GottaGo

Working at Blackboard Mobile making unique mobile apps is fun, but occasionally it’s interesting to do something completely different at work, just to see what you can come up with. To that end, we recently hosted our first Hackathon, where small teams of co-workers had 24 straight hours to create a project of any theme using resources available inside our outside of the office, and the results would be judged by our peers.

One of the other benefits of working in a growing industry is that we’re expanding our staff almost weekly. Unfortunately, though, that means that the building we’re in is less and less able to handle the increasing capacity. Specifically, the bathrooms are occupied more frequently, resulting in either a return trip to your desk only to try again later, or an awkward wait of unknown duration.

header

Working with Joe Taylor and Eric Littlejohn, our Hackathon project set out to make the office bathroom availability more visible and accessible through a combination of hardware and software.

The piece of the project that lets this all work is a switch installed inside each door jamb, such that when the locking bolt is engaged, the switch is tripped. That way we, can do anything with resulting data, knowing that when the door is locked, the room is in use. Running wire down through the hollow metal trim was tedious and time consuming, and involved a lot of false starts and fishing around with a straightened coat hanger, but we finally got a run of wire inside each frame.

switch

On each office floor there are two bathrooms side by side, and the pair of switches inside the door jambs are wired to a single Arduino fitted with an Ethernet Shield for network connectivity. The Arduino samples the switches many times per second, providing near-instant feedback.

arduino

After debouncing the switch input signal over about 50 milliseconds, the Arduino waits for a definitive change in state — from locked to unlocked, or unlocked to locked — before illuminating LED lights on the wall.

lights

After the light corresponding to the now-occupied bathroom is lit, the Arduino also performs an HTTP POST, sending the event details (floor level, which room, and current occupancy state) to an in-house webserver running Node.js and MongoDB. The webserver records the data and makes it visible on a web page for viewers to check the availability digitally, for those who can’t see the wall mounted lights from their seating position.

gottago

If you’d like to employ a project like this, the code we hacked together is available on GitHub, and the wiring is rather straightforward:

  • All components share a common ground
  • LED anodes are wired to room_a_led_pin and room_b_led_pin and brought high when doors are locked, and low when unlocked
  • Switches bring room_a_switch_pin and room_b_switch_pin low when triggered, and the Arduino uses the INPUT_PULLUP pinMode for the unlocked state

Our Hackathon project came in at second place, losing to an as-yet-unannounced software project, but we had a lot of fun staying up and hacking all night!

GottaGo

MacAlly IceKey USB 2.0

MacAlly has been producing the same IceKey keyboard since 2003, and while it’s a solid performer featuring comfortable low profile scissor keys and extra USB ports, it still ships with a maddeningly slow internal USB 1.1 hub. While this early USB specification is plenty fast for a keyboard alone, it throttles back speeds of all attached devices like flash drives, iPods, and digital cameras. Copying an music album or two can take several minutes over USB 1.1, whereas today’s USB 2.0 takes only seconds. With USB 2.0 as today’s ubiquitous standard and USB 3.0 just around the corner, it’s disappointing that MacAlly has yet to update the IceKey to include a faster hub. Luckily, you can take matters into your own hands. Here’s how to install a high speed hub inside the keyboard while maintaining MacAlly’s elegant factory appearance.

macally_icekey_start

 

What You’ll Need

  • a MacAlly IceKey
  • a small, narrow USB hub (a cheap Targus hub worked fine for me)
  • a screwdriver set
  • a soldering iron, solder, and spare wire
  • a pocket knife (I’m not sure any project I’ve done didn’t require this…)

Open the Hub

USB hubs generally aren’t too complicated to open, and this Targus on is no exception. A single screw on the underside holds together the hub’s two plastic halves, which snap apart with little effort. Write a note or take a picture to document the wire colors and order relevant to the orientation of the board inside — it will come in handy later.

macally_usb_hub_board

Open the Keyboard

The MacAlly IceKey is slightly trickier to get apart, but not much. Remove all the obvious screws on the bottom of the keyboard, including the one under the “Do Not Remove”/Quality Control/Warranty sticker. Then, flip open the pivoting feet to expose two more screws covered by a protective piece of rubber. The final two screws are under the front rubber feet.

