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The Best Method for Gaming with SSDs Safely

I recently built a new rig. It was time and I hadn’t ever treated myself to “modern” hardware. I assembled as many SSDs as I could scavenge from the numerous attempts to upgrade underpowered and ancient laptops laying around the house, all of them upgraded that year and then promptly abandoned. After configuring 4 120GB SSDs into a RAID0 and discovering that, not surprisingly, Samsung Magician, the software used to monitor and troubleshoot these amazing drives, does not recognize them in RAID. This isn’t generally a problem until the first time you decide to patch a drive with a new firmware release promising higher IO or increased longevity, then it’s a tragedy as you discover that you’re going to need to break apart the RAID to patch each drive individually, and to do this, you’ll need to wipe each drive and format it to be readable in Windows in order to run the patching utility, or Samsung Magician. Yikes! I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. You may have other needs.

Cooler Master Haf XB Evo chassis.

Cooler Master Haf XB Evo chassis.

Here is my humble recommendation for OS and drive configuration in order to ensure future happiness for your gaming rig:

1. Buy an OEM or system builder version of Windows. At the time of this writing, Windows 7 Home Premium OEM 64bit is still a viable operating system. I’ve seen many forum posts by folks concerned about RAM limitations with Windows Home. They’re likely referring to Home Basic. As the title would suggest, it’s Basic. Don’t buy this version. I don’t even know if they make a builder’s version of Basic. Either way, Basic in 64bit will utilize 8GB or RAM. Per Microsoft, Home Premium 64bit utilizes 16GB of RAM. If you need more than 16GB, you’re not building a gaming rig, you’re folding proteins and saving us all from cancer or mining for Bitcoins and devaluing the American dollar. Splurge on the >$100 OS.

NOTE: You can only activate Windows 7 OEM twice but don’t less this deter you. My configuration ensures this is a non-issue for your currently-configured system. Obviously, if you change the motherboard, your system is going to require activation again, which will count against your 2 attempts.

2. Use a mechanical hard drive when you first assemble your computer. Do your entire OS installation and configuration using the mechanical drive and do not install any SSDs. Install any software that you consider a major part of your system, like Steam, Origin, Nvidia driver software or a fan controller or benchmarking software. Do not install software that you use once and then wish you were without, like iPhone transfer wizards and desktop randomizers. Don’t install anti-virus or anti-malware software or office suites either. This software is problematic at best. Run updates for the OS and all of your applications but don’t install any games yet. DO NOT activate Windows yet. You have 30 days. Use them to ensure your configuration is working correctly. If you continually get BSODs or install malware, you can always rebuild. 30 days is plenty of time to make these mistakes; that’s why they give them to you.

3. If you’re using a Samsung SSD, install Samsung Migration Assistant, shutdown the computer, install the SSD on any available SATA and reboot. Run the assistant and it will make a bootable copy of your C: partition. Shutdown, unplug your mechanical drive but leave it in it’s installed bay and reboot. If you’re using a different drive or manufacturer which doesn’t provide migration software, use Clonezilla to create a bootable USB thumb drive which you will use to image the mechanical drive onto the SSD. Please note that this method is not foolproof and you may instead want to create a bootable USB thumb drive of GParted to clone your C: partition. If you’re concerned about this procedure, I strongly recommend the Samsung Evo 840 or 850. Note that the Migration Assistant will not copy the recovery partition to the SSD. This isn’t something to be concerned about because we will always have the mechanical drive available.

4. Install additional SSDs. I recommend using smaller drives because they’re cheaper and drive failure will result in less loss, yielding easier data recovery. For my build, I have 4 120GB drives. Mount your drives and boot into Windows. These will be used to store game installations so label each drive according to the game management software associated with that drive. Examples are “Steam1” or “GameDrive1,” etc. Go to Steam > Settings > Downloads and click on “Steam Library Folders” under Content Libraries at the top and you will be presented with a window to add Steam Libraries. Create a folder on each additional disk and name it something obvious, like “Steam” or “Steam Library,” then add it to this window. From now on, when installing a game with Steam, you will be presented with a selection window to select your installation directory.

