Techies are too often tempted by the lure of new technology, leaving perfectly good hardware drifting in the wake of compulsive upgrading. And while we love getting new gadgets as much as the next geek, we also like how a new purchase gives us the opportunity to take apart and tinker with our older gear in the Lab. Whether it’s by soldering circuit boards or loading open-source firmware, we pride ourselves on being able to stretch the lifespan of older electronics by performing undocumented (and sometimes warranty-breaking) hardware hacks.
The projects we’ve included here range from relatively safe software tweaks to more challenging technical exercises. You’ll learn how to bend USB connections to your will and imbue home routers and digital cameras with robust new features. We’ve also taken some inspiration from projects we’ve seen online, including building a blue laser gun and making a digital picture frame you can mount on the wall of your office. These hacks will help you showcase your craftiness and give you a better understanding of how your electronics work. And the best part is that your old hardware will be faster, cooler, and more awesome afterward.
So, let’s get hacking!
A simple first modification for budding do-it-yourselfers is to alter a non-USB gadget so that it can be run off of USB power from your computer. This mod is fairly easy to perform and is an important part of many more-complicated DIY projects, such as the USB charger on the next page. Here, we show you how to use USB to power a desk fan and book-light lamp.
First, a quick primer on USB power. Any USB cable (2.0 or 1.0) is composed of four wires—two for data and two for electricity. The power is delivered across the outer two pins—a +5-volt wire and a ground. USB connectors are configured to provide 100 milliamps of current through these pins when in “low-power” mode or 500 milliamps in “high-power” mode. Although some USB connectors will provide maximum power without any questions asked, most won’t unless the USB device requests high power using the proper protocols. Most USB hacks aren’t that sophisticated, and are therefore limited to about 100-200 milliamps of current.
One last warning: An improper USB mod that results in a short circuit can fry your USB port or even your motherboard. So make absolutely sure that all wires are spliced correctly and that any exposed copper is covered with electrical tape or heat-shrink tubing.
Our first project is to turn a case fan into one we can use on our desk to keep us cool as we work. All that’s needed is a 5-volt case fan (preferably with grill) and an unused USB cable.
First, you’ll have to expose the four internal wires in your old USB cable, so snip it near the end furthest from the connector for the PC, and use a razor blade or other sharp knife to cut back the outer, rubber coating. Pull back the foil insulation, and locate the four wires inside. You should see red, black, white, and green wires inside (image A). Using a knife or wire strippers, expose the ends of the red and black wires.
Your case fan should have two wires—one red and one black—terminating in a Molex power connector. Snip and strip the wires (image B). Following convention, the red wire is positive, and the black is ground—just like in the USB cable.
Simply twist the exposed ends of the red wires together, solder, and cover with electrical tape or heat-shrink tubing to prevent the wires from shorting (Image C). Do the same for the black wires. Just like that, you have a USB-powered fan for your desk. If you want to get fancy, make a fan stand out of a bent coat hanger.
Using very much the same procedure as above, you can convert an old battery-powered reading light into a USB-powered lamp to illuminate the back of your case. All you need to do is find an LED reading lamp that uses around 5 volts (the equivalent of about three AAA batteries) and open it up with a screwdriver. Under the battery compartment, you should find a red and black wire (image D).
Splice the two wires to the wires in a USB cable, just like with the fan, then put the battery cover back on the lamp, chipping out a hole big enough to feed the USB cable through. Slap a strip of poster tape on the bottom, plant it on the back of your case, and plug it in.
Nothing can ruin a nerd outing faster than a catastrophic battery failure in one of your vital gadgets. Fortunately, although you may not always have access to an outlet and a wall-wart to recharge, it’s possible to create an emergency backup battery that fits inside a common Altoids tin and can power your toys for at least a few extra minutes—all for just a couple of bucks.
