Monday, September 29, 2008

Flashing The Firmware On A Pioneer Optical Drive

Recently my new (within a year old) Pioneer DVD burner stopped erasing my DVD-RW disks. It would appear to erase them, but when the disk was re-inserted in the drive it still had the same content. And occasionally I would get the
message, "The device failed to calibrate the laser power level for this media."

In researching this, I found that there was a newer firmware than the original Apple firmware it came with. The problem was that the firmware was contained in an EXE file and Pioneer didn't bother to include any installers for the Mac. In searching I found that the EXE file could be opened and the firmware files found using Stuffit Expander. That got me the firmware files, now what?

OK, there's a flashing program that has existed for some time. The program is a terminal command called "DVRFlash." The usage of this program got me nowhere, since it refused to clobber the Apple OEM firmware. But by looking further, at the bottom of the DVRFlash webpage there is DVRFlashX, a GUI for OS X. This program was able to easily flash the firmware.

After a reboot, my Pioneer DVR-109 was upgraded to firmware version 1.58! Not only that, I could erase my RW disks again! Yeah!

If you have problems with your optical drive, this is one method you might try, assuming that there is a firmware update for your drive.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Motherboard Upgrade from Hell

Recently my friend Walt and I found a deal at Geeks.com on a motherboard.  They had a deal on a refurbished Intel mobo with a 1.4 ghz Celeron. It also included 4 USB ports and on-board video and audio. Ready for the kicker? $39.99.

Now Walt has an old(er) IBM Aptiva 2174 with an Athlon running at 550 mhz.  And because Walt worked for IBM for a good number of years, talking him out of that Aptiva was, well, impossible.  I know. I've tried.  But the fact that this was almost 2.5x faster than the original Aptiva finally persuaded him to jump.

Enter the new mobo. After waiting for almost 10 days it finally arrived. So I backed up his user files for both Kubuntu and Windows 98SE (see my previous post) and started tearing down the Aptiva.  Unfortunately, I didn't think to take any pictures of the installation. Needless to say, both the old and new mobo's were ATX form-factor. 

In theory it was a simple matter of just removing all the cables and cards, moving the power supply out, and screwing in the new mobo. But as I've always said, "Everything works... in theory."  In practice, not so much.

First, the floppy drive had been having problems reading disks and was making a horrible noise when it tried.  It was OEM, so I figured it was just dead after 8 years.  So while I had the top off, I decided to pull it too, to be replaced later.

Long story short (too late), I couldn't get the new mobo to fire up.  Occasionally I could get an LED on the board to glow, but that was it.  Finally, I went and looked up the problem in the 'net and found out that vintage mobo's sometimes need to have a floppy drive and 1 mb of memory before they'll boot up.  So I put the drive back.  Nothing.  Then I tried putting Walt's original mobo back.  Still nothing.

OK, at this point I'm freaking, thinking, "DAMN!  I not only can't get this new board to work, but now I've fucked up his original board also!  Now what do I do?"  I gave up for a while at Walt's insistence and went to get some tacos.  Ate the tacos, still brooding.  What went wrong?

Finally, Walt asked what (at the time) seemed a lame question, "Are you sure it's plugged in good?"  Now my place has terrible outlets, often times the vacuum plug will just fall out of the wall socket, but the socket near the dining room table was (I thought) OK.  So I had, at this point, put the new mobo back in the Aptiva just before I gave up.  

Sure enough, the plug was loose.  I re-seated it after bending the prongs tighter and guess what?  Yep, the new board fired up perfectly.  Case closed.

The final thought here is this:  Even geeks like me need help from normal people sometimes.  My partner Pete always used to ask those sorts of "obvious" questions and often I would be dismissive.  But after a while I learned (after some of his silly questions turned out not to be so silly) to listen and take his ideas seriously.   In this case, Walt did the same thing.  And now he's enjoying a better computer because he asked a silly question.  Word.