Inside Apple’s USB Power Adapters

If you own an iPhone, you most likely are in possession of Apple’s 5W USB power adapter, a great little contraption that charges your iPhone via a wall outlet using your normal USB cable. From the face of it, it’s a fairly elementary device. It simply takes alternating current from the wall and turns it into five watts of five volt power.

However, according to Ken Shirriff (who recently tore open one of these power adapters), the circuitry is “surprisingly complex and innovative.”

Shirriff conducted an exhaustive analysis of the 5W iPhone charger and posted about it on his blog. He found out some pretty amazing things about Apple’s tiny USB wall charger. For those that are knowledgeable about circuitry and the like, you’ll find Shirriff’s writeup to be both extremely informative and interesting (with circuit diagrams drawn out even), but for those who just want to know why the damn thing costs a whopping $30, Shirriff has this to say:

Apple’s power adapter is clearly a high-quality power supply designed to produce carefully filtered power. Apple has obviously gone to extra effort to reduce EMI interference, probably to keep the charger from interfering with the touchscreen. When I opened the charger up, I expected to find a standard design, but I’ve compared the charger to the Samsung charger and several other high-quality industry designs, and Apple goes beyond these designs in several ways.”

Some of the ways that Apple went above and beyond are apparent when looking at the small details. Apple used “super-strong AC prongs,” as well as a “complex over-temperature / over-voltage shutdown circuit.” Overall, Shirriff says that Apple’s 5W USB power adapter packs an impressive amount of complexity into such a small space.

However, Shirriff notes that even though Apple’s 5W USB power adapter is higher quality than most other USB adapters, that doesn’t mean that the $30 price tag is necessarily worth it. He says that Apple’s USB charger probably only uses about a dollar more on parts than other, less-expensive chargers that cost $6-$10. So essentially, Apple is making a huge profit off of each power adapter that they sell.

Image Credit: Alan Levine

Creating a Bootable Linux USB Drive with UNetbootin

Flash drive

Flash driveTest driving and installing a Linux distribution has become a lot easier over the years. In the early days, you needed to install Linux on a dedicated computer. Or, you could set your computer up to dual boot. Of course that meant navigating the potential perils of partitioning your hard drive.

Later, a Live CD (which lets you run the distribution right from a CD) was the way to do it. The problem with a Live CD, though, is that running anything from a CD is slow. And having to burn a CD for each distribution that you want to try is wasteful.

A better option is a bootable USB flash drive. You can reuse it and any distribution you install on it has the potential to run very quickly.

Whether you’re using Linux, Windows, or Mac OS you can easily create a bootable USB drive using UNetbootin. Let’s take a look at how to do that on the Linux desktop.

Note: Some of the options covered in this post aren’t available in the Windows and Mac OS versions of UNetbootin.

Installing UNetbootin

Just go to the UNetbootin site and download the installer for your operating system. There are buttons at the top of the page.

Buttons for downloading UNetbootin

You can also get packages for the following Linux distributions: Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, SuSE, Arch, and Gentoo.

Once it’s installed, you can start UNetbootin from your applications menu. In Ubuntu, for example, select Applications > System Tools > UNetbootin.

Creating the Bootable Drive

First off, you’ll need a USB flash drive. At the very least, it should have a capacity of 1 GB. Just to be safe, use either a 2 GB or 4 GB drive.

UNetbootin has an interesting feature: it can automatically download and create a bootable flash drive for over 20 popular Linux distributions. That saves a lot of time and trouble!

The distribution that you want may also need an ISO image. An ISO image, which has the extension .iso, is a compressed version of an operating system. That includes everything — installer, file system, and all the collateral.

From there, fire up UNetbootin.

Main window

If you’re going to create a bootable drive from one of the supported distros, select it from the Select Distribution list. Then, choose the version that you want to use from the Select Version list.

If, on the other hand, you’re going to create a bootable drive from an ISO image, click the Diskimage option. Then, click the “…” button to find the ISO image that you downloaded.

From there, make sure that the Type list is set to USB Drive and the Drive option is set to /dev/sdb1. In Linux, /dev/sdb1 is the default mount point) for removable storage devices.

Note: In Windows, the option will be a drive letter like F:**. In Mac OS, it will be something like /Volumes/USBDRIVE/**.

Ready to create a bootable image

When you’re ready to go, click the OK button. It can take several minutes for the UNetbootin to write the files to the flash drive. When the process is finished, a message appears asking if you want to restart your computer. You can safely ignore the message.

