Macworld Roundup

So, the iPhone has arrived. Never before on a mobile device have I seen such colorful graphics, beautiful animation, and usable features. If they didn’t already seem last century, Windows Mobile and other smart phone systems really have to catch up to Apple’s designs. The multi-touch interaction looks like it’s done just right, and everything “scrolls like butter,” as Steve said last year. While I was almost sure that Apple wouldn’t create a mobile phone, I knew that if they did, it would put other hardware and software solutions to absolute shame.

While Steve’s keynote answered many of my initial questions, I’m very curious if Apple will allow third parties to develop their own applications and widgets, as they’ve done with Dashboard in Mac OS X. As I live in the midwest, Cingular coverage is next to nil out here, so loading an iPhone optimized version of Skype would be ideal for me. WiFi coverage is better in my area than the average cell signal, making my iPhone almost exclusively 802.11 based — fine by me, as broadband is thankfully plenty fast. With internet access almost anywhere now, third party widgets that access the internet would be so much more popular. Finally, I can take my Chuck Norris Facts widget on the road with me, and stay up-to-date with the latest trivia.

In all seriousness, though, Apple has set the bar for mobile phones so high, and yet they won’t even be shipping the iPhone until June. I do wonder if they will continue to update the iPods, or force users to buy an iPhone to take advantage of all the new features? Rumors have been answered with what looks to be a stellar product, but there are many more questions to come. And, naturally, I want to take the iPhone apart and see what makes it tick.

Also new at Macworld is the tv (that’s Shift-Option-K to make the Apple logo on the Mac, by the way). I was surprised at how much 802.11n was downplayed — it’s a huge factor in the performance of the device, and requires an all-new AirPort Extreme base station, which may soon replace my WRT54G. Apple is really pushing new TV technology, too. My main standard definition TV still only has composite (yellow) video-in, so I’m S.O.L. when it comes to the Apple tv. I’m not about to drop Xbox Media Center any time soon, so I may consider assembling a Front Row/Apple tv skin for XBMC, just to make it more friendly and Mac-like.

The year has just begun, and there’s bound to be all kinds of new goodies in store. Apple really knows how to kick off a year. Start by revolutionizing the mobile phone industry, they maybe move into dual quad-core Macs. Who knows — we may all be typing on multiprocessor and multi-core machines before the end of the year!

Macworld Roundup

Halo Wars for iPod

If you hadn’t noticed from my many previous posts, the category even, I’m a huge Xbox fan. And what Xbox fan doesn’t appreciate a battle-filled round of Halo, the title that made the Xbox what it is today? While I’m still ever-so-slightly bitter about losing the original Halo to Microsoft Game Studios after the crowd-pleasing MacWorld 1999 demo, I’m quite glad it turned out as successful as it has. What was primed to be a noteworthy Mac game got transformed into an enormous console blockbuster, a milestone in gameplay and attention to detail demonstrating that Bungie simply “gets it” when it comes to games. It was, and still is, one of the top selling Xbox games, and Halo 2 is continually rising back up to top of Xbox Live charts.

I’m certainly excited over the upcoming release of Halo 3 for the Xbox 360, but I recently learned of a new spin on the Halo saga. Halo Wars aims to deliver a real time strategy version of Halo, allowing you to command massive armies of Spartan soldiers and vehicles, defending against Covenant invaders on a global scale — a “bigger picture” interpretation of the first-person action that fills Halo 1 through 3. Normally, I don’t get excited about anything other than first-person shooters; I like having a weapon displayed in the lower third of my TV screen and a straight-ahead view of the oncoming foes. Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve really started enjoying Company of Heroes on the PC, which is a World War II real-time strategy game. It got me thinking: If this game is fun, playing it in the Halo environment must really be impressive. Calling in Banshee air strikes while maneuvering squads of soldiers around in Warthogs makes Company of Heroes seem boring by comparison.

Over at the Halo Wars site, they provide a trailer of what’s in store. Although it doesn’t detail any of the gameplay, it is a great teaser, displaying dozens of UNSC allies and enemies, all with their signature vehicles and weapons ready and poised for battle. Sadly, the trailers are only available in Windows Media format (the obvious choice for a Microsoft affiliated game). I’ve taken the liberty of converting it to a more Mac- and iPod-friendly format, which you can download now.

Halo Wars for iPod

Vanishing Shuffle Music

The Cult of Mac blog, AppleDefects, and others noted that many 2G iPod Shuffle owners have been reporting troubles with their new players, in which music inexplicably disappears and iTunes reports “The required disc cannot be found.” Most notably, it has been happening with podcasts:

I had noticed that the Shuffle reports way more “updating iPod” notices than it should, as well as the alarming message above, which occurs every time I plug in my player, including several times after it’s been updated and nothing changes — just clicking into the iTunes window causes it to worry. The podcasts flip their indicator from played to unplayed and back, and it locks up.

It seems that these problems are not limited to 2G iPod Shuffles. Just this morning I had the same problems with my first generation 1GB Shuffle, and ended up just deleting everything and dropping in a podcast or two before heading out. This took several tries, of course, and required dismissing more than a dozen errors, so I decided to investigate when I had more time. Even after experimenting a bit, I’m still not sure of the source of the problems — perhaps it’s an issue with the latest firmware, iTunes 7.0.2, or even a defective TWiTcast — but running Apple’s iPod Shuffle Reset Utility completely erased my Shuffle and reloaded the software, giving it that factory fresh feel. Apparently, the “brick it and bring it back” method works wonders for iPods. Since resetting it, I’ve encountered no problems, and have enjoyed a number of podcasts and songs without issue. Keep in mind, the Shuffle Reset Utility is only for 1G Shuffles, so this won’t solve the issue with 2G models, but hopefully a fix for this annoying bug is in the works.

