Friday, May 27, 2005

Hack Your Gadgets

How many times have you seen a product and thought, "Great, but if only it could..."? Or perhaps you recognized its potential as a platform for an entirely different application. That's the basis for hacking gadgets—improving them, giving them new features, tailoring them to your specific needs, or defeating built-in limitations. Here's our survey of some of the more interesting consumer electronics hacks. Be forewarned, though: Hacking a product may cause irreversible damage and will almost certainly void the warranty.

Rebel, Rebel

The Canon EOS Digital Rebel
You've just spent the better part of $1,000 on a digital single-lens-reflex camera, so what's the first thing you do? Hack the firmware. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel shares much of its firmware with the higher-end EOS 10D. This was first discovered by an enterprising Russian hacker known as Wasia, who figured out how to turn on the inactive portion of the firm-ware, expanding the camera's capabilities. He's now releasing his own version of the firmware and updating it as he figures out how to get the Digital Rebel to do even more.

The hacked firmware lets you turn on flash exposure compensation, adjust the shutter and aperture, control bracketing, boost the ISO, and much more. You update your camera via a CompactFlash card after you've downloaded the code onto it from your PC. The update is reversible. Several sites document the firmware hack, but this one has other useful tips, too: .

Get Around Dvd Player Limits

We don't have enough pages in this magazine to list every DVD player hack, but most of them focus on defeating region/ country codes or changing the codes. Other hacks add the ability to play unsupported file or disc types. Though the media companies want their content to be as restricted as possible, DVD player manufacturers seem to be adhering more to the letter than to the spirit of the law, by making their players as flexible as possible while technically complying with the international agreements. Thus, the undocumented features are hidden away under layers of error messages, button presses, and weird on-screen messages.

The definitive source for DVD hacks is , but you can find more by searching various message boards for your machine's model number.

Microsoft Xbox + Hack = Linux Workstation

There's a powerful graphics workstation inside every Microsoft Xbox. Hackers, especially Linux fans, would love to run a general-purpose operating system on the Xbox and use it as an inexpensive graphics computer, so Microsoft designed it to be highly hack-resistant. Microsoft probably loses money on every console it sells, with the intent of making it up on the games. The Xbox hardware and software check one another during boot-up and execution to make sure that everything is present and accounted for and that no foreign hardware is detected.

The state of the art in Xbox hacks is at , which provides complete instructions on how to modify the machine to load Linux, using the savegame feature of a popular game and a USB key—no hardware hacking is required. The mod is reversible, so you're not sacrificing your Xbox, but some features—such as Xbox Live—will not work while the mod is active.

The various Xbox Linux projects are a testament to the cleverness and determination of programmers and are also prima facie evidence that nothing is hackproof. But the Xbox, with its 733-MHz Celeron CPU and 10GB hard drive, is looking somewhat dated, even for $150. As the power of sub-$500 PCs continues to climb, the Xbox is a less and less inviting target.

Refill Ink Jet Cartridges

Ink jet printers have been based on a razors-and-blades model since long before the Xbox, with replacement ink cartridges costing a hefty percentage of the printer's price. Despite dire warnings from the manufacturers, cartridge refilling kits are big business, and many users report success and savings in refilling their cartridges.

In an effort to dissuade refillers, many Epson and Hewlett-Packard printers keep track of electronically readable cartridge serial numbers. So if you refill and replace a cartridge, the printer rejects it.

Several Epson cartridges store data in a small memory chip on the cartridge. Eddie's Ink Chip Hack ( ) uses a homebuilt dongle from the printer port to reset the cartridge chip. Even if you never intend to refill a cartridge, it's an engaging story of using hardware and software to solve a problem. Commercial Epson cartridge resetters are now available from refill suppliers.

On many HP printers, the printer remembers the last two cartridges, so if you keep three or more old empties around, you can refill them sequentially or use the empties to force the serial number of the one you've refilled out of the printer's memory. You can also mask a couple of the contacts on the cartridge with tape to spoof the serial number, but be sure not to leave any tape residue on the contacts. You can get details on HP cartridge hacks, plus far more than you ever wanted to know about the technology, politics, and economics of HP printers, at .

A Robot in Every Roomba

Roomba with a tablet PC
Why would anyone want to hack a vacuum cleaner? Because it's a robotics platform. If you're into the software side of robotics, a Roomba will give you the hardware platform—motors, wheels, sensors, battery, and charger that you would otherwise have to obtain elsewhere, a process that would be an expensive and time-consuming obstacle to your project. The Roomba isn't rugged enough for a BattleBot, but it's perfect for experimentation.

One approach is to do brain surgery on the unit, replacing its microcontroller with a popular, easy-to-program controller such as the Basic Stamp. The Zoomba was an early attempt at such a device, but it never made it past the prototype stage. Another effort, dubbed RoombaBT, has as its goal a Bluetooth-enabled Roomba, so you can direct your vacuum wirelessly, even from your cell phone. You can stay up-to-date on various Roomba hacks at and get step-by-step disassembly instructions at

Killer HDTV Gaming

HDTV resolutions
If you're fortunate enough to have a PC that can output to a widescreen TV, and you're an avid gamer, you're in luck. An increasing number of games can be played in HDTV resolutions without ugly stretching or distortion. All those extra pixels can slow down some of the most graphics-intensive games, but you needed a reason to upgrade to an even faster machine, right?

TigerDave ( ) maintains a list of games and links to the software hacks you'll need to force them into these nonstandard modes. Much of the information comes from the home- theater gaming group at the AV Science Forum ( ), but it's nicely distilled here and confirmed by TigerDave. The games vary widely in the amount of effort you have to expend. Odd behaviors, such as disappearing cursors and the like, are to be expected, but the rewards are phenomenal when everything works right.

TiVo to the Max

TiVo hacks are so popular that at last count, we found three books on the topic, as well as numerous Web sites, and they cover both series 1 and series 2 TiVos. The hacks run the gamut from simple access to the internal Linux operating system to backdoor codes that call forth a variety of undocumented features, including enabling a 30-second skip. Some of these "features" can also turn your TiVo into a doorstop, so proceed with the utmost caution and read everything before you do anything. is a good place to start, as is the www.tivo knowledge base.

You'll find freeware TiVo screensavers, utility programs that run on the TiVo OS, and some guides to hacking TiVo hardware. You can even install an FTP server on your box and transfer files over your LAN with it. The amount of effort people have expended on their TiVos is impressive; it's a wonder that they have any time left to actually watch TV.

No comments: