Asus S56CA-WH31 15.6" Ultrabook Teardown, integrated SSD hack, and OS install hack

Discussion in 'Asus' started by MifuneT, Dec 2, 2012.

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  1. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    Greetings!

    I recently got a great deal on an Asus S56CA-WH31 15.6" Ultrabook during the Cyber Monday sales on Amazon. This is a fairly new Ultrabook from Asus with an integrated 24GB mSATA SSD + 500GB 5400rpm HDD hybrid setup, newer 22nm i3 or i5, 4GB DDR3, Intel integrated graphics, and Windows 8 Standard OEM. It's a very decent machine, considering the very low price it is/was being sold for (I had gotten mine for $459, refurb). I posted a more comprehensive review on Amazon, which can be read here: MifuneT's Amazon review of ASUS S56CA-WH31 15.6-Inch Ultrabook

    817Br+f3fFL._SL1500_.jpg

    A lot of pros and cons to the Ultrabook, but it didn't stop me from tearing into it and making it better. Pretty happy with where it's at after a little tinkering.

    Among the things I've done/addressed so far:
    1. Teardown the machine to determine end user serviceability, increase amount of RAM.
    2. Upgrade integrated 24GB mSATA SSD to 128GB

    3. Bypass the SLIC 3.0 BIOS to prevent it from auto inserting the Windows 8 Standard OEM key, so I could perform a clean install of my own Windows 8 Pro copy+license.

    Among issues I am still working on/trying to work around/hack around:
    a. UEFI and/or Secure Boot blocking bootable USB thumbdrives, many bootable DVDs.
    b. Windows 8 install keeps picking up Standard OEM key from BIOS, unless using hack workaround detailed in #3. SLIC 3.0 BIOS, UEFI, Secure Boot can't be disabled, despite clearing keys and disabling options in BIOS.
    c. BIOS options very, very limited.

    Among things I'd like to change, if cost of modifications didn't make it such a bad value proposition (cost significantly outweighs the benefit):
    i. Change 15.6" LCD panel with one that has better viewing angles, gamma, resolution, etc
    ii. Change webcam camera sensor to one of higher resolution, better low light condition clarity

    In the following posts I'll be going over the teardown and mods with pictures and captions. Hope this helps other owners of this Ultrabook and taking it from "entry level" to awesome.
     
  2. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    1. Teardown the machine to determine end user serviceability, increase amount of RAM.

    Increasing the amount of RAM available is usually the easiest of mods to do and the first of any that most laptop users undertake. Adding an extra 4GB (PC3-12800 DDR3 CL11 1600Mhz 1.5v) is very easy on this laptop, requiring the user to only remove to screws that hold the RAM+HDD cover plate. I like that it is just one single plate to access the extra SODIMM and HDD. Unfortunately, if you want to replace both SODIMM sticks, you will need to remove the entire back cover, since there just isn't enough clearance to get the other stick in or out.

    Before any computer disassembly, don't forget to discharge any static that may be present on your person.

    After removing the two screws holding the RAM+HDD cover plate, you'll have a lot of other screws to remove, which is pretty straightforward. This is how the Ultrabook looks with the RAM+HDD cover plate, battery, and drive bay removed. The red circles denote all of the screws you will need to remove, these include all screws for cover plate, back plate, and HDD. Some of these are of different sizes, so make sure you set them aside in a logical way where you won't forget where they went.

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_Disassembly.jpg

    The drive bay screw is covered by a tiny square piece of adhesive backed plastic. Use a small precision flathead screwdriver to remove it and set it aside, or toss it, alternately. You will need to remove the hard drive and associated screws holding it in before you can remove the back cover.

    Before attempting to pop off the back cover, carefully disconnect the small connector to the right of the HDD (red, black and white wire).

    Once all screws are removed, you will need to carefully pop the plastic back cover plate off. Gently work your way around, starting with one of the corners by the display hinge. I find that a nylon guitar pick works very well (better than fingernails) at safely getting in between spaces and acting as a prybar. Work patiently and carefully in popping the back cover off. I didn't have any plastic pieces break while removing the back cover on my laptop.

