Making A Thinkpad Great Again

The Thinkpad X220 is almost a perfect laptop. The X220 is small, light, was the last small Thinkpad to use 35W CPUs, has great Linux support, incredible battery life, and can be found used very inexpensively. For the Thinkpad Mafia, the X220 is a badge of honor, but it does have one glaring drawback: the LCDs in these laptops are capped at 1366×768 resolution.

A few wizards in Japan and China have taken up the X220 and developed an adapter to give this tiny laptop the display it deserves. Mentions of a FHD mod – the Lenovo-speak for a Thinkpad display upgrade – can be found on Taobao, but the anglosphere doesn’t get these cool toys. [Vectro] decided his X220 wasn’t up to snuff and decided to build his own Thinkpad mod to give his trusty companion a bigger and brighter display. He succeeded, and did it in a way that’s much better than any previous attempt.

Stock, the X220 uses an LVDS bus for internal video, and there aren’t enough lanes on this bus for a 1080 display. The usual way of modifying the X220 for a display with higher resolution is tapping into the eDP present on the Thinkpad dock connector. [Vectro]’s solution differs slightly from the usual way of doing things – instead of using an I2C EEPROM to report the resolution, DPI, and model of display, he’s using a microcontroller. This gives him the ability to control the power state and brightness level of the display. It’s a great solution, and is designed to be a relatively easy drop-in mod.

The new display works, and Thinkpadding at 1080 is awesome, but there’s still work to be done. The dock connector is incompatible with this mod, and hopefully scaling this up for small-scale production. Producing a few X220 FHD kits is going to be a problem, as each wire in the eDP cable is individually soldered to the connector. It doesn’t scale well, but there is certainly a demand to make the greatest Thinkpad even better.

Hackaday Prize Entry: A CNC Scribe For Making Circuit Boards

We’re interested in any device that can make a PCB out of a copper-clad board, and this entry for the Hackaday Prize might be the simplest machine for PCB fabrication yet. It’s called the Projecta, and it’s a simple way to turn Eagle and KiCad files into a real circuit board.

For the home PCB fabricator, there are two ways to go about the process of turning a copper clad board into a real circuit board. The first is a CNC machine. Drop a piece of FR4 under a cutter, and you’ll get a circuit board and a lot of fiberglass dust. The Othermill is great for this, but it is a bit pricey for all but the most ambitious weekend warrior.

The second method of home PCB fabrication chemically etches the copper away. The etch resist mask can be laid down with dry film resist, or with the ever-popular laser printer, magazine, and laminator trick. Either way, the result is an acid-proof covering over the copper you don’t want to get rid of.

While the Projecta looks and sounds like a miniature CNC machine, it doesn’t chew through copper and produce a ton of fiberglass dust. The Projecta scribes the pattern of a circuit board after the copper has been masked off with a sharpie, marker, or other ink-based resist. When the board comes out of the Projecta, there’s a perfect pattern of circuits on a board, ready for the etch tank.

This technique of putting a copper clad board into a CNC machine and etching it later is something we haven’t seen before. There’s a good reason for that – if you’re putting a board under a cutter already, you might as well just chew away the copper while you’re at it.

Just because we haven’t seen this technique before doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Because the Projecta is only scribing a bit of ink off a board, the CNC mechanism doesn’t need to be that complex. It doesn’t need to throw a spindle around, and the Projecta can be built down to a price rather easily.

The Projecta is on Kickstarter right now, with the Kickstarter non-early bird price of $600. You can check out the video demo of the Projecta in action below.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Printer For Alternative Photography

Film photography began with a mercury-silver amalgam, and ended with strips of nitrocellulose, silver iodide, and dyes. Along the way, there were some very odd chemistries going on in the world of photography, from ferric and silver salts to the prussian blue found in Cyanotypes and blueprints.

Metal salts are fun, and for his Hackaday Prize entry, [David Brown] is building a printer for these alternative photographic processes. It’s not a dark room — it’s a laser printer designed to reproduce images with weird, strange chemistries.

Cyanotypes are made by applying potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate to some sort of medium, usually paper or cloth. This is then exposed via UV light (i.e. the sun), and whatever isn’t exposed is washed off. Instead of the sun, [David] is using a common UV laser diode to expose his photographs. he already has the mechanics of this printer designed, and he should be able to reach his goal of 750 dpi resolution and 8-bit monochrome.

Digital photography will never go away, but there will always be a few people experimenting with light sensitive chemicals. We haven’t seen many people experiment with these strange alternative photographic processes, and anything that gets these really cool prints out into the world is great news for us.

Hackaday Prize Entry: A CPU For Balloons

Launching a high altitude balloon requires a wide breadth of knowledge. To do it right, you obviously need to know electronics and programming to get temperature, pressure, and GPS data. You’ll have to research which cameras will take good pictures and are easily programmable. It’s cold up there, and that means you need some insulation to keep the batteries warm. If you ever want to find your payload, you’ll also need an amateur radio license.

There’s a lot of work that goes into launching high altitude balloons, and for his Hackaday Prize entry, [Jeremy] designed a simple embedded data recorder capable of flying over 100,000 feet.

This flight data recorder for balloons is based on the ever popular ATMega328, and includes humidity, temperature, pressure, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer sensors. All of this data is recorded to an SD card. The Real Engineers™ who are wont to criticize design decisions they disagree with might laugh at the use of a 7805 voltage regulator, but in this case it makes a lot of sense. The power wasted by a linear regulator isn’t. It’s turned into heat which keeps the batteries alive a little bit longer.

