Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


If you're a user who can't leave things alone if there's a chance you can make them better, even it means bucking the norm, read on. We have some tips and tricks that just might make you more productive.

Heatsink Swap Cops?

Can replacing your CPU's stock heatsink or using thermal grease to affix it void the processor's warranty? Well, it could, maybe, but not necessarily.

Hardware hackers have been debating this very issue online recently. It started with an article at Xtreme Tek (www.xtremetek .com/info/index.php?id=14&page=1) related to AMD processors that stated, "Using any heatsink other than the one that comes with the CPU and the thermal pad that is attached to it will void your warranty." The issue, worrisome to PC builders, was fueled when Slash- dot picked the topic up.

The three-year warranty AMD provides for PIBs (processors in box) seems clear: "This Limited Warranty shall be null and void if the AMD microprocessor . . . is used with any heatsink/fan other than the one provided herewith." (The full text of the warranty is available at AMD's site.) So what's a user interested in quieter, cooler, or longer-lasting cooling add-ons to do?

"The warranty on the PIBs includes all materials: heatsink, thermal interface, and processor. The warranty is offered when the processor is installed and used in the recommended configuration," says Damon Muzny, AMD spokesperson.

Technically, using another heatsink or thermal interface can void the warranty on the CPU, but in reality, perhaps not.

"Our tech guys evaluate support calls on a case-by-case basis. The fellow on the other side of the phone is human, and he has some discretion," Muzny says. That flexibility would cover a user who was responsibly using another heatsink or thermal interface, according to Muzny.

But there are limits. "If the same guy keeps calling back, [we're] going to get suspicious. If you think you're going to burn up 50 chips until you find one that overclocks so far . . . there's no free lunch."

Muzny calls the issue a nonstory. "What you have got are folks getting hung up on the legal technicality. This is the same policy we've always had. Somebody's raising an issue that doesn't exist," he says.

The warranty issue is only relevant to boxed processors sold to end-users. AMD's OEM processors carry a one-year warranty, available to the OEM rather than the end-user. (If you have problems with an OEM processor, you'll have to discuss the issue with the company that sold you the CPU.)

By comparison, the warranty on Intel's Pentium 4 (available at Intel's site) doesn't have a specific prohibition on heatsinks but states that the CPU must be used and installed properly. "Intel requires the processor be run within spec. The CPU must be kept within a certain temperature and voltage. How you keep the processor within that spec is up to OEMs and integrators," says George Alfs, Intel spokesperson. Specs for various processors are listed at www.developer.intel.com.

No matter which CPU brand and model you choose, PC builders who use cooling products that aren't stock may be walking a thin line between the comfort of warranty coverage and the despair of frying a processor--as well as the warranty. But if your upgrades are reasonable, you'll likely be covered if there's trouble.

Visually Powerful

Some case modders are always looking to the next great visual transformation for their PCs. These folks know it's possible to tweak the looks of practically every component, from the case to the wiring inside.

The power supply may not be the prettiest component in the PC, but it may be best to leave it alone. A growing number of case-mod sites are selling kits for replacing a power supply's metal case with a transparent plastic one. Although this alteration can be pretty, some experts worry that it can also be dangerous.

"I don't think it's a good idea. My concern is to the safety side. What happens if the power supply shorts and catches fire?" says Han Liu, product manager at Antec, manufacturer of PC power supplies. "If the whole thing is contained in a metal case, fire won't be an issue, but a plastic cover could catch fire."

If you're going to buy or build a plastic cover, find out what type of plastic it is and also about that plastic's flammability. Underwriters Laboratories, a product-safety testing and certification organization, offers information about plastics flammability at www.ul.com/plastics. In general, make sure a replacement power supply enclosure offers the same amount of ventilation in the same places as the original so that the power supply doesn't generate excessive heat.

Another issue is electromagnetic and radio frequency interference. Without a metal shield, the disruptive electromagnetic waves the power supply generates are free to resonate into the computer, your radio, a neighbor's mobile phone, and other nearby gadgets. Normally, the PC's metal case provides an additional level of shielding, but this too is often lost in modified PCs.

"When you make a computer for sale, the FCC uses a spectrum analyzer to test for noise that the computer puts out," says Tim McGrath, senior engineer at PC Power and Cooling. "They're looking to make sure EMI/RFI doesn't cause disturbances for other people listening to radio and watching television. I would suspect that you'd have a lot of radiation if you don't have a proper shield."

"If EMI screws up your computer, it's going to make it reboot or freeze up, which is bad but not dangerous," he says. The possibility of fire worries him more. "It's a long shot, but it could possibly happen. If somehow it caught fire, it's definitely not as safe," he says. "If it was me, if I was running that power supply 24/7 in my own house, it would make me a little bit nervous."

These problems are, so far, theoretical. Mark Friga, founder of FrozenCPU .com, says it has had no reported problems with the modified cases it sells. If you do decide to replace your power supply's cover, be sure the material can stand the heat and offers proper ventilation.

Xtremely Easy Xbox Hack

Ever since Microsoft released the Xbox, hackers have been trying to modify it to run arbitrary code, such as Linux, MAME, and MP3 players. Michael Robertson, CEO of www.Lindows.com, even offered a $200,000 reward to anyone who could bring Linux to the Xbox. The two-part challenge offered half for a hardware mod that could do it and half for one without hardware mods. As he has explained, "I think it's critical that consumers have control over their computers and the ability to decide what software they want to utilize." Apparently, both parts of the challenge have now been met.

Until recently, the only workable hacks involved installing mod chips. Attached to the Xbox's mobo, a mod chip fools the Xbox into running unsanctioned code. But this also involves opening the Xbox and, for some chips, soldering the motherboard.

One recent hack involves using software, however, to do the same thing. A buffer overflow bug in the save game code of 007 Agent Under Fire lets you run arbitrary code (such as a command to load a Linux boot disc) from a memory card. A message at www.XboxHacker.net explains the process (www.xboxhacker.net/forums/index.php?act=ST&f=12&t=10520). The procedure does require you to run the game and exploit the buffer overrun bug each time you want to boot into Linux.

Luke Turner, a California high school student who goes by the handle pSyCo, went a step further. He wrote a tutorial (www.xboxhacker.net/forums/index.php?s= 98a5983e3e8e6a781aff43d6c6cef780&act=ST&f=12&t=10867) to flash the Xbox's TSOP memory, permanently upgrading the Xbox without using a mod chip or memory card. You need a PC with Linux installed, to which you must temporarily connect the Xbox's hard drive to move files.

Once you do so, you need some utilities to run. The Evolutionx dashboard (www.valholl.org) is an Xbox app that includes an FTP server, hard drive format/ partition utility, BIOS flash utility, and other useful tools. Turner uses his modified Xbox to run emulators and watch imported DVD movies. "I mostly use Xbox Media Player to play my vast MP3 collection on my home stereo, streaming the files over my network from my PC," he says. A Linux version especially for the Xbox is available at www.xbox-linux.sourceforge.net and Xbox Media Player at www.xboxmediaplayer.de.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz