Dell X200 Keyboard Replacement

Well, the old Dell X200's keyboard gave up the ghost. Not entirely, but the good old backspace key stopped working, and it's really hard to use a keyboard without a backspace key.

Happily, it was easy to fix, as follows:
  1. Buy a replacement keyboard (I bought my "like new" replacement keyboard through eBay for about $20)
  2. Remove the battery
  3. Unscrew the six screws from the bottom of the Dell marked with a (K)
  4. Lever out the old keyboard from the bottom left. There is a little latch there.
  5. Before fully removing the keyboard, un-snap the ZIF ribbon connector
  6. Remove the keyboard completely
  7. Slide the new keyboard into place
  8. Push the keyboard cable into the ZIF connector; lock the ZIF connector
  9. Screw the keyboard back in place with the six screws
  10. Reinstall the battery
The end result? My 8 year old Dell X200 laptop is still running strong! It'd be awesome to get 3 more years out of it. Its only real limitation is it's limited RAM.


MacBook Keyboard & Trackpad Replacement Fix

My MacBook keyboard and trackpad has worn out to the point where it was hard to use. The trackpad and its button was behaving poorly, and the keys were less than perfect. Furthermore, the "palm rest" was stained and developed a crack.

Figure 1: The Yukky old keyboard/trackpad. Cracked, stained, and worn out.

But excitingly, there is a simple fix! I've replaced the keyboard and trackpad with new ones - and it was easy to do and inexpensive! It was the best thing I've done to my MacBook ever. This article covers what I did.

Figure 2: My clean new keyboard & trackpad! Awesome!

Background: The MacBook Top Case design

The MacBook keyboard and trackpad are integrated into a single part called the "MacBook Top Case". Due to the MacBook's design, you just can't replace the keyboard or the trackpad - you have to replace the entire "Top Case".

That sounds bad, but it really isn't, because the "Top Case" part is relatively inexpensive and readily available.

MacBook Top Case Variations

There are a few different Top Case variations. First, there is the choice of "Black" or "White". Either will do, but some people might have a cosmetic reasons for choosing black versus white. White top cases are generally less expensive, and I have a white MacBook, so I decided to go with white.

The other variation is the keyboard layout. My 2008-vintage MacBook had the "Volume Up" key on F12. Other vintages have the Volume Up on F5. And, of course, there are international keyboards.

Given price and availability, I decided to replace my "F12" MacBook keyboard with an "F5" version. Yes, some of the function keys have moved on me, but the different keyboard works 100% perfectly. (F5 is now my Volume-Up button, and I gained a numlock button on F6 to boot).

My procedure for installing a new MacBook Trackpad
  1. I bought a MacBook Top Case. I bought the one through Amazon, here: Apple MacBook Top Case
  2. Inspect the new purchase. Does it look like the right part? Be careful! The back is stamped aluminum and can be sharp!
  3. Following these instructions to the point of fully removing the top case.
  4. Compare the backside of both the old and new top case. Make sure the aluminum flanges on the new case are all straight. If they aren't, you'll have a hard time getting the new case to fit. (See Figure 3, below)
  5. Plug the keyboard cable into its socket on the main board.
  6. Slowly and carefully put the new top case into place. Don't force anything; You can get it all back perfectly if you are patient and careful. All the little flanges have a home; make sure they're going into them. Forcing things will just bend the flanges.
  7. Reverse the disassembly instructions. All those little screws fit into or through the flanges and sockets and posts in the top case. Don't force anything and do not over-tighten any screws! When you're done, it should look beautiful and perfect! Again, take your time!

Figure 3: These little holed sheet metal flanges should be straight! There are nine of them: six threaded along the perimeter, three unthreaded in the center.

FIgure 4: The backside of the top case.

When I was all done, my MacBook looked and worked like new! I can no longer justify buying a MacBook Air, but I know I can get several more years out of this lovely MacBook!

Good luck!


Great gifts for the iPhone 4

You've made a great decision to buy an iPhone 4. It has become the love of your life, and now you want to buy it gifts. What should you buy? Here are the things that I bought - and love.

1. Grantwood FM transmitter with integrated car charger.

If you have a car, this is one of the best gifts you can buy for your iPhone 4: The awesome iPhone 4 compatible Grantwood FM transmitter that has a built-in car charger. So you can listen to Pandora and listen to GPS directions all through your car's FM stereo... and keep it charged while you're at it. And it works exclusively through the dock connector, so there is no fooling around with extra cables or fiddling with the volume control. It works great for me, and is a solid bargain. I know - I bought one and I love it. I use it almost every time I drive.