Steam Libraries

For Origin, go to Origin > Application Settings > Advanced and click on “Change…” under “Downloaded Games.” Origin does not currently permit multiple libraries but you can dedicate an entire disk to the software. I recommend this over installing games on the same disk as Windows.

Origin

5. If you would like to keep backups of your games, install a large mechanical hard drive. If not, I hope you installed all of your games from DVDs or have a dedicated T3 to your house. To backup installations on Steam, go to Steam > Backup and Restore Games and select next. I suggest backing up each game individually so they’re easier to handle and restore. Select a game and click next, then browse to the large mechanical drive and watch your backup fly. You’ll use the same method to restore your game should you lose a drive or uninstall a game to create more space.Steam Backup

Securing Your Household Wifi

The majority of electronic devices today are wireless capable and, not surprisingly, toasters and thermostats have also joined the herd of cell phones and iPads in demanding their daily bandwidth IV drip. As wireless traffic increases, so does the frequency of your encrypted handshake protocols, which is what modern cracking software relies on. This is the method I utilize ever since I was hacked that might sound paranoid to someone who wasn’t hacked.

Consider buying an additional router to use as your dedicated wireless device, then disable the wireless radio on your primary router. An N-capable router will go for as little as $20 new or refurbished so cost is not an excuse. I would recommend a router capable of running a 3rd-party firmware such as DD-WRT or Open-Wrt because the feature sets make the next steps very easy. Check DD-WRT’s router database to see if your router is supported. As with all open-source projects, if you care to contribute money or time to the DD-WRT team for making this possible, we would greatly appreciate that!

I will outline two methodologies: one for a DD-WRT router, the other for any router. But first, do the following in either case:

1. Setup your dedicated wireless router using WPA2-personal and pick a complex password. Not a word, not several words, but some random letters, numbers, and characters, and write it down somewhere. Length is the key here. I would suggest 20 characters. Hackers can’t hack paper.

2. Use MAC filtering to ensure only your devices are allowed to connect. Every network-capable device has a unique ID called the Media Access Control address. It is a 6-part hexadecimal code in a “XX:XX:XX:XX:XX:XX” pattern. You can usually find a device’s MAC address in it’s ‘settings,’ ‘device info,’ or ‘about’ tab or section.

3. Disable SSID broadcasting. This removes your wireless connection’s name from the airspace and fools the novice hacker from honing in on your connection.

4. Limit your DHCP connections to as few as possible. If you own 10 devices, set the range to 10. This extra level of security is a mild nuisance for some, but it doesn’t make sense to allow 50 devices wireless access if you don’t have that many, does it?

At this point, if you aren’t using a DD-WRT supported router, you can disable your household’s wireless by turning off your wireless router. I would recommend using a power outlet wires to a switch, or putting a switch in-line with the power transformer. You could also just pull the plug out of the back. When you leave, or when you sleep at night, disabling your wireless ensures none of your devices are needlessly providing more opportunities for eavesdroppers. Keep in mind that this may wear out your router prematurely, which is why I recommend the DD-WRT way.

If you have selected a DD-WRT supported router, a large feature set awaits you. If your router has an SES/AOSS/EZ-SETUP button on it, usually marketed as the easy way to connect new devices to your router, we can reprogram that button to enable/disable the wireless radio. Icons on the box or the device will illustrate this option to you.

ImageWhenever you leave the house or go to sleep, you need only push a button and the your devices go dark. Push it again in the morning for instant wifi.

DD-WRT also provides real-time graphs of internet traffic and a list of all of the devices connected and who is using what. This opens up some real possibilities in determining noisy devices, and exactly how much bandwidth you consumed when you decided to stream the first season of BSG on Netflix for three days straight.

You could also tell DD-WRT to enable and disable the wireless radio via a timetable, detailing specific hours of days for on and off. This is a useful if your schedule is rigid and you know you only use your connection, say, weekday morning/afternoons and weekends.

