Turn That Old Tablet Into A Sub-$100 Linux Laptop

Tiny laptops have always been devices that promise so much, yet fail somehow to deliver. From the Atari Portfolio palmtops through to the recent crop of netbooks they have been either eye-wateringly expensive if they are any good, or so compromised by their size constraints as to be next-to-useless. We’ve seen DOS, EPOC, Windows, WinCE, Palm OS, Linux distros and more in tiny form factors over the years, yet few have made a significant mark.

The prospect of a “proper” computer in your hand isn’t something to abandon just yet though. We are now reaching the point at which the previous generation of higher-end Android tablets are both acceptably powerful and sufficiently numerous as to be available at a very reasonable price. Perhaps these can provide the tiny laptop seeker with a basis for something useful. [NODE] certainly thinks so, because he’s produced a nice little Ubuntu laptop using a second-hand Nexus 7 tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard case. Android is replaced with an Ubuntu image, and a cardboard cut-out display bezel is held in place with magnetic strips. A step-by-step guide has been put up to help others interested in following the same path.

This is not the most amazing of hardware hacks, in that it involves mostly off-the-shelf items and a piece of software. However it’s worth a look because it does provide a route to a very acceptable little Linux laptop for an extremely reasonable price. One concern is that the Ubuntu version seems not to be a recent one, however we’re sure readers will point at any newer distribution builds in the comments. If you fancy a look at the finished laptop he’s posted a video which we’ve included below the break.

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Computer Emulation In The Manner Of A Turducken

If you come from somewhere with a tradition of eating a meal of roast turkey or goose to celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, or other holidays, then maybe you’ve encountered the three-bird roast, or Turducken. A deboned duck is stuffed with a deboned chicken, and in turn the combination is stuffed into a turkey All the gaps are filled with sausage meat stuffing, and the resulting combination is roasted for a serious meat-fest. Vegetarians, please look away.

It’s something of an excess of poultry, but the three-bird roast is a delicacy that definitely works. We’re not so sure about the link that prompted this journey into celebration poultry dishes by reminding us of a turducken, but  we’ll leave the verdict to you the reader. Someone has created an unholy turducken-style chain of emulators that delivers a Sinclair ZX Spectrum on a Linux machine via Windows, DOS, and the Commodore 64. If it had its own word like the poultry dish it might be a Linwindoscomtrum, but let’s not go there.

The linwincomtrum in all its glory.
The linwindoscomtrum in all its glory.

So how have they done it? First, they took Lubuntu, and installed WINE. (OK, Wine Is Not an Emulator, we know that, but go with the story for a moment) Then they installed DOSBox under WINE for a DOS command prompt, and ran no$C64, a Commodore 64 emulator. On that they ran the c642spec Sinclair ZX Spectrum emulator, and finally arrived in a ZX BASIC prompt.

The author does make the point at the start of the write-up that it’s a waste of ten minutes, but even though the result is an overly complex way to slowly emulate an archaic home computer on a modern one we’ll still give them ten out of ten for the effort.

Incidentally, the author does not identify themself and there is little clue in the form of the rest of the site to identify them, so unusually for a Hackaday piece we can not give credit where it is due. We do however salute the anonymous emulator pilot for their glorious folly.

If the ZX piques your interest, we’ve featured a coding tutorial for the rubber-keyed British micro in the past, as well as a later one having a tape-drive-ectomy, and of course the hellzxschreiber amateur radio Hellschreiber receiver.

Via Hacker News. ZX Spectrum image: Bill Bertram [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Apple Sucks Now, Here’s A ThinkPad Buyer’s Guide

For the last decade, Macs have been running a UNIX-ish operating system on x86 processors. They’ve been fantastic developer’s machines, and the MacBook Pro is the de facto standard laptop issued to all developers, all hackathon attendees, and arguably, anyone who does real work with a computer.

This week, Apple unveiled the latest MacBook Pro and provided more evidence Steve Jobs actually knew what he was doing. Fifteen hundred bones will get you a MacBook Pro with a last-gen processor, an Escape key, a headphone jack, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports (with one port required for charging). The next model up costs $1800, ditches the Escape key for a dedicated emoji bar, and includes four Thunderbolt 3 ports.

In the past, I have defended people who choose MacBooks as their laptop of choice. A MacBook is a business-class laptop, and of course carries a higher price tag. However, Apple’s latest hardware release was underwhelming and overpriced. If you’re looking for a new laptop, you would do well to consider other brands. To that end, here’s a buyer’s guide to ThinkPads, currently the second most popular laptop I’ve seen with the dev/hacker/code cracker crowd.