2. Spare Charger and cable.

Spare aftermarket chargers are standards-based and inexpensive. And so I keep a spare charger at work so I can always plug in. And I keep one in my travel bag. And I bought a few spare iPhone USB cables too... for computer syncing, or in case I lose or damage one.

3. Top-Notch Bluetooth headset: The BlueAnt T.

I bought a BlueAnt T1 about two days after it was released. I loved (and lost) my BlueAnt Z9i; the T1 is even MORE awesome. Not only is the T1 great for talking on the phone, you can also pump music or podcasts through it.

And the noise cancellation is perfect for me ... I know. I own a convertible car. The only problem with these bluetooth headsets is that they're way too easy to misplace. I wish they had a homing beacon on them.

4. A case, of course, but for the style.

Everyone already owns an iPhone 4 case, right? They can provide excellent iPhone protection. Well, friends, one case isn't enough, because they're cheap enough that you can also buy them for style alone!

iPhone 4 cases are so cheap at Amazon, there isn't really a reason not to buy several. They can show others who you are - from the whimsical to the political, or even the bizarre. And they are so inexpensive that you can buy two (or maybe even five) at the same price as one at a retail store.

Anything else?
And that's my list! Any other ideas? Feel free to comment!


Fix a bad MacBook trackpad

The Problem: A Poorly-Behaving Trackpad Button

MacBook trackpads buttons are going bad. Happily, there is a quick and technically-simple fix that may work for many MacBook owners with a misbehaving trackpad.

A few months ago I started to notice that my trackpad was operating in a funky manner. The trackpad button had lost its solid click and turned mushy. As I typed the trackpad button would mistakenly register clicks, and the cursor would jump all over the place; The cursor would jump around and my words would end up jumbled. Or a button press wouldn't register at all, and I'd end up trying to smash down of the button with no response. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had with a keyboard and mouse.

I tried every technique I could find on the web to try to fix my bad trackpad button – from sliding paper through the gap around button, to MacBook disassembly and vacuuming everything. Nothing made it better. My MacBook was fairly unusable, and getting worse.

After endless frustration, I prematurely started shopping for a replacement trackpad. If you need a new trackpad (or keyboard, for that matter), you need a new “MacBook top case” which includes both the trackpad and the keyboard. Happily, a top case can be purchased through Amazon for less than $100. But replacing the trackpad wasn't actually necessary! Read on...

Given that my Macbook was a bit useless, I decided to get an early start in disassembly. One of the first steps of disassembling a MacBook is to remove the battery. And almost immediately I discovered the real fix for the mushy MacBook trackpad button. Because immediately after I removed the battery, I noticed that the button’s action was much more normal.

I put the battery on a very flat surface and noticed that there was a slight but definite bulge in the top and bottom surfaces of the battery. The battery would slightly rock on a flat surface - proof of a bulge.
The Culprit: a very-slightly swollen battery pack

I decided to fire up the MacBook without the battery (careful with that MagSafe!)– and what do you know, all my mouse button issues were gone. The “solid click” returned and the bizarre mushy mouse behavior disappeared. In fact, I wrote most of this posting on my batteryless MacBook. And I didn’t have ONE weird trackpad-related behavior.

Then I compared my battery to a friend's MacBook battery. Her battery was as flat as could be. I stuck it in my MacBook. My trackpad button was resolved.

My permanent solution was to simply buy a replacement MacBook battery. And since then my trackpad has been perfect.


Mac Mini is a bargain.

Recently, I was asked by a good friend to help her buy a new Windows Desktop PC.

I recommended that she buy a PC with something other then a near-obsolete processor - meaning a machine with an Intel Core2Duo or better, as I believe that a computer with a decent processor will have a good chance of not becoming obsolete as soon. Atom, Pentium, and Celeron are too close to being obsolete.

And I also recommended that she get a machine with Windows 7 instead of the now-deprecated Windows Vista.

And after I described what makes a decent desktop PC, I started to shop for one. And that's when I discovered that the Mac Mini is a bargain.

A bargain mid-ranged desktop computer

I went to the popular brand web sites: Dell, Compaq, HP, Gateway, ACER, etc. And I found that a machine of this class generally starts around $500+. And that for $500, you don't get wireless, bluetooth, or sometimes even speakers. WTF???

In contrast, the base model $599 Mac Mini is very well specified - it has a great processor and video card. It has Wifi, Bluetooth, TOSLink, DVI and DisplayPort. And it is compact, quiet and energy efficient, making it a great desktop machine.

