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virgin webplayer:
virgin webplayer
convert into a pc
use with another isp

Inside the Virgin Webplayer


If you're just interested in converting the Webplayer into a Windows PC, click here for a "HOWTO" document I have prepared. Please note that this is work in progress right now, and is only online because it has some useful photos in it. I'll get a better version completed ASAP.

If you want to know how to use the Webplayer's built-in operating system on a different ISP, then read this informative posting.

Otherwise read the story below, including my original reverse-engineering notes when I first got my Webplayer.

Picture of the Webplayer unit


NEWS UPDATE

As of November 15, 2000, Virgin is discontinuing the Webplayer service. Yes, you guessed it - they will NOT charge you for keeping your Webplayer. You just got yourself a free 200MHz PC with 64Mb RAM!

The BIOS password is schwasck and it cannot be disabled, so write it down on the machine somewhere so you don't forget it.

The unit has a 48Mb DiskOnChip installed, but it is capable of booting off the hard drive connector also. Probably the simplest way to get it working is to pull off the DoC, PRELOAD a 2.5" IDE hard drive with a Win98/WinME setup image (including the drivers below), and run the setup process on the Webplayer itself. For your convenience, I have made a local mirror copy of the Windows 95/98/ME drivers for the Geode hardware, in case they move: download a complete driver set here.

You can buy a suitable 44-pin female-to-female hard drive cable for $7.99 from this link. Any old 2.5" IDE hard drive will do, though you'll find it neater and more elegant to use a thin 12mm-high drive. I have a 1.3Gb drive in my Webplayer, salvaged from a junked laptop.

Note that the BIOS ships with hard drive boot disabled. Make sure you enable the IDE controllers and the hard drive boot feature.

Also note that you should go into the audio mixer and disable the line-in and microphone-in channels, otherwise you'll get an annoying clickety-click noise from the speakers.

Many people have asked me already if it's possible to reconfigure the thing to work with another ISP. The answer to that is in two parts:

  • It is certainly possible to install another operating system, such as Windows 95, onto this machine and run it as a general-purpose PC (including Internet access). I feel this is the easiest solution, though not the most elegant.
  • It IS possible to configure the device to work 'as-is' with another ISP, since Prodigy is just a regular PPP dialup service. However, the OS preloaded on the Webplayer conceals these setup functions from you. In addition, even once these things are cracked you'll probably lose the screen real estate occupied by the advertising toolbars. And the OS Virgin loaded is just plain SLOW. If you're determined to follow this route, the simplest way to do it is, I think, to make a bootable 2.5" Linux hard drive, boot off it and use it to edit the configuration files on the Webplayer's DoC.

That's probably all the information you NEED to use the Webplayer. (Wow, these things are already fetching $75-$150 on ebay!) However you can go ahead and read my original story below; the annotated motherboard photos may be of particular interest.


The original story:

In 1999, Virgin's megastore in Manhattan installed displays advertising something called "Virgin Connect". The deal with this service is that you give them your credit card number and answer a short survey, and [if your profile matches the market they believe will spend big online], they send you a "nearly free" Internet access device. By nearly free, I mean that you are charged $50 a year for the first three years of ownership. If you are a charter member (one of the first 10,000), they waive the first year's fee, so you wind up getting the device, plus three years of Internet service, for $100. You must spend at least 10 hours per month online with the appliance. Access is provided by Prodigy, so there's no shortage of local phone numbers. If you live in the U.S. and you're interested in signing up for the service yourself, visit http://www.virginconnect.com/ and read the full conditions.

The Virgin Webplayer device looks very cute, and I needed another Internet computer for the kitchen anyway (I like to research recipes online), so I signed up for mine and received it a few days ago. Of course, being the engineer that I am, I couldn't resist looking inside and doing some research on the parts.

First thing to note: This machine is basically a PC. Although you won't find this information anywhere inside the unit, it is manufactured by Acer, who showcased the device at Comdex Las Vegas in 1999. The press releases talk about units powered by Windows CE, but the Virgin unit seems to be loaded with a version of embedded Java. (That makes it dog-slow, of course, like everything else Java-based). UPDATE: The machine is actually running a version of embedded UNIX.

Some proof that it's an embedded PC is easily obtained: Unplug your Webplayer and plug it back in. While the Virgin Connect logo is displayed (but BEFORE the startup bar graph begins progressing), hit F2 repeatedly and you'll soon be popped out to a standard PC POST screen. After a couple of seconds the unit will try to run its BIOS setup program, which is password-protected. The password must be stored in EEPROM, because I've shorted the CMOS battery on my unit and although the unit now complains the date and time are wrong, the password is still in force. There's almost certainly a way to override this, but I really can't be bothered pulling the BIOS and reverse-engineering it to find out how; life's too short.

The unit also has a software setup screen which can be accessed by pressing Ctrl-F1 (Ctrl-Music). Every time you do this, it gives you a code for which you must enter a counter-code. I had to get into this screen when my unit first arrived; the Virgin customer service rep didn't give me much time to see what was in there.

The Prodigy Internet service looks like a vanilla PPP dialup with PAP/CHAP authentication, so you can probably use it on another machine. If you sign up for VirginConnect with a userID of "xxxx", your Prodigy user ID will be "vc/xxxx". I haven't tried dialing in direct with another computer, but I have tried fetching my VirginConnect mail from another machine (the POP server is pop.prodigy.net) and it works just fine.

Enough about the exterior; time to delve inside! I've annotated photographs of the mainboard; click either thumbnail below to zoom in on a full-screen image. As you can see, there are a VAST number of integrated peripherals. There is also a daughterboard with a Conexant (controllered) V.90 modem.


Top of mainboard

Bottom of mainboard

Although I haven't actually traced out the circuit, I suspect that the CompactFlash connector is run in True-IDE (IDE emulation) mode and therefore doesn't require any special drivers. AMP makes a suitable connector, if you're interested in fitting one - and you can buy it from Digi-Key

The CPU in this unit is a National Semiconductor Geode GXLV-200, which is a 200MHz Pentium-class CPU. This chip has a companion bridge and I/O controller, and an LCD controller. There appears to be some dedicated RAM for the video controller, which is odd because the CPU supports UMA and should therefore be able to use some of main memory as a frame buffer. There is also a Super I/O chip with all the usual PC peripherals; PS/2 keyboard and mouse, two buffered serial ports, an SPP/EPP/ECP parallel port, two IDE buses, real-time clock and a floppy controller. Don't try to remove the heatsink from the CPU, because it's glued on and you might crack one of the CPU connections.

Ideas for ways to hack this unit:

  • Pull out the DiskOnChip with Virgin's OS and insert a different DOC with DOS and a password-cracking program on it.
  • Pull out the DiskOnChip with Virgin's OS and attach a preloaded hard drive (this won't work if they have set up the BIOS to boot only from DOC).
  • Scour the datasheets for the ICs in here to see if one of them has some kind of override input. You can download the datasheets for all the major ICs from www.national.com.

My overall conclusion about this appliance is that it's very cute and well worth the nominal price Virgin charges (plus it's given me some useful ideas for reducing the manufacturing cost of the appliances I design in my day job), but it's not worth the trouble to hack it about to make a real PC out of it. Enjoy the free service Virgin provides; it's a great deal.


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