HOW-TO: Laptop resurrection and upgrade

laptop resurrection
Follow along as reader [Seth] combines two i1400 Thinkpads. He refreshes the batteries, fixes the keyboard and trackpad, removes the floppy, adds USB ports and WiFi to end up with a ghoulish, but functional machine: The Franken-laptop!

I have been known to keep old hardware alive, long past it’s use-by date. Over the last year I acquired a couple of laptops. One of them had been smashed up (I think someone sat on it..) and the other got a drink spilled in to the keyboard. So I ended up with enough parts to make a cheap laptop.

The i1400 Thinkpad came out with a few different variations of processor. The one I salvaged is a Celeron 500. I was
also recently given another damaged laptop, which I robbed the DVD drive from and some RAM, so it’s maxed out to 256MB
(I tried more, but it just didn’t like it). I’ve only spent around $180 total, not including the 60GB drive. That’s not
bad for a cheap work laptop, with wireless.

Battery Revival:

The batteries on laptops are often a problem. Most people sit their laptop on a desk and use AC power, so the
battery usually suffers, resulting in a chemical ‘memory’, which gives them a life of about 3 seconds under load. The
batteries in my donor laptops were both made in 2000, so I had to try and revive them. If you have any NiCd or NiMH
batteries that won’t hold their charge, you can often revive them. This is not a new concept, but here is my recipe for
reviving rechargeable batteries:

  1. Discharge the battery as much as you can.
  2. Place in a sealed plastic bag.
  3. Place the bag in your freezer for at least 24hours. Overnight is sometimes enough, but I leave it about a
  4. Take the bag out of the freezer and leave the battery to return to room temperature. Make sure you wipe off any
    condensation from the battery contacts before you use it. I just leave them in the sun for a few hours.
  5. Fully charge the battery, then run it down again, as low as you can get it. Repeat this charge-discharge cycle a
    few times, and see if you get a longer life.

Your mileage will vary, but two of my 5-year-old batteries are now useful. I get between 2 and 4 hours from one of
them, depending on the load on my laptop. You can do this with cellphone batteries, or batteries from lots of other

Membrane Keyboard Repairs:

The first keyboard was a problem.. it had already been ripped apart by it’s ham-fisted owner, so it wasn’t working
at all. I was also a bit careless with the second keyboard and creased the plastic ribbon cable, which broke one of the
tracks.. grrr. If you’ve ever seen this problem, you know it’s impossible to fix. Almost ;) The tracks are conductive
traces etched onto a plastic ribbon. You can’t solder them and you can’t replace the cable, because it’s part of the
membrane keyboard. You have to get tricky. I used the following:

  • The ring from a keyring
  • A pencil
  • A random strip of rubber I had
  • A thin piece of metal plate

The pencil provides you with enough conductive material to join the broken track, but you have to stop it flexing. I
searched for ages for something spring-loaded and slim enough to fit under a laptop keyboard, before noticing my
keyring.. you know, the split ring that you feed your keys onto.. they’re common as dirt. So I just drew a new track on
the cable, then sandwiched it between a slim piece of rubber and a piece of metal around the same size, and used the
keyring to hold it together. It’s actually stayed in place and worked without any problems ever since.

Trackpoint Transplant:

The connector to the trackpoint was also broken, so I did a trackpoint transplant. It’s possible, just a bit fiddly.
You have to remove some clear plastic from the back of the keyboard and make a little room to get the cable out. The
trackpoints have 3 little prongs bent over on the back of the keyboard, so you bend them back, remove the trackpoint
from the front of the keyboard and carefully fold the cable so it comes out through the slot in the back of the
keyboard. That’s the easy part. Fitting it back into the good keyboard was a little more difficult. I had to use a
Dremel and a knife to make the slot a little larger in order to feed the cable in between the layers of keyboard
membrane, plastic and aluminum backing, and black plastic under keys.

