Category: projects

Gallery: DC-In Jack Replacement for Dell Inspiron 15 7568

Gallery: DC-In Jack Replacement for Dell Inspiron 15 7568

POWER JACK REPLACEMENT

We responded to a service call today to replace the power adapter port on a Dell Inspiron 15 (model 7568). Upon initial inspection, it was clear that the power port had broken off inside the laptop case and was dangling loose. Any attempt to plug in the adapter just pushed the adapter around inside the laptop shell.

One cheap replacement part and 15 minutes was all it took to get this laptop back up to speed. We had to use a bit of glue to secure the mounting hardware that snapped off inside the laptop case, but it was a relatively straightforward job, overall.

GALLERY

Hands-on with HackerBoxes ‘Hacker Tracker’ #0021

Hands-on with HackerBoxes ‘Hacker Tracker’ #0021

HACKER TRACKER

'HackerBoxes' is a monthly subscription box sent to aspiring hackers, nerds and tinkerers alike. Of course, when we talk about hackers, we're not talking about the hood-wearing, bank-account-emptying type. When we talk about hackers, we're imagining the bygone days of soldering EEPROMs onto circuit boards, bypassing long-distance telephone charges and tinkering with computer hardware just to see what you could make it do. HackerBoxes is an homage to this concept of a hacker, bringing hardware tinkering to a new level with modern technology like Arduino microcontrollers, GPS sensors, SD cards and surreptitious power supplies.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
Unboxing HackerBoxes #0021: Hacker Tracker

UNBOXING

Opening up the nondescript First Class package revealed a colorful mixture of components, diagrams and swag. This kit, dubbed 'Hacker Tracker', comes with an Arduino Nano micro-controller, a satellite GPS receiver chip, a magnetometer/accelerometer chip, a Micro-SD card read/write chip, a USB Micro-SD card reader, a Kingston 16 Gigabyte Micro-SD card, Breadboard, Micro USB cable, jumper cables in various colors and lengths, a HackerBoxes sticker and pin-out diagrams for the included chips. Additionally, a really cool ruler made from printed circuit board adds a nice touch to the package.

Although light on instructions, the package indicated that a tutorial was available online. Navigating to the HackerBoxes website reveals links to 'H4X0R SK00L', a 'leet speak' play on the term 'Hacker School'. Here, each box is linked to its own Instructables page that serves as the official tutorial. You can find the tutorial for the Hacker Tracker box here.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
The Arduino Nano (left) and SD card reader (right) mounted to the breadboard

LET'S GET STARTED

The first few paragraphs of the tutorial serve as an orientation to the HackerBox and Arduino architecture. I suspect that the first HackerBox sent to a new customer is partially random, so it is important to catch up on the prerequisite skills like soldering and the navigating the Arduino Integrated Developer's Environment (IDE) in each tutorial. HackerBoxes will remind you of that here and prior to critical steps throughout the project. It may seem repetitive, but serves to highlight some very important information you can't afford to ignore.

After absorbing an absurd amount of information from the Instructable, I was finally introduced to the meat of the project. As seen in the photo above, the Arduino Nano is mounted across the center-line of the breadboard opposite the Micro-SD card reader board. Conductive metal pins extending from these chips connect with metal strips running throughout the inside of the breadboard, allowing us to electrically connect different devices by attaching jumper cables between their pins. For example, the green jumper cable in the photo connects the GND pin of the Arduino Nano to the GND pin of the Micro-SD card reader. The other cables serve their own purposes, including data transmission and providing low-voltage DC power.

I ran into my first snag on this step. Misinterpreting the pin-out diagram on the Arduino website caused me to connect the 5V jumper cable to the wrong pin on the Arduino Nano. Troubleshooting the issue when I couldn't access the Micro-SD card through the Arduino IDE took almost 10 minutes. Once I noticed the problem, simply moving the jumper cable to the correct pin resulted in a successful test run of the program we have created so far in our IDE, as you can see in the photo below.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
The Micro-SD program writes lines of text to a memory card

Moving right along, I test the Micro-SD card in my laptop to verify that the data is, in fact, written to the card as the Arduino program described. It worked! Feeling excited about my initial success, I move onto the next step of integrating a GPS receiver into the project.

TRACKER SOLDER

The NEO-6M GPS receiver can be powered by a Micro USB cable or by 5V low voltage DC power. In our setup, the Arduino Nano is utilizing the included Micro USB cable, so I chose to install headers on the GPS receiver to mount it on the breadboard. Headers are the metal pins that are inserted into the holes on the breadboard. Since the GPS receiver didn't come with the pins already attached, I soldered the headers included in the HackerBox supplies to it. This allowed me to create electrical connections between the GPS receiver and other breadboard components.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
The GPS receiver (lower right) had to be soldered onto headers before installation

This time, I didn't make any mistakes running jumper cables. After connecting four pins to the Arduino Nano, I copy/pasted the example program code from the tutorial and uploaded it to the device. Opening the serial monitor allowed me to view the data being sent or received. Upon initial analysis, it looked like the project was successfully logging my exact GPS coordinates every second onto the attached Micro-SD card.

It was time to verify our data. Moving the Micro-SD card to the laptop, I load the GPS coordinate file into GPS Visualizer, a website that can overlay your GPS data onto many different map layers, including Google satellite and terrain images. As I suspected, red lines indicate the home I am currently sitting in. A couple outlying points are easily explained as early measurements taken before many satellites were locked onto. Creepy!

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
Loading the GPS coordinates into a GPS visualizer show my current location

ANGRY ACCELEROMETER

In the tutorial, the final piece of the project, a magnetometer/accelerometer, is described as "tricky to get working correctly" and "prone to damage", so I didn't have my hopes too high on integrating it onto the board. Nonetheless, I decided to go ahead and attempt to get it up and running. Like the GPS receiver, the magnetometer/accelerometer does not come with built-in headers. After soldering another part from the HackerBoxes kit, I attach the part to the breadboard.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
The magnetometer/accelerometer is the small blue chip in the corner

At this point, I came to realize that I hadn't properly planned my layout before I started putting everything together. I had to slide the GPS receiver over to make space for the magnetometer. Additionally, I had only left 2 holes on the breadboard connected to each pin on the Arduino nano. With three chips to connect to the 5V and GND pins, I had to come up with another solution. Connecting a jumper cable from the 5V and GND pins to empty breadboard rails allowed me to expand the number of devices connected to each.  The finished project is shown in the photo above.

Unfortunately, powering up the Arduino IDE and uploading code designed to run the magnetometer didn't accomplish much. All hardware components of the project appear to have initialized correctly, but I received readings of 0 for all magnetometer measurements repeatedly, indicating a failure somewhere else. After trying several different fixes found online and in other tutorials, I saw no success.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
The magnetometer/accelerometer did not record proper measurements

All in all, I was happy with the success I did see during this project. The implications of such an inexpensive, small GPS tracking device are vast. Powering this board with a 9V battery or USB power bank and stuffing it all in a cigarette box would provide a casual hacker with an amazingly accurate GPS tracker capable of providing detailed maps of a targets movement for days, weeks or months at a time. With a couple more tweaks or components, it isn't a stretch to assume this project could be modified to remotely upload tracking data to a malicious server, record audio or video data and more.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
The last working version of my Hacker Tracker project

CONCLUSION

I am really looking forward to the next HackerBox project delivery. Now that I've tasted micro-controller success and understand the possibilities, I want to learn more. The packaged 'portions' you get from HackerBoxes are just enough to sate your appetite for several tinkering sessions before you fully absorb all the knowledge it contains.

Although you could buy all of the individual components for a HackerBoxes project online, the subscription model allows you to get the package deal at a modest discount to retail prices. The added production value, like printed pin-out diagram postcards, stickers and Instructables tutorials, only enhance the experience. Some aspects of the presentation leave room for improvement, like the plain white shipping box, the Chinese packaging on the Micro-SD card, or the untranslatable Chinese download website you are directed to in order to install your Arduino Nano, but all were easily overcome.

HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
HackerBox 0021 Hands-on Assembly and Experimentation by Colorado PC Pro in Colorado Springs
Computer Detailing – The Spaghetti Monster

Computer Detailing – The Spaghetti Monster

COMPUTER DETAILING

I dubbed this pile of cables and dust bunnies the 'Spaghetti Monster' for obvious reasons. Not only did it look terrible, it also posed a fire hazard and ran the risk of component failure at any time. Performance was notably slower than usual and the temperature was notably higher. I had the pleasure of untangling this mess earlier this week, planning a new layout for the tower and detailing the rig inside and out. Ultimately, it ended up looking like something out of a stock photo while improving overall performance.

colorado pc pro computer detailing and laptop repair
Several of these cables don't connect to anything

I noticed none of the cables had been run behind the firewall (the 'back wall' of the computer), likely due to a rush assembly job, so I routed the cables back through one of several access channels located throughout the case. Moving these cables out of the way helped me gain a better understanding of the layout of the PC, and I noticed that some devices were improperly attached or weren't receiving power. One tip for anyone considering working on their own PC is to take photos at every step of the process. I personally take photos of all cable connections and empty ports, as both can be easily overlooked during reassembly.

colorado pc pro computer detailing and laptop repair
Looking much better after a few hours of TLC

My most valuable tool for cleaning static-sensitive electronics, like laptops and computers, is the anti-static vacuum, made entirely of materials designed to resist electrostatic discharge (ESD). Although expensive, the speed of cleaning with a vacuum and the money savings on canned air make it well worth the price. Normal vacuums pose great risk to electronics, since their plastic construction interacts with fast-moving dust particles to create static electricity right where you don't want it. One touch to a hard drive, RAM stick, computer fan or PCIe card is all it takes to discharge a deadly dose of static electricity, so always wear an anti-static band even when you think it isn't necessary. All it takes is one fried motherboard to learn that lesson the hard way.

Colorado PC Pro gaming computer detailing
Closeup of the motherboard and RAM

This gaming computer was particularly bulky; in fact, it was almost double the weight of the 'spilled milk' project I took on earlier this week. The hard drives were bolted onto the frame in a metal cage that itself was part of a larger metal cage, which seemed to be rather much but allowed for up to 8 hard drives to be hot-swapped into the tower. Several extraneous parts were removed at my suggestion, including an archaic hard drive reader, a USB 3.0 expansion card and an MMC card reader that hadn't ever found use. Removing these cards reduced overall power usage, allowed me to remove some cables from the rig altogether, and contributed to improved airflow - all good things for the customer.

Colorado PC Pro gaming computer detailing
Cable conduits provide easy access to cables wherever you need them

Detailing the case inside and out can sometimes be challenging. In the case of the Spaghetti Monster, there were actual creatures living out their entire lives in this silicon landscape. Luckily, spiders aren't the worst thing I could have imagined living inside a computer the size of a pantry. Like many other things in this world, I always seem to do the first 90% of the cleaning in 10% of the time, while the last 10% of cleaning takes the other 90% of my time. Getting into corners, around fragile electronic parts and everywhere else imaginable is more of an art than a science. The combination of Q-tips, cotton balls, a microfiber cloth, rubbing alcohol and ten fingers are typically all you need to get the job done - it's how you combine them that makes you an expert.