Using the Bootable Flash Drive

Restart your computer with the flash drive plugged into a USB port. Chances are your computer’s boot sequence — which tells your computer which drive (hard drive, CD-ROM drive, or removable drive) to start from — will skip the flash drive the first time you try this. When your computer starts, you need to go into the BIOS to change the boot settings. Depending on your computer, this could mean pressing the F2 key or F10 key on your keyboard. You’ll have to do this quickly.

Once you’re in the BIOS, find the boot settings and make the removable drive (your flash drive) the one from which your computer boots first. You can find detailed instructions on how to do that here. Then, exit the BIOS. Your computer will restart and boot from the flash drive.

From there, a menu will appear. Just choose the option to run in live mode and then take the Linux distribution for a spin.

Photo credit: gytha_ogg

5 Easy Ways To Geek Out Your Vehicle

A vehicle is one of the most important assets we have. It gets us to all the vital places that we need to go, like to work and to the grocery store. The time spent in our cars can really add up, so why not make those commutes more enjoyable by adding a few bells and whistles that would make any fellow geek jealous?

Add USB Ports

It’s a shame that the auto industry hasn’t caught up to modern times yet as far as power sources go. I mean, we’re still using cigarette lighters as a power source. How ridiculous is that?

By spending as little as a few bucks, you can be charging your devices the modern way by equipping USB ports inside your vehicle. USB car adapters are available pretty much anywhere. I bought this one on Amazon and while it costs about $20, knowing that it’s made by a quality manufacturer ensures that I won’t get that annoying whining noise that comes with cheaper, lesser-quality car adapters. It also pumps out 2 amps to charge larger devices like an iPad (a feature that many USB car chargers lack).

Add Bluetooth

Image Credit: Crutchfield

Not only is equipping your car with Bluetooth a pretty geeky thing to do, but it can also be a literal life-saver when you’re on the road. Having your hands free while chatting with someone on the phone is both a convenience and a safety precaution.

A lot of newer vehicles have Bluetooth built right into the factory stereo system by default, but if you own an older vehicle that doesn’t have Bluetooth, you can still take advantage of the feature by installing either a universal kit or a stereo-specific adapter. Universal kits are merely just Bluetooth speaker boxes that you can place anywhere in your car, like these.

Stereo-specific Bluetooth kits are generally more expensive, but it allows you to use your factory stereo and speakers to talk on your phone without the need for an extra speaker box. Of course, there’s always the option of going the headset route if you don’t mind things sticking to your ear during the car ride.

Make Your Stereo MP3 Player-Compatible

Image Credit: Truck Trend

Newer vehicles nowadays have an auxiliary (AUX) input built right into the factory stereo, allowing you to easily connect an MP3 player and start rocking out. However, older vehicles don’t have this. If you’re one of those with an older vehicle, you might try looking to see if the back of your factory head unit has red and white RCA female ports and if so, you can easily plug in a RCA-to-3.5mm cable and route it through the glove box and into the interior.

If you have a cassette tape deck, you can use a cassette-to-3.5mm adapter. If both of these options are not available, you’re only choice (without using the awful FM transmitter) is to buy an aftermarket head unit with a built-in AUX input that sell for as little as $60.

Hook Up A Dedicated MP3 Player

Using your smartphone as an MP3 player can be really nice at times, but it can also be a pain in the rear end to bust it out and plug it into your stereo every time you want to listen to music in the car. Not to mention whenever you get a call, you have to reach over and unplug it. That’s why I just ended up getting a cheap, dedicated MP3 player to leave in my car that’s always plugged in and ready to go. That way all I have to do is turn it on and press play. I currently have an old iPod Mini that only cost me $25, so if it happens to get stolen, it won’t be too much of a biggie.

Install A Laptop Stand

Image Credit: Instructables

This modification is more aimed at passengers rather than the driver. Putting a laptop stand in your vehicle is an easy way for you to take your laptop on the go and provides passengers great hospitality. You can plug it into your stereo system and blast your music library or watch movies in surround sound on the go!

You can buy a pre-made laptop stand or make your own for cheaper. Since laptops only last a few hours on a charge, it would also be a good idea to get a power inverter that you can plug into your cigarette lighter, like this one.

If you have any other ways to geek out your car, leave them in the comments!

How to Remove Hidden Duplicate Copies of USB Device Drivers in Windows

If you’ve ever had problems installing USB devices in Windows, i.e. if you connect a mouse and Windows doesn’t properly install the drivers for you, I learned a great trick that might be able to resolve this problem.