I have often thought of doing something else with the space the floppy takes up. It uses up about 20% of the real
estate in a laptop. One idea was to fit another battery or a 3.5″ drive bay (which would require a bit of modification
to the case).

One thing that bugs me has always been wires dangling everywhere.. this model laptop came out before 802.11, so I
decided to fit some wireless hardware into it. You can get USB dongles for many purposes, and they’re cheap enough now.
I could also add a USB-NIC adapter, but the PCMCIA slot works fine and I have a 100MB card. This old Thinkpad only
supports USB 1.1.

Adding USB ports and wireless to an IBM Thinkpad i1400:

1 – Disassembly of laptop:


I’ve done plenty of repairs to all kinds of electronic equipment, so this wasn’t a problem for me. If you’re going to
take a laptop apart, I have a little advice – remember where the screws go! Haha, as if I needed to tell you. Another
tip, if you have no idea how to get it apart is go to google and search for a technical manual. Most manufacturers give
very good detailed, step-by-step instructions for removal and replacement of any part. Also make sure you have a good
space to work in.

2 – Recycling the floppy drive:


The floppy drive in an i1400 sits in the front, left corner. Once I got the top cover off the laptop, I unplugged and
unscrewed the drive and it slid out of it’s metal cradle. I removed the motor, circuitry and disk-loading mechanism. I
was left with the top and bottom covers and the plastic fascia, which I fitted the USB hub into.

3 – USB hub prep:


The hub I used was a cheap, 4-port USB 1.1 hub. It was nice and small, and all the ports line up along one side of it.
One port was used for the wireless dongle. I actually cut that part of the PCB off and soldered on a cable that I ran
back up to the lid, where the dongle is mounted.That leaves me 3 USB ports to mount in the floppy case.

4 – Installation of wireless:


The dongle I used is based on a zd1201, which is pretty common. It’s only 802.11b but it was cheap enough, and the
laptop only has USB1.1 available. I split open the plastic case and removed it, and used a standard 1m USB extension
cable to connect it. The other end of the cable runs down to the USB hub.

I had to do a little mod to fit the wireless dongle in the lid. The speaker enclosures are actually ‘L’-shaped
plastic tubes, which run up the side of the LCD. I cut off about 100mm from the RHS speaker, which gave me plenty of
room for the dongle to sit. The width ended up exactly the right size, and everything fit in perfectly, so I didn’t
have to worry about mounting, screws or glue or anything. I was also expecting to have to trim things down, but I was

5 – Cables:


This was the trickiest part. I had to run the cable from the USB port on the back of the laptop, to the input of the
hub in the floppy drive bay, then the other cable from the hub to the wireless dongle in the lid. I cut the pins to the
original USB port on the back of the laptop (it only had one), leaving pins 1 and 4 (power) connected. This means its
not usable for data, but I can still plug in a USB lamp in the back if I want. I ended up stripping all the insulation
off the cable to the dongle and covering it with heatshrink to slim it down. They’re only little 4-core shielded cables
but when you’re adding stuff to a laptop, it has to be small! I could have taken the shielding off and just used 4
single cored wires, but I wanted to keep the shielding, to guarantee my signal quality. With a bit of trimming here and
there, I managed to run the cables under the top cover, in an S-pattern.. They would have taken a more direct route,
but the processor and heatsink were just too much of a tight fit.

6 – Going wireless:


The wireless dongle installed (before stripping the insulation from the cable). You can see the 2 white rectangular
antennae, mounted on the top end of the dongle. I was planning to remove these and fit an external antenna, but the
signal strength is pretty good, and it’s a bit nicer to keep everything contained. Apart from the USB ports, and lack
of floppy drive, I’ve still got a normal-looking Thinkpad.