Vanishing Shuffle Music

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

Shuffle Reset

Owners of failing first generation iPod Shuffles will be pleased to learn that Apple has released a reset utility (for Mac and Windows), which completely wipes the flash storage and starts the iPod fresh. Normally, we think of an iPod “Restore” action having this effect, which is entirely true for hard drive based iPods. A hard drive based iPod can be restored after the drive has been completely overwritten with zero’s, so there’s no argument there. However, the iPod Shuffle must work differently, as they can get corrupted and become unusable. A corrupted iPod Shuffle just blinks orange and green lights, and refuses to appear on the desktop. Apple’s new updater communicates with the iPod USB controller chip — always available when plugged in, unless the problem is far more serious — and reloads the entire contents of flash, bringing your once-dead iPod back to life.

I think Apple must have used some utility like this in the past, at least internally, to reset returned iPod Shuffles. When mine failed a few months ago with the aforementioned problem, Apple was able to reload the contents and make it live once more, so I’m glad to see that this great tool is now available to the public. As this is one of the most common iPod Shuffle difficulties, the iPod shuffle Reset Utility should greatly decrease the number of necessary returns.

Shuffle Reset

iPod Breakout Card

Just recently, I received my iPod Breakout Card, and I finally finished assembling it tonight. By using a the same JAE manufactured connectors as the official iPod ones, each pin from the Dock connector can be individually run to a much larger pad, making it easy to interact with the iPod. I intend to install a row of pins on each side and allow the entire card to be snapped into a breadboard for easy prototyping.

While I’m not sure what kind of hack I’ll be using it for yet, I do intend to post some code written for the BASIC Stamp II, as I don’t yet have any PIC experience (I should write about the BlackBerry-like devices a buddy and I made years ago using a pair of BSII chips and wifi transceivers! A story for another day…)

You, too, can order and assembly your very own iPod breakout card from Ridax in Sweden. It took a few days for my parts to get to the U.S., but they arrived well packed and ready to be used. This should be the start of some more interesting iPod hacks!

iPod Breakout Card

Fixing a Frozen iPod

I’ve seen a number of questions on the web related to frozen iPods which either get stuck on or off. Holding the Hard Reset buttons indicated in the previous post will — if the iPod is accepting any input at all — force it to do a full reboot. In most cases, the freeze is a one-time issue, and this solution will get you out of the situation.

However, if the iPod reboots and gets stuck again, try resetting it yet again and holding the Disk Mode buttons to force the iPod to become a simple external hard drive. When connected via USB or FireWire, it can be Restored with Apple’s latest iPod Updater software. Sometimes a Restore is the best way to get your iPod working again, as it wipes the device clean and reloads all the factory settings. The Restore function is so deep that it will even fix an iPod hard drive which has been completely written over with zeroes!

If the iPod is still locking up, it may be the result of a more serious problem that can be determined by thoroughly testing the hard drive. Stay tuned for more iPod fixing tips in the very near future.

Fixing a Frozen iPod

Hidden iPod Commands

I grew tired of Googling each time I needed the correct button sequence to put iPods into their various modes, so I’ve put together this little table.

iPod Generation Hard Reset Diagnostic Mode Disk Mode
1st Generation “Scroll Wheel” Menu + Play Previous + Center + Next Previous + Next
2nd Generation “Touch Wheel” Menu + Play Previous + Center + Next Previous + Next
3rd Generation “Touch Wheel” Menu + Play Previous + Center + Next Previous + Next
4th Generation “Click Wheel” Menu + Center Previous + Center Center + Play
5th Generation “Click Wheel” Menu + Center Previous + Center Center + Play
Hidden iPod Commands

Even More Adapting

If you’ve ever had an iPod die on you, there’s a good chance it was due to a hard drive problem. The software may have gotten corrupted or the drive may have had some mechanical issue…all kinds of things can go wrong with your beloved mobile music machine. The good news is, there is hope. With this 1.8″ to 2.5″ IDE adapter, pointed out by a user in the Command-Tab Forums, you can connect your iPod to a laptop IDE bus. With yet another, but more common adapter, you can connect that whole assembly to a regular, rune-of-the-mill desktop IDE bus. In short, you can plug your iPod drive into your desktop and run standard disk repair software on it. My personal favorite is Hitachi’s Drive Fitness Test under Advanced mode, which will run a full scale hardware and disk surface scan test of the drive and allow you to repair any bad sectors. For an easy way to run this test (on PC hardware), download the free Ultimate Boot CD which contains a myriad of utilities. Burn and boot the CD, then hit F2 followed by F1 to launch the program.

So the next time your iPod stops working and all seems to be lost (as far as Apple suggested fixes go), try opening it up and running a test. You might just be able to repair your iPod’s drive with a little work and a handy adapter or two.

Even More Adapting

iPod Shuffle Shuffle

Less than a week ago, my iPod Shuffle gave up on me and refused to play any music. Pressing buttons resulted in flashing orange-and-green lights, and plugging it into various computers had no effect. I started thinking that maybe the refurbished 1 GB Shuffle wasn’t such a good deal after all.

At a loss, I went to Apple’s iPod Support page and requested some help. I submitted my issue in the hopes that they could either fix or replace my iPod. Two days later, a brand new iPod Shuffle arrives at my door, courtesy Apple and DHL. All I had to do was post back my non-functioning unit. I packaged it up, included the requested cap (what they do with them, I don’t know), and sent my dead Shuffle back. Earlier today, I received an email from Apple Support stating that my shipment arrived and that they hope I’ll be happy with my new iPod Shuffle. Indeed I am. Never have I had such a great customer service experience with any company. This, among other reasons, is why I don’t mind paying a little extra for Apple hardware.

iPod Shuffle Shuffle