Adding a netbook keyboard light

[Vikash] was having trouble using his netbook in the dark so he added a keyboard light. He’s got a Dell Vostro A90 which is the same hardware as the popular Dell Mini 9. We agree that the condensed keyboard layout makes it hard to type without looking; just try to find the quotation mark, brackets, and tilde keys! He added an LED to the bezel around the LCD screen in order to shed light on the situation. Now the LED can be turned on using CTRL. An ATtiny13 microcontroller monitors pins 1 and 11 of the keyboard, waiting for the CTRL keypress, then turns on the light when it receives it. This hardware solution means it doesn’t matter if you’re running a Hackintosh (like he is), Ubuntu (like we are), or that other OS.


  1. James says:
  2. Gdogg says:

    ctrl key? seriously? That would be a pain in the ass. I’m set it as something like pause break, or another eky that isn’t hit often.

  3. Gdogg says:

    Oh. You have to HOLD the Ctrl key. That’s more like it.

  4. Joe says:

    Or, you could just learn where all the keys are. There are bumps on ‘f’ and ‘j’. That has been my reasoning for why no one but apple have made light up keyboards.

  5. Mikey says:

    So… every time he hits control his laptop glows? Why not just put a fucking switch on it and turn it on in the dark? Or… buy a backlit usb keyboard and a docking station.

  6. MadScott says:

    *Great* idea, and one that should be included in the roster of built ins for a device like this but I’d side with some of the other posters. I have a Mini 9 and there’s the usual Dell blue function keys, so I’d prefer {Fn} + {something little-used}, but that’s just a matter of preference. This mod was probably doable while not having to reverse engineer things for weeks. I’ve just been using a USB powered light myself but may reconsidered.

  7. sachleen says:

    My Thinkpad has this feature, never used it though. The light from the screen itself is more than enough for me.

  8. João Andrade says:

    He could also wire it to the Scroll Lock key. Even if it’s probably a Fn + F12 combination, I think it would be a bit more functional.

  9. deadeye says:

    yup sachleen, got one too on my wor T61p, pretty crappy thing.
    I really prefer the backlit keyboard (40€ option) on my Dell Studio. ^^

  10. Terraphoenix says:

    I’d had a similar situation and while it wasn’t a true “hack” it was a convenient mod. I used one of those folding booklights my wife got with a snuggie and mounted the folding hinge into the top housing and a resisted line soldered to the battery connectors hidden inside the case. It only turns on when you release the hinge and it releases itself from behind the display to point directly at the keys!

  11. blue carbuncle says:

    @ most above agreed. With my wife’s old HP I got a dollar tree usb swivel lamp that i just rigged internally with the switch in the extra space by the cooling fan (wtf is that space for anyway?). Her new old thinkpad has one built in and it’s quite pimp.

  12. Haku says:

    Keyboards are much easier to see in lower light conditions if they’re white…

  13. zerth says:

    I’m just going to leave this here:

  14. fenwick says:

    Gotta love the first comment on the Dell forums link.

    “nice job, looks good, seems like a lot of work though…I think a small attachable book light would also do the same job….but yours is nice too..”

  15. tristand says:

    I did something like this a while back but I think it’s neater. Any key combo can trigger it and it’s fully software controllable.

  16. qwertyphile says:

    Why use an ATMEL chip when a Flip-Flop + a Cap for timing would do the same? That’d be WAY easier and cheaper. No programming required.

  17. octel says:

    Any way to liberate the images so everyone can see them without registering for the forums?

  18. cameron20020 says:

    i did this ages ago with my eeepc

    controlled it by switching webcam off/on
    worked a treat

  19. Ugly American says:

    The human eye is most sensitive to green but red won’t cause your pupils to contract.

    Blue causes hazing and makes your night vision worse. It should not be used for night lights.

  20. Anon says:

    Or you could have just bought a thinkpad x series

  21. CH says:

    Would it be cheaper though?
    And would it be smaller?