If you’re clever, you could configure DD-WRT to allow you to toggle the wireless radio remotely via an SSH script as well.

NOTE: If you rely on any of your wireless devices to run updates or backups at night, I would suggest a wired alternative or simply leaving the connection on at night. The choice is yours.

NOTE for GAMERS: I would suggest positioning your rig close enough to your primary router that you can hard wire it for the best ping rates and response times. I only recommend using wireless connections for devices that don’t have an ethernet port or don’t partake in time-sensitive exchanges.

RAID0 and Short-Stroking vs. standard Hard Drive Setup

I had some surprising results with this test. Let me start by saying that this wasn’t a scientifically rigorous test because there were far too many variables, but the results were still surprising.

I compared a Windows 7 installation on a single Western Digital WD1001FALS 7200 RPM 32MB cache 3.0 Gb/s max 1TB drive ( which WD has replaced with a faster model that I don’t yet own) to a Windows Vista SP2 installation on a hardware RAID 0 (striped) set of WD 160GB 7200 drives manufactured in 2005 and pulled out of some old iMac G5s. SiSoft reported these drives as running at 5400RPM, which would make these results more shocking. To reduce the distance the hard drive’s head has to move to transfer data, which is what makes magnetic storage media so slow, I created a 100GB partition out of the 320 available. That partition sits on the outermost edge of the drive platter, keeping the head ‘stroke’ distance very short. SiSoftware’s SANDRA 2014 reported this for each :
Windows 7 on single drive : 46.6IOPS, 44MB/s
Windows Vista on RAID 0 short-stroked drives : 242IOPS, 96.6MB/s

This has proven for me that downloading every game I own on Steam and Origin and storing them on a massive drive is making my powerful hardware a waste of money.

Windows 7 ReadyBoost Problems with SanDisk Fit

For those of us who aren’t too keen on the price differential of solid state drives (at the time of this writing, a 1TB 7200 RPM Western Digital hard drive costs $100, whereas Samsung’s 1TB SSD costs $770), Microsoft developed ReadyBoost, a way to create an off-disk cache for quicker access to frequently-accessed files. Windows 7 even boasts the ability to determine the quality of any thumb drive it detects, promising it won’t use the drive if it doesn’t meet the 2.5MB/s random read/1.75MB/s random write speed. Apparently, other factors will affect performance significantly.

I used to use a SanDisk Cruzer 16GB drive and saw a small improvement in runtime while gaming, but a slightly longer load time while the files were being written to the drive.

sandisk-cruzer-8gb

But this drive is long and leaving it sticking out of my desktop is a recipe for a broken USB port, so I figured I’d pick up one of these fancy low-profile drives.

Don’t do this.

269902-sandisk-cruzer-fitWhile this drive is great for extremely portable and low-profile storage, it gave me serious fits under ReadyBoost, causing significant delays in load times while gaming, including freezing and render degradation. I can tolerate a lot of lag, so when I complain about it, we’re talking more than 30 seconds, not skips. Additionally, I couldn’t boot into Windows or Linux with the Fit in a USB port during boot. I have two separate Fit drives of different sizes, one for ReadyBoost and one for backup storage, and the boot issues occurred regardless of the which drive was attached.This doesn’t happen with any of my other flash drives, regardless of the partition scheme, manufacturer or data on them.

I used the software SanDisk provided to remove the bloatware that was U3 from the Cruzer, but to my knowledge, there is no software to remove the software that comes with the Fit. Although that likely has nothing to do with the boot issues, I can’t rule it out either.

If you’re thinking of using a flash drive to improve your system’s performance, check this for read/write speeds and do some research.

