has modes for WS2811, WS2812 and the RGBW SK6812 LEDs.

Note that WS2812 and P9823 are most demanding regarding timing, so these are likely to need a lot of retries (and some need ever tighter timing than 10µS idle time between bits, see optional maxTpassive param below).

In general, WS2812 might not work really well with long chains or in environments where other factors put extra load on IRQs. WS2813 are much preferable because they can tolerate pauses between bits up to 100µS, which IRQ response almost always can meet. WS2813 are better than WS2812 anyway - the PWM is faster and failure of single LED does not break the chain.

Using p44-ledchain

after compiling/installing the p44-ledchain kernel module package, activate the driver as follows:

insmod p44-ledchain ledchain<PWMno>=<inverted>,<numberofleds>,<ledtype>[,<maxretries>[,<maxTpassive>]]


  • PWMno The PWM to use. Can be 0..3 (Note: MT7688 PWM2/3 outputs are only exposed in the Omega2S, Omega2 only has PWM0 and 1).
  • inverted can be 0 for non-inverted and 1 for inverted operation.
  • numberofleds is the maximum number of LEDs in the chain. This number determines the size of the buffers allocated, but a too large LED count does not affect performance when using shorter chains.
  • ledtype selects the correct timing and byte order for different LED types:
    • 0 : WS2811 RGB LED driver (separate chip, rather ancient). Note: some WS2811 chips reportedly (thanks @Marti-MG!) do not work in this mode - but work fine in WS2813 mode.
    • 1 : WS2812 and WS2812B RGB LEDs. Note that WS2812 have the most demanding timeout, as the maximum time between two bits may not exceed 10µS, and some chips might need less than 6µS. By default, WS2812 mode assumes 10µS, but if you see flickering in wrong colors then you need to tweak maxTpassive down and/or maxrepeats up, see below.
    • 2 : WS2813 RGB LED with relaxed timing and single failed LED bridging. Generally, prefer WS2813 over WS2812 when possible ;-)
    • 3 : P9823 RGB LED in standard 3mm and 5mm LED case, similar timing as WS2812 but different byte order (RGB rather than GRB)
    • 4 : SK6812 RGBW four channel LED, similar timing to WS2812
  • optional maxretries sets how many time an update is retried (when it could not complete due to IRQ response time not met). By default, this is 3.
  • optional maxTpassive sets the maximum passive time allowed between bits in nanoseconds. By default, this is set to a known-good value for the LED type. But especially in case of WS2812, some chips might need more tight timing. Note that the driver is unlikely to work for values below 5000nS and longer chains, because the average interrupt response time in an MT7688 is around 5000nS, so demanding less is likely to make no update get completed at all. For "difficult" WS2812 chips, I found that maxretries=10 and maxTPassive=5100 gives usable results. But try to set maxTpassive higher if possible. The default used in WS2812 mode is 10µS.

So, the following command will create a /dev/ledchain0 device, which can drive 200 WS2813 LEDs connected without inverter to PWM0.

insmod p44-ledchain ledchain0=0,200,2

Of course, the pin multiplexer must be set such that PWM0 is actually output on the pin:

omega2-ctrl gpiomux set pwm0 pwm

Now, with a WS2813 ledchain connected, you can update the LEDs by just writing a string of bytes into /dev/ledchain0:

echo -en '\xFF\x00\x00\xFF\x00\x00' >/dev/ledchain0

This should make the first two LEDs bright red.

Another example: a "difficult" old WS2812 chain might be used on /dev/ledchain1 with:

insmod p44-ledchain ledchain1=0,200,1,10,5100

It will have a reduced frame rate, because it will probably need a lot of retries to meet the 5100nS maximum idle time between bits.


  • Writing to the ledchain device will never block. Every write triggers an update of all LEDs starting with the first LED. In case the previous update is still in progress when the ledchain device is written again, it will be aborted and a new update cycle with the newly written data will be started.

  • You should use a 3.3V to 5V level shifter between the Omgea2/MT7688 PWM pin and the LED chain for reliable operation. Direct connection sometimes works, but the high level from the 3.3V output seems to be just on the minimum edge of what a 5V WS281x recognizes as high. Tiny differences in supply voltage for the LED chain can make it work or not.

  • To check if the driver has completed applying the previous updates, and to see some statistics, the ledchain device can be read: cat /dev/ledchain0. The meanings of the values shown are:

    • The first line shows either "Ready" (when updating LEDs is complete) or "Busy" when an update is in progress.

    • Last update: on the second line shows:

      • retries: number of retries that were needed to complete the last update (write to /dev/ledchainX)
      • last timeout: the last IRQ response time that triggered a retry, because it was larger than the minimum chain reset time (defaults: 10'000nS for WS2812, 100'000nS for WS2813)
      • min..max irq: the lowest and highest IRQ response times measured during this update which did not trigger a retry. Helps to estimate the minimum possible setting of maxTpassive.
    • Totals: on the third line shows:

      • updates: how many updates total (writes to /dev/ledchainX) have been requested.
      • overruns: how often updating the chain was stopped before it was completed, because the next update came too early. This does NOT cause flickering, but might cause LEDs further down the chain not receiving updates.
      • retries: how often the update had to be restarted, because the interrupt response was too slow and the update process had to be restarted before the whole chain was updated. That by itself should also NOT cause any flickering, but will only reduce the max possible frame rate because of the retries.
      • errors: how many times an update could not be applied after maxretries (default: 3) retries. In these cases, the driver gives up retrying, so the update of the LEDs will be incomplete (until a new update is started). If this happens a lot, you might want to increase maxretries.
      • irqs: just a counter of how many interrupt requests have been handled. One IRQ happens after every 64bits of PWM output, and one LED bit takes 2 or 3 PWM bits, so it's roughly one IRQ per updated LED.
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