As much as we would love for our computers to work perfectly, the fact is that PCs and gadgets are complex devices that often fall short of exactly what we want. When confronted with this fact, we’re reminded of the old saw that says if you want something done right, it’s best to do it yourself. And who are we to doubt that kind of wisdom? As power users, we’re not content with hardware the way it comes out of the box; we have an insatiable need to hack our electronics in ways that will improve performance, functionality, and ease of use. And there’s no doubt about it, modifying your hardware will increase your productivity and make your life that much simpler.
The following pages contain a wide selection of hardware projects, ranging from novice-level tweaks to expert-only operations. From cable management and case mobility to LED soldering and firmware upgrades, each of these useful hacks has been tested and verified for effectiveness. Still, you’ll definitely want to read through our step-by-step instructions completely before starting, to avoid any mishaps. If you’re prepared to accept the risks—possibly voiding warranties and damaging your hardware—your efforts will yield some sweet rewards. So let’s get hacking!
Noisy fans and rattling disk drives can be a nuisance, especially if you regularly leave your system powered on overnight. Short of confining your PC to a closet, the best (and most practical) sound-dampening solution we’ve found is to apply sound-absorbing foam to our case’s side panels (on the inside, of course). Acoustic PC (www.acousticpc.com) sells dual-layered foam sheets ($50 for a three-pack) that can easily be adhered to case interiors for priceless peace and quiet. The panels are just 7mm thick, which is convenient for densely packed systems where space is limited.
First, measure the dimensions of your case’s side panels. If a fan is permanently attached to the side panel, create a paper template based on the fan’s dimensions and trace that shape at the appropriate place on the foam.
Cut a sheet of sound-dampening foam based on your measurements. Excess material can be used to line other locations, such as the floor or ceiling of your case; just be careful not to cover any ventilation holes or high-heat areas, such as the power supply.
To apply a large sheet of foam, start from one corner of the panel and slowly move to the opposite end. Press the foam firmly against the panel while slowly removing the thin plastic sheet protecting the self-adhesive gum with your other hand. Avoid creases and air bubbles by peeling and progressing patiently.
The floppy disk is dead—we all know that. Yet so many modern computer cases still sport 3.5-inch drive bays that are just begging to be used. Enter the internal media reader. The device not only spruces up your front panel but also gives you a convenient way to deal with today’s plethora of flash memory formats.
We chose Sabrent’s 52-in-1 Multi-Card Reader ($14, www.newegg.com) because of its wide range of supported formats and easy installation. Sporting four memory-card slots along with an extra USB port, this minimalist-looking USB 2.0 reader will let you transfer your digital photos, music, and data at a blazing 480Mb/s.
Installing the media reader is simple. First, remove the front panel from a free 3.5-inch drive bay on your system chassis. Open up your case’s side door and slide the reader into the bay until it’s completely flush with the entire front panel (image A).
Next, take the internal USB adapter and plug the head into an available nine-pin USB port on your motherboard (image B). Don’t plug the head into a similar-looking FireWire port, which could damage both your motherboard and drive. USB and FireWire ports are usually color-coded, but refer to your motherboard manual to be sure. The media reader is powered by USB, so it doesn’t need an external power source.
Windows XP and Vista will automatically detect the media reader upon restart and assign drive letters to its ports. If you’re building a system from scratch, connect the media reader after you’ve booted into Windows to avoid accidentally assigning the “C” drive letter to a flash reader.
Most videocards these days have multiple outputs offering support for running two monitors simultaneously, but no more than that. And while doubling up on desktop space is great for productivity, it’s insufficient for “surround-screen” gaming, which requires stretching games to three monitors.
There are a couple different options for running a triple-monitor setup. Some new monitors, such as Samsung’s 940UX, actually have USB input support, nixing the need for a traditional videocard completely. A special display chip inside these monitors compresses high-resolution video (up to 1600x1200) to fit through USB 2.0’s 480Mb/s bandwidth spec. However, high latency and a lack of 3D support (video acceleration is emulated via software) make this route untenable for gaming, not to mention most other power-user practices.