7 – USB Ports:


The USB ports installed in the former floppy drive. I was going to fill in the empty space but decided to leave it
empty, for future additions :) ports 1 & 2 are separated by a gap, where a little LED sits. It just happened to fit
exactly right where the floppy LED used to go. I might trim off another of these ports and use it for a bluetooth
dongle (that will fit in the floppy case, alongside the hub, easily). This will leave me some room for a card reader or
something else, perhaps.

8 – Up and running:


A quick screenshot. You can see entries for the USB hubs (the original Thinkpad one, plus the additional one), the
wireless adapter and the camera is plugged in as well (the USB Mass Storage entries). The device manager reports “Power
Usage: 500mA” on the wireless adapter, which is actually a maximum figure for the USB port, not what the dongle is
drawing. The battery wouldn’t last long at that rate. It runs Linux, of course – Ubuntu, because it just works. I also
took advantage of the spare keyboard and replaced the Windoze key with a spare menu key, then removed the windows
stickers on the case ;)

The zd1201 wireless dongle also has a power-save mode, which you turn on in software. This prevents excessive
battery drain when you’re not using it. If you look sideways through the very small gap next to the screen, you can see
the LED switching yellow/red in normal use, and it turns off when powersaving activates.

Future plans:

Remove and respray the multicoloured buttons (ugh.. red,green,yellow,blue everywhere is too much), for a red+black
colour scheme. Add bluetooth.

80 thoughts on “HOW-TO: Laptop resurrection and upgrade

  1. It is a VERY bad idea to fully discharge Lithium-Ion batteries. Once Li-ion batteries are discharged below ~2.75v (per cell) an unreversible chemical reaction happens that degrades the overall capacity depending on how low the voltage gets and how long the battery stays in such a state.

    You should note that your discharge->freezer->charge->repeat method will only help NIMH or NICD batteries. Also, the freezer step does nothing, just wastes time.
    One more thing, also shouldn’t discharge the pack down to 0v. If you have a single weak cell in a pack, discharging to 0v could reverse the voltage in the weak cell from the other cells discharging though it. A reverse charge will make the cell weaker…

    How to properly cycle a NIMH or NICD battery pack:
    1. Discharge the pack to 0.6v per cell (See below for info) at C/10 (see below for info) for the first cycle, C/4 for each following cycle.
    2. Charge the pack at C/20 for 25 hours the first two or three cycles, after that use normal charger.
    3. Rinse, repeat, wipe hands on pants.

    Per cell example: 14.4v pack, 14.4/1.2=12 cells, discharge to 7.2v
    C/*: C/* = total capacity in mAh divided by *. Example: C/4, 1000mAh pack = 250mAh (dis)charge current.

  2. That’s an awesome walkthrough, very well documented. I used to refurb laptops, and still work on my own, so I’m familliar.

    One change I would mention, instead of using pencil to re-connect the plastic ribbon cable, you could get one of those conductive ink pens, mask the spot to repair with masking tape, and paint in a better connection.

  3. wow, actual content, very good!

    The freezer cycle does do some good, in many Nicad/NiMH packs, the smart charger won’t charge if the battery if the thermistor says the pack is too hot. I suppose the freezer cycle is the fastest way around that.

    I have have good luck on otherwise useless Nicad cells (i said CELLS, not PACKS), by hitting them with a high current pulse, to burn out “crystals” that grow on one of the plates. just take your jumper cables and attach to a car’s battery, preferably when the car is running. Then press the other ends of the jumper cable to the cell, and then try to charger the battery. you may need to do this several times.

  4. Actually, I believe by fully discharging the battery he ment to just run it down to where it won’t even turn on the computer, just like Apple suggests to “calibrate” a new battery for power and ibooks. I doubt he meant 0.0v discharge. Ohh, and if you feel all engineery, open a laptop battery pack and buy the cells online. Alot cheaper (Sometimes) and you can get higher mah cells (But I don’t know how the battery’s circuit handles them atleast on my “got for free but both batteries are dead, fan doesn’t work, cpu overheating, missing a harddrive and connector and some keys” Dell inspiron 4000.

