By Collin Allen

Xbox 360 DVD-ROM Hack

May 17, 2006

Yesterday, a clever hacker released a modified firmware file for the Xbox 360’s DVD drive which essentially causes it to lie to the console about the type of media off which games are running. This comes not long after the release of a similar firmware for the original Xbox, allowing an unmodified (i.e. no modchip) console to run games off a burned DVD. While both of these hacks are impressive, they currently offer no advances towards running unsigned code, particularly on the Xbox 360. Despite that, I’ll soon picking up a 360 to hack around with. This is the first crack in the wall I’ve been waiting for.

Intel MacBook

May 17, 2006

Taking a hint from the wildly popular black and white iPod nano models, Apple just released the Intel-based MacBook “consumer” portables. These new Macs are bound to be the most popular ones Apple has ever created, sporting all the must-have features of the MacBook Pro line, but with an unbelievably affordable price tag. Starting at $1099, the MacBooks include the Intel Core Duo chip, which is quickly turning out to be the single best processor choice Apple ever made. Not only do you get stellar Mac OS X performance, you also have the option of running Windows and x86-based Linuxes. Choices, speed, and connectivity are all great, and the MacBook line has plenty to go around. One of these will undoubtedly be my next Mac, although I have yet to decide on a shade. These are going to be huge.

Cloning HP Digital Senders

May 14, 2006

HP offers a neat series of devices called Digital Senders, which have the capability to scan papers and email a PDF all with the touch of a button. While the newer models like the 9200c work, the older – and discontinued – 9100c is still far more popular in office environments. As with all things digital, they occasionally decide to stop working, often at the most inconvenient time. The most common point of failure in Digital Senders is the built-in hard drive, which is used for storing the operating system, address book, and other critical information. HP offers replacement drives, but they cost a small fortune. Fortunately, the replacements are run-of-the mill 3 to 10 GB hard drives (worth only a fraction of the price HP would have you pay).

If you have more than one 9100c, a spare hard drive, a standard desktop PC, and a copy of Norton Ghost 2003, you can clone the working Digital Sender and bring the broken one back to life. Personally, I’ve had great success cloning 9100c hard drives using Ghost, however it took a bit of work to get that far.

By default, Norton Ghost clones partitions between hard drives while simultaneously resizing them such that the destination uses all available space – a feature usually taken for granted. This is great when moving an install of Windows XP from one hard drive to another, but having the maximum available space is hardly a concern in a Digital Sender. This feature can also cause some cloned drives to fail, as the device expects the partition sizes to be within certain ranges. Thankfully, a simple “-IR” (Image Raw) switch can force Ghost to do a bit-for-bit copy, ignoring partitions and unused data alike. When using this option, the destination partitions remain the same size despite the likely increase in total available disk space. After all, a 5 or 10 GB IDE hard drive is impossible to find in stores, these days.

Using a working 9100c Digital Sender hard drive as a source disk, it’s a good idea to first upgrade the software on it using HP’s tools and reset it to factory defaults in the Shift-Alt-Green, Tools menu. While this is not a necessary step, it’s generally good practice to have the newest Digital Sender software, and to get the configuration as close to the defaults as possible to avoid any conflicts. After resetting it to factory defaults, the Digital Sender will reboot. While the initial RAM test is onscreen, switch it off (similar to pulling the plug on a desktop computer while it’s running POSTs – before the system begins to load and the hard drive gets changed in any way).

With an “untouched” and factory-default 9100c hard drive in hand, it can then be attached to the IDE bus of your computer in Master configuration (the default for 9100c Digital Senders). Then, connect a Slave drive of slightly larger size, as the -IR switch can only copy a drive to one of exactly equal or greater size. Make a Ghost boot disk, and when prompted for any additional switches, enter “-IR”. In the disk creation summary, you can see that ghost.exe is being called by “ghost.exe -IR”. Once the disk is made, boot the computer and use Ghost’s “To Disk” command to copy the 9100c drive to the larger one. Be very careful not to overwrite your good hard drive with the blank one! Since the -IR switch is set, Ghost will pay no attention to partitions as it usually does. Cloning the disk will take a good 10 minutes, since it will be copying several gigabytes bit-for-bit. When done, set the newly cloned Slave drive to Master, and the 9100c should boot off of it without a hitch.

Symantec maintains a list of useful Ghost commands. Note that the -IR switch is the most “raw” one available, as it does not modify any portion of the data – not even the partition map (as the -ID switch may). For this reason, your clone destination drive must be the same size or larger. A smaller disk simply cannot contain all the data from the source disk, even if the bits technically aren’t used by the Digital Sender.

So far, my experiments have worked with every brand hard drive I’ve tried, with sizes ranging from 5 to 40 GB. This is, of course, after many hours of testing, trials, and errors.

Flash Programmer

May 2, 2006

Wanting to get even further into the inner workings of technology, I recently bought a GALEP-4 Flash and EEPROM programmer which makes it easy to read the contents of various storage chips which are often used to hold device firmware. Although that sounds complicated, the way most electronics work is quite logical. For example, somewhere inside your iPod or Xbox is a chip that holds the instructions to make it run. With this programmer, reading out the contents of said chips is a rather easy task, leaving the challenging part up to the future experimenting and hacking. Most PCs also use similar chips, so if any readers have experienced a bad BIOS flash, get in touch and chances are I can help you rewrite the chip with the proper data.

Really Testing iPod Hard Drives

April 6, 2006

If you’ve worked inside an iPod before or were simply curious how the little white devices work, you’re already aware of the smaller than usual hard drives used to store your music, videos, and other media. What you may not know is how to determine if one of these hard drives is functioning 100%, or on its last legs. Damage to the hard drive can result from any of a number of ways, but may not be immediately apparent.

All iPods except the Shuffle have a hidden diagnostic menu which includes, among other tools, the ability to run a full disk scan and report the status of the its hard drive.

The absolute best way I’ve found to test iPod hard drives is to actually open it up, attach the drive to a desktop computer using it’s native IDE interface, and run a full suite of disk tests on it. A while ago, I mentioned an adapter from Addonics which converts the iPod’s 1.8” connector (seen here) to a standard 2.5” laptop drive connector. (Several people commented on my iPod Super hack that any old laptop to desktop hard drive adapter will do, but the iPod does not use a standard laptop drive). From there, a second adapter will bring your iPod drive in line with a regular 3.5” computer hard drive connector, ready for testing.

Once everything is hooked up, the assembly looks like a serious hack, but there’s no trickery involved other than the changing of connector sizes. The iPod’s drive is pin-for-pin and signal compatible with the hard drive in your computer right now, and is easily recognized like any other hard drive. At this point, you can run any disk scan on it you prefer. Personally, I swear by Hitachi’s Drive Fitness Test, which can be easily run as part of the Ultimate Boot CD (PC required; sorry Mac-only buddies!). DFT will run a quick interface test, a S.M.A.R.T. report, and then do a lengthy surface scan for bad sectors and other errors which could mangle your music or cause your iPod to fail at startup. I’ve tested dozens upon dozens of iPod and desktop drives with DFT, and I’ve never had a single false positive report. As such, DFT is my gold standard for all iPod, laptop, desktop, and SCSI hard drive tests. Best of all, it finishes with a concise and colorful status screen – green is good, red is bad.

With some fundamental technical skills, a couple of adapters, and some free software, you too can easily determine the health of your iPod’s hard drive… IF you’re willing to void its warranty by opening the case. However, if your iPod is already out of warranty and having issues, this procedure will put an end to questions about the most expensive part of your favorite music player.