Colorado PC Pro gaming computer detailing
Still working out the kinks in the cabling

Once everything was clean, I replaced all of the components we decided would be part of the system going forward. This time, applying a bit of planning allowed me to assemble the PC with almost no cables running inside the case. As stated before, this improves airflow and reduces processor temperatures, speeding up the computer and extending the lifetime of your components. Perhaps even more importantly, careful cable planning gives you control over the aesthetics of your machine. Anyone willing to spend used car prices for a computer should take pride in appearances - regular maintenance and detailing should not be neglected and will save you money over the lifetime of your computer.

Total Time Spent: 4 hours
Cost: $216

GALLERY

Spill Damage Recovery – Desktop Gaming Computer

Spill Damage Recovery – Desktop Gaming Computer

SPILL DAMAGE MITIGATION

I recently completed a work order to repair and detail a gaming rig that had a glass of milk spilled into it through the top fan grates. You can imagine the extent of the damage: flaky white stains covering every single component inside the oversized tower, a faint smell of dairy and more than a few 'burned' spots on the circuity indicating an electrical short. The client was able to cut power to the computer before it shorted out on its own, which was a huge indicator that recovery would be successful.

pc pro computer build motherboard
Sparkling new and fully functional

INSPECTION

Upon initial investigation, extensive contamination was discovered across all major components. Some of the RAM sticks had solidified milk on the contacts while the corresponding ports had blocked pins. All three hard drives had splash stains, the worst of which was alarmingly found on the fragile mechanical drive. The Wi-Fi wireless network card had evaporated milk coating both surfaces, the processor was spared by the liquid cooling system, which unfortunately meant that milk had cooked into the tiny, tiny blades of a miniature radiator. The graphics card was assumed dead on arrival due to the several burnt spots on its exterior - it had taken the brunt of the spill. Last but not least, the motherboard was exposed in many places; for example, not all of the eSATA ports were functional upon inspection.

spill damage on ram memory computer
Note the hardened milk around the corners and on the contact edge of the RAM stick

TROUBLESHOOTING

I attempted to boot the computer after removing the GPU and plugging an HDMI cable into the onboard graphics card. The desktop powered on and I was blinded by bright green LEDs, but I saw nothing on my monitor. A red diagnostic LED was lit on the corner of the motherboard: "DRAM". I started removing the RAM sticks one by one until I could get past this specific problem. After removing two sticks, a new diagnostic LED was lit: "Boot Device". Time to test the hard drives, I thought. I removed all three drives from the tower and tested them in a hard drive dock connected to another computer. Luckily, all three hard drives worked like a charm. This meant either the cables or the ports were bad, so I replaced the SATA cables with temporary replacements, tried plugging hard drives into each port and saw limited success. Cleaning the rest of the ports with rubbing alcohol made all of the hard drives as well as the disc drive work once again.

spill damage hard drive sata port cables
Hard drive SATA ports were shorted out by spilled liquid

Out of curiosity, I tried cleaning the graphics card. Half an hour later, once all the crusty, powdery stains were finally gone, I installed it back into the computer and successfully got the display running, which was a relief that probably saved the client hundreds of dollars. Knowing now that there was a great chance of recovering everything, I went about my craft and painstakingly swabbed dried milk from all exposed electrical contacts, brushed it out of tiny spaces with an antistatic brush, wiped out every square inch of the massive computer case, completely disassembled the machine, posed for pictures (enjoy the gallery), reassembled the machine and began testing.

liquid damage diagnostics
Running some diagnostics after reassembling the computer

QUALITY CONTROL

Miraculously, the machine booted on the first try. Navigating through the BIOS indicated that all of the major devices were fully functional. The amount of RAM was reported correctly, all hard drives were detected and identified and the mouse and keyboard worked properly. Letting it run for a while, I noted that the temperature of the CPU remained stable. Finally, I booted into the operating system to go online and run some benchmark and stress tests for good measure. Once everything was in order, I scheduled time to return the computer to the customer.

pc pro computer build black
Call me to solve your computer problems today - Don't wait until something fails!

Time Spent: 3 hours
Money Saved: At least $400 for a GPU replacement, potentially more.

 

GALLERY