Converting the Virgin Webplayer into a PC


Introduction

The Virgin Webplayer is one of those Internet appliances from the dot-com boom era. Virgin gave away hundreds of them in hopes of making money selling Internet service for them but Virgin shut-down the business shortly after it started. Now there are a bunch of near-new hardware units out there that aren't good for anything unless you hack them.

This guide describes how to turn the Webplayer into a Windows '98 PC.

What You'll Start With

The Webplayer had a "special" operating system and was designed to connect only to the Virgin-provided Internet service via the built-in modem. There is no hard drive. All software is burned onto a 48MB Disk-On-Chip (DOC) read/write memory chip. Here are the basic specs:

  • 200MHz National Geode Processor
  • 10 inch LCD monitor
  • 64MB SODIMM memory
  • 2 USB ports
  • Wireless infrared keyboard with integrated trackball mouse

What You'll End-Up With

You've got two options for making the conversion:

  1. "Flash" the DOC with a new OS and drivers.
  2. For most people, this means removing the DOC and sending it to someone who will update its contents for you. This is the cheap approach but it doesn't provide much flexibility.

  3. Bypass the DOC and install a laptop hard drive.
  4. This will make the unit a true general-purpose PC and is the approach outlined on this page.

Either way, you'll want to avoid using the modem and, instead, use a USB Ethernet adapter for Internet access. This is because, at the time of this writing, no one has figured out a way to use the modem without having to do a little password guessing each time you connect to the Internet. It's just not worth it in my opinion.

When you're done, you'll have a very low-end PC, but a PC none the less. The sound will be poor. The video quality is sufficient at best. You won't want to make this conversion instead of buying or building a "real" PC, but it's a fun project and worthwhile if you get the parts cheaply enough.


The Hack

This is a pretty straight forward procedure, so let's get started.

Get the Parts

Assuming you've already found a Webplayer, you'll also need:

  • 2.5 inch IDE laptop hard drive. There's not much height inside the unit to work with so shoot for a modern 9.5mm high drive.
  • USB to Ethernet adapter. The Xircom PGENET10 worked for me.
  • 10 inch long 44 pin IDE laptop hard drive ribbon cable. This should have two female connectors.

Prepare the Hard Drive

The objective is to load the drive with the OS, all drivers and any software you won't want to bother with downloading over the Internet later. Here's a check list:

Required:

  • The contents of a Windows '98 installation disk copied to the drive.
  • Windows drivers for the unique hardware this unit has. Search for "Webplayer Drivers" on the Web to find and download the latest versions. You'll need a sound driver, video driver and UDMA hard disk controller driver.
  • Drivers for the USB Ethernet adapter and any other additional external hardware you'll be adding.

Suggested:

  • Winzip
  • USB mouse driver (the built-in trackball mouse requires two hands to use)
  • Your favorite Web browser
  • Acrobat Reader
  • Drivers for an external USB drive (floppy, hard drive, CD-ROM, pen drive, whatever). This can come in handy in case you forgot some files and have trouble connecting to the network.

    The easiest way to prepare the drive is to connect it to a desktop via an adapter. An adapter is necessary because laptop drives don't have a separate power cable and have a 44 pin IDE connector instead of 40 pins.

    Make the drive bootable, then copy the required and optional contents to the drive. That's it.

    Commence the Operation

    The Webplayer comes apart pretty easily. Here are the steps:

    1. Pop-off the two black plastic side panels.
    2. Remove two screws from the bottom front.
    3. Remove two screws (under the rubber plugs) from the top back and press in the clip at center back to remove the silver cover.
    4. The front and back covers can now be removed as well.
    5. Here's what the inside looks like before the modification.

      Here's what the underside of the motherboard looks like.

    6. Remove the modem and modem ports (you won't need them).
    7. Prepare the location where the hard drive will go beneath the motherboard.
    8. Install the hard drive as shown below. Be sure to insulate the drive since it will sit against the bottom of the mother board. I used a few layers of magazine covers.
    9. That's it. Put everything back together and try it out.

    Boot-up and Configure

    Boot-up the machine and press F2 (the key with the book icon) to get to the BIOS. The BIOS password is "schwasck". The IDE controller is disabled by default. You need to enable it.

    Exit the BIOS and boot the machine to the command prompt. You should see that lovely C:\> prompt.

    Now you just have to install Windows '98 and the drivers you have stored on your hard drive. It's a standard installation from here on out.

    I had only two problems:

    1. The audio wouldn't work.
    2. The fix: In your audio control panel, check the "Mute" check box on "Line In".

    3. This screen pattern appeared on boot-up.
    4. When you see this, it's just disk check checking your hard drive after an uncontrolled exit from Windows. Just wait a minute or two and it will go away.


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