First, you’ll need to find a suitable casing for your USB charger. A perennial favorite of amateur gadgeteers: Altoids-style tin boxes. They’re cheap, sturdy, and relatively attractive. The traditional tin, about as big as a deck of cards, provides ample room for the components we’ll be using, but if you’re ambitious, it’s also possible to cram them into the newer, small Altoids tins.
In addition to the tin, you’ll also need the following parts. The total cost of parts (sans tools) should be only a few dollars, but you’ll either have to do some scavenging or place an order online to get some of the components.
To start, we need to make a hole in the side of the tin big enough to hold the female USB connector (image A). When done, this is where you’ll plug in your gadgets; it will be the only visible difference between your charger and a run-of-the-mill Altoids tin. Make the hole on one of the narrow ends of the tin, a little to the left or right of center. We used a Dremel to make our hole, though you can also do it with a drill or a hand file. Try to make the hole just big enough for the connector to fit into, and no bigger.
Next, we’ll need to put together the circuit that will allow us to charge USB devices (which need about 5 volts) with a 9-volt battery. If electrical engineering sends you into a cold sweat, don’t worry; this is about as simple as a circuit can get. We’ll be connecting the positive (red) wire from the battery clip to the Vin pin on the voltage regulator, and the Vout pin to the +5V pin on the USB connector. We’ll also connect the ground wire from the battery clip to the ground pin on the regulator and the USB connector. Confused? Just solder everything together according to the diagram (image B).
After you’re done soldering, wrap the connections in electrical tape so they don’t short out as we install the circuit in
the tin casing. Since both the battery clip and voltage regulator are smaller than the USB connector, you should be able to feed them through the hole first, and then fit the USB connector into it so that the lip of the connector rests on the edge of the hole. Once you’ve got everything tucked neatly into the case, with the voltage regulator sitting beside the connector, use some hot glue or epoxy to hold the wires in place.
Stereoscopic 3D is the Next Big Thing™ for PC gaming, at least if you believe Nvidia’s marketing department. But not everyone has $200 to spend on Nvidia’s 3D Vision kit, let alone a new 120Hz LCD monitor required to display it. Thankfully, there’s a way for you to play your games in 3D without buying any expensive new hardware. Nvidia’s 3D Vision drivers actually include an anaglyph mode so you can experience 3D gaming with red/cyan 3D glasses. The one caveat: This method only works if you have an Nvidia GPU and are running Windows Vista or Windows 7. Here’s how to get anaglyph 3D up and running in less than 10 minutes.
First, you need to download Nvidia’s 3D Vision drivers. Head over to the download page (http://www.nvidia.com/Download/index.aspx?lang=en-us) and select 3D Vision as the product type, along with your operating system. If you aren’t running Nvidia’s latest GeForce videocard drivers (version 186.18 at press time), you’ll have to download and install those, as well.
After you’ve installed the 3D Vision drivers, launch the Nvidia Control Panel from the Windows Control Panel menu. You should see a section labeled Stereoscopic 3D. Expand that menu and click “Enable Stereoscopic 3D.”
In the following pop-up window, click “Enable 3D Vision Discover.” This is the option that switches Nvidia’s 3D Vision settings from 120Hz shutter-based 3D to anaglyph (red/cyan) that can run on any normal 60Hz monitor.
The next time you launch a 3D Vision–compatible game, you’ll be able to play it in 3D with any pair of generic red/cyan glasses—the set Intel gave away for viewing this year’s 3D ads during Super Bowl works perfectly, for example. You can also purchase a pair for less than $2 online (http://www.3dstereo.com/viewmaster/gla.html). During gameplay, you can toggle anaglyph view with the Ctrl+T shortcut.
Since anaglyph 3D is based on color filters, games can lose a bit of their vibrancy when you’re playing in this 3D mode. Left 4 Dead, for example, works wonderfully, but games with lots of red and blue color tones (like Team Fortress 2) do not. We recommend adjusting the 3D depth with Ctrl+F3 and Ctrl+F4 to find the best level of comfort for you.