Another option is Matrox’s TripleHead2Go, an external video adapter that allows three monitors to be connected to one videocard output (either VGA or DVI) for a maximum resolution of 3840x1024. Since your graphics card is fooled into thinking that it’s connected to one really wide monitor, gaming across three screens is seamless. The downside to this $330 solution is that your start menu will always be on the leftmost monitor and maximizing a window will stretch it across all three displays. You’ll also need a beefy videocard to single-handedly render games at ultra-high resolutions.
The most practical way to run three monitors at once is to just install a second videocard. If you have a modern motherboard, we recommend that you use two PCI Express videocards, since the limited bandwidth of PCI lanes will prohibit triple-monitor gaming. We also recommend that both videocards be of the same brand to avoid compatibility issues, although ATI and Nvidia accelerators will likely play nice with each other if you use the most recent display drivers.
With three monitors plugged into two videocards, Windows will automatically treat each monitor as an independent controllable desktop. Via Display Properties, you can manipulate each screen’s resolution, orientation, and position without having to worry about which port the monitor is connected to (image B). Many games will recognize a triple-monitor setup and natively accommodate wide resolutions, but one trick to running any game across three screens is to play it in a stretched window. This helps avoid pixel alignment problems when you’re using different-size monitors—you’ll want to adjust “field of vision” settings in first-person shooters if possible to give you the right perspective (we suggest setting the FOV value to 180).
If your monitors use different resolutions, getting a cohesive background across all three screens is a little bit tricky. Windows only lets you either stretch one large wallpaper across your screens or clone an image across all desktops, neither of which produces a satisfying result. To create a tri-monitor-friendly wallpaper, you’ll need to create a test image to help you unscramble your monitor arrangement. Using an image editor, mock up a template that matches the combined resolution of all three displays, color-coding the left, middle, and right sections of the image for reference (image C). Save and set this template as your background and note any alignment problems—for example, the wallpaper starting at your center monitor as opposed to the leftmost one. In the image editor, tweak the template until it displays all three monitor sections correctly as your wallpaper. After working out the alignment kinks, drop your desired images over the template to create your three-screen background.
The following games natively support three screens:
Sliding your case out from under a desk shouldn’t be a chore—nor should it permanently damage your hardwood floors. The solution is to apply strategically placed felt pads to the bottom of your case. For cases with four plastic feet, you can attach circular felt pads to each foot for guaranteed protection. We found an eight-pack of heavy-duty self-adhering pads for $4 at a local hardware store. You can also buy sheets of felt to cut to your own specification—for use with a case that has rails instead of feet, for example, such as Cooler Master’s Cosmos. On carpeted floors, we like to place our system on a sheet of plastic counter lining ($5 at Home Depot) for an easier slide-out.
Integrated audio has come a long way since its dodgy beginnings, but we still can’t resist the aural lure of Creative Labs’s X-Fi soundcards. The problem is that these cards don’t have the appropriate plugs to accommodate the front-panel sound ports on most new cases. X-tap.com sells adapters for $30, but it’s also possible to make your own X-Fi harness to maximize acoustic accessibility.
We found all the necessary parts for less than $10 at Digikey.com (image A): a white 10-position, 2mm connector (part no. 455-1151-ND) that snaps into the top of the X-Fi soundcard, small terminal connectors (part no. 455-1127-1-ND) that fit into the white connector, a black connector housing (part no. WM2522-ND) that’ll connect to the case’s front-panel audio connectors, and at least five long terminal connectors (part no. WM2515-ND) that go into this black housing block. The wires themselves can be harvested from an old Ethernet cable. You’ll also need a pair of needle-nose pliers and a set of wire cutters.
Cut a five-inch section of network cable and separate out five individual wires. Strip 2mm of insulation from each end of the wires and carefully crimp one of each connector type (long and short) on either end of each wire (image B).
Now, with the white 10-position connector oriented as shown (image C), insert the wires via the small-connector end. If done properly, the small metal tab on the connector should lock into place when pushed deep enough. You’ll want to insert wires into positions 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8, leaving the other slots empty. Position 1 is ground, 2 is headphone left, 4 is headphone right, 6 is mic input, and 8 is the voltage for the microphone. Now follow the diagram to insert the long-connector end of the wires into the black housing (image C). Wrap some tape around your wires to create a finished cable (image D).
