How To Start Hacking Your PCby Jim Aspinwall, author of PC Hacks
When did you first take the cover off your PC and why? Certainly not just to "look around." You had a motive, a mission--you did it to add memory, upgrade a hard drive, install a network card, or even add a 5.1-channel sound card. By definition, you are a PC hacker! Perhaps not a major wire-clipping, CPU-soldering, water-cooled PC-modder, but you did cross into the realm of at least modest PC hacking.
But what if you want to do more than just modest hacking? You need the right advice and the right tools. I'm here to help. This article is the first in a two-part series on PC hacking covering cautions about PC hacking, hardware and software tools you'll need, and examples of common hacks.
My first PC hack in 1986 was a serious, over-clock design complete with an add-in "perf board" to hold a couple of chips and a "high-speed" 30 MHz crystal wired and soldered together to create a 10 MHz CPU clock circuit to boost my meager 8 MHz PC/XT-clone. But today, there are few if any opportunities for PC users to browse a system board schematic, pull out a sheet of graph paper and a chip spec sheet, then design and build a new clocking system for their home PC.
Hacking today is more accessible, easier, and generally safer. Getting a video boost or speeding up a CPU (over-clocking) is made easier and quicker through BIOS parameters, CPU replacement, swapping cables, installing special device drivers and 'tweaking' programs--all to affect the features and performance of PC hardware through craftily written software.
Hacking a PC isn't a big secret--resources, tips, tools, and parts are readily available, thanks to the internet, of course, and specialty vendors catering to the hacking and PC-modding market. The PC industry quietly encourages some hacking--to push the limits of chips and devices and to help define new designs and answer market demand. Intel, AMD, and off-shore PC makers pay attention to hacking, and if a particular performance boost or case appearance gains enough momentum, it could show up in next year's new PC models.
Anyone can perform a PC hack that may be as subtle as changing a wired keyboard and mouse for wireless ones or as radical as applying a chainsaw and some spray paint to a PC case for a 'rad' new look.
Dangers of Hacking
Hacking is not without risks. Risks enter the hacking scene in many forms from blowing up delicate electronic parts, to potential personal safety issues, to raising the cost of technical support for PC vendors.
Off-the-shelf part makers don't care if you blow up their products because damage due to hacking is not covered by warranties, and if you blow something up, you'll need buy another part. Hacking is good for business--especially bad hacking.
The greatest risks to PC electronics from hacking, simply building a system, or changing components are:
- Static electricity
- Shorting out the various electronics boards by dropping screws, brackets, tools or setting a disk drive board side-down onto a piece of metal in the chassis
- Burning out a CPU operated without a heat sink, or using an inadequate heatsink
- Setting the CPU voltage too high
- Working inside a PC or power supply with the power turned on
- Financial considerations of pushing PC parts beyond their published specifications and warranty terms
Most of these risks are common to building your own PC, repairing PCs, and hacking. Although I have never heard of or experienced component damage from over-clocking, it is certainly possible, but damage related to CPU hacks is more likely coincidental and caused by careless handling or by lack of an adequate heatsink to keep over-clocked parts cool.
You should care about personal safety--acrid fumes from destroyed PC parts can be toxic, burns from hot components or soldering irons are not a pleasant experience, and most PCs still plug into lethal AC voltage sources you need to avoid.
Economically, as much as PC makers may benefit from innovations, they hate hackers for the increased call volume to customer service and tech support call centers. When a hack goes bad, many customers want at least free help, or they try to weasel free replacement parts under warranty--and usually get them. No PC support operation exists to generate bad press.
To mitigate the risks of hacking, follow these simple rules:
- Turn the power off and disconnect the AC power cord when opening the case and working inside, whether connecting cables, installing chips, or mounting disk drives.
- Avoid static electricity. Keep electronic parts in their static-proof bags until ready to be transferred to the PC. Use an anti-static wrist strap, and work parts on an anti-static mat.
- Before restoring power, double-check and correct any loose or open wires and remove loose screws and metal parts.
- Cool your CPU. This means using an adequate or larger heat-sink, proper application of heat-sink compound, and a fan.
- Be extra careful when working with tools, especially power tools. Avoid leaving filings, metal chips, and drill shavings in or near your system. Soldering irons are HOT--let parts cool before handling after soldering.
- If it smells bad or smokes--turn it off! (except the soldering part)
- Increase clock speeds and voltages in moderation. Avoid trying to get a 20% performance increase all at once. Go a step at a time and test each change thoroughly before going up another notch.
- Back up your operating system, programs, and data. Be prepared to roll back any software changes, restore settings, and re-install software if things go wrong.
Other than these obvious risks and precautions, the only things you need to start hacking are the right tools, both mechanical and software.