Portable Voltage Regulator

This entire project was made from recycled materials, so nothing new was purchased to create it. I just looked through the random ICs I had and built a circuit around one of them.  This uses a voltage regulating transistor and a pair of resistors (circuit diagram is sharpied onto the inside of the tin) that control the output voltage down to the thousandth of a volt. The formula for the ratio of the two resistances is also scrawled onto the bottom left of the tin, but I have to admit I didn’t use it because it was easier just to balance out the resistors with a jeweler’s screwdriver and then test the resistances with a multimeter. Lazy, I know, but I’m not a mathematician.
The output maximum is roughly 1 volt lower than the maximum input, so 8 volt max out for 9v in, and the minimum is in the micro-volt range.
Tested and works great at recharging a cellphone, just don’t adjust the voltages “while” you’re charging a device because there isn’t currently a way to tell that the voltage is too high and it will send a voltage surge through the USB that your device may not be protected against. Also be aware that some devices are power hogs and will require more amperage than a 9 volt battery can produce through the LM317T.

Future improvements:  clean up wire traces on back of circuit board, add a switch, and add ability to use multiple power sources (option to use AA or 9v, for example).

The last photograph is of a separate project where I essentially “cheated” by disassembling a USB car adapter/charger and attached the power input to a 9v battery and the output to a USB port. The form factor is much smaller and it was designed by someone who just does this all day, so I trust it. Just be mindful that the amperage will be lower than you might desire, so if you decide to take apart a car adapter, choose one with a high amperage rating.

-Brandon

Add a USB port to your WRT54Gv4

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Chip designer have to think broadly if they want their product to be profitable. Often, they include features in their chips that aren’t implemented in a final product because they’re cost prohibitive or aren’t necessary. So when Linksys was forced to publish their API because they used software that was part of the GPL, that gave hackers full access to all the hardware in their products. Software like dd-wrt, OpenWrt, and others, added new features to the routers by replacing the proprietary and inaccessible firmware (the operating system running on the router) with open-source firmware.

A wonderful walk-through that is almost a perfect analog for this post is Void Main’s wiki article on USB modding a WRT54Gv3.

After installing dd-wrt on my router and confirming that it’s chipset ( Broadcom BCM5352) has an on-board USB 2.0 controller, I loosely followed this article to break out a single USB port (I felt two wasn’t necessary for a git server). USB is driven by a clean 5V DC power source, and the router is driven by a 12v DC ~1A power supply, so I built a circuit around a 7805 5V regulator that I pulled out of a stereo, some filtering capacitors and resistors to comply with the USB standard, and tapped the USB hub on the BCM5352 for the USB + and – channels. After that, I followed this walk-through to setup git on the router and ensure the files were kept on a thumb drive and not in local memory (which is 16MB and nowhere near large enough for file sharing).

Unfortunately, this project was done with time constraints because it did need to be implemented same-day to host files, so the photo documentation was sparse and is not exactly linear. Please post any questions you have and I’ll do my best to answer them.

There are hints on this process all over the place :

7805 USB power circuit

Evidence of a USB controller

Linksys WRT54Gv2 USB mod

Spoof MAC Address from Boot using launchd

You can never be too safe. Once upon a time, the lovely people at Apple let you change your MAC address right from the System Preferences. Alas, gone are those days. But I’ve got a better solution for you, and it involves plists.

Firstly, create a Bash script to do the spoofing and place it in a directory you don’t randomly eradicate. I would suggest root. In Terminal type:
cd / && sudo vim .macspoof.sh

Once inside vim, type i to begin “inserting” text. Enter the following text and be certain to follow this formatting exactly:
ifconfig en0 lladdr 00:00:00:00:00:00
ifconfig en1 lladdr 00:00:00:00:00:01

You should choose a MAC address that isn’t as obvious as a series of 0’s. Add 1 to the wireless MAC to simulate a probable setup.

Then hit the escape key to leave “insert” mode, type :wq and hit enter. That will “write” the file and “quit.”

