Bringing the Zach Morris phone into the 21st century

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With the gravitas of [Michael Douglas] in Wall Street and the technological amazement of [Zach Morris] on Saved By The Bell, the classic 1980s ‘brick’ cell phone has a lot to offer these days. Not only is it large enough to be used as a blunt weapon, it’s also useful as an anchor and more durable than an old-school Nokia. Most, if not all of these phones have gone silent since analog cellular service went dead a few years ago, but that didn’t stop [Andrew] from bringing his back to life.

The core of this build is a 128×64 OLED screen that replaced the old seven-digit, seven-segment display and a very small GSM module. The ancient PCB was discarded and a new hardware revision was created in Eagle based on an Arduino-powered microcontroller. The buttons from the original phone remained, thanks to a custom designed resistive button footprint on the PCB and a bit of conductive ink.

What’s surprising is this phone actually works. [Andrew] can not only receive texts on his phone, but also send them using his own implementation of a number pad keyboard. It’s an awesome build, and from what we can tell, the first proper DIY cell phone we’ve ever seen. About time someone got around to that, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better form factor.

27 thoughts on “Bringing the Zach Morris phone into the 21st century

    1. Not too mention, in the article:
      “The only other DIY cellphone I found was from High-Low Tech, I used there code as a starting point…”

    1. You’re thinking too small :)

      Some old ‘dumb’ phones already have a standby time of 2 weeks & talk time of 8 hours on a small 800mah lithium cell, so imagine what the standby & talk times would be on a battery pack 5x-10x the size!

    1. Hmmm, I’ve got a StarTAC that could be a candidate for that…. though I’ve also got a box of nokia 5190s, but they can still actually work… just ran out of decent batteries.

  1. Often, innovation and technological progress is the result of genius… But sometimes, you need a little crazy, or just some tongue-in-cheek lulziness. ;)

    Having a brick phone that works on modern networks would be hilariously absurd. :D

  2. The obvious next step would be a modernized bag-phone. Imagine the talk time you could get with a 100 Ah lead acid cell!

    1. Maybe dependent more on the self discharge time of the cell :D Though with that kind of space these days, it would be really easy to do a toteable/wearable PC with enough grunt to do augmented reality stuff that smartphones won’t be capable of for 5 years.

      1. My old team had a bag phone for the on call person. It was actually a car cell phone transceiver in an extruded aluminum carrying bracket, with the radio mounted on rails on one side and the battery pack on rails in the other, all wrapped in a black padded nylon bag. The handle on the top had a molded cradle for the handset. The antenna was a magnet mount car antenna on a piece of coax which we could snake out the window and stick to the roof. The thing weighed 10-15 pounds.

        So is that a “practical” bag? That depended on what you meant by practical. Being able to go boating while on call was a pretty amazing perk. And it certainly couldn’t have been 100 AH, but it had maybe a 5 AH battery, which is still several kilos.

        Someone smashed my vehicle’s window and stole it, so the team got a DynaTAC to replace it. It was a whole lot lighter and smaller, but needed daily recharging as the battery life was awful. That bag phone would go almost a week on a charge.

        Stick a modern GSM transmitter in that old bag, refill both sides with about 20 AH of sealed gel batteries, and I bet you could have a month of talk time today – if you wanted to carry a 15 pound cell phone!

  3. This is actually really cool. Like another commenter, I have an old Motorola StarTAC that I’ve pondered doing something similar too (neat phone, the battery life just leaves something to be desired compared to modern offerings).

    1. That would depend on the relative brightness of the local criminal fraternity, they are known to steal AM car radios here still.

      1. I had an acquaintance that had his window smashed so the crook could steal a laptop bag… that was used as a diaper bag. -.- Smash and grab, then bother to look wtf it is later.

  4. A StarTAC retrofit kit would be very neat. Fill as much as possible of the top half with a screen. Could do the same with the bottom half, or some sort of full keyboard.

    1. Back around 2009 I was working as a tower lighting tech and I would see the bag phones in a lot of the bunkers at the base of the tower that housed the radios and other equipment for the various cell service providers on that tower. I picked one up and made a call one time and it worked. If anyone knows why they put bag phones at the tower sites I would love to know.

  5. As cool as this, I can’t help but wonder if it’s legal to use. My understanding is that when using your own antenna with a GSM chip, it needs to be recertified by the FCC / your local equivalent.

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