Starting with the keyboard upright and facing you, begin unsnapping the plastic hooks around the perimeter starting at the front middle. A plastic pry tool might come in handy, but isn’t required. Once the top is removed, you can clearly see all the important electronics, including a very common Cypress USB controller chip.

macally_keyboard_controller

 

 

macally_keyboard_leftport

Test Fit Everything

Just to make sure the rest of this modification is physically possible, fit the USB hub board in the open space at the top of the keyboard and set the keyboard bezel on top. Luckily, the IceKey has plenty of room to spare. I was planning to have to remove the USB ports from the hub board to make everything fit, but there was so much extra space that I didn’t even have to go to that length.

Unhook the Keyboard

Carefully pull the keyboard ribbon cables straight away from their matching plugs on the controller board. Gently flip the keyboard pad over, and unscrew the two short ground wires to completely free the keyboard keys from the plastic housing. Set it aside for later; it does not need to be modified — all the action happens on the two remaining circuit boards. Unscrew both boards to get at the backs of each.

macally_keyboard_ribbon_cables

Cut Wires

Cut the gray ribbon that leads from the controller board to the left port. Since that wire only provides USB 1.1 speed, we won’t be using it. You’ll note that it has two extra wires that run to an unpopulated LED on the left board, so we can skip those when doing the re-wiring. (I wonder what MacAlly had in store for that, or if this keyboard is a “port” from another language or something?)

Unplug the USB cord from the controller board and cut off the connector. This cord needs to run to the input on the new USB hub, and not to the input on the keyboard controller board where it currently connects.

Cut Traces

Since the right port also needs USB 2.0 speeds, it too will need to be disconnected from its USB 1.1 source. However, it is soldered directly onto the controller board and is effectively hard-wired into the slowness. This is perhaps the trickiest part of the whole project: desolder the USB connector and use a knife to scrape away the traces that run to the port. Some are on top of the board, and some are on the bottom. (You might be able to get away with cutting the traces without removing the port, as a little bit of the traces are exposed on the top before routing into electronic components, but you’ll want to test with a multimeter and make sure you’ve done this successfully.) Once all four traces to the port are cut, re-solder the USB port in place (if you removed it).

macally_usb_traces_cut

 

Re-wire the Keyboard Controller and Ports

Here’s a simple before and after block diagram to help your wiring layout:

 

macally_icekey2_diagram

Solder Keyboard Cord to Hub Input

Strip about an inch of plastic from the cut end of the keyboard cord to expose its individual wires, and strip just a millimeter or two from each of those. Using your note from earlier, solder the keyboard wires to the matching USB hub input connections. On this Targus hub, the wires were in the same order as the standard USB pinout.

Solder Keyboard Controller to a Hub Port

Solder four wires from the keyboard input port (where the cord originally connected to) to one of the USB hub ports, effectively making the keyboard controller into one of four devices on the hub. Previously, the keyboard supplied its own hub, but we’re bypassing it altogether. Luckily, most everything is either color coded or silkscreen labeled on the circuit boards (V/5V is red, D- is green, D+ is white, and G/GND is black).

Solder Keyboard USB Ports to Hub Ports

Solder wire from the left USB port board to another free USB hub port, making sure to get the order correct. With the traces cut on the right port, run wire from the connections under the board to yet another free hub port. You should end up with a hub layout like this:

macally_keyboard_hub_wires

 

Test and Close It Up

With each new component wired up, double-check your connections and plug it in. Initially, my first test failed and Windows complained about a malfunctioning USB device (I tested it on an old PC, just in case I shorted out the computer’s USB controller. I’d rather fry an old computer than my new iMac!) The key to making everything work properly was to reconnect those two shared ground wires from early on — the keyboard must have a common ground with the controller and hub!

macally_keyboard_test

 

Once it works, secure all the wires and boards. I used a few short pieces of electrical tape to stop everything from bouncing around, too. Snap the plastic top back on, replace all the screws, and enjoy your USB 2.0 MacAlly IceKey!