My friend was still bent on getting a Windows PC, so I didn't fight her. But in short, the Mac Mini is simply less expensive to buy and own than a decent Windows PC.


Trendnet TEW-652BRP and DD-WRT Success!

I recently visited my dad while on a business trip when I coincidentally discovered that DD-WRT is now available for his TEW-652. The TEW-652BRP has been a great router for my father, but it isn't what I'd call "feature rich". An upgrade to DD-WRT is a big bonus.

I live 2500 miles away from my non-technical father, and so a well-specified router that helps me manage his network remotely is important to both of us.

This article will explain what I did to finally get DD-WRT working on my TEW-652BRP v1.0R.

About the TEW-652brp

It's a nice looking little black 802.11n, 2.5 GHz router. It was amazingly inexpensive (usually way under $30), and the TEW-652brp is available through Amazon. Mine is a version 1.0R, you'll likely want the same version. Out of the box, it works quite well - it has been stable, and I was fairly happy with the stock firmware. But it was short on features - I like having VPN, SSH, and flexible DHCP services on the home networks I support. The stock firmware on the TEW-652BRP wasn't so good at that stuff.

An upgrade to DD-WRT gives me all these advanced features and much more. According to the label on the back of my TEW-652BRP, I have hardware version V1.0R.

Plan A: An easy upgrade to DD-WRT.

The on-line literature suggested that I might be able to simply install the DD-WRT firmware using the Trendnet's built-in firmware utility.

I downloaded the "factory to DD-WRT" .bin file for the TEW-652BRP, found here. Then I logged into the router via and navigated to the router's firmware update page. From there, I tried to upgrade the device using the "factory to DD-WRT" .bin file.

The firmware upgrade failed - the Trendnet firmware reported an error. Happily, no destructive action was taken by the firmware updater - the router was not bricked.

I initially believed that the upgrade utility didn't like the signature of the firmware file found on the DD-WRT website.

Plan B - Recovery Mode firmware utility.

So went to "Plan B": I'd upgrade the router's firmware using the recovery mode.

I set a static address of on my PC. Then I powered up the router while holding down the reset button. I held the reset button down until the "status" LED started to blink.

Then I plugged into Ethernet and went to with Firefox. Ta-da! A firmware update page came up.

Trendnet Firmware Recovery Page

I then attempted to upload the DD-WRT .bin file. Crap, same thing - invalid firmware file. Even the recovery mode wasn't willing to install a renegade firmware file.

Plan C - The solution

After two failures taking several hours, I decided to get a little more serious. I went to the Trendnet web site and downloaded their latest firmware, seen here. Then I got out the trusty hex editor and looked at the end of the file. The signature at the end was

... aka ...
41 50 38 31 2D 41 52 39 31 33 30 2D 52 54 2D 30 38 30 36 30 39 2D 30 35

I then looked at the DD-WRT firmware's signature at the end of its .bin file, and, sadly, it was identical. So it didn't seem like my installation problem was a simple "file signature" issue, but maybe a checksum or some other algorithmic issue within the Trendnet firmware.

So I decided to try to run around the apparent checksum issue by avoiding the Trendnet software altogether. Which worked.

The story I read on the web was that the D-Link 615 rev. C is the same hardware device as the '652, but with different (and better) firmware. I decided to try to install the D-Link firmware onto the router, and then install the DD-WRT firmware onto the "D-Linkified" Trendnet.

The short story is that this strategy worked like a charm. But it did require some hex editing. Here are the details.

(1) Download the D-Link 615 rev C firmware. I used an old version, Version 3.00.

(2) Use a hex editor to replace the D-Link signature string at the very end of the .bin file.

(aka: 41 50 38 31 2D 41 52 39 31 33 30 2D 52 54 2D 30 37 30 36 31 34 2D 30 32)

... became ...

(aka: 41 50 38 31 2D 41 52 39 31 33 30 2D 52 54 2D 30 38 30 36 30 39 2D 30 35)

(3) Using Trendnet's stock firmware, install the newly modified "DLink" .bin file.

(4) Wait patiently for the upgrade to complete

(5) Tada! The D-Link firmware login page appears! Yay!

From there, I performed a similar procedure with the DLink firmware update page:

(1) Download the DD-WRT firmware from the FTP site. I used the "factory to dd-wrt" firmware for the Trendnet, found here.

(2) Use a hex editor to replace the Trendnet signature string at the end of the .bin file with a signature that the D-Link firmware accepts. I changed the signature as follows:

(aka: 41 50 38 31 2D 41 52 39 31 33 30 2D 52 54 2D 30 38 30 36 30 39 2D 30 35)

... became ...

(aka: 41 50 38 31 2D 41 52 39 31 33 30 2D 52 54 2D 30 37 30 36 31 34 2D 30 32)

(3) Log into the D-Link router (username admin, password admin).

(4) Using the router's renegade D-Link firmware, I upgrade the firmware with the modified DD-WRT .bin file.

(5) Wait patiently

(6) Ta-da! DD-WRT firmware page appears!

From this point on, I was able to use DD-WRT firmware. I've been using this firmware now for well over a year, and it has been totally reliable.

Update: Excitingly, I just bought a similarly capable router with OpenWRT fully pre-installed.  The GLI MT300N is under $20 and is a compact, modern router with OpenWRT of the box.  It is rock-solid and has a sweet interface for installing optional software packages.


Living Next to a Freeway

I've been living next to the interstate highway for the past couple years. And I mean right next to it. My house is less than 100 feet away from a major six lane freeway. I can see vehicles pass by from my living room.

Let me tell you what that's like to live next to the freeway, and what to look for if your considering moving near a major traffic artery. First of all, a little background.

Home Construction

The home I live in was designed and built in 2000 with the freeway in mind - the freeway was planned for in the 1950's and built in the early 1960s.

Therefore, most of the windows in my house face away from the highway, and the bedrooms are the rooms furthest away from the road. The side of the house closest to the road consists of bathrooms and a stairwell. These internal rooms help capture some of the noise that would otherwise enter the house.

Given the building's urban setting, there is little lawn, but there is a good sized outdoor patio.

Road Geography and Use

The road is a 6 lane stretch of a major Interstate freeway. There is a ravine nearby, and so therefore there is a large overpass structure 100 feet behind my house. This stretch of freeway is on a significant grade that occurs before some sharper 50 mph curves and a heavy traffic bottleneck.

The nearest off-ramp is roughly one half mile away.

The speed limit behind my house is 55 mph. Traffic can build up during rush hours of 7-10AM and 3-6 PM, but is usually free-flowing outside of rush hour.

There is no sound barrier along this stretch of freeway.

Living next to the Freeway

Here's what I've discovered about living so close to the freeway.

Indoors, the noise isn't bad
I can sometimes hear vehicles going by if I listen for them, but soon after moving in I stopped actively hearing them. If I listen now, I can hear the occasional vehicle go by, but it isn't loud or annoying.

I do keep an air purifier in my bedroom, which generates some white noise. I think this helps me ignore any sounds as I sleep.

Keeping the windows closed
I do find that I really do have to keep the windows that face the road closed to keep the noise out. This isn't so bad in the winter, but in the summer it is less than ideal. Air conditioning is a good idea.

The patio isn't used that much
Although I have a nice patio, I rarely use it. The roadway noises outdoors simply make having a outdoor summertime conversation less fun.

Large trucks in disrepair suck.
This is where stronger penalties for violating the law could come in handy. Since the roadway is on a hill before some curves, some truckers that ignore the clear signage find themselves needing to apply their engine brakes. Trucks with engine brakes in disrepair make the entire house shake. This can wake me.

Roadway construction can be painful.
Major construction on the roadway takes place at night and on the weekends in order to minimize traffic congestion. However, that means that me and my neighbors suffer though night work, as workers do things like grind off layers of old pavement. This can be annoying at best.

Overpass is not so good.
Living near an substantial overpass isn't so great, as heavy vehicles can "bounce" over the structure's expansion joints, leading to some excessive noise and building shaking.

I never smell anything bad from the freeway. Ever. And I feel I have a giant, super-sensitive nose.

A conclusion: What to look for.
I find it definitely reasonable to live very close to a major freeway. I think that large highway structures, a roadway with a grade, or an area near merging lanes should be avoided if possible, as they may result in more noise and more shaking than a flat road.

I would do the following if looking for a place near the freeway:
  • Understand the roadway. Drive on the freeway multiple times. Make sure the road is in good condition. A smooth, well-maintained road with smooth traffic patterns may be less noisy. Make sure the area isn't accident prone - more accidents could result in more noise from heavy braking.
  • Understand if there are any construction plans for that stretch of road. New roadway structures or road grinding can impact noise and vibrations.
  • Consider white noise generators to block out highway noises.
  • Beware that vibrations from the highway may be more of a problem than the noise.
Feel free to ask me any questions in the Comments section.


