The everyday ramblings of an everyday geek.

Friday, October 28, 2005

50GB down the drain

A year ago I was quite into XBox modding, 64MB, a 733MHz PIII processor, 10/100 network and a TV out, it simply cries out to be turned into a personal video playback device but there are a few quirks with the XBox because they want you to use it for games only.

Firstly the bios will only boot if the hard drive is locked.
Secondly, XBox live will ban you if you lock your hard drive with a known password (TEAMASSEMBLY, XBOXSCENE)

But what did I care? I mean I actually wanted to use the XBox and XBox live so locking my 40GB harddive to the XBox didn't seem like a big deal - anyway, if anything went wrong I could just low-level format my HDD and use it something else right?

Well thats what I thought whilst I blithely ignored Smartxx's requests for me to record the master password, and that failure to do so may result in data loss - pah! Thats for people you don't know who to use fdisk!

Wrong. HDD security is not impossible to crack, but it requires that you have specialized hardware, which I do not. It is really, really clever and turns a password protected HDD into a brick if you don't have the right 32byte passwords. No really it does. Written into the ATA command set is a series of security commands that, once setup, stop all data access until a security unlock command is sent with the user password. If you have only the master password there is a chance that you may be able to get the drive back, at the expense of doing a security erase which destroys all data on the hard drive. But thats not a problem, I thought, surely you can just change, or flash the EEPROM. In a word... no.

I didn't realise this, but the EEPROM on the hard disk (the bit that converts the ATA signals into something the HDD understands) isn't kept completely on the EEPROM chip, its also on a hidden cylinder on the hard drive (the bit only the hard drive itself can access). So when you power up, even if you change or flash the EEPROM, the bit that you are trying to kill is loaded back from the platters, leaving the HDD in the same, brick-like state.

The internet is filled with software that lets you try and circumvent these measures, but all of them involve you knowing at least one of the two passwords. Which means I can kiss goodbye to my spare 10GB and 40GB HDDs.

Accept for one thing. There is a company ( that sells HDD recovery using their software for $49.50. The only way that can work is by using secret ATA codes that the manufactures have left in for just such a circumstance. $49.50 is more than my drives are worth, but it can  only be a matter of time before somebody cracks them and I can get my poor little drives back. In the mean time, the 10GB that was in Kay's old PC is more than adequate.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Mmm 3G goodness

Well I finally joined the 3G revolution with the purchase of a lovely new Orange Nokia 6630. This device worked perfectly with Address Book, iSync and Salling Clicker with little or no fuss, but it was a little more difficult to get it working with the modem and search on t'internet didn't provide any easy answers, so here goes.

Use the bluetooth setup assistant to setup the phone and make sure that you select use the internet connection:
  • There is no username or password
  • GPRS CID String: *99#
  • Modem Script: Nokia Infrared

That was it... ok it wasn't that difficult. The only hard bit was finding the CID string. This works for all the Symbian 60 phones that I've tried it with.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

What is it about PCs?

OK, my project at the moment is still Kay's old PC. There is just something about old computers that compels me to modify them. Last night I was supposed to relax. I had spent the day staring at my console just wishing the day away. I wanted to go home, have a bath and snuggle on the sofa with Beany. Instead, at 21:00 I found myself re-wiring the PSU on Kay's computer to have a silent fan (it was a bit noisy) that glows green (it was the cheapest in the store, honest). Seriously, its like an illness. I also bumped the hard drive up to a 7200rpm 40GB hard drive that I found under the coffee table. The really sick thing? It relaxed me more than any bath.

The only real problem now is that I want to spend money on it. I've already bought it a network card, but that was only a fiver. It really needs another 256MB, or preferably 512MB of RAM. So next paycheque I'll be going on eBay looking for a new DIMM. But you see that's the slippery slope. I know that I could upgrade the processor for around £10. I know that I should have bought a gigabit network card and switch. I could water cool it. The list is literally endless. The point? I'm not sure. I know that at 64MB RAM the relatively nippy PIII is starved. I can hear the hard drive swapping like nobodies business. I know that giving it more ram will mean that it can actually do what I want it to... run JBoss and a decent database, but I also know that its noisy.