MacAlly IceKey USB 2.0

Rackmount G4

g4_front

I took a trip out to my previous employer’s business to check out an interesting find he stumbled upon in a purchased lot of computer equipment. Among other official Apple-branded machines and workstations were several apparently custom built 3U rackmount G4 servers. I took a bunch of pictures documenting the meticulous overhauls that were done in readying the new machines for about 8 hard drives, plenty of PCI cards, and proper cooling. Judging by the labels left on the converted towers, they were intended to be used as ProTools workhorses, mixing audio and piping effects around someone’s once-elaborate pro audio setup. Aside from the unique form factor (for a Mac-based server, anyway) and the sheer geekiness of such an undertaking, the power controls and cooling system are of particular interest.

g4_top

The one really interesting bit of circuitry in the whole system is one tiny Marathon power board, which connects to the relocated front panel board of the original tower. Several years ago, Marathon Computer offered rackmount conversion kits for Apple’s G3, G4, and even iMac systems. These enclosures appear to be made by I-Star, despite similarities to Marathon’s PowerRack kit, though pictures and documentation about Marathon’s kits are now extremely hard to find.

To keep the system and its veritable wall of hard drives running cool and trouble-free, large fans were employed in conjunction with a simple, off-the-shelf fan controller which combines the feedback from multiple fans into one monitoring port, complete with overheating alarm and adjustable temperature settings (via jumpers).

For completeness, a SCSI card and stealth serial port were added, leaving room for ProTools PCI audio cards. In its day, this was a screaming system that bested even Apple’s top PowerMac offerings. Someone clearly spent many hours getting the physical layout and electrical systems just right, which I thought was worth preserving and sharing.

Rackmount G4

iPod 5G Hack: Bluetooth and CompactFlash

Some clever modders at iPodHackers have put together a collection of iPod hacks all inside a single 5th generation iPod: Bluetooth audio streaming, CompactFlash solid-state storage, and a translucent replacement enclosure.

Using a tiny Bluetooth circuit to transmit audio to nearby speakers or headphones and a recently released iPod 5G CompactFlash adapter, the hacked-up iPod can now safely store movies and music without fear of the hard drive failing while stashed safely in a pocket. Of particular note is the custom run adapter, which is the first readily available adapter of its kind that allows storage devices other than hard drives to be attached to the ever-shrinking connectors inside the iPod. You can get the full details and photos here, and see more hacks at Instructables.

iPod 5G Hack: Bluetooth and CompactFlash

ZipIt Hacking

I just picked up a neat little handheld device on eBay, a ZipIt wireless messenger. Originally intended to be used as a portable, wi-fi enabled chatting device for teens, it can also be reflashed to run a tiny distribution of Linux (actually, it already runs Linux, but the reflashed version is considerably more hacker-friendly). I’ve only had it for a few hours now, and I’ve already got Linux flashed, booting, ready, but it looks like it will take extra modification to run something more useful like an SSH client. Telnet works out-of-the-box, but I prefer my connections to be securely encrypted.

I’m not quite sure what I intend to do with it just yet — perhaps a portable email client or SSH server-controller is in store. For $25, though, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hack around with such a cool little device.

Helpful Resources

ZipIt Hacking

Upgrading iPod Hard Drives

A number of people have asked about upgrading iPod hard drives — what to buy, how to prepare, and how to perform the upgrade — so here are all the technical details. If you’ve never worked inside an iPod before, this is certainly an advanced tutorial, but don’t let that scare you. Working slowly and methodically, you too can upgrade your iPod and store even more music, photos, and videos.

What to Buy

Which hard drive to buy depends on your specific iPod model, so like any half-decent attempt at an upgrade, a little research will go a long way towards making a good purchase. The main factors that will affect your decision are the height, or thickness, of both the iPod and hard drive, and the connector style employed by both. Since day one of the iPod launch, Toshiba has produced all the hard drives employed in the full size iPod lineup. While they enjoyed a profitable OEM business arrangement with Apple, the drives are in no way exclusive to the iPod, and they can be found in many other products, including (not surprisingly) some Toshiba laptops and (perhaps more surprisingly) Microsoft’s Zune player. To allow for some flexibility in product lineups, Toshiba’s 1.8″ hard drives come in two thicknesses — the thinner has one physical storage platter inside, and the thicker has two. Doubling-up of the storage surfaces is why you’ll often see a given capacity drive, and the next step up of two times that capacity. As technology advances, the capacity of each surface increases while the dimensions remain fixed for easy interchange-ability. This is good news for iPod upgraders. The longer you wait, the more you can store in the same amount of space.