  5. I like how you used the floppy drive. I’d probably try to make it look a little less ghetto, but nice overall. Good creative application of wireless as well.

    I’d love to use Ubuntu on my inspiron 3800, but the display is completely illegible and I can’t find any pointers on getting it going. Oh well, ces la vie.

  6. andy,
    I was not talking about lead/acid batteries, except in regards to using it as a high current power source. I was talking about nicads. talking about sulfur means lead/acid. There are thingies that automatically pulse nicads, but the jumper cable thingie is a hack.

  7. I just run a small script on startup to set up the wireless, where I set the powersave mode and network settings, etc, so it’s hands-off, basically.
    I just got the tvout working too, which pleases me. Now I can watch all the media on a bigger screen ;) Many thanks to Leonard Poettering for his atitvout code! I’ve also hacked that a bit, so I have a button on my taskbar to switch outputs.
    The battery treatment is just me experimenting, but it’s basically ‘shock-treatment’.
    Freeze-treatment, in fact, did make a difference. Just cycling the battery wasn’t as effective.
    A quick, high-current recharge often works too.
    The ports look fine, but I’m going to fill the gaps soon – I just got hold of a cheap bluetooth dongle.
    I didn’t have a conductive pen when I fixed the keyboard (I think it was 2AM, and I couldn’t go out and buy one either) so I had to use what I had on hand ;)
    There’s a good pdf available on the net about resurrecting hard drives too. One option is the freeze/reheat shock treatment, and another trick (last resort) – slamming the drive against a hard surface… Never needed to try that before though.
    I don’t think I’ll do much more to this laptop though.. I’ll hold out for something with a processor socket.

  8. A friend of mine “repaired” his keyboard membrane with thin wire & scotch tape. Thin wire to avoid adding any bulk to the overall membrane layer, and the tape seems to be holding the wire in contact with the traces. [obviously use your head, one side of the membrane simply has the circuit printed on it and that’s the side you put the wires on – duh]

  9. WOW, I have an old toshiba Tecra, I would like to add an usb, this unit only has a floppy drive and a parallel, that’s it. Is it possible to add a usb to one of this relics?

  10. Anyone have some experience with LCD Active matrix displays? I replaced some light tubes in my old Dell (they were dimming away) but in the process 1.5 inches of the right side are illegible and white now. :( I was wondering if this is remedible.

  11. rossitron is right, li-ion batteries arent the kind of batteries you want to diuscharge fully, they peak when fully charged all of the time. old ni-cad batteries were the ones that people had to do the discharge cycle to, but who uses them anymore?

  12. Where did you get the parts for your laptop? I’d love to upgrade my Inspiron 8200 to USB 2.0 and wireless g… Hell, I’d do the processor and video card, if possible. Any suggestions??

  13. anyone have any hacks to get lcds working well again? i have seen some stuff to fix dead pixels etc. but not any apps to help laptop owners. my laptop screen seems to like to flicker and just all around suck. and what about window mods. seems like it could be a cool hack if you have something old and thick enough to fit some extra plastic into.

  14. I thought about taking the window thing a bit further..
    You’ve seen the ‘transparent’ laptop screens, where someone takes a shot of the scene behind their laptop lid and sets it as a desktop..
    I only have the one working LCD for this laptop, so I’m not going to risk it, but I was thinking of pulling out the LCD and stripping off the reflector. I suspect that would work alright, but you lose your backlight, which means you’d have to illuminate the back of your screen (sunlight, or ambient or a lamp or something).. anyway, it’s something to try ;)

    pirate boi:
    You can get into the LCD unit easily enough, and replace the fluorescent tube if it’s flickering or dead as well (a new tube will make all the difference to brightness). They’re pretty standard parts you can buy from various sites on the net. Just get the diameter and length right.