If your case uses a front-panel audio connector that’s individually wired and labeled, matching the five connectors should be easy. Make sure that each wire is insulated from the others with some electrical tape to prevent shorting out your X-Fi. If your case’s front-panel audio connector is a black housing block corresponding to AC’97 or HD audio specs, refer to http://tinyurl.com/47olau for details on how to correctly arrange the prongs in your black housing block to match the front-panel one.
We’re feeling so inundated by all the blue LED lighting emanating from our PC peripherals that we’re starting to long for the green LEDs of yore. Whatever your color preference, it’s possible to swap out the LEDs on any device. We demonstrate with an old keyboard, but this technique applies to optical drives and cases as well. You can find replacement LEDs of various sizes and colors at your local Radio Shack.
To access the original LED, remove all the screws from the back of the keyboard and remove the small circuit board housing the LED (it should be the only circuit board in your keyboard). Using a soldering iron, heat the solder on the back of the board and carefully pull out the old LED.
When you replace an LED it’s important that the polarity on the LED and board are matched. Most boards will have +/- indicators printed on them, and the longer leg of your new LED should align with the positive, or cathode, side. You can also test the polarity by carefully touching the LED’s wires to a 3-volt battery (like the coin batteries used to sustain your motherboard's CMOS) to see which orientation produces light.
Apply a little solder to your iron and carefully solder the new LED from the back of the circuit board. Trim the legs of the LED with a pair of cutters and make sure they’re not touching. Repeat the steps for any additional LEDs you want to change, and then reassemble the keyboard.
Navigating through a router’s multitude of menus and configuration settings can be confusing, especially given the obtuse documentation typically bundled with the device. That’s why we prefer third-party open-source firmware, which not only streamlines a router’s graphical user interface but also adds robust functionality. For Linksys routers, our firmware of choice is Tomato (www.polarcloud.com/tomato). As with all third-party firmware upgrades, installing Tomato does come with a slight risk of damaging your router. While we’ve never had any problems with this software, it’ll definitely void your router’s original warranty.
First, verify that your router is compatible with Tomato. Older WRT54G and WRT54GS models (versions 1 to 4) will work, as will all versions of the WRT54GL series, which we recommend (image A). A list of compatible routers is on the Tomato website. Download the latest firmware and unpack it to your desktop. Access your router’s settings with an Internet browser (the default IP is 192.168.1.1) and click the Administration tab. Under Firmware Upgrade, browse to the unpacked firmware folder and pick the matching firmware type—the Tomato package includes different versions of the firmware for different Linksys router models. Hit Apply and wait while your router’s firmware is flashed. Don’t disconnect power to the router during this upgrade.
Once the upgrade is finished, go back into the router configuration and you’ll be greeted with the new interface. If your previous username and password don’t work, try using “admin” (without the quotes) in both forms to get in. We recommend using Firefox to access the GUI to enable all of its features. The newest version of Tomato automatically migrates all of your router settings so you don’t have to reconfigure your network.
To boost your router’s wireless signal, go to the Advanced menu and select the Wireless section. From there, you can adjust the router’s “Transmit Power” value to any number between 1 and 251 (default is 42). We don’t recommend setting a value higher than 70, since sending stronger signals can overheat the router (image B). From this menu, you can also adjust the maximum number of wireless clients and the transmission rate of your wireless network.
Within the Bandwidth menu, you’ll find access to bandwidth monitoring, which lets you scrutinize traffic usage for every wired or wireless connection to your router (image C). Combine this information with the new Access Restriction options and you’ll be able to ensure that your kids aren’t playing World of Warcraft in the middle of the night.
Enabling Quality of Service mode (under the QoS menu) will let you prioritize traffic going through your router depending on the size of data packets and network protocol (i.e., http vs. ftp). Sorting QoS Classification is a complicated process, so you should refer to Tomato’s online documentation to find out what settings will be appropriate for your particular setup.
