Powering A Laptop With Supercapacitors

What do you do when you find a small horde of supercapacitors? The correct answer is a spectrum of dangerous devices ranging from gauss guns to quarter shrinkers. [Rinoa] had a less destructive idea: she’s replaced the battery in a laptop with a bank of supercapacitors.

The supercaps in question are 2.7 Volt, 500 Farad caps arranged in banks six for a total of about 3 watt-hours in each bank. The laptop used for this experiment is an IBM Thinkpad from around 1998. The stock battery in this laptop is sufficiently less advanced than today’s laptop batteries. Instead of using a microcontroller and SMBus in the battery, the only connections between the battery and laptop are power, ground, and connections for a thermocouple. This is standard for laptops of the mid-90s, and common in low-end laptops of the early 2000s. It also makes hacking these batteries very easy as there’s no associated microprocessors to futz around with.

With all the capacitor banks charged, the laptop works. It should – there isn’t a lot of intelligence in this battery. With one bank of six supercaps, [Rinoa] is getting a few minutes of power on her laptop. With a stack of supercaps that take up about the same volume as this already think Thickpad, [Rinoa] can play a few turns of her favorite late-90s turn-based strategy game. It’s not much, but it does work.

Check out [Rinoa]’s video below.

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A Personal Fight Against The Modern Laptop

If you haven’t gone laptop shopping recently, you’re in for a big shock when you do. While the current generation of MacBook Pros is rightly torn to shreds for being an overpriced machine with a stupid gimmick of a Touch Bar, there are issues with laptops across the industry. No one has figured out how to take a high-res iPad screen and add a keyboard, most laptops with a display smaller than 13 inches are capped at 720 resolution, new features are introduced at the expense of old ones, binary blobs are cast into a web of BIOS whitelists and missing drivers, No, the Microsoft Surface doesn’t count, because while it’s a nice machine it’s a tablet with a keyboard, not a laptop.

After months of searching, [Hamish Coleman] found the closest thing to a perfect laptop. It’s a Thinkpad X230 from the ancient days of yore, or 2012 depending on how you’re counting. It’s close to perfect, though: aside from an old CPU and GPU, the only real show stopper is the keyboard. Replacing that keyboard was [Hamish]’s personal fight against the modern laptop (YouTube, embedded below), and he’s making it easier for us to fight against the current crop of craptops, too.

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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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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.

Unlocking Thinkpad Batteries

A few months ago, [Matt] realized he needed another battery for his Thinkpad X230T. The original battery would barely last 10 minutes, and he wanted a battery that would last an entire plane flight. When his new battery arrived, he installed it only to find a disturbing message displayed during startup: “The system does not support batteries that are not genuine Lenovo-made or authorized.” The battery was chipped, and now [Matt] had to figure out a way around this.

Most recent laptop batteries have an integrated controller that implements the Smart Battery Specification (SBS) over the SMBus, an I2C-like protocol with data and clock pins right on the battery connector. After connecting a USBee logic analyser to the relevant pins, [Matt] found the battery didn’t report itself correctly to the Thinkpad’s battery controller.

With the problem clearly defined, [Matt] had a few options open to him. The first was opening both batteries, and replacing the cells in the old (genuine) battery with the cells in the newer (not genuine) battery. If you’ve ever taken apart a laptop battery, you’ll know this is the worst choice. There are fiddly bits of plastic and glue, and if you’re lucky enough to get the battery apart in a reasonably clean matter, you’re not going to get it back together again. The second option was modifying the firmware on the non-genuine battery. [Charlie Miller] has done a bit of research on this, but none of the standard SBS commands would work on the non-genuine battery, meaning [Matt] would need to take the battery apart to see what’s inside. The third option is an embedded controller that taps into the SMBus on the charger connector, but according to [Matt], adding extra electronics to a laptop isn’t ideal. The last option is modifying the Thinkpad’s embedded controller firmware. This last option is the one he went with.