    Another idea i had was to replace the fluorescent tube with some perspex rod with a triangular cross-section – cut the ends at the right angle and light it up with a high-intensity white LED. They usually only draw around 20-30mA.
    You can get better battery life if you cut the brightness a bit on your existing fluoro backlight.

  15. i have upgraded my laptop lcd, from 13 to 14 inch tft on an old satellite 1750. the display fitted well in the casing and so did all the cables BUT..
    1. The screen has good resolution and gives a crisp picture.
    2. The screen is somehow divided into four sections, its like having one area plus three at the bottom, side and side!! when u look at stuff its all fuuny with some part there and the other lost somewhere.
    3. obviously its got something to do with the bigger screen dimensions, Guys what can i do? There must be a way to tell the bios or software that there is a bigger screen.HELP HELP HELP! i need the bigger screen, the better pic. When u come to Zimbabwe on holiday i’ll remember u an give u a free elephant ride!

  16. 22 – They do make PCMCIA USB adapters, but I suspect that it’s not worth the effort.

    27 – Google around. Unless you can find a donor laptop, parts are absurdly expensive. A 750MHz processor that will fit my laptop will cost $80. Keyboard is $20, and a used battery $40-$50. I got a HDD for free, but that would’ve been $80, too. Getting 256MB of RAM would be about $50. If I could afford all that, I would just get a cheapie from Dell and have a _new_ machine, not one put together with spit and baling wire. As it is, I make do with a 500MHz, external keyboard (when docked), 128MB system with an 802.11 card that won’t even do WEP. I’ve only got $40 into it, so I can’t complain.

  17. I took apart the li ion battery from a thinkpad 600e. Apparently the first gen batteries for these were known to die young, I had two that fit this description.

    There are 5 standard panasonic li ion cells in there, but the casing is glued together so you pretty much have to hack the apart to get to the cells. You can by replacements on the internet for about $25 for a set. The cells have been spot welded to a metal plate that connects the + of one to the – of the next.

    I haven’t ordered new batteries for mine yet but I’m thinking about it. I know that when the job’s done the battery will look like its been through wwIII, but if it works…

    I have two concerns: There seems to be some smart circuit in there. I’m hoping that it will work with the new cells. The second concern is that Li Ion cells can release poison gas when over-heated, so I probably won’t solder them together.

  18. Reguarding the keyboard contact repair:
    Radioshack sells a silver paint pen that works wonders for keyboard membrane contacts. It’s called CircuitWriter. It’s flexable, durable and cleans up with isopropyl alcohol. I just picked up mine yesterday and saved myself $50+ for a replacement ibook keyboard. Pretty sweet. I think I’m going to try to unlock my athlon xp next..

  19. Need some help…. my IBM thinkpad works except the mouse got damaged. I was told I had to replace the entire system board which will cost about $200. If the mouse just slides across the screen to the edge and can’t be controlled, is it possible to fix without replacing the system board? I’m not sure if a “trackpoint transplant” would be enough to fix it. Any ideas?
    Thanks, Jeanette

  20. Hey Jeanette.
    Before you do anything, disconnect the trackpoint by unplugging it. On the thinkpads I’ve worked on, this is a thin, orange-brown cable, about 10mm wide, which runs from the back of the keyboard to a connector on the mainboard. Sometimes, trackpoints can be damaged, and ‘stuck’ in a certain position, which forces the pointer in one direction.

    Otherwise, look at a different option for your mouse. If you normally use a PS2 mouse, try a USB one instead, or even an old-fashioned serial mouse with the 9-pin D connector (providing the laptop has a suitable com port on the back. These aren’t usually included on the newer laptops. My i1400 has one though)

    hth :)

  21. the only thing that seemed left out was upgrading to USB 2.0. Just ripped apart a 2 port pcmcia card and am currently working GENTLY to extend the leads over to the other side of my inspiron 8200 and plan to remove the current onboard usb1.1 ports and connect the leads to it. Sure i will lose one of the pcmcia slots but i have never put anything but a USB2.0 card in there anyway.

