By Collin Allen

HD-DVD: Out of the Box

June 24, 2006

C net has a new Out of the Box feature where they cover the unpacking and set-up of new technology. Their debut video caught my interest, as a new Toshiba HD-DVD player is unpacked and – without even powering it up – dissected for all to see.

While I think it’s premature to choose sides in the upcoming format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, I do enjoy checking out how the players work. The opened HD-DVD player featured is essentially a Pentium 4-based PC with a few add-ons like the HD video decoder chip and a USB attachment containing the firmware. Surprisingly, the heavy lifting of the video decoding is done not by the Pentium 4, but by the HD decoder chip, leaving the P4 for tasks such as generating a pretty interface.

I look forward to see what other new technologies Out of the Box will cover, especially new Apple gadgets. WWDC is coming up in August, and I’m hoping for shiny new somethings from Apple. (Not glossy, mind you.)

Soldering SMD Devices

June 14, 2006

Today I found myself in the position of needing to re-solder a video connector to a laptop motherboard to resurrect the machine. Without the connector, the display couldn’t be connected properly and the laptop would have otherwise been a paperweight. I dug up a tutorial on SMD soldering I discovered a while back and decided to give it a shot. After all, with a broken video connector on the motherboard, things could only get better.

As the name states, surface mount devices attach only to the surface of the circuit board but do not have pins that pass through it, making soldering them much more complex. With today’s increasingly complex electronics and multi-level circuit boards, SMD electronics are a necessity, but aren’t as tinkerer-friendly.

Written by Andy Green, one of the original Xbox hackers and Xbox-Linux members, the tutorial details a clever way to solder surface mount components to a board, however it requires a little faith. Soldering each pin individually on a surface mount chip would be a nightmare, especially considering the hair thin spaces between them. But by completely drowning the pins in solder and removing the excess, a solid electrical connection can be formed. Normally, a short between two or more pins is a very bad thing, but Andy’s tutorial shows how to carefully remove the unneeded solder and leave only what’s required to make the connection. It looks risky – almost hopeless at times – but it can be done. After trying it myself, I had great success.

Buffalo LinkStation

June 4, 2006

Recently I bought a network-attached hard drive to store my movies, music, and TV shows on and share throughout my home network. Normally, a simple shared folder on a low-energy computer would do, but I was curious to see how well a dedicated, non-computer solution would work. Ideally, the device should be available at a moment’s notice, be able to store large files, and provide fast and reliable transfers.

After looking at dozens of expensive solutions, I found an affordable home or office use networked hard drive made by Buffalo (makers of one of the only AirPort range-extension compatible WiFi base stations). I ordered the 250 GB version to try it out, although capacities of up to 400 GB are available. Much to my delight, the Buffalo LinkStation fit my needs well, offering Gigabit Ethernet, backup options, and (arguably most important) an affordable price tag.

Having created a shared folder for movies, music, TV, and general storage, I configured Xbox Media Center to default to my Movies share where XviD versions of all my DVDs are stored. I also added the TV and Music shares to XBMC’s configuration file so all my media is accessible in from one place.

iTunes can also play music off the LinkStation after being told to not copy files into its own folder. Mac OS X is smart enough to remember network shares even after they’re disconnected, so double-clicking a song in iTunes automatically connects to the share and plays just as you’d expect.

Storing all your important files in one place makes for a great media hub, but also allows for everything to disappear should the built-in hard drive fail. Luckily, Buffalo allows two forms of automatic backup. Two LinkStations can be mirrored across the network to provide redundancy, or a USB 2.0 port is also available for external hard drive backup.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with my purchase and would recommend it to anyone looking for fast, spacious, and always-available storage.

Tales From Packaging Hell

May 26, 2006

The stubborn plastic casing around the Microsoft Xbox 360 faceplate seemed to laugh first at the kitchen scissors and then the steak knife that tried to penetrate it. When 14-year-old Daniel Mroue’s attempt to open the thing with a long, serrated bagel knife failed, his parents became concerned.

Mroue’s father, George, took over with a pair of box-cutters, which did the trick. But George Mroue also ended up with a wad of bandages shoring up the damage after slicing his palm open on a sharpened piece of plastic.

“It was ridiculous,” groused George Mroue of the February incident. “There was nothing anywhere telling us how to open the (darn) thing. I don’t understand why they make it so goddamn hard to open these things.”

That’s an increasingly common question these days. From Psyclone electronics cables encased in impenetrable layers of thick plastic to DigiPower camera batteries coated with packaging several times the size of the item itself, the hardest part of buying electronics these days is opening the products when you get them home. In many cases, it makes solving Halo 2 seem like a kindergarten project.

This article on Wired perfectly illustrates my frustration with today’s hard-to-open consumer electronics products. People should not be getting injured while trying to open a new gadget – that’s a sure sign that something has gone horribly wrong. I’m in favor of other packaging methods mentioned, such as recyclable paper containers like HP ink cartridge boxes or PVC containers “bolted” at the top. Hampering shoplifters is all well and good, but forcing consumers to resort to knives and box-cutters is too much, especially after paying for it in the first place.

Hacking Dell Redux

May 26, 2006

A few months ago, I learned of a simple paperclip trick to remove power-on passwords from Dell laptops. I’ve since discovered that it doesn’t work on every Dell (even models that were previously susceptible to the attack), and that extreme measures may be necessary. Also, if the only password set is an Administrator password, it can easily be removed with an internal Dell utility that has found its way onto the internet.

Administrator passwords only hinder certain changes to the BIOS settings such as boot sequence. Often, though, the option to boot the floppy or optical drive is still enabled, so Dell’s svctag.exe can be used. Svctag erases the EEPROM chip (usually a 256 byte Atmel 24C02) and removes the Administrator password along with the Service Tag. Dell’s can then be used to reprogram the proper Service Tag. Finally, if your laptop is a Latitude C610 or Inspiron 4100, nicset.exe must also be run to re-enable onboard Ethernet. That last bug caused much frustration, as the onboard Ethernet “enable bit” is inexplicably stored on the EEPROM as well. For now, a complete bootable CD can be obtained here. (As this utility is intended to be used by Dell technicians only, I don’t plan on hosting it myself to avoid legal action.)

The absolute most reliable way of removing passwords I’ve found is to make a copy of an EEPROM from an unprotected laptop of the same model. With the GALEP-4 flash/EEPROM programmer and a SOIC to DIP chip adapter (which are quite affordable, unlike the programmer itself), reading the data from an EEPROM is a piece of cake. A copy can then be made onto any number of blank EEPROM chips, available from outlets like Jameco and Digi-Key. The copy can replace the password-locked EEPROM and allow full access to the machine again. As expected, the “hacked” laptop will display the Service Tag of the machine with the source EEPROM, but it can be changed using the steps above for Administrator password removal.

With a little more time and effort, I may be able to figure out how the passwords are stored in the EEPROM, as they’re not simple plaintext like the Service Tag. I suspect Dell is doing a simple mathematical bit operation like XOR to hide the passwords from view, but more experimentation will be necessary to uncover the secret (i.e. if I change the power-on password by one character, does the whole “encrypted” password string change, or just one character?).

Removing passwords from laptops is not a trivial task and often requires complete disassembly, but with patience and the right tools, nothing is impossible.