Friday, 12 June 2020

Boot any ISO from the IODD Mini USB SSD CD\DVD drive emulator

IODD Mini

The IODD Mini #ad  SSD CD\DVD drive emulator is a solid-state version of the IODD 2531 and 2541.
You can see from the picture below that it is approx 9cm x 4cm in size and will easily fit in a pocket.

Note: This IODD Mini was supplied to me by IODD for evaluation and feedback.


In fact, the white 1m USB 3 cable (micro-B USB 3 to Type A USB 3) that comes with it, is larger and bulkier than the device itself.


My 512GiB unit came pre-formatted (despite the manual clearly stating that it would be uninitialised), and so the first thing I had to do was to decide how to partition and format it.

Note: My manual stated that the IODD warranty is only valid in the USA, so buying from Amazon or another retailer which has a good returns policy is advised!

Encryption

Since this device can encrypt all data on the SSD, I had to decide whether I wanted to encrypt the drive. Note that encrypting or removing encryption results in the data becoming garbage - all files and partitions are lost. If you do decide to encrypt the drive, you can pick a 4-16 digit PIN code to unlock the drive on power-up.

Encryption means that if your IODD is lost or stolen, no one can gain access to it's contents.

Note that when you are prompted to enter the PIN code on power-up, a random-number grid will be displayed on the screen containing the numbers 0-9. It is important to realise that you should use the grid number to select the buttons and NOT go by the numbers that are printed on the buttons themselves (this feature certainly had me scratching my head for a while when I tried to unlock it for the first time and it kept refusing my PIN number!). Presumably this is to ensure that the white button numbers do not become excessively worn down - thus indicating to everyone what numbers you have chosen for your PIN. 

There are a few things to consider when using encryption:
1. Every time the IODD powers-up you must enter your PIN
2. Entering the PIN number by using the random grid feature slows down it's use.
3. When you press a number button to enter the PIN, the number is displayed on the screen - thus you must be careful to shield the IODD Mini from the gaze of others when entering the PIN.
4. Some computers BIOS Boot Selection menus only work correctly on power-up, so by the time you have entered the PIN number the BIOS has missed detecting any of the IODD virtual drives! You can reset or CTRL-ALT-DEL the computer after entering the PIN (as long as it is not a ChromeBook!) but for computers which only detect USB boot devices on power-up, this does not work.
5. The virtual drives (CD and VHDs) are not automatically mounted by the IODD on power-on until the correct PIN is entered. This is one area that could be improved in the firmware (if possible), because it is often inconvenient to have to enter a PIN number just to boot from a virtual CD.

For instance, my Lenovo IdeaPad 300 notebook has two USB 2 ports and one USB 3 port. The USB 3 port on the left-hand side of the IdeaPad only detects bootable USB devices on power-up - if I hit CTRL-ALT-DEL and then press F12 to get the BIOS Boot Selection menu, it does not detect  any bootable USB devices! This causes a problem if I have encryption enabled and the only way around this is to either use the USB 2 ports, or to attach a USB battery power pack and Y-cable so that the IODD Mini is kept powered whilst I switch off and on the IdeaPad 300.

The IODD Mini could be improved if it contained a small re-chargeable battery or a 30-second capacitor which would keep the device powered up just long enough to cycle the computer's power off and on after entering the PIN number.

So, unless your Mini IODD is going to contain confidential data I would advise you not to enable encryption. You can always use an encryption utility to encrypt a folder on the drive rather than encrypt the whole drive and put your confidential data in the encrypted folder.

Note: If you cannot remember the IODD Mini PIN code, you can either remove the SSD card (and invalidate the warranty) and re-format the SSD in a different computer, or contact IODD for instructions (proof of purchase will be needed).

Partitioning

According to the manual, the IODD Mini supports both GPT and MBR-style disk partitions, however since I do not need the >2TB support offered by GPT partitions and wanted to add E2B, I decided I was going to use MBR partitioning. NTFS, exFAT and FAT32 are all supported by the IODD Mini.

Since I wanted to use the IODD with Easy2Boot, the first partition would be 128GB NTFS followed by a smaller FAT32 partition for the agFM UEFI boot file partition. The remainder would be used for a large NTFS partition.

The entire Mini IODD SSD drive can be set as a Removable or Fixed disk using the Settings menu.

Since Windows XP, 7 and 8 cannot detect or support multiple partitions on a Removable USB drive (such as a USB flash drive), you should ensure that the type is set to USB-HDD.

When setting the type for the 'HDD' (Gear wheel button, Mode Setting (6)) it is important to press the Gear wheel button after setting the mode. This saves the settings. If you don't press the Gear wheel button after changing Mode then none of the changes will work or be saved (this was another 'gotcha' I discovered).

The entire SSD drive can also be write-protected or write-enabled. So ensure that the HDD is shown with an 'unlock' symbol and an HDD symbol (tin can). The filled USB flash drive symbol indicates a 'Removable' type of USB drive.

Setting up the IODD Mini with E2B

Next, I ran the Easy2Boot download executable 'Make_E2B.exe' as administrator and since there was no drive letter assigned to the IODD Mini yet as it had not beeen initialised, I clicked on the Make_E2B.exe Gear wheel button and followed the text-based prompts to make a USB drive:

PTN1: 128GiB NTFS for E2B files
PTN2: 32GiB FAT32 for agFM UEFI boot files
PTN3: (maximum) NTFS for general storage and some .imgptn files


Since I intended to keep 'commonly used' apps, etc. on partition 2 (such as Portable Apps), I used the maximum possible size of 32GiB.

The first partition should not exceed 128GB because some buggy BIOSes cannot access files which are beyond 128GiB in MBR\Legacy mode on USB drives.

Adding payload files

Unlike the previous IODD DVD emulators which required a \_ISO folder in the root of the USB drive and a specific filesystem type (e.g. NTFS), the IODD Mini can browse to any partition and any folder. By default, it picks the largest partition as the one to browse but you can change the selected partition with a 3-second press on button 4. Button 4 is unfortunately not marked with any symbol to indicate this function, so you will need to remember this if you store ISOs or VHDs on different partitions (the i button (5) also gives a useful hint).

The only change I made to the Easy2Boot folder structure, was to add a \IODD folder which I will use for payload files and apps which are not suitable for use with Easy2Boot\agFM.

As well as being a USB SSD drive (Fixed or Removable, Write-enabled or Write-Protected), the IODD Mini can emulate one read-only DVD Optical drive (ODD) and up to three other Virtual drives (by loading up to three .VHD files).

The three Virtual drives can also be set to be Fixed or Removal and write-protected or write-enabled.

This provides and extremely flexible arrangement. For instance, we could create a blank VHD as a write-enabled Removable (flash) drive, install software onto that virtual flash drive, and then change it to a Fixed disk (hard) drive or write-protect it - and we can have up to three of them!

For instance, if you didn't want to make the entire IODD Mini into an Easy2Boot USB drive, you can create a 128GiB VHD, mount it as a Fixed-disk, write-enabled virtual hard disk and then install Easy2Boot onto that new virtual drive.

Note that, as for E2B, any VHD files need to be contiguous for use with the IODD Mini too.

If you want the VHD to be loaded as a 'Removable' drive and not a 'Fixed-disk', then you can use the .RMD file extension.

The IODD only lists files with extensions of .ISO, .VHD, .DSK and .RMD. However, it seems that .IMA files (floppy images) are not supported even though they are listed on the display - selecting an IMA file will cause the currently selected VHD to be dismounted. Even if the file has the correct file extension, it may not be listed if it's contents are invalid and you may need to press the 'refresh' (1) button to refresh the file list (holding it for 3 seconds will re-mount the files). Selecting a file when it has been already mounted will cause it to be dismounted.

In use

The IODD Mini buttons provide a nice positive feel and the menu system is fairly intuitive. I have not performed any speed tests yet, but large file transfer over USB 3 seemed to reach about 200Mb/s on an unencypted and reasonable fresh drive.

The IODD Mini case is made of plastic and has a very lightweight feel. Considering the cost and type of environment that the device will be used in, I would have preferred a metal case.

Care must be taken not to damage the screen and to unplug the USB cable before transportation to avoid damaging the micro USB socket.

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