While some of us who jumped on the Wii bandwagon have a great time with Super Mario Galaxy and Cooking Mama, there are undoubtedly a few regretful gamers who just can’t get the hang of Nintendo’s waggle-based gaming console. But there’s no need to chuck that Wii out the window yet—you can use the Wii Remote as a wireless pointer for your PC!
The Wii Remote uses Bluetooth to connect to the Wii, but Windows will also recognize it as a Human Interface Device. To connect the Wii Remote to your PC, you’ll need a compatible Bluetooth receiver. Most new laptops have integrated Bluetooth, but you can also purchase a USB Bluetooth receiver online for less than $25. Check the Wii Brew wiki (http://wiibrew.org/wiki/List_of_Working_Bluetooth_Devices) for a list of compatible adapters.
We paired the Wii Remote with our Dell laptop using the “Add Bluetooth Device” option in the Windows Control Panel. For the laptop to recognize the controller, we also had to press the red sync button in the Wii Remote’s battery compartment. Your PC should detect it as Nintendo RVL-CNT-01. No Bluetooth passkey should be required.
Now, download and launch the latest version of WiinRemote (http://onakasuita.org/wii/index-e.html). If you successfully paired your Wii Remote, the program will let you calibrate the motion sensor and assign buttons. By default, the program uses the controller’s gyroscope to control your mouse cursor. The Wii Nunchuck peripheral’s analog stick will also control mouse movement. You can achieve more accurate control by activating the IR sensor, but you’ll need to mount two infrared light sources above your monitor for this to work. The Wii’s IR light bar is suitable, and we powered it by splicing its proprietary plug into a USB cable.
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, http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK) 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.
Download the version of CHDK software that’s appropriate for your Canon PowerShot. CHDK only works with a camera using Canon’s Digic II or newer image sensor—any PowerShot made after 2005 should work. To find the right download, you’ll have to first find your existing firmware version number. Using Notepad or any other text-editing tool, create and save an empty file named ver.req. You’ll have to disable the “Hide extensions for known file types” setting under Windows Explorer’s Folder Options in order to change the file extension to .req.
Using a USB card reader, drop this file into the root directory of your SD card (not while the card is in the camera). Put the card back in your camera, turn on the camera under playback mode, and press the “set” and “disp.” buttons together. If done properly, the camera should display the firmware version number, i.e., Firmware Ver GM1.00C.
Next, head over to the CHDK download site (http://mighty-hoernsche.de/) and find your camera model and firmware version. Download the corresponding Zip file under the column labeled Complete.
With your SD card back in a card reader and connected to your PC, extract the entire contents of the software package into the root directory of the card. Now you’re ready to run the CHDK software. Put the card back in your camera again and turn on your camera under playback mode (the lens should be retracted). Hit the Menu button, and scroll down to the bottom of the first menu tab. You should see an option for “firm update.” Select this and choose Yes when prompted. This is an entirely safe process since CHDK installs additional software instead of replacing the existing firmware in your camera.
CHDK should automatically load in a few seconds and display its logo. You can now switch the camera to capture mode to begin using the new features. Keep in mind that since your core firmware hasn’t actually been modified, CHDK will be disabled every time you turn off your camera, and you’ll have to manually enable it with every boot. We’ll go over how to make CHDK automatically boot later.
The first thing you’ll notice with CHDK enabled is that the onscreen display (OSD) shows new information, including the remaining battery life as a percentage, focus distance in meters, and a digital clock.
To enter the special CHDK menu, you need to enter Alt mode by pressing the Shortcut button on your camera (this button is later configurable). When in Alt mode, you’ll see an <ALT> indicator at the bottom of the OSD. Pressing the Menu button will bring up the CHDK menu, where you can enable a live histogram, zebra stripes (to indicate overexposure), and turn on RAW recording mode. The available feature set depends on your PowerShot model, so check the official CHDK wiki (http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK_firmware_usage) for more information.