Apple’s iPods are fairly easy to find a matching replacement/upgrade hard drive for, as you can generally tell which thickness drive you need just by comparing it to the others of its family. If your iPod was the thicker of the series when you purchased it, it takes the thicker, two-platter hard drive (examples include the then-higher capacity models such as 40 GB iPod and 60 GB iPod photo). The thinner models (like the 15 GB iPod and 30 GB iPod photo) take the thinner hard drives.

The 5th generation iPods with video capability are a different beast, as the drive technology and space requirements have demanded smaller internals. With that in mind, Toshiba engineered a new connector on recent drives that is vastly smaller than the previous models. These new drives sport a Zero Insertion Force (ZIF) connector, which, unlike the older iPods, requires no pressure to connect the cable. Simply holding the hair-thin ribbon cable in place and folding down a clamp-like lock will secure all 40 pins in a staggeringly small, fragile connector. The connector on the 5G iPods’ logic boards is now no wider than your thumbnail, and it, too is quite delicate. Such is the way of ever-shrinking consumer electronics.

Tools of the Trade

Before you decide on a hard drive, you’ll also want to purchase a few tools to ensure the job gets done right. While you’re able to pry most iPods apart using a tool as simple as a butter knife, the professionals use the following to make entry, upgrade, and close-up as invisible as possible.

  • Apple’s “black stick”
    This nylon-based pry tool is key to almost any iPod upgrade, as it provides a strong lever to get into the edges of the case, while its plastic properties leave next to no marks or chewed-up looking spots along the edges. Best bought from Stanley Supply & Services.
  • IC puller or hemostats (both available at your local RadioShack)
    Either of these tools will work for undoing the iPod battery cable and handling some of the smaller pieces of the iPod. Not necessary, but highly recommended if you plan on doing more than one upgrade.
  • A straight razor blade (for 5G iPods)
    I was hesitant to include this, as it’s a recipe for injury if you’re not careful. In the interest of completeness, though, it’s here. The latest iPods are sealed very well, and more often than not they require a very thin and flexible bit of metal to make room for Apple’s Black Stick pry tool.
  • HD adapters from Addonics: 1.8″ to 2.5″ IDE and 2.5″ to 3.5″ IDE
    To do testing or erasing on iPod-size hard drives, these adapters will get your 4G-or-earlier drive hooked up to a desktop computer’s IDE bus. (For 5G iPods, see this post) Also not necessary, but again, these are recommended for advanced testing and erasure.

Picking a Hard Drive

Depending on your iPod thickness and model, you can choose from the hard drives in the table below. Note that some of these models are not used in iPods, but should work just fine (for example, the 20 GB ZIF drive, which will only connect to new iPods which start out at 60 GB from Apple — technically a downgrade, but listed for compatibility information).

Brand Model # Capacity Connector Thickness Supported iPods
Toshiba MK1011GAH 100 GB ZIF 8mm Thick 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK8007GAH 80 GB Pins 8mm Thick 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK8009GAH 80 GB ZIF 8mm Thick 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK6006GAH 60 GB Pins 8mm Thick 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK6008GAH 60 GB ZIF 8mm Thick 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK4006GAH 40 GB Pins 8mm Thick 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK4008GAH 40 GB ZIF 8mm Thick 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK4007GAL 40 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK4009GAL 40 GB ZIF 5mm Thin 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK3006GAL 30 GB Pins 5mm Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK3008GAL 30 GB ZIF 5mm Thin 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK2004GAL 20 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK2006GAL 20 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK2008GAL 20 GB ZIF 5mm Thin 5G, 5.5G
Toshiba MK1504GAL 15 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK1003GAL 10 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK5002MAL 5 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Toshiba MK5004MAL 5 GB Pins 5mm 1G, Thin 2G, 3G, 4G, photo
Seagate ST760211DE 60 GB ZIF 5mm Thin 5G, 5.5G

Update: It appears that the 4G may be firmware limited to no more than a 60 GB drive. Reports indicate that drives above 60 GB in capacity appear as 60 GB despite the additional storage that’s available.