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ODROID XU4 Runs Cool as Water

We did a bit of looking through the ODROID forums and apparently it’s quite possible to squeeze an impressive amount of performance out of these little single board computers, if you don’t mind them getting boiling hot.

Now, some people have taken pedestrian routes. It’s a low power single board computer after all. A bigger heatsink or a fan appears to be enough for most. [Micky] and a friend, however, decided this is a problem that can only be solved with a healthy bit of overengineering.

Using a water cooler meant for a full CPU, a modified chipset cooling block (meant for the North or South Bridge), a liberal application of plexiglass, and some thermal paste they manage to triple the cost of their computer set-up with this wonderfully overkill desk ornament.

Now it can do all the things a Raspberry Pi can do, faster and watercooled.

When Your Screen Breaks In The Himalayas

If you’ve ever had the screen break on your laptop, you’ll know it can be rather annoying to have to use an external monitor for a while as you either wait for a replacement panel to arrive from the other side of the world, or wait for that new laptop you were just desperate for an excuse to upgrade to.

Spare a thought, then, for [tom bh] whose laptop screen broke while he was in Ladakh, Northern India. Two days bus ride from the nearest city in which he could hope to source a replacement part, he had to make do with the resources in front of him. A laptop with a broken screen, and his Android phone.

He was fortunate in that a few lines at the top of the screen still worked intermittently. So after logging in blind and finding himself in a shell, he could execute commands and then scroll the results up to the point at which they were visible. He first enabled an SSH server, then connected his phone via USB. A bit of work to find the laptop’s IP address, and he could get himself a laptop shell on his phone with an Android SSH client. He goes into detail about how he was able to use the laptop’s keyboard to emulate a Bluetooth device which he connected to the phone. He could then run a VNC server on the laptop and connect to it with a VNC client on the phone, resulting in a phone-sized laptop display using the laptop’s keyboard as input. Not a perfect physical terminal by any means, but enough for him to continue working.

His writeup is an especially interesting read for its side-by-side evaluation of the various different application choices he made, and contains some useful suggestions as to how anyone might prepare themselves for a dead screen related emergency.

We’ve featured a dead-screen laptop connected as a serial terminal with an Arduino in the past, but unlike this one that only gave its owner a prompt.

Via Hacker News.

Making A Cassette Mass Storage Interface

If you are of the generation who were lucky enough to use the first 8-bit home computers in your youth, you will be familiar with their use of cassette tapes as mass storage. Serial data would be converted to a sequence of tones which could then be recorded using a standard domestic cassette recorder, this recording could then be played back into the machine’s decoder and loaded into memory as a complete piece of software. Larger programs could take a while to load, but though it was rather clunky it was a masterful piece of making the best of what was at hand.

[Mike Kohn] was working with some microcontroller infra-red communication projects when he saw that the same techniques could be used to produce a tape interface like those on the home computers of old.

Over the years he has returned to the project a couple of times, and his original Atmel processor has been supplanted by a W65C265SXB development board based on the 16-bit derivative of the 6502. This made generating the tones as straightforward using his processor’s built-in tone generator, but decoding still presented a challenge. His earlier attempts used an LM2917 frequency to voltage converter to decode tones to logic levels, but on further consideration he decided to move to the LM567 tone decoder. This chip is designed specifically for an on-off logic output rather than the 2917’s analogue voltage output.

His recording device was originally a hi-fi separate cassette deck after experimenting with microcassettes, but eventually he used a data recorder designed for a Radio Shack TRS-80. All his code can be found in his GitHub repository.

It’s probably true to say that [Mike] has made a better cassette interface than the one you could have found on your home computer back in the day. We’ve featured a few data cassette hacks over the years, including this Commodore tape deck with an LED counter, and a tape deck emulator capable of holding an entire software archive.

Hook Any Mouse to an Acorn

Acorn was one of the great IT giants that rose high and then fell to obscurity during the rise of personal computing. However, for many hobbyists these computers are as important and as loved as the Commodore 64. [Simon Inns] has made a great adapter to interface modern USB mice to these old boxes. 

After thirty years of interaction with people, one might be hard pressed to find a working mouse for an older computer. On top of that, even if you did, these mice are likely a lackluster experience to begin with. They were made long before industrial designers were invited to play with computers and are often frustrating and weird. Cotton swabs and alcohol are involved, to say the least.

[Simon]’s box converts a regular USB HID compliant mouse to a quadrature signal that these 8-bit computers like. The computer then counts the fake pulses and happily moves the cursor around. No stranger to useful conversion boxes, he used an Atmel micro (AT90USB1287) with a good set of USB peripherals. It’s all nicely packed into a project box. There’s a switch on the front to select between emulation modes.

If you’d like one for yourself the code and schematics are available on his site. As you can see in the video below, the device works well!

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