Repaired my speakers instead of buying new ones

The bad news - a big hole in my woofer

I've had this nice pair of Advent two-way speakers for years. They sound great, they're compact, and the look great.

But they recently broke.

I was listening to some music (at low volume!) the other day, and suddenly a painfully annoying buzz started to emanate from the right speaker. I took off the grill covering and there I found a huge hole in the woofer. The flexible foam cone surround broke down over time and finally gave way. Bummer.

Then I checked out the left speaker - its woofer's foam surround developed a substantial crack too - it just wasn't buzzing yet.

I went online and looked for replacement speakers. After some search, I realized that I'd have to spend over $200 to get some half-way decent speakers - a fairly depressing amount of money. And they likely weren't as soulful or as attractive as my old Advents.

So instead of replacing them, I decided to repair them.

Ordering Replacement Woofers

Since the woofers were beyond hope, I decided to replace them- and hopefully without cutting new holes in the cabinet. To find a suitable parts, I had to remove the old woofer and measure it.

I put the speaker cabinet on its back and removed the four screws holding the woofer in place. Then I extracted the old woofer from the cabinet.

I measured the hole in the cabinet, which was 5 and 5/8" in diamater. With this information, I could locate similarly sized parts. And since this wasn't a car speaker, I knew that I wanted an 8Ω (8 ohm) woofer.

Measuring the cabinet's woofer cutout

After looking at the reviews and weighing price, performance, and the risk that I might screw things up, I decided to go with the 6.5 inch Goldwood GW-206/8. I ordered two: one for the left cabinet, one for the right.

I considered ordering replacement tweeters and dampening material for the inside of the cabinet, but since it all looked healthy and sounded fine to me, I elected to keep them as-is.

A few days later a large box arrived at my door with two new woofers. Yay! I immediately got down to business.

A replacement woofer

Replacing the woofers

Replacing the woofers was an amazingly easy process:

1. I powered down my amp and disconnected the right speaker.

2. I laid the speaker cabinet on its back and removed the cloth-covered grill.

3. I removed the 4 screws that were holding the woofer in place.

Unscrewing the old broken woofer

4. I disconnected the wires from the back of the woofer, noting which wire was connected to the "+" terminal.

5. I attached the wires to spade connectors on the new woofer, + to +, - to -.

Note the (faint) polarity indicators!

6. I screwed the new woofer in place - a perfect fit - but I was VERY careful not to let the screw driver slip and put a hole in it. That would have stunk. And I made sure I didn't flex or distort the new woofer's metal cage.

The newly installed woofer


After completing woofer replacement in one speaker cabinet, I decided to give it a listen. After all, why open up the second woofer from its box if the first one sounded crappy? I wired it to my amp and powered things up. It sounded great.

I then shut down the amp and performed the same procedure on the left speaker.


Newly repaired speakers being tested - a success!

In all, I spent under $40 for the parts I needed to repair the two speakers - about $160 less than I would have spent on new speakers. And they sound great. I have no doubt that they'll stay in good service for another 15 years.

Cheapest smartphone plans

It used to be that all the cheapest smart phone plans had just about the same pricetag - about $70 a month and up. $70 a month adds up very quickly, especially when you have to do things like pay the mortgage or the rent.

I need a smartphone plan with internet access with a full browser, email, decent performance, plus roughly 400 minutes per month. I'm not a big text messager. And I want to pay as little as possible.

So I went to all the web sites of all the major American mobile service providers to check out their pricing. Since I originally wrote this article there have been changes in smartphone plans. There is a now difference - a huge difference in terms of pricing. Read on...

Here is a summary of what I've found in terms of the cheapest way to get a smart phone plan from the major American providers:

1. The T-Mobile plan comes with 500 minutes of prime-time talk. Data and texts are unlimited. Total price with a subsidized phone: $80/month... and that's with 4G service! However, you can manage to get this plan for $60 a month if you're willing to pay a substantial premium for a handset. The Vibrant looks like a great choice for a handset on T-Mobile.

2. The basic Sprint plan comes with 450 minutes, like all the others except T-Mobile. But Sprint's off-peak minutes start at 7 PM, which means two more waking hours of "free" talk time, as the other providers off=peak kicks in as late as 9 PM. In addition, Sprint doesn't deduct any prime time minutes for calls to any US mobile phone number, regardless of network. Plus, the Sprint plan comes with unlimited texting for no additional fee. And with the awesome Palm Pre Phone, it seems like a great option for a lot of people. $70/month.