I'm used to having a silent office, and I've got to say that I like it that way. Even the noise of my firewire hard drive annoys me. I can definitely see myself turning the stupid thing into a glorified SAN and running a network cable (or worse wireless) into the basement - in fact I'll be surprised if I haven't done that by this evening.

Next there is the question of which OS to run. As I've already mentioned I'm more than a little obsessed with Ubuntu at the moment, but that's really a desktop Linux. Gentoo, or FreeBSD look like they should be my OS of choice, which means that even when I've got the hardware all pretty, I'm going to spend weeks messing with various distributions.

More than anything else, this experience has reminded me why I went Mac. I'm not saying I don't accessorise my Mac, I'm sure Beany would agree that my phone is little more than a glorified remote control for the thing, but getting the phone working with the Mac took 5 minutes, just as it should. Same with networking, software installation and day to day work. If I didn't have a Mac, I would spend all my time taking my computer to pieces and making it 'faster' rather than working with it and for that I'm eternally grateful.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Ubuntu - part 2

I was so impressed by my little foray into the world of Live CD Ubuntu that I dug out an old PC to play on it 'for real'. The beast is a PIII 533, with a whopping 64MB RAM, a DVD drive and a 10GB hard disk! There was a time, lets call it the mid 90's, when I would have ripped somebody's arm off just to look at this machine, now its just a white box that can run Windows 98 pretty well. Perhaps, what is most surprising is that this computer was still in service just 6 months ago, as the email / web browser for Beany's mom!

A quick play in Windows 98 revealed that this computer was in perfect working order, but I'd forgotten how slow computing was back in the 90s. I seem to remember that the computer I was using when Windows 98 came out was a PII 333, with 32 MB RAM and at the time I thought that was a speed demon. But, really it was slow, even for the silly little things like email, web browsing and logging on, everything took a lot longer. In short, I was eager to see what a modern OS could to to this Windows addled PC.

Installation was less than a breeze and couldn't have been completed by anyone who had less than a good to fair working knowledge of MS-DOS. For some reason Ubuntu partitioner crashed. The only way I could get Ubuntu to install was use fdisk to complete clear the partition table and then restart the installation... that's a bit scary for a novice to attempt, and would probably be enough to put most people off. However, once I'd got past that, the rest of the install went fine, and the process completed in a little under an hour.

Now one thing was abundantly clear from the default installation on a 5 year old computer... it was slow. Everything worked flawlessly, it didn't even blip, but the hard drive was paging like its life depended on it. Ubuntu, with GNOME/KDE needs RAM and lots of it. 64MB is not even close to enough, but once the paging had stopped and the current application was encased nicely in some good ol'fashioned 133MHz SD-RAM it actually performed pretty well, so I figured I'd run a stripped down install, and use icewm instead of GNOME - still slow, well as slow as Windows 98.

Modern OSs are really clever, secure, user friendly, but they come at a price RAM. The beast's CPU was definitely good enough, but it really needs at least 256MB to stand a chance against a modern OS. With a new iPod and PowerBook batteries much higher on my list of priorities it may be a little while before I fire up the beast again.

I did get to have a better play with Ubuntu whilst all this was going on, and I'm still very impressed. Synaptic is very cool, and means that I might let my dad try and install applications with it, but its still too complicated for Beany's mom. The problem with it is that its still a linux installation tool. You can still see the nuts and bolts. It would be much better if it seperated GUI apps away from CLI, libraries and drivers so that people wouldn't be scared away. Other than that I would have no fear in setting up a box for email, web and OOo providing it had the RAM in the first place... Linux has really come along way in a very short time.

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