You can find many of the above drives on eBay and online retailers, but the most prevalent ones will be models used in iPods that shipped in the past. I have used many non-Apple-branded Toshiba hard drives without issue, confirming that there is nothing particular about them, except an Apple logo on the sticker. Having a third party manufacturer such as Toshiba re-brand a product is nothing new to the computer industry — other big companies like Dell and IBM work deals like this for many components.

Hard Drive Preparation

Unlike my iPod Super hack, a replacement iPod hard drive does not require any special formatting or filesystem preparation. In fact, I’ve found that working with a completely empty/zeroed hard drive works best. If you decided to purchase the adapters listed above, you can connect them as detailed in my Really Testing iPod Hard Drives post, and completely erase the hard drive using the handy Darik’s Boot and Nuke utility. I’ve found that it works best to have a zeroed hard drive, but it can often be done without. (The iPod sometimes tries to find software on the hard drive, which may be incorrect for its generation or be corrupted).

Opening the iPod

To get at the old hard drive, you’ll need to open the iPod, which is usually the hardest part of the process. 1G through 4G iPods aren’t as tough as the 5G and later iPods, and can be popped open by pushing the metal backing one way while pulling the plastic front the opposite way. In doing so, you create a small gap where you can slide in the nylon pry tool and undo the five plastic clips along one of the two longer sides. The inside top and bottom edges of all iPods are not secured. Other World Computing has some detailed take-apart videos which should help give you a good idea of exactly how to get inside.

To open a 5G or later iPod, try the first technique above, and use a straight razor as a last resort. For the really tough ones, work the sharp edge of a new razor perpendicularly into the side seam where the front plastic and back metal meet. Once wedged between the two halves, tip the dull edge of blade towards the front (towards you), using the iPod’s plastic side as a fulcrum to open a small space to insert the nylon pry tool.

This is extremely dangerous!

Not only are you working with a super-sharp piece of metal, you’re flexing its brittle structure, which may cause it to shatter — so don’t push too hard. I’ve never gotten cut or had a razor shatter while doing this, but only because I took my time and didn’t get my fingers near the sharp edge. Moving slow and thinking smart (as smart as bending a razor can be) are keys to making this technique work. Once the nylon pry tool is in place and has a little room to work, carefully extract the razor and set it aside. Use the pry tool to work the rest of the side clips open. If you feel at all uneasy about this method, it’s probably best to leave it to the professionals — the 5G iPod is a giant leap forward in design and engineering, at the expense of a lot of end-user serviceability.

The Switch

After cracking the side of the iPod open, carefully disconnect any audio jack or battery ribbon cables attached to the back panel. Undoing these connectors often requires the use of the nylon pry tool again, or careful pulling with hemostats. Be sure to pull the connector straight away from the logic board, using only minor side-to-side wiggling as needed. Attempting to pry the connector out of its matching socket without keeping it straight can result in the connector separating from its cable!

With the halves unhooked, the panels can be separated, exposing the hard drive. 1G through 4G iPod hard drives can be unplugged by simply pulling the connector straight off the end of the drive, whereas the 5G and later iPods require you to flip up the narrow lever. It hinges lengthwise along the middle. The lever does not fold flat backwards when open, but simply stands upright, and should not separate from its other retaining half.

Install the new hard drive in the same direction as the old one, making sure all pins and plastic guides line up. 5G iPods are especially tricky due to the ZIF connector. Yet again, some tiny tools may come in handy — just be sure to work gently with its delicate ribbon cable. Move the metal back panel close to the iPod and reconnect all the cables you unhooked to get into the device, and snap the panel back onto the plastic clips.

Restoring in Disk Mode

Pressing any button will power on your iPod, and you should be able to hear the new drive spin up. Unless the drive is preloaded with precisely the correct software, you will get a “sad iPod” face. This is okay! Reset your iPod using the commands detailed here, and immediately hold the Disk Mode keys as soon as the screen blanks for the reboot. This may take a few tries, but as long as your iPod doesn’t have the correct data on the drive, you’ve got all the attempts in the world to get into Disk Mode. When done properly, you’ll see “Disk Mode” at the top of the iPod. You can now plug the freshly upgraded iPod into your computer and launch iTunes. After it’s detected, iTunes may complain about a corrupted iPod. Dismiss any dialogs and browse to the Summary tab for the iPod, and click Restore. iTunes will load the proper software onto your iPod, and it will be as good as new — with more capacity!

