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.
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:
- Discharge the battery as much as you can.
- Place in a sealed plastic bag.
- Place the bag in your freezer for at least 24hours. Overnight is sometimes enough, but I leave it about a
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Remove and respray the multicoloured buttons (ugh.. red,green,yellow,blue everywhere is too much), for a red+black
colour scheme. Add bluetooth.