From what I can tell, Windows stores a “ghost” copy of any device you install which doesn’t get removed when you unplug the device.  For example, if you plug your mouse into your computer, your computer will remember that mouse and the drivers that went with it.  If you plug that same mouse into a different USB port, Windows will make another “ghost” copy of that mouse, but won’t delete the first copy.

This means that over the course of your computer’s life, you could have dozens of “ghost” copies of the exact same mouse on your computer, which in my experience can cause driver conflicts, especially if the driver wasn’t installed properly the first time.

The Fix

Note:  This guide involves the use of the Command Prompt and Device Manager.  If you are uncomfortable performing these actions, please see an authorized computer technician instead.  As always, be very careful when deleting anything from your computer – especially hardware devices.

Step 1: Open the Command Prompt by opening the Start menu and selecting Run, then type cmd and press enter.  If Run isn’t available in this menu, you can also open it by pressing the Windows Key + R.

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Step 2. Copy and paste the following into the command prompt and press enter (you need to Right Click and select Paste in the command prompt).

set devmgr_show_nonpresent_devices=1

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This command will reveal all the hidden “ghost” devices on your computer.

Step 3: Open the Device Manager.  This can be done by typing devmgmt into the command prompt or by right clicking My Computer, selecting Manage, then clicking Device Manager on the left.

The Device Manager shows you all hardware currently installed on your computer, sorted by hardware classification.

Step 4: Even though the “ghost” devices are now enabled, they will still be hidden from this view.  Go to the View menu and select Show hidden devices.

You can now identify the device you’re having problems with and delete the devices with faded icons.  In my case, I was able to remove several identical mice that were all from the same device.

To remove the extra devices, just select them (limited to one at a time) and press the Del key.  You will have to confirm this action.

After I deleted the several extra mice, I was able to install the original mouse without any problems.  Big thanks to Bryon Hills for this tip.

Photo credit: brandmaier

How to Install Linux from a USB Flash Drive

usb-flash-driveSince many ultra-portable laptops (commonly known as netbooks) do not come equipped with optical drives, users are typically forced to purchase an external optical drive to install an operating system such as Linux.  In this guide, I’ll show you how to easily install a Linux operating system with a USB flash drive and a piece of software called UNetbootin.

If you want to install Windows instead, check out our previous guide: How to Install Windows from a USB Flash Drive.

UNetbootin, which stands for Universal Netbook Installer, is a program for Windows and Linux that can create a bootable USB drive for many Linux distributions.  UNetbootin can not only use an existing disc image (.iso) to create a bootable USB drive, it can also download dozens of Linux distributions through a handy dropdown menu.

Step One – Installation

Download and install UNetbootin.  When you open the program, you will presented with the following window:

unetbootin-linux

Step Two – Select a Linux Distribution

UNetbootin can automatically download dozens of Linux distributions.  With the Distribution button selected, use the dropdown menus to choose your favorite distribution and version of Linux.  Be sure to read the installation notes if they are available.

If you already have a Linux disc image (.iso) downloaded, click the Diskimage button and select the image file.

Step Three – Formatting the USB Drive

At the bottom of the main screen, verify that USB Drive is selected and then select the drive you would like to use (Note: All data will be lost on the selected drive).  When you are ready to create the bootable USB drive, click the OK button.  If you chose to download a Linux distribution in Step Two, the duration will vary based upon your internet connection speed.

Once the process has finished, you can now use your USB flash drive to install Linux.

Using the USB Boot Drive

Most modern computers support using USB drives as a boot device, but if yours does not you can check your manufacturer’s support site to see if a BIOS update is available.  To set your USB drive as a boot device, you can typically press the ESC key just as your computer turns on and select the drive from a list.

If pressing the ESC key doesn’t work, you may have to enter your computer’s BIOS to manually set the drive as a boot device. You can typically access your computer’s BIOS by pressing DEL, F2, F10, or F12 at system startup, but refer to your manufacturer’s support information for more details.

Installing an operating system from a USB flash drive is much faster than using an optical disc.  In our tests, we were able to install Ubuntu in less than six minutes which is much faster than performing an installation with a LiveCD.

Have a better method of installing Linux on your computer?  Let us know by commenting below.

How to Install Windows from a USB Flash Drive

usb-flash-driveNetbooks, which are ultra-portable laptops, have exploded in popularity due to their small size and ease of use.  Unfortunately, that tiny form factor comes with some drawbacks – most netbooks don’t come equipped with an optical drive.  This means that most users are stuck with the operating system that was installed by the manufacturer.