Set the permissions of the script for root access only:
sudo chown -R root:admin .macspoof.sh

Now make the script executable:
sudo chmod u=rwx .macspoof.sh

Now we’ll need to create a .plist file for launchd to handle. Do the following:
cd /Library/LaunchDaemon && sudo vim com.superuser.macspoof.plist

Inside of vim, you can either type or paste the following code:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd">
<plist version="1.0">
<dict>
<key>Label</key>
<string>com.superuser.macspoof</string>
<key>ProgramArguments</key>
<array>
<string>/.macspoof.sh</string>
</array>
<key>UserName</key>
<string>root</string>
<key>GroupName</key>
<string>wheel</string>
<key>RunAtLoad</key>
<true></true>
<key>Debug</key>
<true></true>
</dict>
</plist>

“Write” and “quit” the file, then change it’s permissions:
sudo chown -R root:wheel com.superuser.macspoof.plist

Next, we’ll load the plist into launchd:
sudo launchctl load com.superuser.macspoof.plist

Confirm that the plist loaded:
sudo launchctl list | grep macspoof
If the plist name appears, it’s installed.

Reboot your machine and check your MAC address:
ifconfig | grep ether

To remove the .plist, type the following:
sudo launchctl unload -w /Library/LaunchDaemon/com.superuser.macspoof.plist

If you’re familiar with these commands, you know you’ve just created a way to run any Bash script as root from boot. This is both incredibly powerful and extremely dangerous.

The recycled mousepad.

A few months ago I decided that if I was going to get the most out of the Logitech G500 that I bought for far too many dollars, I was probably going to need to relinquish many more dollars. I ventured out to an arts and crafts shop and picked up some cork roll to cover my, at the time, useless glass table in an effort to free my cursor from it’s 8 by 10 inch prison. The cork proved to be a poor investment, tearing easily and providing uneven traction for the mouse, causing it to snag occasionally on the cork’s natural impurities.

But this article is not about the cork-covered table.

I recently picked up a 30 year old Apple OneScanner flatbed scanner from a relative wishing to dispose of it. While their intention was for me to use it, as their intentions always are, in practical terms the camera in my phone is capable of greater resolution and clarity in a dark room than this scanner is in optimal conditions. Still, I recognized some potential at least for the pane of glass, which makes a great writing surface for wax pencils or dry-erase markers. After pulling off the lid and setting it aside, I placed my hand on it’s surface for a moment and realized that the thick piece of laminated plastic was suspended by a generous depth of foam, creating a comfortable deflection around my palm without causing the nearby surface to crease or warp. It was also a smooth and consistent white plane that I was certain would support a laser without much beam wandering.

I placed it on my desk upside down, attached two gel inserts that I salvaged from the trash at our local bike shop to the side closest to my inner forearm and put it immediately to work. It works fantastically, with the addition that it also has a very large surface area, approximately 10 by 14 inches.

Apple OneScanner cover as a mousepad

Installing Apple OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard on Thumbdrive

Elements tested:
– 2.4GHz mid 2007 Macbook Pro 15″ (model #1226) running OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.3
– 32GB Corsair Survivor GTR USB Thumbdrive formatted Mac OS Extended Journaling

Goal: To create a portable Macintosh OS environment.

Conditions: Installed by booting using the Operating System disc.

Results: Inconclusive; ultimately impractical.

Reason for Result: A normal installation with this hardware takes approximately 35 minutes to complete, however installation to the thumbdrive took over 3 hours, the last of which was spent idling at the 1 minute left mark.

Reason for Attempt: The Survivor thumbdrive provided the best read/write speeds available on the market for USB 2.0 drives (34MBs read/28MBs write), giving the drive the best possible chance of competing with an external drive (like the Seagate FreeAgent Go 500GB, with speeds around 30.6MBs read 20MBs write).

Possible Solutions: Enable user permission and extract critical information from the installation CD ahead of time using this walkthrough.

Booting a Macintosh from a USB Thumbdrive

Elements tested:
– 2.4GHz mid 2007 Macbook Pro 15″ (model #1226) running OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.3
– 32GB Corsair Survivor GTR USB Thumbdrive running “The Ultimate Bootable Flashdrive Tool.”
rEFIt boot manager installed from a mac disk image.

Goal: To boot from the Corsair thumbdrive.

Results: Unable to boot from Corsair thumbdrive.

Reason for Result: The rEFIt website clearly states that the Apple firmware has poor support for booting from external devices under their troubleshooting section.

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