Custom Firmware Rocks! How to Hack Gadgets with New Software

Alex Castle

While we're big fans of the proven awesomeness of open-source software, we don't automatically download every free application that's labeled as an open-source project. What make more sense is the use of open-source as the tool that effects some kind of massive or otherwise unreachable change in a common device. Case in point is open-source firmware, named not for any philosophical belief behind its creation, but because few would want to heft the banner for these changes themselves. After all, creativity comes from a wide range of sources and inputs--as does software testers. You sure wouldn't want to be the one person working on third-party iPhone firmware, bricking device after device in a quest to add additional functionality that Apple didn't first design.

But that kind of unintended funcitonality is the sole benefit to open-source firmware. Throw those aspirations of community membership and open-source allegiance out the window: You want to increase the power of your device akin to a Sim tinkering his or her hardware to gain mechanical skill points. There's no shame in that. In fact, you can accomplish much by adopting third-party firmware in place of standard manufacturer packages. For example, building increased sound codecs into your MP3 player of choice, or adding on-screen level meters to your digital SLR. You can even turn your router into a bridge, perfect for extending the range of your neighbor's wireless signal so you can thieve his connection from additional locations in your apartment. You can also brick your device.

We jest, but only partially. For the danger of running third-party firmware--safe as many of the packages can seem to be--is that you could render your device of choice unusable. It happens to "real" firmware upgrades; it can happen to "unofficial" firmware upgrades as well, only I venture that you'll probably find more problems in the latter scenario than with a manufacturer's tried-and-tested update. But still, the benefits can often outweigh the risks, especially if you're looking to extend your legacy devices with additional features. An entire ocean of open-source firmware fixes awaits your perusal -- we take a look at some outstanding examples of open-source firmware, and teach you how to install them on your own gadgets!

MP3 Players

For most people, an MP3 player serves a pretty narrow purpose: it plays music, maybe a video here or there if you’ve got a newer model, and might have a handful of applications. All in all, though, MP3 players are rarely treated as anything more than tiny, portable jukeboxes, which is a shame, because as gadgets they’ve got the potential for so much more. That’s why, in this article , we show you how to install custom Rockbox firmware and breathe new life into your trusty old MP3 player.

Sony's PSP

For as long as Sony’s PlayStation Portable has been on the market, it’s been a juicy target for hackers. With burly hardware (for a handheld) and a gorgeous screen, it just begs to play homebrew, and lots of PSP owners have cracked their devices to do just that. Unfortunately, Sony has had other plans for their handheld, and has released dozens of firmware updates and several hardware revisions to make it harder to hack the PSPs handheld.

As such, there’s no one hack that works on all PSP, and in fact some PSPs are completely unhackable. There is, however, one fairly easy method that works on most consoles, which is what we illustrate in this article.

BIOS

OpenBIOS and Coreboot are two examples of the open source world's answer to proprietary BIOS firmware. Flashing your motherboard with either of these can be an anxiety-inducing process, but you should be able to tap into faster loading speeds if you're successful. Everyone wants a speedy, netbook-style BIOS loadup, right?

Routers

Third-party router software has been around for a while, but we can’t help but keep recommending it to users who want to add undocumented features to their home network. Our favorite router firmware package is still Tomato , which we favor for its compatibility with a wide range of router brands and models, user-friendly interface, and powerful feature set. We show you how to upgrade your router’s firmware to the newest version of Tomato and then configure the Quality of Service settings to manage your network traffic.

E-readers

Yes, you can even get open-source firmware for your electronic reader. The pickings aren't vast, but firmware like OpenInkPot can update your device with new settings and better performance, as well as give you access to additional software reader options, eliminate the necessity of DRM for your device, and even add Wi-Fi capabilities to a network-incompatible E-reader.

Point and Shoot Digital Cameras

We love point-and-shoot pocket cameras for their small size and ease of use, but we lament their relatively paltry feature sets when compared to more expensive DSLR models. The good news, for owners of the popular Canon PowerShot cameras, is that your consumer-grade gadget can be upgraded with custom software to endow it with professional features like RAW image recording and live histogram feedback. CHDK ( Canon Hack Development Kit ) is an easy-to-install software package created by a savvy group of programmers to supercharge the Canon PowerShot. We show you how to safely install and configure this free firmware add-on with no risk to your camera .

SLRs

The Canon 5D Mark II camera is pretty impressive in its own right , given the kind of video that this full-frame, digital SLR can shoot. But don't let it be said that accomplishment ever got in the way of open-source innovation. That's where the open-source firmware package Magic Lantern comes into play. Amongst the features it adds to this jam-packed camera include on-screen audio meters (ideal for the amateur filmmaker), manual gain control, zebra stripes, and crop marks for different aspect ratios.

Digital Media Players

Western Digital's WDTV is kind of like a magic media streaming box. You plug any USB storage device (Flash key, portable hard drive, etc) into its two USB ports and it'll play any movie, picture, or audio file that it finds, outputting your media to your big screen TV via HDMI. Western Digital has done a great job updating its own official firmware to boost compatibility with almost every media format you can think of (yes, including MKV packages with subtitles), but the open-source offering takes the WDTV's functionality even further. B-Rad's WDLXTV firmware adds support for USB optical drives, USB hubs, limited ethernet connectivity, custom GUIs, and an application package that turns the WDTV into a mini-server!

Anything Else?

This is just a brief introduction to the world of open-source firmware. Hopefully it's gotten you stewing about all the different electronic devices you can hack in the comfort of your own dwelling. But just in case you need a little more inspiration, is anyone else out there running open-source firmware that deserves mentioning? Leave a comment to help flush out the list for your fellow readers!

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