If you don’t want to manually load CHDK every time you use your camera, you can set it to auto-load, as long as your SD card is smaller than 2GB and not formatted for FAT32 (most aren’t by default). From the same Zip file you downloaded earlier, copy the PS.fir and DISKBOOT.bin files to the root directory of your SD card. Enter the CHDK menu using Alt mode and navigate to Miscellaneous Stuff. Select “Make Card Bootable” and hit the set button. Take out the SD card and slide its physical locking mechanism into the “lock” position. The next time you turn on the camera, CHDK should automatically start up as well.
As a kid, did you ever run around your back yard waving a plastic toy gun around and making “pew pew” noises? Did you ever wish that toy gun could shoot an actual laser beam? Well, you’re a grown up now, and it’s time to make your dreams come true. We’re going to show you how to implant a real, high-powered blue laser into a plastic Star Trek Phaser.
But before we tell you how to make it, we need to stress that this how-to is showing you how to take a perfectly good toy and turn it into something that is absolutely, unequivocally NOT A TOY. The blue laser used in this guide can burn electrical tape and pop balloons, which means that it’s also strong enough to do some extreme eye damage to anyone unlucky enough to catch a stray reflection. Because of this, always wear proper eye protection while using the laser, and NEVER point the laser at another person.
There are two ways you can get the blue laser you’ll need for your phaser—you can buy one on the Internet for about $30, or you can salvage one from an old Blu-ray or HD DVD player. If you opt for the scavenged laser, be forewarned: You’ll have to build your own driver circuit, a task that’s pretty easy by circuit-building standards, but not for someone who doesn’t know his way around a soldering iron.
You’ll need a plastic gun to put the laser in. We bought a retro Star Trek phaser on eBay for $30, but there’s no reason you couldn’t do basically the same thing to a different toy. To prepare the toy phaser, you’ll need to make a couple of easy modifications using pliers and a rotary tool, such as a Dremel. First, widen the battery compartment so it can fit a 9-volt battery, instead of two AAs. Do this by pulling out the battery contacts with your pliers, then using the rotary tool to grind away all of the plastic protrusions inside the battery case. Also drill a hole that you can feed the wires from the 9V battery clip through.
Next, remove the light bulb from its black plastic clip, and grind down the clip so that the side opposite the two prongs is totally flat. If you remove the metal cap that covers the acrylic laser lens, the laser will fit perfectly into the hole in the clip. Now hot glue the black plastic clip into the “barrel” of the phaser, and grind out anything in the front of the phaser that would keep the laser housing from fitting in behind it. Connect the laser to the battery so it turns on, align it so that it’s straight, and glue it into position.
Finally, fix your switch into the trigger hole of the phaser, and use wires to complete the circuit between the battery, the switch, and the driver circuit. Use a little hot glue to stick everything in place, and reconnect the two halves of the phaser. The laser will burn many dark-colored items, including electrical tape and some black plastic, and it can also pop balloons. Blue lasers are hard to see in the air, even at high power, so if you want to see the beam, use some sort of particles in the air, such as smoke or fog. Have fun, and remember to be safe.
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 (http://www.polarcloud.com/tomato), which we favor for its compatibility with a wide range of router brands and models, user-friendly interface, and powerful feature set. We’ll 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.
First, you need to make sure your router is supported by Tomato. The Linksys WRT54G-series routers work best, but some Buffalo and Asus routers also work. Check the Tomato FAQ (http://www.polarcloud.com/tomatofaq#what_will_this_run_on) to see if your router model and version number is supported. Download the latest firmware package (version 1.25 at press time) and extract its files with 7-Zip (www.7-zip.org). Access your router’s administration page with its gateway address (default is 192.168.1.1) and find the Firmware Upgrade section. Choose the firmware .bin file that matches your router and begin the upgrade process. Tomato will automatically transfer your router settings over so you don’t have to reconfigure the basic settings (image A).