Luckily, Windows 7, XP, Vista, Server 2003 and Server 2008 can be installed from a USB flash drive with a few simple steps.  In this guide, I’ll be using a program called WinToFlash to create a bootable USB drive for Windows 7.

Prerequisites

  • A Windows installation disc or disc image (.iso)
    • If you have downloaded a Windows installation disc (such as the Windows 7 Beta or RC), you should already have the .iso file.
    • If you have a physical installation disc, skip to Step 2.
  • A USB flash drive – minimum 3 GB.

Step 1:  Extract the Windows .iso

win7-thumbdrive-extract7zipIf you have an installation disc image (.iso), that file contains all of the files from the Windows installation disc.  To extract these files, download and install 7-Zip (free) and browse to the location of your Windows .iso in the file browser.  Click ‘Extract’ and wait while the files are expanded.

Step 2:  Processing Installation Files with WinToFlash

Download the latest version WinToFlash and extract the files.  Open WinToFlash.exe and click the ‘Windows setup transfer wizard’ button to get started.

win7-thumbdrive-wizard

After clicking Next, you need to select the path to your Windows installation files and your USB drive.  If you have a Windows installation disc, select your optical drive.  If you had an .iso image, choose the location where you extracted the files from Step 1.

win7-thumbdrive-select

WinToFlash will configure your USB drive and transfer all installation files.  This will take approximately 5-10 minutes.

win7-thumbdrive-processing

Once the process has finished, you will receive an “All done” message.  Click Exit to close the application, and your USB drive will now contain a bootable version of your Windows installation files.

Step 3:  Install Windows

Now that you have your USB drive prepped and ready to go, you need to set your netbook to use your USB drive as the primary boot device.  This can be done by accessing your computer’s BIOS by tapping the key your manufacturer specifies (typically Delete or a function key like F2) just as your computer starts.

In my instance, I had to go to the Boot tab and select ‘Hard Disk Drives’ first to set my USB drive (listed as USB:SanDisk Cruzer) in the 1st Drive field.  I then had to go back to the Boot Settings menu and open ‘Boot Device Priority’ to set the USB:SanDisk Cruzer drive in the 1st Boot Device field.

win7-thumbdrive-bios

Note: While most newer computers support USB drives as a boot device, some older models may not.  Refer to your manufacturer’s support information or check if an update to your BIOS is available.

After setting the USB drive as your primary boot device, save your changes (typically with F10) and restart your computer.  While booting up you may see a message to “Press any key to continue…”.  You can now proceed through the Windows installation like usual, and once the installation is finished be sure to go back into your BIOS and change your settings back to the way they were originally.

Have another method to install Windows on a netbook?  Share it with us in the comments!

Review: Logitech ClearChat Pro USB Headset

head_review2Logitech is a big name when it comes to PC accessories, so looking for a headset with their name on it was what introduced me to the Logitech ClearChat Pro USB Headset.  I read through dozens of reviews for this headset, and collected the same basic good and bad points from each website.  Now that I’ve had the chance to use the headset personally, I will provide you with a thorough and unbiased review.

Comfort

The first thing I noticed about the headset was that it seemed quite comfortable to wear, even for extended periods of time.  The ear padding swivels and turns slightly on the center point and is made of a soft leather material.  The band connecting the headphone speakers is also covered by a leather material, so it’s not just hard plastic pushing against your head all the time.

Comfort is significant because I consider this product to be a mid- to high-range gaming headset.  In fact, I bought the Pro USB headset specifically for the purpose of being able to use it while I play multiplayer PC games online.  After gaming for 2 hours or more, I did notice that my ears eventually felt a little sore from the pressure of the headset, but I think this goes for anything strapped to your head for a long period of time.

Style & Strength

Looks were not important to me when choosing this headset, but I was pleasantly suprised that it has a sleek, dark appearance.  The leather not only makes the headband more comfortable, but also improves the overall aesthetics.  At first glance, you can tell the ClearChat Pro headset is made of quality materials that won’t fall apart easily.  The microphone boom appears to be strong and doesn’t dangle like so many other headsets do.  The boom is made of the same quality plastic as the rest of the headset’s frame without any edges that lead into the receiver itself, furthering the cool look of the headset.