3. AT&T's cheapest plan also has 450 minutes, but it has "roll-over", which effectively increases monthly minutes - as unused minutes in one month are still there to use later - an nice deal if one has exceptionally high usage in a month due to, say, illness in the family. "Visual Voicemail" is included. And with the 200 MB data plan, you can walk away for a low $55/month. Yeah, it's not unlimited data, but few people actually exceed 200 MB of data in a month. Text messages are extra. This is an awesome deal, but you might want to consider a text messaging plan if you send/receive more than 25 texts in a month on average. Check out this awesome Samsung Android phone for AT&T!

4. Verizon's plan is the most simple to understand. 450 minutes per month, nights at 9 PM. Visual Voicemail is a $3/month add-on. The entry level text messaging plan is $5/month. And the Incredible is a nice matching Android-based handset. $70/month.

In short, I sum up the low-end smart phone plans like this:
  • Sprint - $70/month - includes early 7 PM nights, and includes an unlimited texting package. Plus, calls to any US-based mobile phone number, regardless of carrier, doesn't use up minutes. And with a handset like the Palm Pre Phone, that's pretty amazing.
  • AT&T - $55/month - has rollover, which allows you to "bank" unused minutes for use in later months. 200 MB of 3G data - more than enough for most users. Includes Visual Voicemail. And the iPhone? This is a great deal for the typical smartphone user.
  • T-Mobile - $70/month - includes 50 more prime-time minutes than the other low-end plans. Includes Visual Voicemail. G1 Android Phone.
  • Verizon - $70/month. And the HTC DROID Eris is super swanky.

Of course, all these plans could be impacted by hidden fees, set-up charges, and so-forth. Always check the plan you're committing to - they change frequently.

[Updated - 1-Oct-2010]


Repair: Fixing a noisy fan in a Toshiba A15

The patient: a Toshiba A15 with a noisy, bad fan.

I have a great Toshiba A15 that just keeps on humming along. Actually, humming and buzzing. It makes an awful racket, and so I decided to replace the aging internal fan.

Here's what I did to replace the fan. I suspect this basic technique will work with other similar Toshiba laptops.

Tools and Parts requiredProcedure

1. Shut Down the Laptop, unplug it, and remove the battery

2. Remove the fan cover

I flipped the laptop on its back. In the corner there is a covering with two bulges. I removed this cover by removing the three screws. I then gently unsnapped the cover to expose the fan.
The fan cover

With the cover removed, the fan is exposed

3. Remove Fan

Next, I removed the two screws holding the fan in place. Then I gently pulled off the tiny power cable.

The power cable connection

The fan

4. Clean the heat sink

I then cleaned off the very dusty and dirty heat sink. Evidently, the fan draws in a lot of dust over time. I removed this dust with some "canned air".

The dust-filled heat sink, ready for some de-dusting

5. Reassemble in reverse
  • Slip new fan in place
  • Screw in fan with two screws
  • Attach fan power connector, as shown
  • Snap on fan covering, making sure wires are not pinched under it
  • Screw on fan cover with three screws (long screw goes in the "middle")

6. Test

I started up the laptop, and it has been working wonderfully ever since. It is as quiet as new!

Using a Garmin eTrex with a Macintosh

Summary: Got my Garmin GPSs to work with both Linux and my Mac

The Garmin eTrex series consists of decent, full featured handheld GPS units. The cheaper monochrome eTrex models have a basic RS-232 serial interface, and the color eTrex models sport USB connectivity.

In this article I'll talk about my experience with connecting both USB and serial port versions of the eTrex series to my Mac and to my Linux-based PC.

I personally use the Garmin Vista HCx GPS now, but the other Garmins in the eTrex series, including the inexpensive but well specified Garmin eTrex Venture should work the same way.

Dealing with the eTrex Series with USB:

Most of the eTrex units with a color screen have a USB port on the back. Happily, this USB port uses a common USB connector, so it is easy to physically connect a USB eTrex to a Mac or a PC running Linux.

Garmin eTrex VistaC USB PortThe USB Port on an eTrex

I have found two pieces of software perfect for use with a USB eTrex, without the need for special drivers: GPSBabel+ and Google Earth.

The Mac version of the freeware program "GPSBabel+" can natively read and write waypoint, track, and route data directly from the eTrex. I simply connect my GPS to my Mac via the standard USB cable. Once connected, I start up GPSBabel+.

