Archive for September, 2009

Microsoft Security Essentials (Anti-virus)

I have never, ever been a fan of anti-virus applications.  Why?  Well, as a systems administrator, I’ve seen how more often than not they adversely affect the PC that they’re “protecting” – primarily in the area of system performance.  It drives me nuts.  In most cases, I think the protection they offer is admirable, but at the cost of performance?  No thank you.

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When it was announced a year ago (or so) that Microsoft would be releasing their own anti-virus client, the jokes started almost immediately.  Windows has long been flogged as an “insecure” operating system, even though Windows XP’s service-pack 2 (released in August 2004) resolved most of these issues. 

It’s difficult to shake a bad reputation. 

What has been unknown for these many months is what Microsoft’s iteration of an anti-virus client would look like.  Will it be bloated?  Slow?  Will it even provide system protection?  How much will it cost?  Some of these questions were answered with the earlier release of Microsoft’s Live OneCare suite, which garnered very good reviews on all accounts.  Still, Microsoft would find some way to mess up a good thing, right?  Don’t they always??

Not necessarily.

Earlier this year, the beta of Microsoft Security Essentials was released and the results were quite surprising. 

  • No Bloat: Less than a 5 meg download for the 64-bit version.  Seriously.
  • Responsive: Your system feels nearly ‘no load’, even while a full system scan is taking place
  • Cost?: Free

The one thing that I cannot comment on is the level of protection that this anti-virus suite provides, though I’m going to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt on this one.  Why?  Just because they’re Microsoft?  No, actually – more because their Live OneCare product (upon which this app is based) has already been given a thumbs-up in this regard.  I expect that tradition to continue.

So… note this date in history: I am for the very first time recommending an anti-virus product.  Check out Microsoft Security Essentials

Would like to read a more in-depth review?  Sure thing.  Head over to this site.

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Ruh-roh! Burned by the Zune Marketplace :(

So, I’ve been getting my newly-acquired Zune HD hooked up and synced up.  We’ll discuss that at another time.  Meanwhile, I’m syncing my music — about 30% of which is Zune Pass (subscription) content — and it’s mostly going fine.

Yeah.  I said mostly.

ZunePass_sad

For the first time, I’ve found an instance where an album I downloaded via my Zune Pass subscription is no longer available at the Zune Marketplace, and thus no longer playable in either the software or on the Zune player. 

It typically works like this: you have a subscription to the Zune Pass, you log in, find an album, download it, and you are granted about 30 days to listen to that album.  Subsequent launches (and logins) to the software will renew that license, such that you essentially never notice it.  It’s part of your library and that’s that – playable whenever you like.  If you sync it to your Zune player, which most folks will, the license is copied there as well.  If you don’t re-sync your player within 30 days, the music will actually expire and be unplayable.  This has happened with my wife, who uses her player regularly, but doesn’t sync very often.  Otherwise, if you sync your player at least every now and then, it will renew the license on your player as well, and then give you uninterrupted access to that music.

Such is the life of subscription-based music, I suppose.  Love it or not.

Anyhoo… I’m syncing my music library and am greeted with fourteen items that won’t sync properly.  What’s the deal?  The album ‘About Face’ from The Working Title appears to be in my collection with no issues, but it just doesn’t sync.   Hmmm.  Double-clicking on one of the tracks gives me this error message:

zuneError

The message pretty much says it all: This item is no longer available at Zune Marketplace.  (Error Code: C00D27E1)  We don’t know why it’s not available, or who’s fault it is.  Presumably, some contractual agreement between Zune and the record label of this band has lapsed or changed in some way.  I really don’t know.  I *do know*, however, that I can’t get this album on the Zune Marketplace anymore, which is a real bummer.  Hopefully it’ll come back some day soon.

For those out there who are dead-set against subscription-based music, then this will no doubt serve as ammunition for their argument.  On the other hand, I’ve download some 1,200 tracks via my Zune Pass, and this is the first instance of this that I’ve come across.  The odds are definitely in your favor to not have this issue. 

Besides… you can always go grab the full album from Amazon MP3 for $6.99 like I did.  🙂

Enjoy.

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UPDATE:  I thought it only fair that I report some other strangeness that I recently found on the Zune  Marketplace.  Specifically, a number of albums that are no longer available to me.  In my syncing of approximately 1,200 Zune Pass tracks, about 10 albums would no longer sync as they were not available to Zune Pass subscribers any longer.  I think perhaps two of these albums just no longer existed on the Zune Marketplace, whereas the other 8 albums (or so) had gone to a ‘purchase only’ mode.  In other words, those albums were still available on the Zune Marketplace, but not to subscribers.  A bummer, to be sure.

Just thought I’d get that out there.

Fixing the Xbox 360 (RRoD)

Xbox360-ringofdeath[1] So, we’ve had our Xbox 360 for about two years now.  Something like that.  We inherited our Xbox from my brother who had purchased it at “launch” in late 2005.  When he upgraded to the “Elite” model two years later, we were more than happy to take his hand-me-down system.