Quality of Service lets you manage the different types of data packets as they are routed around your home network and to your service provider. Internet surfing, gaming, VoIP, and BitTorrent traffic can all be prioritized so you can run web services simultaneously without clogging your bandwidth. There’s no one set of settings that will work for everyone, but we’ll give you the basics for you to get started.
QoS works by classifying network traffic types and then ordering those classes for bandwidth prioritization. First, you have to determine your connection’s maximum uplink bandwidth (since upload traffic is the source of most connection clutter). We used Speedtest.net to find our upload cap, and put that bitrate number under Max Bandwidth (image B).
Next, you’ll have to configure the upper and lower bandwidth bounds for each class of packet. By default, the “Highest” class has a range of 80 to 100 percent. This means that packets ranked in this class will always claim at least 80 percent of your bandwidth. The “Lowest” class, on the other hand, has a range of 2 to 95 percent. This means packets under this class will at most claim 95 percent of your bandwidth, if it’s available. Higher ranked classes should be reserved for services that require steady connections, like gaming and VoIP, while lower priority classes should be reserved for normal web surfing, downloads, and peer to peer networks like BitTorrent.
Under the Classification menu, you’ll have to assign specific services to class rankings (image C). You can identify services based on their network protocol type, port, or packet size. You can even use MAC addresses and local IPs to relegate one user on your home network to a specific prioritization class. This is where trial and error will help, and we recommend that you utilize Tomato’s Graphs feature to show you what effect your configuration has on your current traffic. We also recommend referencing the Tomato wiki (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Tomato_%28firmware%29) for further clarification on all of the firmware’s varied settings.
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 we’re going to show you how to install custom Rockbox firmware—to add support for new codecs, gapless playback, and even Doom on your MP3 player.
Rockbox is open-source replacement firmware for MP3 players. It supports a wide range of players, including many (but not all) players from Apple, Archos, Cowon, iRiver, Olympus, SanDisk, and Toshiba. Before reading any further, check out the chart at the top of the Rockbox homepage (www.rockbox.org) to see whether your specific model is supported. If it’s not, you are sadly out of luck, for the time being.
First, you’ll need to go to the Rockbox website and download the Rockbox utility (http://www.rockbox.org/twiki/bin/view/Main/RockboxUtility#Download), which includes an automatic installer tool that works with any of the supported MP3 players.
Simply run the utility, and it will automatically detect that this is the first time it’s been run and ask if you want to install Rockbox on a new device. Plug your device into your computer, then select whichever drive letter has been assigned to it, and specify what model it is (image A). Click OK.
The Rockbox utility will now allow you to customize your Rockbox installation. Generally, clicking Complete Installation is advisable, as it will also install the full set of extra plugins to allow you to get the most out of your hacked MP3 player.
Sit tight for a bit while the installation completes, then select whichever theme you want installed on your MP3 player (image B). You’ve now got a hacked MP3 player. You can change your theme whenever you want to, using the Rockbox utility. Read the Rockbox documentation for your player to find out how you can customize it using the extensive options menu.
Advanced Media Playback
Rockbox allows you to expand the functionality of your MP3 player in several core ways. For instance, with Rockbox firmware, an old iPod Photo (the one before the iPod Video) is actually capable of playing .mpeg video files. Many players can play music and video in more formats and containers than are supported by default, such as FLAC and Matroska. Additionally, Rockbox can add voice to menus, and supports voice recognition, to make it easier for people with impaired vision to use an MP3 player.
Apps, Apps, Apps
With Rockbox, you get access to an enormous catalog of apps (most of them written by hobbyists) that you can load onto your player for added functionality or just to have some fun. The standard Rockbox install includes a bunch of apps and games, including classics like Minesweeper and Sudoku.
Did we mention that you can play Doom? On a funky, old-school iPod? Sure, trying to play Doom on a grayscale iPod screen is enough to make your eyes commit ritual seppuku, but the novelty factor alone is sure to keep you blasting demons with a click-wheel for a few minutes at least. Remember that nerd-cred thing? This is how you get it.
