Thursday, 26 November 2020

Upgrading The Hard Drive In My Original XBox

I have just finished the final part of refurbishing my original ‘crystal’ Xbox tonight. I had previously replaced the GPU and CPU paste, cleaned the entire case, replaced the PSU board, system fan, DVD drive and bottom EMF shield. I even replaced the DVD drive belt. I took it one step further and softmodded it using Rocky5 and the Splinter Cell exploit. This gaming beast had the full make-over treatment. 

But there was one final step I wanted to do and that was upgrade the hard drive. The original 8GB drive was showing its age and wasn’t really big enough to take advantage of the extra things you can do on a modded Xbox.

So I grabbed a 160GB IDE Seagate hard drive and set about installing it. I could have put up to a 2.2TB drive in it, but my budget was tight. Also putting in a SATA drive requires buying a converter and new IDE cable.

There is a single IDE channel on the Xbox motherboard which the DVD drive and hard drive run off, so only two devices can be hooked up at once, but an Xbox wont boot if the DVD isn’t there – so you can’t simply put the second hard drive in the place of the DVD drive.

Full instructions are available online, but the basics are, buy a Molex splitter so you can power two hard drives at once, install Chimp a special cloning tool, then quickly remove the IDE cable from the DVD drive while the Xbox is still on and plug it in the new hard drive. This is the ‘hot swap’ method. Now you can run Chimp and clone the old drive to the new drive. Then if everything has gone well, you can shut down everything and put your Xbox back together with your new hard drive in place of the old one.

The whole process took about 45 minutes and I am now sitting here with my Xbox running even better than before with a 160GB hard drive instead of the 8GB stock drive.

Replacing the noisy fan and DVD drive made it a lot quieter, but now with the new hard drive, it is super quiet. The new hard drive is a 7200 rpm drive (vs the 5400 rpm stock drive) so it is not only quieter but should be faster. This will be especially handy when copying games to the hard drive and playing them off of it.

160GB might not be the biggest drive, but when each game is less that 5GB, it will hold a large amount of my games. I would need at least 500GB to house all my games and the collection keeps growing. I want it just for my favourite go-to games or the ones I am playing through now. It saves wear-and-tear on the DVD drive and makes loading a lot quicker.

So there you have it. My beloved Xbox has been given a much deserved pampering. I am very happy with it. Not only does my crystal look gorgeous, but it performs super smooth and super quiet too.

I'm now going to start copying a few games across to the hard drive.


Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Revitalising a Dell Latitude E5410 with an SSD

I have had my Latitude E5410 for a few months and I love it. It's a real workhorse and despite its age it performs amazingly. It's an i5 2.4Ghz machine with 8GB DDR3 and Intel HD Graphics.

However, the ageing hard drive is its only downside. Boot times were very slow and apps could be a bit sluggish to open. I think I noticed this more as my previous computer was a MacBook Air with an SSD.

So I bit the bullet after weeks of deliberation and ordered an SSD. The original 5400rpm Western Digital Blue 320GB SATA hard drive was to be replaced with a Kingston A400 240GB SATA SSD.

The thing I love about this Latitude is its ease of upgradability. Simply pop the bottom off and you have access to the RAM and hard drive. A few screws hold in the drive caddy and a further two screws attach the drive to the caddy. Swapping them over was easy and within 5 minutes the SSD was installed.


Next step was to reinstall Linux Mint 20 Cinnamon 64-bit. I have my trusty USB stick, so installing was easy. I can't say if this was any quicker because I was downloading multimedia codecs at the same time.

However, once installed there was an instantly noticeable speed increase across the whole machine. The next task was to put back all my apps – via Synaptic Package Manager – and it stormed through them. System updates were next and then a few apps that needed to be found online (such as Chrome, Reaper and Geekbench).

Before removing the older hard drive, I did some timed tests to see if this SSD upgrade would make the huge improvement that everyone had said would happen. I then redid those tests with the SSD installed.

As you can see from the table below the upgrade did the trick. Boot time went from a rather slow 150 seconds down to 37 seconds, and apps opening time have halved.

The whole machine feels so much snappier. An added bonus is the laptop is whisper quiet, with the SSD it makes no noise except the occasional whirr of the system fan.

I am extremely happy. It has breathed new life in to my beloved Latitude E5410. Its a chunky machine that I was very happy with and now I am super impressed with the upgrade.