    This is how it looks with the back cover off:

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_Hardware.jpg

    As you can see, there are a few end user serviceable parts of note. In particular is the Wireless Network Adapter, and the tiny mSATA SSD. Overall, it appears that the S56CA is exceptionally easy to service, with the DC jack (above right from the corner of the heatsink fan) not having any creative wire routing to wrestle with, should you ever have to replace it.

    My laptop has an Atheros/Broadcomm wireless adapter and I've had very good experiences with them, as far as their compatibility with routers and certain wireless network penetration testing software. Some laptop manufacturers put in hardware locks to prevent other wireless adapters from being installed. I don't have any spare laptop motherboard wireless network adapters on hand to test if anything else can be installed.

    The 24GB mSATA SSD is the most interesting to me. It is a very short SSD card, but it is clearly evident that there are holes present for the longer, standard sized mSATA SSDs of larger capacity.

    With the back cover removed, that top SODIMM is now accessible to swap.

    While I usually recommend using IC Diamond 7 on all laptops, I have had zero heat issues with my i3 Ultrabook, so I haven't felt compelled to repaste.


    In my next post, I'll detail a small hack/mod to upgrade the dinky 24GB mSATA SSD to a standard sized card.
     
  3. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    I decided on this upgrade because the benefits of Fast Boot, Instant On, Fast Resume, and other Intel IRST (Intel Rapid Storage Technology) features that speed up access are of negligible value considering the high read speed of new SSDs and the overall efficiency of Windows 8. I would rather have two readily accessible SSD drives that I can read/write to and bear with an agonizing extra 2 seconds of waiting. :p Having the OS on the mSATA SSD gives me the luxury of easily swapping in other drives, as the HDD bay is easy to access (2 screws), and the secondary drive won't need to have an OS installed on it. The OEM setup has the OS installed on the 5400rpm drive, with a cache copy on the 24GB SSD for quick access. You cannot boot if you remove the OEM 500GB 5400rpm drive and try to boot on just the 24GB drive. This mod is a matter of simplicity and utility for me. Others may like the speed of the OEM setup and opt for just changing the 5400rpm drive to an SSD. That works well too, but overall storage capacity is limited.

    2. Upgrade integrated 24GB mSATA SSD to 128GB

    There is only one screw holding the 24GB mSATA SSD to the motherboard. Once removed, set the screw aside and the mSATA SSD will pop up, just like a stick of ram.

    I'd like to install a larger capacity, faster, 128GB mSATA SSD. Problem is, there is nothing to securely mount the longer card. As you can see, there is only a standoff for the shorter 24GB card.

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_remove1.jpg

    Here is a comparison between a standard sized mSATA SSD (bottom), and the 24GB integrated SSD (top) that came with the Ultrabook. Those are 4mm nuts and corresponding screws to the right. They were not part of the laptop. I had pulled them from a bag of extra fasteners I had handy. I was considering gluing the nuts to the other holes where standoffs should go, as they are about the same height...

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_remove2.jpg

    Test fitting the 128GB Crucial mSATA SSD, a problem arose. The standoff used to secure the 24GB integrated SSD is getting in the way! The standoff will need to be removed.

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_remove3.jpg

    ** WARNING **
    Removing the standoff that secures the OEM 24GB mSATA SSD to the PCB will instantly void the warranty. It won't damage the computer, as long as you are careful, but you can consider your warranty gone once you do this. To remove the standoff, I used a pair of bent nose pliers to firmly grasp the aluminum standoff, taking GREAT CARE not to scrape, contact, or otherwise disturb any part of the PCB or motherboard circuitry; once the standoff is grasped, twist clockwise or counterclockwise (again, CAREFULLY), and it should come off, relatively easily. You don't need herculean strength to twist it off, just firmness, and finesse.

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_remove4.jpg

    I was at first going to use some 4mm nuts to glue to the open holes so I could mount the longer mSATA card, but this removed standoff will work perfectly. To affix it to the new mSATA mounting point, I used Krazy Glue on the bottom of the standoff, applied with a wooden toothpick (I held the standoff with tweezers). I purposefully didn't use too much glue, in the event that I ever want to remove the standoff again and return the Ultrabook to it's factory setup.