Considering that netbooks get outdated by model refreshes every few months, it’s quite likely you’ll find yourself with an old netbook lying around the house, catching dust. But there’s no need to let it go to waste. Instead, turn it into a Wi-Fi-enabled digital picture frame! We used an old Acer Aspire One for this project, but it should work with most netbooks.
The disassembly process will be different for each netbook model, but generally, you need to remove all the screws on the netbook’s underside (which are sometimes hidden under rubber pads) to free the motherboard from its plastic shell. Be careful not to cut any wires, and make note of where you disconnect cables. The important components to extract intact are the motherboard, hard drive, Wi-Fi card, and LCD screen, of course. We also kept the small daughterboard, which houses two extra USB ports and the power button (image A).
It took us quite a bit of time to decide on where to purchase a frame and how the LCD would be fitted inside. We unsuccessfully searched for a premade shadowbox frame that matched the dimensions of our netbook’s 8x4.5-inch LCD panel, an unorthodox size for picture frames. You may have more luck with your own netbook (check http://www.frameplace.com/xshdboxs.htm for cheap shadow box frames), but we had to have our frame custom made at a local shop for $100.
After a week, we had a custom-made frame with the LCD in place. We ordered a glassless, simple black frame with about three inches of allowance in the back for whatever hardware tweaking was necessary. The frame specialists were kind enough to seal in the LCD panel with a piece of cardboard, while making sure the LCD ribbon was still accessible (image B).
With a well-made, well-measured frame, the actual assembly of the photo frame shouldn’t be much of a challenge. First, make sure all of the motherboard cables are attached, including the LCD ribbon, the HDD SATA cable, the connection to the I/O board (if there is one), and the power cable. To mount the motherboard into the case, you’ll need to create some small spacers so that it doesn’t sit directly on the LCD screen’s backing. You can use whatever’s handy; we cut ours out of dense packing foam. With a netbook motherboard, heat shouldn’t be much of an issue, but just in case try to place the spacers under screw holes near the corners, away from the CPU. To fix everything in place permanently, glue the spacers to the frame and use pins through the screw holes to hold the motherboard down.
The Wi-Fi card attached to your motherboard should have two wires attached to it. The card needs these antenna wires to function, so make sure they’re secured inside the frame, with the ends taped down at least six inches apart. You can use additional foam spacers on the corners of the motherboard to hold the I/O board and HDD in place, or you can screw them to the back edge of the frame (image C).
To configure your picture frame, plug a USB keyboard and mouse into the motherboard (alternately, you could do your entire software configuration on the netbook before you take it apart). Remove any unnecessary software, such as image editors, office suites, and antivirus applications, and sweep your hard drive. You’ll also need to download and install a slide show application to display photos you have stored on either your hard drive or USB thumb drive, or accessed via an RSS feed.
We used Flickr as our photo storing service; we chose this service because you can update your feed remotely, from almost any Internet-capable device that can send picture attachments. There are actually several programs that can run a Flickr slide show, though we picked Google Photo Screensaver (http://pack.google.com/screensaver.html).
Once you’ve downloaded and installed the screensaver, either run the application straight from the installer or right-click your Desktop and select Properties. Then, under the Screen Saver tab, choose Google Photos Screensaver and go into Settings. From here, you can configure whether to stream your photos from a list of RSS feeds, Picasa, or a specific folder on your computer.
To run the screensaver from Flickr, go to your photo stream (flickr.com/photos/yourusername), scroll down to the bottom of the page, and find the RSS icon. Copy the RSS address and paste it under the Configure option in your Google Photos Screensaver preferences. Click OK, and you’re all set up.
In addition to the slide show, you can set your frame up as a digital wall clock, have it stream daily headlines from a news RSS feed, or hook it up to a set of speakers and run an Internet radio portal. To control the frame, you can hook up a wireless keyboard and mouse. Our netbook had Bluetooth capabilities, so we used Bluetooth peripherals, including the Wii Remote!