    Thanx for the inspiration

  22. i tried the freezer trick with my li-ion battery and now it won’t charge at all. everything was drained properly and frozen for about a week. i’m pretty sure i fracked it, anything i can do from here?

  23. i have a problem with my ibm thinkpad, it went into a sleep mode, and never gat from it, tryed turning it off, and back on, but it stays in sleep mode(the reson i know that is cause the icon that shows that laptop is in sleep mode is on), i’m out of ideas to try, can anybody help me.

  24. All i can suggest is to remove the battery from the laptop, open it up, make sure it doesn’t have a small laptop CMOS battery, if it does, remove it and let it sit for a day (5 minutes if you’re impatient) Put both batteries back in, when/if it starts disable Power management in BIOS and flash your BIOS next chance you get. My $.02

  25. All i can suggest is to remove the battery from the laptop, open it up, make sure it doesn’t have a small laptop CMOS battery, if it does, remove it and let it sit for a day (5 minutes if you’re impatient) Put both batteries back in, when/if it starts disable Power management in BIOS and flash your BIOS next chance you get. My $.02

  26. hello hackers! my laptop is a ACER Extensa 365 w/ 166mhz p1, 64mb ram,20x cd-rom, usb, internal modem and 12in screen. i bought off ebay, and it needs a hard drive and 7 NiMH batteries to fix it. I also had to fix the the screen’s framing as it was cracked and wouldn’t close, i fixed by using some utility wire to hold the bottom part of the frame to its hinges, it looks real ghetto, but holds nicely. i would like to expand it’s capabilities, can anyone tell me what i could do to upgrade it? still needs hard drive and battery pack to get it running, so i’d appreciate it if someone could donate a hard drive, that’d be sweet

  27. finnaly someone that can actually fix a laptop!

    i cannot tell you how many old laptops i fixed using this! i liked the “internal” wireless idea and just fixed one of my old thinkpads that the card slot quit on. oh yea, creator of comment number 8… the whole point of making a comment is to comment the person. and using the freezer is to keep the hydrogen bonds between the molcules in the hydrochloric acid (common battery acid) from breaking due to a prolonged time of either being drained, or having a chemical memory… because that was the whole problem, so if you didnt freeze them you would only make things worse.

  28. i’ve just resurrected an old Fujitsu ST2300 battery that had been collecting dust for almost 2 years, using the freezer trick. i had been planning to open up the battery and try to find the dead cell(s) and refurbish it, but now it’s holding a good 3 hour charge! thanks alot.

  29. Blimey ive just purchased an Ibm thinkpad x22 off ebay and mine is stuck in sleep mode.Its the third laptop i have bought off ebay thats not worked.i feel like a right d*ckhead.
    When i switch it on it just beeps nine times and does nothing.The z light comes on though.
    please someone help!! email me at

    1. sounds like bad memory sticks or bad battery but perhaps you can look up the beep codes

      IBM Thinkpad BIOS Beep Codes:



      Continuous beeping System board failure
      One beep; Unreadable, blank or flashing LCD LCD connector problem; LCD backlight inverter failure; video adapter faulty; LCD assembly faulty; System board failure; power supply failure
      One beep; Message “Unable to access boot source” Boot device failure; system board failure
      One long, two short beeps System board failure; Video adapter problem; LCD assembly failure
      One long, four short beeps Low battery voltage
      One beep every second Low battery voltage
      Two short beeps with error codes POST error message
      Two short beeps System board failure

  30. Well I tried the freezer trick on some old nicads years ago, without much success. It’s my exprience that old nicads/nimhs just loose their capacity to take/hold a charge a charge after hundreds of uses. Now apparently someone is selling a trick on the net that ‘instantly’ rejuvenates dead nicads. Sounds very suspicious to me. Anyone heard of this ‘battery resurrection’ or care to comment?

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