Killer Hardware Tips

Mobo Decisions & Hidden PVR Goodies

First Published: Computer Power User
Date Published: April 2003
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 if it means bucking the norm, read on. We have some tips and tricks that just might make you more productive.

Your PVR Has A Secret

Easter eggs--messages, games, tricks, and other goodies hidden in computer software--have been around since the 1970s. Sometimes Easter eggs are simple, such as a message from a programmer. Other times, the egg is a hidden debugging tool or elaborate feature that was removed from the official version for one reason or another. Secret features in firmware are increasingly common, too, such as the iPod's hidden Breakout game.

But do you know about the goodies hiding within your personal video recorder? Your ReplayTV or TiVo is brimming with hidden tricks and features--you just have to get to them.

ReplayTV has a 30-second skip button, which makes it easy to zip past commercials. TiVo also has a 30-second skip feature--if you know how to activate it. A Web site at describes how to do it. Essentially, while you're watching a recorded program, enter the following sequence on the remote control: Select, Play, Select, 30, and Select. From then on (unless you need to reboot), the ->| button on the remote will give you a half-minute jump.

Other hidden features include the ability to view TiVo's log files (use the Clear, Enter, Clear, and then Thumbs-Up sequence) and view "hidden" recordings and scheduled program suggestions (use the Thumbs Down, Thumbs Down, Thumbs Up, and Instant Replay sequence). You can find many more TiVo codes in the Hacking The TiVo FAQ Index at and the Underground Playground section of the TiVo Community Forum at www.tivo

With ReplayTV, pressing 243 and then Zones on the remote control reveals a utilities menu where you can force an update of the programming guide or check the amount of free memory. This menu is also the home to a text box, cryptically known as the "claw foot portal."

The claw foot portal is a window that gives you access to several fun features. For example, you can enter "MODESTO GIRL" to change the ReplayTV's red Program Record dots to hearts. Enter "TIC TAC TOE" in the claw foot portal to enable a familiar, mind-numbing game, and then press 111-Zones to play. (Some ReplayTV models offer other simple games, too.)

Some useful features include entering SHOWGUARD ON in some models into the text field, which enables a padding feature that can prevent you from missing the last minutes of your favorite program if the network should be off schedule. These and other hidden features are documented at

By the way, the first Easter egg is generally credited to Warren Robinett, the creator of the Atari VCS game Adventure. Annoyed that Atari didn't give credit to the game's programmers, Robinett built a secret room in the game that showed his name in bright letters.

Sometimes Less Is More

The first step in building or upgrading a PC just might be the most fun. It's the step where you agonize over the components to put in or upgrade your PC with. With the perfect motherboard, processor, video card, sound card, and other components, system builders can tune a PC according to their exacting specifications.

But more often, DIY PC builders are finding many new motherboards have built-in video, audio, and Ethernet ports, which sometimes conflict with the add-on cards the builder has painstakingly chosen.

Using integrated video and audio has been a popular approach on value-segment OEM computers (marketing speak for "inexpensive, prebuilt PCs") for years. Using such motherboards means PC manufacturers need to buy fewer components, thus saving money. An onboard sound chip adds about $2 to the cost of a motherboard "for sound of the same quality as a $30 to $40 sound card," says Andy Tung, MSI senior product manager. Of course, an integrated chip won't touch the quality of a high-end sound card, which Tung estimates only 5% of customers want.

It's apparent that all-in-one motherboards aren't going away. Because of their popularity with OEMs, sales of integrated motherboards already outstrip standalone models. MSI expects a 5% increase in integrated motherboard sales relative to standalone boards this year.

Built-in video/audio functions are generally designed to be good enough to meet the needs of average users, but this usually does not satisfy the exacting needs of high-performance aficionados. "For generic users who use the computer at home, just playing some games or using office applications, do they really need a very powerful video card and very high quality sound card? Onboard video and onboard audio will be good enough for them," says Tung. For example, integrated audio typically includes 2-channel sound or even 5.1-channel sound, but no support for environmental effects.

What's a power user to do? Picking a motherboard without integrated video, audio, and Ethernet is the obvious answer. But even if you choose a motherboard without built-in video, you may still run into integrated sound and Ethernet. The majority of motherboards sold today include at least built-in sound, and many add an Ethernet port, too.

"VAR [value added resellers] channels are asking for motherboards with integrated audio and networking. Network cards aren't all that expensive but having those features onboard makes things easier and cheaper. When these customers are reselling to corporations, government, schools, and the military, they want to keep these things rock solid," says Vivian Lien, SOYO's marketing manager.

If your prospective board has some of these features, make sure you can disable them. Also make sure the mobo is compatible with your chosen video and sound cards when the integrated functions are disabled.

Disabling a mobo's built-in video/audio is generally done via the BIOS, although some use jumpers instead. Some boards automatically disable onboard video when a video card is plugged into the AGP slot.

Once disabled, the motherboard should defer to the add-on card for sound or video. If there's still a conflict, the mobo manufacturer's Web site may have a firmware upgrade to resolve the issue.

As a last resort, you can disable onboard video and audio at the operating system level, such as in Windows' Device Manager. Then switch to a standard VGA or sound driver, shut down, and install the new card. This should disable the onboard functionality, but it may not free those resources for other uses.

What does the future hold for integrated mobo components? Motherboard manufacturers agree that integrated A/V functions will become even more preva lent. But manufacturers understand that some users prefer to add their own upgrade cards, so we're likely to always have at least some nonintegrated models to choose from. At minimum, the ability to disable onboard output will remain.

Most Popular Mobos

The most popular motherboards with and without integrated video and audio, according to various motherboard manufacturers, include:

Built-in audio and video:
Intel: EPoX EP-4G4A+, SOYO 7VEM Pro, and Tyan's Tomcat i845GL S2098, Trinity i845E S2099, and Tiger 200T S2505T
AMD: EPoX EP8RGA+, MSI MS-6378X and MS-6390, and SOYO K7VEM Pro
Without built-in audio and video:
Intel: EPoX EP-4PEA+ (6-channel sound only), SOYO P4I845PE (sound and LAN only), and Tyan Tiger 230T S2507T
AMD: EPoX EP-8RDA+ and EP8K9AI (6-channel sound only); MSI KT3V, KT4V, and K7N2; SOYO KT400 Dragon Ultra Platinum Edition; and Tyan Tiger MPX S2466

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.

Articles by Kevin Savetz