Monthly archives for November 2006

Published on November 29, 2006

The Cult of Mac blog, AppleDefects, and others noted that many 2G iPod Shuffle owners have been reporting troubles with their new players, in which music inexplicably disappears and iTunes reports “The required disc cannot be found.” Most notably, it has been happening with podcasts:

I had noticed that the Shuffle reports way more “updating iPod” notices than it should, as well as the alarming message above, which occurs every time I plug in my player, including several times after it’s been updated and nothing changes — just clicking into the iTunes window causes it to worry. The podcasts flip their indicator from played to unplayed and back, and it locks up.

It seems that these problems are not limited to 2G iPod Shuffles. Just this morning I had the same problems with my first generation 1GB Shuffle, and ended up just deleting everything and dropping in a podcast or two before heading out. This took several tries, of course, and required dismissing more than a dozen errors, so I decided to investigate when I had more time. Even after experimenting a bit, I’m still not sure of the source of the problems — perhaps it’s an issue with the latest firmware, iTunes 7.0.2, or even a defective TWiTcast — but running Apple’s iPod Shuffle Reset Utility completely erased my Shuffle and reloaded the software, giving it that factory fresh feel. Apparently, the “brick it and bring it back” method works wonders for iPods. Since resetting it, I’ve encountered no problems, and have enjoyed a number of podcasts and songs without issue. Keep in mind, the Shuffle Reset Utility is only for 1G Shuffles, so this won’t solve the issue with 2G models, but hopefully a fix for this annoying bug is in the works.

Published on November 28, 2006

While I’ve long since ditched Mac OS 9 and earlier, there are a number of features I wish Apple had brought along. The Apple Blog notes 10 of their favorites, of which I only miss a few. Little things like emptying the Trash, tabbed folders, and download URLs in file comments all made Mac OS 9 pleasant “back in the day.”

Classic Mac OS used to prompt you before emptying the Trash while displaying the total size about to be eliminated. Knowing approximately how much disk space was about to be gained was, as the author put it, “one of the biggest reasons people ever empty the trash” — to get back some storage room. Perhaps this is an opening for a small freeware Mac app, one which labels the Trash with the total size, much like Mail’s red starburst unread message count.

While I can’t say that I’ll miss WindowShade or Appearance themes from Mac OS 8 and 9, I did enjoy keeping a bunch of tabbed folders along the bottom row of my screen. The Dock makes up for much of the functionality today, however it still lacks the pop-up ability that tabbed folders were known for.

The last little feature of the classic Mac OS that came in handy was that the URL of downloaded files was added to the Comments field. Having this was occasionally necessary later on, but I was disappointed to find that this feature is no longer built into OS X. Thankfully, the free utility DownloadComment will do exactly the same, adding the URL to the Spotlight Comments field, not only saving the link for future reference, but also making it searchable system wide.

Published on November 20, 2006

iPod 5G Hard DriveLately I’ve been working with some 5th generation iPods trying to come up with a way to really test the hard drives in them. Unlike the previous full-size iPod models (excluding the mini and shuffle), the 5th gen uses a hard drive with a different connector. Generations 1 through 4 used a Toshiba drive with a 1.8″ IDE connector. The new drives are still manufactured by Toshiba, however they use a ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) connector instead of pins which were big enough to solder to. The new ZIF connector they’ve employed works exactly like the LCD connector on the 4th generation iPods, holding the thin ribbon cable tightly until the plastic lever is flipped up parallel to one of its long edges. Designing a connector this way — as opposed to the previous version with pluggable pins — not only allows electronics to get much smaller, but significantly reduces the amount of physical stress created when plugging and unplugging cables. Unfortunately for us, this makes current adapters useless for testing 5th gen iPod hard drives. With a new way to connect hard drives, what can be done to adapt them to IDE just as before? Up to this point, it’s all theory until I can get my hands on some more hardware, but I have a plan.

The first step in determining whether adapting is even a viable option was to read Toshiba’s data sheet on the new hard drives, which details the signals of each miniscule pin. I was hoping that, like the 2.5″ to 1.8″ shrink, nothing major had changed. Indeed, nothing but the new connector had been modified, making future work that much easier. The IDE pins remain intact, just…much smaller. The new drives run on 3.3v, but like other adapters, the drop from 5v to 3.3v is trivial compared to the task of finding or making an adapter to scale down the size of the pins.

Hitachi AdapterKnowing that the signals are the same, I started hunting for a pre-made adapter to see if something that fit my needs already existed. It seems the topic of adapting these new Toshiba drives is one hardly touched upon. The only useful result was an expensive adapter from YEC, which is intended for Hitachi ZIF hard drives and includes a ribbon cable to connect the drive to the board. It looked close enough, so I investigated some more by emailing the company and posting on their message boards. As it turns out, the Hitachi hard drives use the same pin configuration as the Toshiba drives, but the ribbon cable that ships with the adapter is too thick. Hitachi drives are designed to take a slightly thicker cable than the Toshiba models. YEC’s adapter board is pin-compatible with the Toshiba drives, but they don’t yet offer the all-important thin ribbon cable. Curious, I asked if the Hitachi cable would be thin enough to work, perhaps even with some modification, but they responded that it is simply too thick to work with the Toshiba drives. YEC plans to offer a Toshiba ribbon cable in the near future, but as of this writing they have no availability date. (I should note at this point that I already intended to buy an adapter from them if it would fit, as I was amazed to find myself communicating with one of the engineers at the company — unheard of in today’s corporate environments!) Short of a fully functional adapter that I could buy now, I thought I was out of luck, since finding a compatible ribbon cable in a random electronic device is a pretty slim chance. Or is it?

Mere hours after I had scoured Toshiba’s website for pinouts, I found that engineer and Xbox hacker extraordinaire Andrew “bunnie” Huang had received and disassembled a new Zune (as I noted on MacUser). Looking at his pictures, you’ll note that the Zune uses a new Toshiba ZIF hard drive, just like Apple’s 5th Gen iPods. No surprise there. The drives are reliable and small enough to accomodate most handheld players. However, the ribbon cable Microsoft uses appears to be the exact piece required to adapt the YEC adapter to the Toshiba ZIF hard drives:

Zune Logic board

Gathering all the pices to assemble a Toshiba ZIF adapter looks to be quite costly at the moment — $120 for the board (which is nothing more than a few cheap components) plus $249 for a Zune. My hope is that I can find a broken one on eBay to scavenge for parts. Unless I find a better alternative in the meantime, I think I may be forced to wait for YEC’s ribbon cable to be made available. I’ll keep this post updated with any future findings.

(I also feel compelled to make a note of bunnie’s book, Hacking the Xbox, an affordable and incredibly detailed look at the work that went into reverse engineering all the security mechanisms of the original Xbox. If you’re interested in reverse engineering and want to get a feel for what it takes, or are curious exactly how the Xbox was cracked, check it out.)

12/30/2006 Update
The folks at Addonics replied to my email and reported that they will offer a 1.8″ ZIF to IDE adapter in January 2007, so be sure to look for one very soon.

3/11/2007 Update
The adapter from Span works, but it still a little pricey, and — like the iPod 5G itself — fragile. It gets the job done, though. I’ve yet to try a Zune hard drive cable with it, as the included cable is a little thick for Toshiba drives. For interested hardware hackers, here’s a very high res image of the Zune hard drive cable I scanned (about 1.1MB in size).
Zune Hard Drive cable

Published on November 14, 2006

If you’re at all interested in what goes on inside your iPod, or perhaps curious about upgrading or repairing your other Apple products, you’ll be disappointed to find that Apple is very tight-lipped about the details of disassembling your electronics. It’s almost as if they want the product to be a “black box” to you — input x, receive y, don’t ask how. While service manuals are available to Apple technicians (and those who know where to look on the ‘net), there is one very useful resource you can use independent of Apple.

Other World Computing, reputable retailers of Mac hardware, accessories, and software, offers a number of large technical videos documenting the exact steps required to take apart and upgrade Apple hardware. Not surprisingly, these videos complement the iPod batteries and CPU upgrades they sell, however they are freely available for anyone wishing to see how the disassembly and upgrade is performed. Following along with a video is often far easier than trying to make sense of pictures and text of a service manual, making OWC’s free library an excellent resource for anyone looking to get inside their Mac or iPod.

Published on November 7, 2006

The AppleGazette has a great roundup of some of Apple’s past products which turned out to be a bad move, all of which are a far cry from today’s iPod pop culture phenomenon. Many of them were great inventions, but were simply too ambitious or too expensive at the time of their introduction. As we’ve seen, introducing a new product to the market not only takes an affordable price, but also accurate timing.

Case in point is the G4 Cube — it’s one of my favorite Macs despite the fact that I’ve never owned one, as obtaining one is still a rather costly venture. When it was originally introduced in 2000, it retailed for $1799, and today it will still fetch quite a few hundred dollars. Compare that to most PCs built in 2000, which now function as hand-me-down computers.

Another gem is the The Apple Lisa, an interesting piece of hardware which was the precursor to the Mac and was the machine on which Apple first debuted a graphical interface. Having the opportunity to have used a Lisa at a recent TCF-NJ display by The Mothership, I can can say that the Lisa is undeniably Apple, but feels like a bit of a hack, appearing much like an old pixellated DOS game. As with the Cube, the Lisa was prohibitively expensive for most at the time of it’s launch.

Perhaps all of the failed electronics Apple has “thought too different” about in the past have served as guidelines as to what not to do, leading them into the current upward trend we’re experiencing these days.