Update: I added the Seagate ST760211DE 60 GB 5mm drive following a painless drop-in replacement report from Jerry Wnorowski:

Well it finally arrived, and with just a little hesitation, after all this was entirely new ground for me, I installed the 60GB Seagate hard drive into my broken 30GB iPod Video 5.5 Gen. When I plugged it in to my laptop, iTunes said it needed to be restored. I restored it, and it booted and came up in iTunes! I loaded my music, and now I have the thinnest 60GB iPod Video in the world!

Update: A 240GB iPod modification is now available for those who want TONS of storage space in one portable device.

Upgrading iPod Hard Drives

Nike+iPod Internals

Curious how the Apple/Nike+ iPod accessory set works, the hackers over at SparkFun have taken apart both the shoe insert and the iPod receiver. You can check out all the details here, including some discussion of the hardware choices Apple made.

Interestingly, the shoe insert is transmit-only, whereas the little white gadget that plugs into the iPod’s dock connector has a chip capable of both reception and transmission. With the right hacking, it might be possible to get iPods to talk to each other over a short range — surely not fast enough to transfer music, but “now playing” info is within the realm of possibility.

Nike+iPod Internals

Mac Meet Xbox: Part 3

Mac Meet Xbox

Welcome back to the “Mac meet Xbox” series, Part 3, where we finally get to the good stuff. With the Xbox opened, modded, and ready to run beautiful, open-source, and decidedly non-Microsoft software, we’re going to format and install Xbox Media Center.

Getting XBMC

Yet again we run into the issue of legality in the Mac meet Xbox series, as Xbox Media Center is compiled from source code using Microsoft’s XDK (Xbox Development Kit). The XDK is a series of Windows programs, drivers, and Xbox software which allows developers to write and debug software for the Xbox. It is supposed to be available only to game publishers, however copies of it have leaked out onto the internet. The source code for Xbox Media Center is freely available and open source, but when you compile it into an Xbox program (an .xbe file, akin to Windows’ .exe files), you’re using copyrighted software, thus the resulting executable contains a portion of copyrighted code. Distributing such a copyrighted work violates the DMCA in the U.S., however laws in your country may vary. For the sake of this tutorial, I’ll leave the legalities up to you, but you should be aware of why the Microsoft XDK is publicly considered “off limits” in most discussion areas. For more details, you can visit the XBMC wiki page regarding the XDK and its involvement with Xbox Media Center.

Building Xbox Media Center from source code with the XDK isn’t a great option, let alone an easy one. Thankfully, a few charitable people build and post copies of XBMC around the net. I’ll have to leave you to your own devices to obtain a copy. As of this writing, the latest version is 2.0.1, and it can be found on popular sites. Like the BIOS files mentioned in the previous Mac meet Xbox part, XBMC is also distributed in RAR format, which must first be decompressed.

Dashboard Swap

With a shiny new build of XBMC on your computer, you’ll need to prepare the Xbox to receive the files. The community that has developed around Xbox modding decided upon one of the best choices for file transfer — FTP. We’re going to run an FTP server on the newly modded Xbox, browse through it’s carefully arranged system files, and replace a bunch of them with Xbox Media Center. First, though, you’ll need an FTP server.

In the early days of Xbox modding, a replacement for Microsoft’s Xbox “dashboard” was created, EvolutionX, and it served a number of needs: launching programs, flashing the Xbox’s onboard BIOS, changing settings, and running an FTP server. While others have since been developed, and even our very own Xbox Media Center is capable, we need something simple and easy to get off the ground. The easiest way to run an FTP server is to boot a prepared EvolutionX disc, which automatically starts the FTP service. Again, you can find discs to do the job all over the web. Burn the disc image to a DVD-R, DVD+RW, or CD-RW, which are three of the most compatible disc types — CD-Rs tend not to work well. Pop in the disc, reboot your Xbox, and marvel at the first non-Microsoft application running on your Xbox. By the time you see the spinning “EvolutionX” text, it’s ready to accept FTP connections at the IP address displayed in the Utilities menu (assuming your network setup is the same as in Part 2).

There are several Mac FTP programs that will work for the next task, however I strongly recommend Panic’s Transmit client, which has proven to work reliably with the built-in FTP servers of the Xbox programs we’ll be dealing with. Launch Transmit, and connect to the IP given by EvolutionX, with the universal Xbox FTP login:
Username: xbox
Password: xbox
Of all your passwords, this should be the easiest to remember.

When connected, you’ll be presented with a list of folders much like that of a Windows “My Computer” view: C:, D:, E:, and a few other drive letters. Not surprisingly, the folders correspond to similarly arranged devices — C: is for the main Xbox system files, D: is the DVD-ROM drive, E: is for extra files like game saves. If you’re curious, you can browse the contents of the optical drive by peeking inside D:, however the real guts of the Xbox’s system lie in the C: folder. Unlike Windows, however, the Xbox system files are stores right inside C:. Opening it will list a number of important files, but the one to note is xboxdash.xbe. This file, along with its associated fonts, sounds, and textures is the heart the Xbox software. It’s the green screen you’re used to browsing through when you have no game inserted in the console or are about to play a DVD movie. At this point, I would advise backing up all the contents of the C: drive to a safe folder on your computer, should you need them in the future. Go “up” a directory where you can see the drive list again, and simply drag C: to your Mac, and wait for it to copy over. (If you’re so inclined, you might also drag over E: to back up your saved games and other data.)

Once the contents of C: are backed up and safely tucked away, promptly delete everything in the C: folder. That’s right. Blow it away. Doing so will rid your Xbox of its Microsoft dashboard and prepare the space for XBMC. Short of re-copying the files you just backed up, you won’t be able to get back to the standard Xbox dashboard any longer. If you’re going to make this machine a media center Xbox, you might as well go all the way and make the media center the default system. With that, highlight everything in C:, and click Transmit’s “Delete” toolbar button.

Some moments later, your C: folder will be empty, ready to accept new software. At this point, if you were to reboot your Xbox without the EvolutionX disc inserted, you would receive an error stating that your Xbox needs serious repair by trained Microsoft professionals. Slim chance of that happening any time soon, after all, you’re an Xbox modder now. Browse to the contents of the decompressed Xbox Media Center folder and find default.xbe contained within. Upload this file and all of its sibling files and folders, ensuring that the default.xbe is directly inside the C: drive. This may take some time, as XBMC totals over 100 MB and has quite a few small files which can slow down the overall transfer. Upon completion of the upload — and this is important — rename default.xbe to xboxdash.xbe. You’ll note that the original Microsoft dashboard had the same file name, thus we’ve replaced it with Xbox Media Center’s main program. Without an xboxdash.xbe to launch, the Xbox will produce an error screen. Renaming Xbox Media Center’s main program to match what the Xbox expects to find effectively tricks it into launching the new software at startup.

The Final Test

To ensure you’ve properly installed Xbox Media Center, open the DVD drive, remove the EvolutionX disc, and restart your Xbox. If all goes well, you’ll hear a startup tune and be greeted with the Xbox Media Center splash screen, and a brand new menu system. Movies, music, pictures, programs — it’s all here.

If you’ve made it this far, consider yourself an official Xbox modder. You’ve successfully opened the console, modified it to run non-Microsoft software, and installed your own replacement system. Getting this far took countless hours of cracking and coding on the part of some very dedicated hackers, and you’ve managed to follow in their footsteps to assemble your own home media center.

Mac Meet Xbox: Navigation

Part 1: Why Xbox + Choosing Chips
Part 2: Cracking the Case + Installing and Flashing
Part 3: Installing XBMC
Part 3.1: Networking in Detail

Mac Meet Xbox: Part 3

iPod 5G Hard Drives

iPod 5G Hard DriveLately I’ve been working with some 5th generation iPods trying to come up with a way to really test the hard drives in them. Unlike the previous full-size iPod models (excluding the mini and shuffle), the 5th gen uses a hard drive with a different connector. Generations 1 through 4 used a Toshiba drive with a 1.8″ IDE connector. The new drives are still manufactured by Toshiba, however they use a ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) connector instead of pins which were big enough to solder to. The new ZIF connector they’ve employed works exactly like the LCD connector on the 4th generation iPods, holding the thin ribbon cable tightly until the plastic lever is flipped up parallel to one of its long edges. Designing a connector this way — as opposed to the previous version with pluggable pins — not only allows electronics to get much smaller, but significantly reduces the amount of physical stress created when plugging and unplugging cables. Unfortunately for us, this makes current adapters useless for testing 5th gen iPod hard drives. With a new way to connect hard drives, what can be done to adapt them to IDE just as before? Up to this point, it’s all theory until I can get my hands on some more hardware, but I have a plan.