You can also turn your router into a wireless Ethernet bridge, which lets it act as a wireless network hub for devices that lack wireless network cards, such as the Xbox 360. Under Basic Network settings, scroll down to Wireless Mode and select Wireless Ethernet Bridge. Under SSID and Security, enter the name and network key for your wireless network. With these settings saved, you can plug wired devices into the bridge and tap your home’s wireless network—perfect for streaming movies!
With the improved productivity software on smartphones and the iPhone, there’s almost no reason to have a dedicated PDA that you can’t also make calls on. Of course, that leaves early adopters who bought Dell Axims and HP iPAQs in the great PDA surge of 2000 with pricey paperweights and plenty of remorse.
That is, unless you put that old PDA to use in some other fashion. You can, for instance, turn the device into a secondary monitor. Any PocketPC/WindowsCE PDA that uses Microsoft’s ActiveSync software can be reprogrammed to serve as a desktop extension to give you just a little more screen space. To do this, we used a program called SideWindow, ($15, http://tinyurl.com/2pyuj8).
Installing the app is just a matter of connecting your PDA to its cradle, launching ActiveSync, and running the SideWindow executable. With the program installed, we launched its configuration utility and adjusted the display resolution. Most PocketPCs have a native resolution of 240x320, but SideWindow can scale a virtual resolution of up to 768x1024 to fit your screen. Our Dell Axim X50v actually has a native resolution of 480x640, but we found that anything above 300x400 made text very difficult to read.
Windows treated our PDA like any other monitor, so we could arrange it to either the left or right of our primary display and extend our desktop accordingly. Since the hack runs display information over USB, there can be a bit of lag when moving objects around in the new window—we don’t recommend watching video on the PDA screen! SideWindow is best for keeping tabs on buddy lists or cheat codes when playing games, hosting to-do lists, and displaying media player information when running a movie at full screen (just drag the desired windows over to the new screen).
Windows XP users should also check out ZoneOS's Zonescreen, a freeware app that'll let you extend your desktop to an old laptop through your home network.
Aside from your CPU fan, one of the noisiest components in your PC is the hard drive. Spinning platters can rattle the drive against its mounting bracket. Some cases, such as Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000, come with hard drive racks that already sport rubber dampeners (image A), but adding some of your own is fairly easy too. We’ve found that rubber washers are effective at cushioning a drive and taming its noise output. Hardware stores sell rubber washers fairly cheaply, but in our experience the premade variety are often either too thick or have too large an internal diameter for tiny hard-drive-cage screws. So we make our own rubber washers by cutting them out of thin rubber strips. A roll of linerless rubber splicer tape will do the job and is available at Home Depot for $3 a pop. Use a dime as a stencil for your washers and trace and cut several circles from the tape (image B). The rubber liner tape is 0.03 inches thick, so you should stack two washers to create an effective dampener. Cut a small hole in the middle with a knife or tiny hole-punch (image C). Affix these washers between the hard drive and the mounting rack of your case (image D). The rubber washers serve as a buffer between the metal of your drive and case to prevent noise from reverberating through the case.
Just because you’re a gadget junkie doesn’t mean you have to be a sloth. We know that managing the power cords for your PDA, cellphone, MP3 player, and digital camera can create a tangled mess on your desk, so we’ve devised a way to keep your chargers elegantly organized to avoid scaring off the ladies (image A - the ladies are just offscreen)
For this project, you’ll need a sizable box that can fit a power strip, heavy-duty scissors or a cutting blade, some craft glue, some small decorative frames, and the aforementioned power strip (image B). We picked up a nice-looking storage box from a craft store, but a plain shoe box will do if you don’t care about aesthetics. We also bought our tiny decorative frames from a craft store. We’ll use these to stylize the ports of our charging station—just keep in mind that each hole has to be large enough to fit at least one end of your charging cable.