Well… I was happy.  My wife was less enthused.  But that’s another story.

Anyhow, our hand-me-down Xbox 360 crapped about at around the 3-year mark from original purchase.  We had had it for a year or so.  Because it sounds like a small jet engine, we’ve always kept it in our TV cabinet with the doors mostly closed.  It was never really an issue until the infamous RRoD popped into our world one day.  We were heartbroken.  Thankfully, Microsoft saw fit to extend the warranty to (3) full years for this particular issue, and ours was sent off for repair with little fanfare.  What we received in return was a refurbished unit. 

Oh, well.  Beggars can’t be choosers.

The honeymoon quickly faded within the first week.  Back in the old TV cabinet again, this Xbox 360 soon exhibited the ‘2 Rings of Death’ behavior which tells you that the unit has overheated somewhat.  The story appears to be something like this: the original (and somewhat poorly designed) internals of the X360 ran at much higher temperatures, but would eventually succumb to internal damage that would result in broken solder joints, separated heatsinks, or what have you.  The newer units have lower tolerances for heat, and thus display the ‘2 Rings of Death’ when the unit would get too hot.  Less damage to the system is a good thing, but having to shut the unit off after an hour can be aggravating.  Worse yet, we realized that we really needed to open our TV cabinet when the Xbox was on, which only made the entire room obnoxiously loud.  We also experimented with better airflow around the unit, standing it up vertically, and moving the power supply further away.  All helpful, but (evidently) not enough.

THE NEW VICTIM

About a month ago, our year-old “refurb” X360 began to exhibit ‘video artifacting’ and freezing.  After some time in the penalty box, we could turn it back on and resume our entertainment.  Still, it was unnerving and it seemed to only be getting worse.  Finally, it gave way to a full-blown RRoD. 

Clearly something had to be done, so I weighed our options. 

  • For $99, we could ship the unit off to Microsoft for repair.
    • PROS: quick and easy, not too expensive
    • CONS: likely to have the same issue in a year, still going to be loud
  • For $199, we could buy an Arcade unit and re-use our current harddrive.
    • PROS: brand new box, potentially new/better design
    • CONS: more than we really want to pay, still going to be loud
  • For $35, we could “fix” the most likely x-clamp issue.
    • PROS: cheap
    • CONS: still loud, possible to have similar issues down the road
  • For $60, we could “fix” the x-clamp and upgrade the heatsink or fan
    • PROS: still pretty cheap, potential for a “quieter” Xbox
    • CONS: difficult to decide between heatsink or fan upgrade
  • For $90, we could “fix” the x-clamp and upgrade both heatsink and fan
    • PROS: potential for a “quieter” Xbox, more hopeful long-term fix
    • CONS: price getting up there, no guarantees

I also considered sending my Xbox 360 off to one of many vendors who will repair the unit for you.  It does cost more, but they typically offer a short warranty on their work.  Ultimately, I was less enthused about the added cost.

As you can see from the options I’ve listed, my primary concerns were: price, reliability (over time), and noise.  Pretty much in that order.  Eventually, I decided that $90 wasn’t too much to spend, and I liked the potential for long term reliability and reduced noise.  I jumped on that option.

ORDERING THE PARTS

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My vendor of choice was Llamma’s.  They not only had decent prices on the parts I needed, but also had some great repair write-ups for me to follow. 

I ordered up the following items…

The parts arrived a few days early, which was nice, so my son and I dug right in.  The Llamma’s RRoD Fix-It Tutorial gives a nice step-by-step write-up, complete with pictures.  While this “fix” isn’t difficult, per se, it does require some bravery on your part. 

First of all, this will void your warranty, if you still have one.  If your Xbox 360 is still under warranty, then by all means have Microsoft repair it for you.  Might as well.  Otherwise, a RRoD Xbox 360 isn’t going to get a whole lot worse by you cracking it open and attempting a repair – assuming that you’re mindful of the task at hand.  Having built and re-built hundreds of PCs over the years, I was fairly comfortable with the task.  Fairly comfortable.

Secondly, there is some “modding” required for the x-clamp fix.  The deal is this: Microsoft uses tension-based x-clamps to keep the heatsinks pressed tightly against the CPU and GPU, respectively.  Those clamps can loosen over time, thus the cooling degrades.  The x-clamp fix involves removing the x-clamps themselves, boring out (8) holes, a using a series of screws and washers to reattach the heatsinks.  Still feeling brave?  Then continue on.

Lastly, you’re probably best off having someone help you with this process – if only for the second pair of eyes.  Some steps are slightly tricky, especially the first time through.  Having someone help you is a good safe-guard against doing stupid things.

PERFORMING THE “FIX”

So, I was somewhat surprised to find that opening the Xbox 360 is actually one of the more complicated portions of this process.  Thankfully, Llamma’s provided both a very handy tool for the job (included with the All-in-One Kit) *and* a good write-up to help me along.