  22. Vikash says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    On ThinkPads, the ThinkLight is toggled by pressing Fn-PgUp which is nice because Fn is the lowest/leftmost key and PgUp is the highest/rightmost key, so you can feel for it in the dark. On the Mini 9, the corresponding key combo would be Ctrl-Backspace, but I didn’t want to use a keystroke that would be so likely to be bound to some action in software. As a bonus, the Ctrl key is easy to monitor.

    tristand – I read and was inspired by your writeup — nice work, by the way — but I couldn’t seem to access the system management bus from OS X. This way I do get the advantage that it works independently of the OS; it even works during bootup or in the BIOS configuration.

    qwertyphile – I suppose you could accomplish something similar with a handful of components (you’d need a little more than just a flip-flop and capacitor — probably at least resistor and an AND gate), but the ATTiny13 is only a buck and a half and really compact.

    Anon – I in fact have three ThinkPad X series laptops. That’s why I couldn’t deal with not having a ThinkLight on this Dell.

  23. Olivier says:

    From the link : “I also dimmed the power LED a little with some masking tape”… wtf ? he can open his notebook, program a microcontroller to do what he wants, but he can’t even dim the LED with PWM ?

  24. Vikash says:

    Olivier – That’s a thought — I was going to just try putting a resistor in series with it, but the power LED is a super-tiny SMD unit with a light pipe that fits on top. It’d be hard to keep it in the same position but run new wires without interfering with the light pipe fit. The motherboard also drives the LED with PWM (it fades in and out when the computer’s asleep) so it might be hard to sync the two PWM signals up to maintain that feature. In the end, masking tape worked perfectly.

  25. Olivier says:

    @Vikash : I don’t really understand where this other PWM is coming. From your schematics, the LED is connected to +5V and the ATTiny.
    So, I also don’t understand why you would need new wires ? It should work by just changing a bit your program, no?

    I’m sorry if I’m missing some informations, but I can’t see any pics because I’m not registered to the mydellmini forum.

  26. Vikash says:

    Olivier – Oh, I see where the confusion is coming from. The LED that I dimmed with masking tape is the netbook’s built-in power LED, completely different from the new LED that I installed. That masking tape is a separate mod on a separate part of the computer.

  27. Frogz says:

    anyone know if a palm centro is modable to have a keyboard light?
    the keyboard was miserable to use at first

    people cant learn to use it? lol

  28. Olivier says:

    @Vikash : ok, thanks for the explanation, now I understand :) I didn’t understand that the “power LED” was the LED of the notebook.
    I thought you were meaning that the LED you installed was too powerful to be usable. As I said, the only pic I’ve seen of your mod is the little one from here.

    So, I’m very sorry, and congrats for your work :)

  29. Vikash says:

    Hey, no problem. I guess I should have posted the images up somewhere publicly accessible. In fact, I’ll do it now:

  30. Olivier says:

    Thanks Vikash for taking the time to upload the pics somewhere else. Now we can really appreciate your work.
    Now I should do the same kind of modification on my good old eeepc 701 :)

  31. Vikash says:

    Olivier – I look forward to seeing it! =)

  32. IDontGiveADuck says:

    For all of you guys talkin about this or that has been seen/done before, keep in mind some of us, including newbies like myself, have NEVER seen this before. It’s a brand new thought for us.

    So if you seen it before,good for your lucky ass. Move on to your next mind changing idea that will revolutionize the world. Why spend the precious seconds telling us how you seen/done it before?

  33. I was also dubious about the new key styles. I have had the more Selectric style keyboards for quite a while–both wireless and wired. I love them. I got one of the new wireless ones, and then this one. As I have gotten used to them, I really like them. I am not a touch typist, but more a multi-finger-hunt-and-peck typist. On the new ones, I am back up to 50wpm. Here is my gripe. The previous generation wireless keyboard was available with a full separate numeric keypad, arrow keypad, and specific keys and SIXTEEN function keys. Why, oh why Apple, is the new wireless version only available in a QWERTY layout with no numeric keypad?

    Colonel Panic

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