The first step in determining whether adapting is even a viable option was to read Toshiba’s data sheet on the new hard drives, which details the signals of each miniscule pin. I was hoping that, like the 2.5″ to 1.8″ shrink, nothing major had changed. Indeed, nothing but the new connector had been modified, making future work that much easier. The IDE pins remain intact, just…much smaller. The new drives run on 3.3v, but like other adapters, the drop from 5v to 3.3v is trivial compared to the task of finding or making an adapter to scale down the size of the pins.

Hitachi AdapterKnowing that the signals are the same, I started hunting for a pre-made adapter to see if something that fit my needs already existed. It seems the topic of adapting these new Toshiba drives is one hardly touched upon. The only useful result was an expensive adapter from YEC, which is intended for Hitachi ZIF hard drives and includes a ribbon cable to connect the drive to the board. It looked close enough, so I investigated some more by emailing the company and posting on their message boards. As it turns out, the Hitachi hard drives use the same pin configuration as the Toshiba drives, but the ribbon cable that ships with the adapter is too thick. Hitachi drives are designed to take a slightly thicker cable than the Toshiba models. YEC’s adapter board is pin-compatible with the Toshiba drives, but they don’t yet offer the all-important thin ribbon cable. Curious, I asked if the Hitachi cable would be thin enough to work, perhaps even with some modification, but they responded that it is simply too thick to work with the Toshiba drives. YEC plans to offer a Toshiba ribbon cable in the near future, but as of this writing they have no availability date. (I should note at this point that I already intended to buy an adapter from them if it would fit, as I was amazed to find myself communicating with one of the engineers at the company — unheard of in today’s corporate environments!) Short of a fully functional adapter that I could buy now, I thought I was out of luck, since finding a compatible ribbon cable in a random electronic device is a pretty slim chance. Or is it?

Mere hours after I had scoured Toshiba’s website for pinouts, I found that engineer and Xbox hacker extraordinaire Andrew “bunnie” Huang had received and disassembled a new Zune (as I noted on MacUser). Looking at his pictures, you’ll note that the Zune uses a new Toshiba ZIF hard drive, just like Apple’s 5th Gen iPods. No surprise there. The drives are reliable and small enough to accomodate most handheld players. However, the ribbon cable Microsoft uses appears to be the exact piece required to adapt the YEC adapter to the Toshiba ZIF hard drives:

Zune Logic board

Gathering all the pices to assemble a Toshiba ZIF adapter looks to be quite costly at the moment — $120 for the board (which is nothing more than a few cheap components) plus $249 for a Zune. My hope is that I can find a broken one on eBay to scavenge for parts. Unless I find a better alternative in the meantime, I think I may be forced to wait for YEC’s ribbon cable to be made available. I’ll keep this post updated with any future findings.

(I also feel compelled to make a note of bunnie’s book, Hacking the Xbox, an affordable and incredibly detailed look at the work that went into reverse engineering all the security mechanisms of the original Xbox. If you’re interested in reverse engineering and want to get a feel for what it takes, or are curious exactly how the Xbox was cracked, check it out.)

12/30/2006 Update
The folks at Addonics replied to my email and reported that they will offer a 1.8″ ZIF to IDE adapter in January 2007, so be sure to look for one very soon.

3/11/2007 Update
The adapter from Span works, but it still a little pricey, and — like the iPod 5G itself — fragile. It gets the job done, though. I’ve yet to try a Zune hard drive cable with it, as the included cable is a little thick for Toshiba drives. For interested hardware hackers, here’s a very high res image of the Zune hard drive cable I scanned (about 1.1MB in size).
Zune Hard Drive cable

iPod 5G Hard Drives