Using a metal frame, stencil several holes on the lid of the box, where the charging cables will eventually emerge (image C). Also stencil a hole on the side of the box for the power strip’s power cable. Using the markings as a guide, score the box with a sharp blade. The box we bought was pretty thick, so it was impossible to cut through with one pass. Instead, we glued the frames on top of the scored areas before making deeper cuts to punch out the holes—the frames help guide our cuts and hide any imperfections.
Once the holes are created, plug your gadgets’ chargers into the power strip. You should bundle and tie up the cables for each charger with a zip tie as well, so cords aren’t tangled with each other in the box (image D). String the other end of each charger through a hole. For USB-powered devices, we plugged a generic powered-USB hub into the power strip (Belkin sells one for $20) and wired USB cables through the box lid.
With the box finished, you can accent it with stickers or labels to match your desktop setup.
The unkempt mess of cords and cables under any power user’s desk is a horrific no-man’s-land of dust and disarray. The easiest way to sheathe and organize computer cords is to use foam pipe-insulation. We found a 6-foot-long tube at a local hardware store for less than $2!
Start by deciding which cables to bundle together. Power cables should never be bundled with audio or video cables, since AC current distorts sound and video signals. We recommend grouping your USB and peripheral cables, your power and network cables, and your speaker cables separately.
Measure and cut off a section of insulation tube that’s long enough to house your cables while leaving about a foot of slack at each end. Some tubes are precut or perforated along their ridges, while others will have to be sliced open like a hot dog bun. Lay the bundled cables down along the length of the foam tube. When you release the walls of the tube, they will envelop the cables, keeping them out of sight.
The great thing about these tubes is that the cables can “exit” at any point, so they don’t all have to come out at one end. Use some strong tape or staples to affix the tube underneath your desk. Who knew cable management could be so easy?!
Plagued by unreliable Wi-Fi connectivity? We’ve found a cheap and relatively easy way to boost a wireless router’s signal strength by creating a simple parabolic reflector dish to direct Wi-Fi signals to your intended receivers.
All you need is some paper, foil, scissors, glue, and a cutout template that you can find at www.freeantennas.com/projects/template2/ (image A). This Windsurfer antenna design focuses your router’s signals in one direction, which not only helps increase your signal by about 10dB but also improves your wireless privacy by reducing the amount of stray signal headed toward nosy neighbors.
Print out the template on a sheet of regular paper. You can actually scale the image to a larger size—while maintaining the relative dimensions—for a stronger focus. First, cut out the template pieces (images B), then use a glue stick to affix foil to the front of each piece. Use a knife to make cuts on the indicated slits and bend the reflector to fit the six tabs into the respective holes.
Slide the booster over the existing antenna of your router and point it in the desired direction (image C). Your results may vary depending on the build quality of your reflector, and making two dishes will give you better boost if your router has two antennas. Use a free network-performance measurement tool such as NetStumbler (www.netstumbler.com) or Qcheck (http://tinyurl.com/3csl3l) to test your router’s throughput.
Modifying your hardware beyond its intended use doesn’t always deliver desirable results. Here are a few hacks that didn’t sound viable on paper, and would probably be supremely disastrous in practice. Definitely don’t try these at home!
In the future, we’ll all be using wall-mounted displays for convenient viewing-angle adjustment and an ultra-sleek look. But we’ll all be using LCD displays, as well. That’s why wall-mounting a CRT not only looks obnoxious but is also probably the quickest way to tear a hole out of your wall. Never mind that CRTs don’t have mounting holes on their backs, their forward-heavy weight would snap off any mounting arm before you could finish screwing it in.
Craving the glorious visual fidelity of high-definition movies but don’t have the budget for a Blu-ray drive? Maybe replacing the red laser diode of your standard DVD player with a blue LED will do the trick. You wish! Hacking your optical drive’s laser isn’t just inadvisable—it simply won’t work. Sorry, Charlie.
Brawndo’s got electrolytes. What are electrolytes? We’re not sure, but they’re extremely awesome. And they’re what CPUs crave. They crave electrolytes. And Brawndo is full of them. And that’s why CPUs crave Brawndo. Not water, like from the toilet. We’ve never seen CPUs cooled in a toilet. Get Brawndo—the CPU Thirst Mutilator! Not!