GPSBabel+ can then be used to easily import and export waypoint and track data from the GPS. Simply choose "Use GPS receiver for input" or "output", choose "Convert", and then select the "Garmin USB" port. No special drivers or software beyond GPSBabel+ required.

Google Earth can communicate with the eTrex in real time, plotting your location on the fancy Google Earth map. In addition, like GPSBabel+, Google Earth can download routes, tracks, and waypoints from the eTrex and plot them on the Google Earth map.

Google Earth loading data from my eTrex

I have had good luck with Linux too.
I'm running Fedora Core with the latest updates, and find that it too can communicate with the USB eTrex series without issue. No kernel recompiles were required. Yay! I simply plug the thing into a USB port and then execute this command:

gpspoint -p /dev/ttyUSB0 -da -dt -dr -dw > gpsdata.gpd

With this command, all of the routes, tracks and waypoints are sucked down from the Garmin into a text file. From there, I can convert the file into any form I wish. I particularly like the open-source program Viking.

non-USB eTrex GPS on my Mac or Linux

I found that I could easily hook up the dirt cheap eTrex models, like the Garmin eTrex H and the other eTrex models that sport a serial interface.

My classic eTrex Legend is such a device. It's a nice GPS, but modern Macs and most modern PCs don't include near-obsolete serial ports. Happily, there is a simple and inexpensive solution - an eTrex serial cable with a reasonably good, low-cost USB to Serial Adapter.

Serial to USB convert, used with Mac and LinuxMy USB to Serial Adapter

I had to install the drivers for the USB converter onto the Mac. Once I did, good old GPSBabel+ was able to read and write to the GPS. Under Fedora Core Linux, the OS already had the driver for the USB converter. I just had to change my device settings and I was good to go!

[Note: updated on 8-Feb-2010 with more recent information]


The Asus WL500W and DD-WRT

I've been running my ASUS WL-500W Wireless N Router with DD-WRT for a good two months now.

Here's what I've found:

It works great for me!

I hated my WL-500W with the stock firmware. It seemed clunky and didn't behave all that well, despite updated firmware and a plethora of promising features. But since I had this device at my Dad's house, its original shortcomings didn't mean much to me - it worked adequately for him, so I was fine with it.

But a few months ago my Dad received a "free" wireless access point from his new internet service provider, so I ended up with the WL500W. I decided that DD-WRT was the only way to go.


I installed the Mega Generic, v24 preSP2 (Build13064), available from the DD-WRT web site. I followed these TFTP instructions. Installation was a breeze using TFTP. I was stoked to see it boot.

Issue #1 - making a brick.

I was busily reconfiguring the WL500W soon after it booted: make a config change, save, make another change, save, etc. And then it turned into a brick.

The LEDs on the WL-500W started to flash as if it was in a constant reboot cycle. I became sad; despondent almost. I struggled to use any software technique I could find to unbrick it. After several painstaking hours, I gave up on a "soft solution" to unbricking it.


After so many wasted hours, I concluded that the only way to unbrick it was with a hardware technique. I went after the brick using the pin 9 grounding unbrick method. I've heard mixed reviews on this technique - some have claimed that this method will permanently damage the device. But since I otherwise had a brick, I decided to take the risk.

In my case, the unbrick method seemed to work wonderfully. Phew! The brick was no more. I reinstalled DD-WRT and did my best to...

...Avoiding Bricking

I think my mistake was saving configuration changes too quickly. Now, when I make a change to the configuration, I give the WL500W a good long while (like a couple minutes) to commit the change to flash memory. I wait until the load average goes down to near zero before saving another configuration change.

I'm not sure if it really helps, but I haven't bricked the router since I instituted my new "slow save" procedure.

Other issues.

I mistakenly tripped power to the WL500W last week, and it didn't come back up: The "AIR" lamp stayed off, and the device wasn't accessible via ethernet. After experimentation, I found that the device would start up normally if I unplugged my laptop from the WL500W's ethernet port when powering up the WL500W. I didn't look into the "failed boot" condition any further.

The other issue is that I could never get the USB ports on the WL500W to do anything useful for me. Then again, the same was true when I used the stock ASUS firmware.


I find that the WL500W performs quite well for a 2.5 GHz-only "N" router. It certainly beats the pants off of many other N-class home routers that I've used.

The WL500W with DD-WRT has been rock solid. I do have it automatically restart weekly, but I have never had any indication that it actually needs to be restarted on a schedule.

And it can easily run with that Mega build. I love having most all of the DD-WRT features on the box. Once you go Mega, it's hard to go back.

Well, I hope that helps!