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_remove5.jpg

    The Crucial 128GB mSATA SSD fits perfectly, secured to the standoff using the screw that was set aside earlier. I double checked to make sure no parts of the SSD were making physical contact with the motherboard. You absolutely want to make sure that nothing is touching or rubbing the PCB, lest you risk shorting/destroying your motherboard and SSD!

    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_replace1.jpg


     
  4. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    Putting the laptop back together, the new, longer, faster, larger capacity mSATA SSD looks like it belongs! Everything fits, just like OEM! You now have a large capacity SSD integrated to the motherboard and a spare laptop SATA slot to do as you wish!
    ASUS_S56CA-WH31_MLCSSD_replace2.jpg


    The last thing to tackle is performing a clean install...of something other than Windows 8 Standard OEM. It's not as easy as one would think.
     
  5. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    I'll post a follow up tomorrow detailing how I did a clean install of Windows 8 Pro (factory default is Win8 Standard OEM) and bypassed some BIOS level restrictions that seem to be evident in all of this new "Windows 8 Certified Hardware" that were dogging me and kept autoloading the OEM keys, even though I had my own Pro license key.
     
  6. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    With Windows 8 now out, prebuilt computers and notebooks that are deemed "Windows 8 Certified" adhere to certain security protocols on the BIOS level that make installing an OS other than what came with the machine increasingly difficult.

    Problem areas and some preface:


    SLIC 3.0
    SLIC 3.0 is software licensing information located on the BIOS. Other versions of SLIC have been around several years, but all Windows 8 computers must use 3.0, which has keys that are unique to each machine. SLIC allows OEMS to have the keys autoloaded during the OS installation process, which helps to streamline manufacturing. It seems like a logical thing, on the surface. Previous versions of SLIC assigned one single key to volume license hundreds of thousands of machines, and they keys, installed via BIOS hacking, were widely abused by software pirates. The problem arises with SLIC 3.0, because Windows 8 installation procedures will ALWAYS pull the keys from the BIOS and then default to that version during install, since Windows 8 media is not specific and includes all versions on the same disc. Again, this seems logical on Microsoft's end, to limit the number DVD images they must produce. In practice though, this prevents users who own legitimate copies of Windows 8 Pro and its license key, from easily installing their Pro OS on "Windows 8 Certified" hardware that is preloaded with lower versions of the OS.

    UEFI & Secure Boot
    UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) is a protocol that has also been around for several years, but with the release of Windows 8, carried the increased "security" of Secure Boot, which prevents unsigned bootable media from interfacing with the OS, hardware, or firmware. This function is supposed to make PCs more secure, by disallowing BIOS level exploits that use things like the memory space (ie: Konboot) to accomplish some task. In reality, this is limiting user's ability to control their hardware and limit what OSes they install. Due to the increased restrictions of Secure Boot, I have not been able to use any USB thumb drives, including those created by the official Windows 7 USB/DVD Tool, to boot directly from USB. Bootable DVDs are also required to be signed, and it appears that modifying a signed, legitimate ISO (ie: Windows 8 installation ISO, downloaded from MSDN) by inserting a file, completely prevents it from booting anymore. Additionally, popular boot media with legitimate tools and OSes that I like to use, like Backtrack, Ubuntu, and Partition Magic, are no longer bootable. I haven't tested it yet, but I have a feeling that I can no longer boot Memtest either. I don't mean to preach, but if Windows 8 Certified laptops and desktops are this restrictive via Secure Boot, it does not bode well for the PC industry.

    Evaluating ASUS' BIOS in the S56[/SIZE]
    It's an understatement to say that the BIOS settings the Asus S56 are poorly documented. There are very few options to change. Even when I went into the Security tab, went into "Key Management" and deleted all of the stored certificates and keys (they can be restored to default), disabled "Secure Boot Control", and played with all variations of all BIOS settings, no matter what, I absolutely could not get my Asus S56 to boot from any USB thumb drives, or unsigned or otherwise modified bootable DVDs.