I now have a spare 320GB hard drive that I am not sure what to do with. I could replace the internal DVD-RW in this Dell with it via a converter caddy giving me two internal drives, but I do like having an optical drive even if it only used occasionally.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Revitalising a Dell Latitude E6500 with an SSD

I have been playing about with a Lenovo ThinkPad W500 I was given awhile back, but I'm tired of it suddenly deciding to use the dead ATI graphics card every now and then. It's a real faff to get it going again and I really wanted a reliable Linux laptop to hand. I was going to put an SSD in it, but decided my Dell Latitude E6500 would be a better place for it, it's much more reliable, and I actually prefer the keyboard on the Dell. I have had it for a long time, but it has been set aside as a spare laptop for ages since I tend to use my Acer Chromebook 14 for general browsing the net while sat on the sofa. Sometimes there's one or two things that are not easily done on a Chromebook, so it will come in handy to have the Dell to hand. It has a P8600 (2.4Ghz) Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB DDR2 RAM, Intel GM45 graphics and came with a 120GB hard drive.

I received a Kingston SSDNow A400 240GB SATA 3 Solid State Drive for my birthday and decided to put that in the Dell to pep it up a bit, particularly to make it boot faster. It's also actually twice the size of the Seagate Momentus 5400RPM hard drive that was in it, which I think was probably the drive it came with from new. I would like to up the RAM to the maximum 8GB but it would cost £30 for 2x 4GB sticks of DDR2. It's a shame it's DDR2 as if it was DDR3 I could've taken the RAM from the Thinkpad, and a DVD writer would be nice in it to replace the combi drive...but I digress...

  

On the first try, the rear set of mounting screws would not go in, but the drive fitted in. However on boot, it was not detected by the Latitude. So I popped it out and put it back in without the front cover and it went right in. The rear screws went in fine but the front ones did not... 

After some Googling and head scratching, I discovered that since the SSD is thinner, you need put a shim under the drive to make the connectors and screw holes meet inside. I cut and folded some of the thick card from the packaging and used that. The drive now fit snugly and the outer cover is on. Sorted!

I used to run Kubuntu on the Latitude but these days I prefer KDE Neon, as it has a much newer version of KDE, which is much more usable. After a quick fresh install on the SSD, I rebooted and found the boot time is much quicker than before and the desktop is very snappy. It boots in around 15 seconds and shuts down in 4 seconds. Boot time with its original old hard drive was a lot longer! 

All i needed to do then was install all my favourite apps and tweak the desktop to my liking. Desktop apps like Chrome start quicker too. It's a night and day difference in performance! I am really glad I upgraded the Latitude to an SSD and I'd like to upgrade some of my other laptops too. The old hard drive will go on the spares pile. Adding an SSD really is a great way to bring these old laptops a new lease of life. Next in line for the SSD treatment might be my old white Macbook...



Further reading:

01/07/2020 - Resurrecting My Lenovo ThinkPad W500




Sunday, 15 November 2020

Refurbishing My Original Xbox & Soft-Modding It

About a year ago I bought an original Xbox and fell in love with the platform again, shortly after my wife bought me a crystal version. I have a fascination with transparent tech and always wanted one.

While it worked ok, it was in need of some TLC. It looked like it had a rough life and being 15+ years old most original Xboxes need a bit of maintenance to keep them fresh. The good news is, being essentially a PC in a custom case, it is one of the easiest home consoles to open and work on.

A few weeks ago, I stripped it down to its boards and took the CPU and GPU heatsinks off to clean up the old thermal paste and reapply some fresh Arctic Silver. This is a must as the original paste dries and goes brittle.

Just after that, the PSU board failed – leaving the machine lifeless. Luckily my black Xbox was the same model revision (a 1.6) so the internal parts are virtually identical, so I took out the PSU board and placed it in the crystal.

The bottom EMF shield was very rusty – and being a crystal Xbox you could see the rust through the case. So my next job – quite a daunting one – was to completely strip down the console removing everything including the motherboard, power board, fan, controller ports and front panel. Then it was time to pull up the EMF shield. Normally this is quite easy but the rust made it a little trickier. Once out I gave the entire bottom casing a good clean, removing any dust and grime.

I replaced the bottom EMF shield with the one from the donor – which was luckily spotless. While the machine was open I decided to swap the cooling fan too as the current one was noisy.

Then it was time to put everything back in, cleaning each part as it went back in.

The DVD drive was finicky over discs and made a lot of noise. So once again I used the donor machine to swap the DVD drive. I just had to swap the black and crystal drive bezels over.

One final step before putting the lid back on was to remove the top EMF shield from the top casing.  This has to be done carefully, prising it away from the legs and being mindful not to scratch the top casing. I did this for two reasons, firstly it was a bit rusty and secondly what is the point of having a transparent console if you cant see it’s innards? Removing the top EMF is safe – but the bottom one needs to stay in to prevent interference especially with the video port.

I thought this was it. I was looking at a gorgeous, clean and see through console. Changing the fan and DVD drive made it whisper quiet, however I had forgotten that the DVD drive from the black console had its own issues. It would get stuck opening at times. I found out this was caused by a worn stretched drive belt. So once again I had to open the machine, remove the DVD drive and then delve in to both of them. These optical drives have metal casing which can be removed with four screws giving access to the internals of the drive. A small note, you need the drive draw out when swapping drive belts, so it is a good idea to eject it while still on and then shut off the power supply by pulling the power plug, this will ensure the drive stays open.

And there we have it, a fully refurbished original Xbox. All cleaned up and given a new lease of life to extend the usability of this classic beast.

That's the hardware side done, but there is one more step I had toyed with doing for a while and that is modding it. Hardware mods require quite a bit of expertise, luckily it can be softmodded which is a bit simpler because it requires no soldering or tinkering inside and it totally handle via software.

In short you need a game disc (Splinter Cell, MechAssault, Tony Hawks Pro Skater 4 or 007 Agent Under Fire) and the relevant save file for whichever game you choose. This is a special save file which opens an exploit and allows you to install custom software. To put these on your XBox you need a controller-to-USB converter (which I made) and a memory card to put these special files on. The whole process to softmod is bit more complicated than that and there are many full guides online.

The bonuses of modding your Xbox are endless. The main reason is to change the hard drive. Original Xboxes have their motherboards and hard drives tied together so replacing them is normally not possible meaning if your drive dies it is the entire machine gone. However modding means you can not only change the drive – by rewriting the EEPROM – but you can up the size (original 8GB), with people putting anything up to 2TB in them.

This brings to question what would you need a large drive for. You can copy your game discs to the hard drive meaning faster loading times and less wear-and-tear on your physical discs as you don’t need to put the disc in to play. Additionally you can do more than just play Xbox games, being essentially a custom PC in a box you can install emulators for other systems (such as Sega, Nintendo, Sony, NeoGeo, Atari, Sinclair, Commodore and many more) to play games from these machines.

Modding also means you can also use the built in ethernet to transfer files via FTP from your computer - such as emulators or games isos.

For now I still have the original 8GB drive in, but plan to upgrade it to at least 120GB – making for room for over 30 game discs to be copied across.

A neat addition is the green LED power light, goes orange when the softmod kicks in - like it knows its naughty - and then goes red when done, with the option to change it to different colours or flashing combos.

For the adventurous Xbox owner you could install custom LEDs inside the case – especially for crystal owners – just give it that wow factor when the machine is on. I might, but for now I am happy with just being able to see inside the machine.

So there is my journey. It has taken a spare donor machine, time and patience and a lot of nail biting to get my beloved crystal Xbox to where it is now. 

I love it. It is awesome. This amazing 6th generation console from the early 2000s is now running as smooth as ever.


Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Monday, 2 November 2020

LameBoy... Play Your GameBoy Games On A DS

I have fond memories of my first ever games console, a Nintendo GameBoy and it sparked a life long love of playing games. It was released in 1989, but it wasn’t until around 1992 that I managed to afford a secondhand one – but I loved it.

Even when released it wasn’t the most impressive console, a 4Mhz processor and its 160x144 ‘green’ and white screen lagged behind the full colour Sega GameGear and Atari Lynx, but its inferior technology and mono screen gave it the edge in portability offering up to 15 hours on 4 AA batteries vs 3 to 5 hours on the GameGear and Lynx which both used 6 AA batteries.

Fast forward to 2020 and I still enjoy those 8-bit GameBoy games, but original hardware is now well in to the retro stage and is very expensive along with game cartridges too.

All is not lost. I have a Nintendo DS Lite (itself not exactly modern) with a flash cart. One of my favourite homebrew apps is Lameboy – a GameBoy and GameBoy Color emulator for the DS. While it is no longer in development, in fact it hasnt been updated since 2009 - it works perfectly.

It is a very simple piece of software. Put on the lameboy.nds file and put your game ROMS in a folder called 'lameboy' and away you go.

The DS hardware is perfect for running GameBoy and GameBoy Color games. The screen is bright and the layout of the controls are perfect to play on, and almost match the GB/GBC. The extra buttons (as the GB only had A + B) operate the small, but easy to work out settings menu.

Lameboy has some interesting features that enhance your gaming experience even further. 


You can upscale the screen 1.5 times and even put it into widescreen. Original GameBoy games are shown in glorious crisp black and white, but there is an option to turn on the original green colour of the original GameBoy to give you that full retro vibe.


GameBoy Color games with their up to 56 colours look amazing. I think the backlight in the DS screens add to the crispness and increased visibility of the games.

You can also choose whether to have games displayed on the top or bottom screen of the DS. I personally prefer the bottom screen, but diehard GB/GBC fans might like the top screen so it replicates the feel of the original hardware.

Additionally you can turn on the frames per second count, which displays a whopping 60 fps almost constantly.

As with most emulators, there is also the save state option. This allows you to save games at any point and resume from these points – as most older games had no saving of games, you just played but then had to start again when you died fully or turned off your console.

I loved my GameBoy – and I love my DS, and now I can can use a modern (ish) console to play my beloved mono 8 bit games.

As with any emulation, you can legally download and play game 'ROMS' as long as you have the original cartridge.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Friday, 30 October 2020

Activity Lights... I Love Them

Blink... blink... blink... I have had a long obsession and fondness for activity lights. You, know those little flashing LEDs that tell you your computer is doing something. I love them.

They aren’t very common these days, newer machines tend not to have them. You are lucky if you have an power light.

I am sitting here typing this on a ten year old Dell Latitude laptop and the top left of the keyboard has a panel that is flashing away. The hard drive light flickers and wifi light is blinking away constantly. Even the rarely used DVD drive has its own LED on the drive panel which flickers away to show a disc being read.

I have a few external hard drives which I use for backing up and these have activity lights, one of which has a bi-colour LED – one colour for read and another for write activity – and I often find myself watching it flickering away, while I am updating the drive.

I shared this love for activity lights in a FaceBook group recently and got shot down. Nobody else liked them.

Back in the 90s they were very common, especially on the front panels of desktop computers. They were there to show you your computer was busy and also an indication that it was still working and not frozen or hung.

I even remember having some shareware software that would allow you to flash them in sequence giving you an almost KITT from Knight Rider feel.

After moving to Macs shortly after it was something I missed. The closest you got was a breathing power light when your Mac was asleep. So when I ditched Mac and moved back to regular hardware so I could run Linux, seeing those little flashing lights again was a joy.

It might sound an odd, and perhaps a little ridiculous thing to get excited about – but its just something that I love.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Original Google Pixel In 2020. How Does It Fair?

It was time to replace an ageing Moto G (original model) for my son. He doesn’t use it as a phone but more of a small tablet for YouTube and gaming on the go mainly and the Moto was showing its age and had been dropped a few too many times – leaving it in a poor state.

I ended up picking up a very reasonably priced Pixel – original model from 2016. But how does Google's first gen Pixel hold up in 2020?

Firstly, I like the design of the Pixel. The front looks very similar to an iPhone but lacks the physical home button. The back is split into two sections with the fingerprint sensor on the back. I bought a Grade C and was expecting something in much more poor condition, however this just has a few surface scratches and scuffs.

It features a quad core Snapdragon 821 processor, 4GB RAM and 32GB internal storage (a 128GB model was also an option). It has a 5.0” AMOLED screen, USB C charging, a 12MP camera and 8mpx selfie camera. Spec wise, that is still a decent set up.

It shipped originally with Android 7.1 and was updated all the way up to Android 10. This is a rarity in the Android world. Being a Pixel it runs vanilla Android - something I do like. I am not keen on reskinned Android versions (such as those on Samsung or Sony phones) and it doesn't come with any preinstalled bloat that takes up space.

Performance wise, this phone nips along. It is currently on Android 8.0 (with a notification to update to Android 10). The quad core processor might not be top of the range, but the 4GB RAM helps a lot to keep things flowing smoothly and the 32GB storage is plenty for the average person to install a lot of apps and games.

The lack of expandable storage would bug me on a 32GB phone - I do like to keep about 40GB of music on an SD card in my phone - but this could be resolved buy purchasing the 128GB model.

I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t expecting such a fast experience. Both the OS and apps swing along nicely and gaming was great too – although I didn’t play any heavy games, but light gaming was a breeze.

It is certainly a massive step up from the Moto G with only 1GB RAM. However it really did surpass my expectations on performance. 

The cameras on the Pixel are superb. It really shows this was a top end handset. Pictures are super crisp, close up photos focus very closely and the background blur feature is great. Even the front selfie camera stood up well especially in low light.

It is a bit smaller that what I am used to (a Moto Z Play which has a 5.5" screen) but I quite liked the slightly smaller footprint. It meant my thumb didn't have to stretch so much across the device.

Audio was good for a phone, it was loud and fairly bassy - but the inclusion of a headphone socket was essential - otherwise I have to listen to my son watching people talk over Fortnite videos on YouTube.

The only downside to this Pixel – and it seems a common issue especially with early Pixels and with older phones in general, is the battery doesn’t hold up well. The 2770 mAh battery would have given decent life when it was new, but after a few years it isn’t doing so well.

I find it better value to buy an older premium phone than a new budget handset, but it is the battery that is hit and miss on older handsets.

If you can get a Pixel with a decent battery, then you can not go wrong with this handset. Not everyone needs the power a new phone offers and grabbing an older high end phone can be a great option to cut the cost down without sacrificing performance and you end up with better quality hardware.

I am loving this Pixel – and am quite jealous of its premium feel, good looks and amazing performance. It has made me rethink whether my next phone will be a Motorola handset (which we are very fond of in our house) or possibly switch to one in the Pixel range.

Written by Simon Royal. Follow me at twitter.com/simonroyal