Tips for a Healthy iPhone

Here is my advice to new iPhone owners

1. Restart the iPhone periodically.

The iPhone is a phone with a computer in it. And as you likely know, computers simply work better if they're restarted occasionally. I'm in the habit of restarting my iPhone about once a week.

To restart your iPhone, hold down the top button for about 4 seconds. Then slide the on-screen indicator to turn it off. Note that it can take roughly 30 seconds for your iPhone to complete shut itself down.

To turn your iPhone back on, just hold down on the top button for about 1 second. The Apple logo will appear; after about 30 seconds your iPhone will be fully powered up and ready to go.

2. Sync your iPhone to iTunes at least once a week.

I sync my iPhone to iTunes periodically for two compelling reasons:
  • Syncing backs up all of my iPhone's contents. If I lose or damage my iPhone, I won't lose all my data.
  • iTunes keeps the software on my iPhone up to date. Apps and the system software are updated periodically with improvements; syncing my iPhone with iTunes helps me make sure that I'm always running the latest and greatest software for the iPhone. Note that a full system software update can take upwards of 15 minutes to install... during which time your iPhone may be inoperable.
3. Charge your iPhone overnight.

I find myself using my iPhone more than any other phone I've owned. And therefore I run down the battery faster. I'm in the habit of charging up my iPhone every night to make sure I have the juice when I need it. I also have a car charger, as I use the power-hungry Maps application quite a bit.

4. Quit Apps when your not using them

Most apps are designed to be gentle on the iPhone's battery. But some apps really suck down the juice, driving the speakers, wireless, the CPU, and the screen hard. For generally longer battery life, when you're done using an app, terminate it by pressing the "home" button.

5. Take reasonable care of your iPhone

I find that an inexpensive silicone case can protect the iPhone well, and a makes it less likely that I drop my iPhone.

I also suggest that you don't get the iPhone wet. I've known more than one person that has either gone swimming with the iPhone, or has put their iPhone through the wash. Don't do it - the results are never pretty.

6. More tips? Let me know and I'll consider adding them here!

See my article on Inexpensive iPhone Stuff To Consider for my thoughts on cheap but useful iPhone accessories.

Inexpensive Stuff for your New iPhone

I bought an iPhone 3G soon after it's release, and it is still in pristine condition. And people frequently ask me "LanceJ, what should I buy for my new iPhone?"

This is my short list.

Silicone Case - under $5

A silicone case protects my iPhone from many hard drops and can keep my iPhone looking new for years. Note that not all silicone cases are created equal - some are flimsy and thin; others are bulky and thick. I like the ones that are just in the middle. I like, in particular, the Eforcity Silicone Skin Case Cover.

Car Charger - under $5

When I'm in the car, I use the Maps feature of the iPhone a lot. And the Maps feature really does chew down the battery life. An iPhone car charger is critical if I'm in the car a lot. I suggest that people buy the GTMax Black Rapid Car Charger.

Spare Charger with Charging Cable - under $15

I find it great to have a spare iPhone charger with a spare cable. I can leave one in my office in case I forget to charge at home. And if I lose or break the original charger or cord, I have a spare. I got a deal with this USB Power Adapter with Data Cable.

A Bluetooth Headset - $20 to $60

The iPhone comes with a decent wired headset, but I love my bluetooth headset. That way I can just leave my phone on my desk and walk around without carrying anything. I can even do the dishes or other things* while on the phone.

I use a BlueAnt Z9i headset with my iPhone. The Z9i fits my ears perfectly and it sounds great. Then again, almost any Bluetooth headset will do. I've also successfully used a Jabra BT125 and a Plantronics Voyager with my iPhone. They also work well, but they don't fit my ears as well.

Unfortunately, I think a Bluetooth headset is one of those things that is tough to buy. Since they fit in the ear, they're not all equally comfortable. That's why I like the Z9i so much - it fits my ears perfectly and it sounds great to me.

What I don't like

I don't like so-called "screen protectors".

These flimsy pieces of clear plastic that cover the screen just get in my way. I question their utility - I suppose it is possible to scratch an iPhone's screen without smashing it, but it seems to very rarely happen. My children have an iPod Touch, and even they haven't even managed to scratch their device's screen yet.

I don't have a screen protector, and I don't plan on getting one. But they're inexpensive enough that it is reasonable to buy one and try it out.

Next Up

Tips for using your iPhone.

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I wanted to upgrade the firmware of my EasyN WiFi camera.  I just like to keep my firmware up to date.  I am sure it is a security sieve no...