From what I can tell, there are three slightly different models of this same headset.  The one I have is the style in the picture below.  It’s volume controls are located on the cord of the headset, which gives you your increase/decrease and mute microphone options.  On the other models, the volume and mute controls are on the outside of the earpiece itself, which retains the modern look of the headset.

head_review5

Features

The features of this headset are what set it apart from others in the same price range.  The ClearChat Pro USB couldn’t be easier to install; the USB plug-in is all you need to begin using the device.  It supports plug-and-play for Windows, so you don’t need to install any additional software or drivers to begin using it.  Your USB port serves as the typical microphone/audio inputs for the headset, and Logitech’s laser-tuned audio drivers run the audio through that one USB port, freeing those mic/audio inputs for other devices.

When you’re using the headset for purely audio (like listening to music), you can swing the boom up so that it is parallel with the headband.  This keeps the mic out of the way if you just want to listen without disturbing other people nearby.  The ClearChat Pro USB also features an equalizer for optimizing sound quality to fit your preference.  This is located next to the volume controls on the right side of the headset.

One feature that is in the newer wired and wireless headsets is the way in which the microphone mutes.  You are able to mute the microphone simply by swinging the boom up and out of the way, whereas you must press a button next to the volume controls on the older model.  In all three models, a red light indicates whether or not mute is enabled.

Obviously, if you buy the wireless headset, you’re getting exactly that.  It features the same USB plug-in but with a built in 2.4ghz wireless receiver and slightly different looks.  Overall, the audio quality should match (or come very close to) it’s wired counterparts because it uses the same laser-tuned audio technology.

Quality

Finally, here’s the most important aspect to consider when buying a headset.  While the ClearChat Pro isn’t the cheapest headset, it certainly doesn’t boast the audio quality of something Bose brand headphones would produce.  In most reviews, the main complaint people had was that the audio quality wasn’t as good as they had hoped.  My opinion is that those reviewer’s expectations were set too high.

The audio quality for gaming was surprisingly good.  In games such as Left 4 Dead and Crysis, I heard things that my standard computer speakers wouldn’t allow me to.  This headset reproduced a 3D environment that the game intended (i.e. zombies running in front and behind me matched with the actions on screen, as well as explosions and bullet ricochets).

Listening to music was mentioned as a weak point for the ClearChat Pro.  In my opinion, the audio quality beat anything I’ve owned previously, given that I have never spent more than $50 on headphones.  Bass and mid-range were excellent for rock and jazz in particular.  I could tell that things in the high-range like repeated cymbal crashes or guitar solos sounded a little “airy”,  especially if I had the volume cranked up.  But overall, songs sounded pure and bold, with emphasis on the low-range bass tones.

In the product description, the ClearChat Pro says it features a noise-canceling microphone.  I went out of my way to test the mic by putting a full-sized fan on high as I recorded myself reading.  I was surprised at how well the mic filtered out the wind and picked out my voice.  By adding a small sponge material I found on an old headset, I almost completely eliminated the noise of the air rushing past as I spoke.  I thought the microphone performed quite well, and projected my voice clearly without any crackles or pops.

Conclusion

Recommended Use:

  • Budget gaming mic/headphones and PC calls such as Yahoo!, Skype, AIM, Windows Live Messenger, etc.

Pros:

  • Clean, modern, sleek design
  • Easy to install and use – takes only 1 USB port
  • Audio/microphone quality is quite good
  • Constructed of quality material – won’t break with normal falls
  • Comfortable
  • Priced right; better-than-expected performance for it’s price

Cons:

  • Potential soreness after extended use
  • Isn’t top-of-the-line for music listening

Final Score (out of 10):

8.5


Fix: Connecting USB Devices To VirtualBox On Fedora 11

virtualbox-thumb

Update: This problem has been resolved in VirtualBox Version 3.0.8. Remove the following fix before upgrading to 3.0.8 to take advantage of the update.  For help on installing VirtualBox on Fedora 11, checkout our guide.

I have come across one problem with VirtualBox on Fedora 11 – USB devices are listed in the device manager but are grayed out and cannot be enabled.  To see if this problems exists on your system you can navigate to Devices > USB Devices in a running virtual machine console window.  The devices physically connected to the host are shown, but are grayed out and are not clickable, preventing them from being connected to the virtual machine.

To correct the problem, edit /etc/fstab and add the following line:

none /sys/bus/usb/drivers usbfs devgid=501,devmode=664 0 0

Substitute “devgid=501” with the id of the vboxusers group which all VirtualBox users should be part of.  The id of the vboxusers group can be found by navigating to System > Administration > Users and Groups.

Once you are finished, power off all virtual machines.  Run the following command in Fedora to enable USB support:

mount -a

When you power on your Virtual Machine next time, the USB devices under Devices should no longer be grayed out and are now clickable, allowing you to connect them to your virtual machines.