Once the case is off, you wind up with a metal plate that the motherboard is attached to.  You carefully pry off the x-clamps, remove the heatsinks, and prepare for the “fixing” process.

Much to my surprise, I found that I already had the Elite-type GPU heatsink w/ heatpipe in our refurb unit.  As it turns out, Microsoft began adding the heatpipe upgrade to their systems in mid-2007.  If I’d known that, I could’ve saved myself some money + shipping costs.  Oh, well.  Llamma’s was kind enough to take it back and credit me.

Perhaps the most unnerving part of the process is “boring” out the holes where the heatsink attaches to the metal chassis.  There are (8) holes total – (4) per heatsink – and the x-clamp fix requires making those holes slightly larger.  It sounds quite daunting, but is really fairly easy.  Grab a 13/64” drill bit and “bore” the holes out to be slightly larger.  It takes about 15 seconds per hole.  Then, sand the holes down so that there are no rough edges.  Easy.

With the provided cleaning solutions, remove all of the thermal compound from the CPU, GPU, and corresponding heatsinks.  It’s not difficult, but requires some persistence and patience.  Once those are clean, prepare to reassemble your Xbox 360.

REASSEMBLY AND “REFLOW”

As they say, “putting it back together is a reverse of the removal”.  In this case, though, you are first spreading a very thin layer of thermal grease, and then attaching the heatsinks to the CPU and GPU with the All-in-One Kit-provided screws and washers.  Assuming that you tighten the screws down evenly, you can really torque them down as tight as you’re able.  It will get very, very snug – and that’s a good thing.

With that done, you begin to carefully reassemble your Xbox 360.  Pay attention to where things go, and be sure not to jab anything with a screwdriver.  Before putting the box fully together again, however, you perform what they call a “reflow”.  Without re-writing the directions entirely, you will plug the fan back in and place it directly on top of the CPU heatsink – cool air blowing downward toward the CPU.  Turn the box back on and allow it to run for 30 or 40 minutes.  With the fan placed like that, you are cooling the CPU but not the GPU.  This is the aforementioned “reflow”, which is very important.  If you get a RRoD right away, don’t panic.  Simply torque the heatsink screws down a bit more and try again.  In our case, the X360 came right up first shot and was working fine.  Still, we let it “reflow” for about 45 minutes before putting it all back together.

With that completed, you’re ready to truly reassemble your Xbox 360 and put it back to work.  The last “fix”, if you will, is to swap the stock fan for the Whisper Max unit.  In our case, I opted to remove all of the silly LEDs that come with the replacement fan.  Your choice. 

The Whisper Max directions are really pretty poor, but it helps if you have the “general idea” figured out beforehand.  Since this fan features both “power” and “quiet” fan modes, it requires two power sources and a switch to toggle between them.  This means daisy-chaining the DVD power source (for 12v) and going direct to the motherboard (for 5v).  The switch is sandwiched between the case housing and the center of one of the fans.  It can be a bit tricky, so just pay attention.  I removed the cap off of the switch, and glued it on after the entire box was reassembled.  Also, be mindful of where your fan wires are routed.  Keep them out of the way of the fan, and off to the side.

With all of that completed, finished reassembling your Xbox 360 – being careful to put everything back where it goes.  Reattach the faceplate, harddrive, and any other external peripherals you have.  Glue the switch cap on with a very small dot of super glue, being careful not to glue the switch into place. 🙂

So, the actual total cost came to $55 + shipping.  Nice.

THE VERDICT?

We’ve been very happy with our RRoD fix so far.  Not only is our Xbox 360 up and running once again, we’ve only seen one “freeze” over the past couple of weeks – even after assaulting it with hours of online Halo 3 multi-player action!  Even better, the “quiet” mode of the Whisper Max fan is extremely useable.  I’ve since moved our X360 out of the TV cabinet for better airflow, but using the “quiet” fan mode, we’re totally able to stream Netflix without the typical ‘noise annoyance’ that we used to face.  In the “loud” fan mode, I would venture a guess that the Whisper Max is slightly louder than the stock fan, but is clearly pushing more air.  We use that mode for gaming, where the volume is already pretty cranked.Note: this is not me.

All in all, our Xbox 360 has a new lease on life, and I couldn’t be happier.  Well… I guess I could.  It would’ve been nice if the Xbox 360 never had the RRoD issue and didn’t sound like a jetliner, but such is life.  I actually find the Xbox platform to be extraordinarily robust and easy-to-use, save for the overheating issues.   There’s a reason why so many people return to the Xbox 360 even after a unit failure.  It’s a pretty wonderful platform, all things considered.

So, if you find yourself in the same predicament, I would highly recommend the All-in-one RRoD Fix kit from Llamma’s, as well as the heatpipe (if needed) and Whisper Max fan upgrades.  Good stuff, and our box is humming along quite nicely 🙂