This balloon data recorder has already flown, and [Jeremy] got some great pictures out of it. It’s a great piece of the puzzle for an exceptionally multidisciplinary project, and a great entry for the Hackaday Prize.

Ask Hackaday: Calling All 68k Experts

This is a tale of old CPUs, intensive SMD rework, and things that should work but don’t.

Released in 1994, Apple’s Powerbook 500 series of laptop computers were the top of the line. They had built-in Ethernet, a trackpad instead of a trackball, stereo sound, and a full-size keyboard. This was one of the first laptops that looked like a modern laptop.

The CPU inside these laptops — save for the high-end Japan-only Powerbook 550c — was the 68LC040. The ‘LC‘ designation inside the part name says this CPU doesn’t have a floating point unit. A few months ago, [quarterturn] was looking for a project and decided replacing the CPU would be a valuable learning experience. He pulled the CPU card from the laptop, got out some ChipQuick, and reworked a 180-pin QFP package. This did not go well. The replacement CPU was sourced from China, and even though the number lasered onto the new CPU read 68040 and not 68LC040, this laptop was still without a floating point unit. Still, it’s an impressive display of rework ability, and generated a factlet for the marginalia of the history of consumer electronics.

Faced with a laptop that was effectively unchanged after an immense amount of very, very fine soldering, [quarterturn] had two choices. He could put the Powerbook back in the parts bin, or he could source a 68040 CPU with an FPU. He chose the latter. The new chip is a Freescale MC68040FE33A. Assured by an NXP support rep this CPU did in fact have a floating point unit, [quarterturn] checked the Mac’s System Information. No FPU was listed. He installed NetBSD. There was no FPU installed. This is weird, shouldn’t happen, and now [quarterturn] is at the limits of knowledge concerning the Powerbook 500 architecture. Thus, Ask Hackaday: why doesn’t this FPU work?

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Charlieplexed Wristwatch

If there’s one thing we like, it’s blinky stuff, and you’re not going to get anything cooler than a display made of tiny SMD LEDs. That’s the idea behind this wristwatch and Hackaday Prize entry. It’s a tiny board, loaded up with an ATmega, a few buttons, and a bunch of LEDs in a big charlieplexed array.

The big feature of this display is the array of LEDs. This is a 16×5 array of 0603 LEDs packed together as tightly as possible. That’s a tiny, high-resolution LED display, but even with the ATmega88 microcontroller powering this board, all the LEDs are individually addressable, and a proper font for displaying the time, or anything else, is already mapped out.

LED matrices are pretty common around these parts, but building a custom display out of SMD LEDs is another level entirely. The best one we’ve seen was this unofficial badge from two DEF CONs ago. That was done the cheater’s way with a bunch of serially addressable LED drivers. This charlieplexed version goes above and beyond, and we’re eagerly awaiting the board files so this display can be replicated easily.

Hackaday Links: August 21, 2016

Are you in New York? What are you doing this week? Hackaday is having a party on Wednesday evening. come on out!

How about a pub in Cambridge? Hackaday and Tindie will be there too, on Wednesday evening. It’s a bring-a-hack, so bring a hack and enjoy the company of your fellow nerds. If this goes late enough we can have a trans-Atlantic Hackaday meetup.

Portable emulation machines are all the rage, and [Pierre] built one based on the Raspberry Pi Zero. It’s small, looks surprisingly comfortable to hold, and is apparently it’s fairly inexpensive to build your own.

For the last year or so, the Raspberry Pi Zero has existed. This came as a surprise to many who couldn’t buy a Raspberry Pi Zero. In other news, Ferraris don’t exist, and neither do Faberge egg omelets. Now, the Raspberry Pi shortage is officially over. They’re in stock everywhere, and we can finally stop listening to people who call the Pi Zero a marketing ploy.

No Starch Press is having another Humble Bundle. Pay what you want, and you get some coding books. They have Python, Haskell, and R, because no one should ever have to use SPSS.

[Reg] wrote in to tell us about something interesting he found while cruising eBay. The used and surplus market is awash in Siemens MC45/MC46 cellular modem modules. They’re a complete GSM ‘cellular modem engine’, with an AT command set, and cost about $10 each. Interfacing them with a board requires only two (strange) connectors, SIM and SD card sockets, and a few traces to through-hole pads. Anyone up for a challenge? A breakout board for this cellular modem could be very useful, should someone find a box full of these modules in a surplus shop.

On this page, about halfway down the page, is an LCD driver board. It turns a video signal into something a small, VGA resolution LCD will understand. This driver board is unique because it is completely hand-made. This is one of those small miracles of a soldering iron and copper clad board. If anyone out there is able to recognize these parts, I’d love for you to attempt an explanation in the comments.

A few weeks ago, the RTL8710 WiFi module showed up on the usual online marketplaces. Initially, we thought it was a competitor to the ever-popular ESP8266, offering a small microcontroller, WiFi, and a bunch of useful output pins. A module based on the RTL8710, the RTL-00, is much more than a competitor. It’s pinout compatible with the ESP8266. This module can be swapped into a project in place of the ESP-12, probably the most popular version of the ESP8266. This is genius, and opens the door to a lot of experimentation with the RTL8710.