Tools for Hacking
Every hack requires a tool or utility of some sort. Many hacks can be performed on internal PC components from outside the box, with a keyboard and mouse, using a variety of software tools from the system BIOS setup program or programs written for Windows. Such hacks are the easiest to perform, test, and recover from if they do not provide the hoped-for results.
PC-modders will start from the outside working with drills, saws, and paint to alter the appearance of cases and faceplates. I might suggest that if you've never taken or had the opportunity to take a shop class, and don't know a drill motor from a bit, you might want to avoid radical case modifications and buy a tricked-out case instead.
Of course, you need to get the case open so you can get to the internal components. Most internal hacks, performed on CPUs, system and video boards, require a variety of hand tools including:
- Assorted screwdrivers: flat blade (3/32", 1/8", and 3/16" wide) and cross-point (#0, #1 and #2 sizes) as well as a #15 Tor-X.
- Small-tipped needle-nosed pliers
- A temperature-controlled (700-850 degrees) soldering iron with small (less than 1/16") and medium-sized (less than 1/8") tips
- Eutectic solder--labeled "63/37" (this type of solder is better for novices at soldering than the old "60/40" blend)
You may find a small flashlight useful to see what you're going to be working on, once you're inside the case. Though ignored by many, an antistatic wrist strap is highly recommended for handling individual PC chips, CPUs and RAM specifically. Contrary to popular belief, the wrist-strap does not 'ground' you as much as it provides a very low-current electrical path to dissipate static charge so you do not unload thousands of volts of static electricity into a low-voltage circuit.
Good visual acuity, manual dexterity, and a steady hand are preferred for working inside PCs. A 3-5x magnifying glass and laying off the coffee, Jolt, or Red Bull may help you manage the smaller details. Dropped screws, misaligned connections, and mangled wires are neither pretty nor functional and can cause numerous failures--after all the objective is to make things better, not spend your time replacing things you broke.
Software for Hacking
If you're not mechanically or electronically inclined but still want to hack your PC to test its limits and learn how things work, you can do so by merely using your keyboard and mouse, as well as a few choice pieces of software.
While you may be able to 'feel' a performance improvement in the way your system boots up, plays videos, or responds to your commands, it's good to measure exactly how much you've changed a particular function in your PC. Performance measurements, and just plain accurate system information, can tell you a lot about your PC before and after any hacking you do.
My favorite system information and benchmark testing utilities are SiSoft's Sandra, PCMark, and 3DMark. Sandra is a good all-around utility that provides detailed system information (what CPU is installed, installed software, disk drive details), diagnostics (CPU, memory, system board, disk drives, peripherals), and essential to hacking--basic benchmarks (CPU, memory and disk performance.)
PCMark stress tests a multitude of total system capabilities to get a full profile of system performance. 3DMark focuses on testing the quality and speed of video presentation with a variety of video game samples. Combined, this modest but capable arsenal of PC intelligence gathering tools will let you measure the effectiveness of your PC hacks.
To give yourself some hacks to measure, you'll need a handful of software tools to perform a variety of hacks. One piece of software you already have or may need to upgrade to allow some hacking is your PC's B.I.O.S., the code that starts your PC. Check the manual for your system board or dig into the B.I.O.S. to find out if you can adjust CPU, memory, or video clocking parameters.
Beyond hacking system clocks in B.I.O.S., there are a variety of utilities you can use to enhance the performance of your video card and disk drives. The ATI Radeon and nVidia Riva video chipsets are the most hack-able, and for them, a couple of over-clocking utilities are available--ATITool and RadClocker. RivaTuner and PowerStrip will tweak just about any video card.
For disk drives, Intel and Via chipset drivers and utilities can allow you to set IDE interface parameters for optimal performance, typically whether the IDE interface and drive operate using Programmed I/O (PIO) or Direct Memory Access (DMA) modes of data transfer and if write-caching is enabled.
Beyond hardware-specific hacks, operating systems hold the keys to critical performance adjustments. Microsoft Windows contains numerous parameters and registry entries that affect peripheral devices, memory resources, and disk caching. Linux too provides tools and configuration items to manage the swap file (setting the size of the swap file) and disk drive performance setting disk I/O parameters with the HDPARM program.
Hacking your PC, though not without some risk, can be rewarding in either performance gain or simply personalization of "your box." The former can potentially stretch your PC dollar when you need that extra 'oomph' to give you the responsiveness of a faster system without forking over hundreds of dollars. The latter can provide 'oohs' and 'aahs' from your friends and may even win you a spot in a PC-modders hall of fame. Either way, you benefit from the challenge, experience, and accomplishment. In Part 2, you'll see examples of different types of PC hacks from easy to complex and learn the benefits of each.
Jim Aspinwall has been the Windows Helpdesk columnist and feature editor for CNET.com and is the author of three books on PC maintenance.
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