    Fortunately, I found a workaround
    I found a bug in the Windows 8 install process that provided me with a workaround to allow me to finally install my copy of Windows 8 Pro, rather than having to stick with Windows 8 Standard OEM. This bug involves the ei.cfg file that Microsoft removed from Windows 8 install media. It was a configuration file that allowed you to specify which version of Windows you wanted to install. You cannot simply modify the Windows 8 install ISO and add the ei.cfg file, as mentioned before, the DVD will not boot. The bug I found, is that during the install process, Windows 8 install still does a cursory check on all accessible drives for the ei.cfg file, even though they intentionally removed it from all of their install media. The cursory check Windows 8 install does, also includes USB drives that are attached. I had a custom ei.cfg on my thumb drive, which Windows picked up, which finally allowed me to select my OS version!

    Here's what you'll need:
    • Windows 8 installation DVD (unmodified), retail, or a burned copy from an ISO downloaded from Microsoft
    • Windows 8 installation ISO
    • Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool free, from Microsoft
    • USB thumb drive, large enough for the Windows 8 installation DVD (4GB is fine)

    1. Burn a copy of the Windows 8 install DVD (assuming you purchased a key, and didn't buy the retail DVD) using your favorite image burning tool. I prefer ImgBurn.
    2. Open the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool, select the Microsoft Windows 8 installation ISO as your source file, hit Next, and then select USB device. Select your thumb drive and then "Begin Copying"
    3. Once your "bootable" thumb drive is ready, open it in Explorer and navigate to the "sources" directory.
    4. Using notepad, create a new Text file. Name it ei.cfg. The contents should be as follows:

    [Channel]
    volume

    [VL]
    1 ​

    5. Save the file and exit.
    6. Insert the Windows 8 installation DVD, as well as the Windows 8 installation USB drive you just created (with the added ei.cfg).
    7. Reboot. Your notebook will boot from DVD and take you to the Windows 8 install interface. Hit "Install Now".
    8. You'll now be presented with the choice of what version of OS to install. Remove the DVD. When you select the version and hit next, installation will occur from the USB!
    9. Enjoy being able to use the OS you paid for, on the machine you also paid for that didn't want you to install anything other than what it came with.

    There you have it. This workaround defies all logic and sensibility, but it is the only way I could figure out how to install Windows 8 Pro over the Asus S56 Windows 8 Standard OEM. Interesting thing is that if you skip activation and check the key in Windows System, you'll noticed that Windows still pulled the OEM key from BIOS. This workaround forces the installation of Windows 8 Pro. Strange and infuriating. I'm still working on how to disable Secure Boot and the stored SLIC 3.0 keys for good. For now, this is as good as it gets, I suppose.
     
  7. Prostar Computer

    Prostar Computer Company Representative

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    You sir, are a genius. How did you come across the SLIC 3.0 workaround? The preloaded keys/BIOS lock has been an increasing issue with a lot of people.
     
  8. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    It was practically by accident.

    I wast testing a bunch of variations of the Win 8 Install ISO (modified, unmodified), on a bunch of different thumbdrives to see what would catch, as well as modified and unmodified install DVDs. At one point, I had 3 USBs all attached to the computer, with an unmodified install DVD loaded, when I was presented with the long sought, desirable screen to select which version of the OS I wanted to install. When I proceeded, I noticed the thumbdrive was flashing with activity, rather than the DVD and I had a total Eureka moment, which I then reproduced. I yelled "OH MOTHERF***!!!!" at the top of my lungs at like 1 in the morning when it happened. It was pretty awesome.

    The BIOS key is still there and Windows still pulls it, but luckily, this "Force Install" hack creates a conflict and refuses to recognize or accept the key, without the usual pattern of defaulting to installing Standard OEM.

    Right now I'm following the work of Peter Kleissner, who has been working on bypassing the Secure Boot and UEFI. Last year he found a workaround to install a rootkit, but Secure Boot and UEFI still remain uncracked and continue to be an issue.
    http://threatpost.com/en_us/blogs/n...tkit-said-bypass-windows-8-secure-boot-111711
     
  9. assamj

    assamj Newbie

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    Great thread MifuneT!
    I'm thinking about buying this laptop and was wondering about the RAM, Is it originally 1x4GB or 2x2GB? Also wondering about battery life, is it any good?

    Sorry for the slightly OT post, but I hope you can help me
     
  10. MifuneT

    MifuneT Notebook Guru

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    It comes with 1x4GB (Hynix) PC3-12800 DDR3 1.5v 1600Mhz CL11. I get about 5 hours with regular browsing and web video use, which is pretty respectable.
     
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