There’s an exceptionally large community dedicated to Thinkpad firmware hacks, reverse engineering, and generally turning Thinkpads into the best machines they can be. With the schematics for his laptop in hand, [Matt] found the embedded controller responsible for battery charging, and after taking a few educated guesses had some success. He ran into problems, though, when he discovered some strangely encrypted code in the software image. A few Russian developers had run into the same problem, and by wiring up a JTAG to the embedded controller chip, this dev had a fully decrypted Flash image of whatever was on this chip.

[Matt]’s next steps are taking the encrypted image and building new firmware for the embedded controller that will allow him to charge is off-brand, and probably every other battery on the planet. As far as interesting mods go, this is right at the top, soon to be overshadowed by a few dozen comments complaining about DRM in batteries.

Hackaday Links: June 28, 2015

The iBookGuy is using CPU heatsinks to cool microwave dinners. It’s an old Pentium II heatsink and a modern fan, cobbled together into a device that can quickly and effectively cool down a microwave dinner. I have several heatsinks from some old Xeon servers in my kitchen, but I don’t use them to cool food; I use them to defrost food. It’s very effective, and now I need to get some data on how effective it is.

[juangarcia] is working on a 3D printable PipBoy – the one in the upcoming Fallout 4. The extra special edition of Fallout 4 include a PipBoy that works with your cellphone, but if you want one before November, 3D printing is the way to go.

[Collin] over at Adafruit is teaching Oscilloscope Basics. Note the use of the square wave output to teach how to use the controls. Also note the old-school DS1052E; the Rigol 1054Z is now the de facto ‘My First Oscilloscope’

[Donovan] has one of those V212 toy quadcopters. The remote has a switch that controls a bunch of lights on the quad. This switch can be repurposed to control a small camera. All it takes is some wire, an optocoupler, and a bit of solder. Very cool. Video here.

I go to a lot of events where hackers, devs, and engineers spend hours banging away on their laptops. The most popular brand? Apple. The second most popular brand for savvy consumers of electronics? Lenovo, specifically ThinkPad X- and T-series laptops (W-series are too big, and do you really need a workstation graphics card for writing some node app?). They’re great computers, classic works of design, and now there might be a ThinkPad Classic. With a blue Enter key, 7-row keyboard, a multi-color logo, ThinkLights, a bunch of status LEDs, and that weird rubberized paint, it’s a modern realization of what makes a ThinkPad great. Go comment on that Lenovo blog post; the designer is actually listening. Now if we could just get a retina display in a MacBook Air (the one with ports), or get manufacturers to stop shipping displays with worse than 1080 resolution…

Need a fan guard? Know OpenSCAD? Good. Now you have all the fan guards you could ever want. Thanks [fridgefire] for sending this one in.

Thinkpad 701c: Reverse Engineering a Retro Processor Upgrade

[Noq2] has given his butterfly new wings with a CPU upgrade. Few laptops are as iconic as the IBM Thinkpad 701 series and its “butterfly” TrackWrite keyboard. So iconic in fact, that a 701c is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Being a 1995 vintage laptop, [Noq2’s] 701c understandably was no speed demon by today’s standards. The fastest factory configuration was an Intel 486-DX4 running at 75 MHz. However, there have long been rumors and online auctions referring to a custom model modified to run an AMD AM-5×86 at 133 MHz. The mods were performed by shops like Hantz + Partner in Germany. With this in mind, [Noq2] set about reverse engineering the modification, and equipping his 701c with a new processor.

thinkpad-brainsurgeryThe first step was determining which AMD processor variant to use. It turns out that only a few models of AMD’s chips were pin compatible with the 208 pin Small Quad Flat Pack (SQFP) footprint on the 701c’s motherboard. [Noq2] was able to get one from an old Evergreen 486 upgrade module on everyone’s favorite auction site. He carefully de-soldered the AM-5×86 from the module, and the Intel DX4 from the 701c. A bit of soldering later, and the brain transplant was complete.

Some detailed datasheet research helped [noq2] find the how to increase the bus clock on his 5×86 chip, and enable the write-back cache. All he had to do was move a couple of passive components and short a couple pins on the processor.

The final result is a tricked out IBM 701c Thinkpad running an AMD 5×86 at 133 MHz. Still way too slow for today’s software – but absolutely the coolest retro mod we’ve seen in a long time.