HackIt: New Life For Old Laptops?

Last time, I challenged everyone to shout out with new ideas for those old TiVo boxes. The response was fantastic. I’m not feeling too exotic tonight, so I’ll make it easy: The laptop. Years ago I found an article on using old laptop screens to make an electronically dimmed window. At tie time, LCD panels were $1000 items. Today, screens and old laptops can be picked up for a song.

Since ‘Hackit’ is a new idea, I’m still working out just how I’m going to handle it. Each week I’m going to bring up some hardware. You guys get to pick your brains and suggest new, interesting projects. Every so often, I’ll tally up some of the best ideas and put up a bounty for pulling one of them off. Maybe it’ll be cash, maybe some spiffy hardware – I’ll let you know when we get to it.

So, got a better idea? Let’s hear it.

161 thoughts on “HackIt: New Life For Old Laptops?

  1. The old laptops, depending on the age of the laptop can be used as:
    Install linux, and you got a cheap web/print/ftp/file server
    Or, to play the games from the old times, before the dark times, before the empire.. install freedos, freedos.org, and all the old games and play the night away.
    Maybe use it as a beowulf cluster. Either linux, or freedos, I have lost the url to the project, but else it could be a nice project to do.

  2. I always thought it would be neat to custom machine an aluminum case for my old laptop. Especially since the plastic housing, hinges, and keyboard are falling apart. You could do it case-modder style with windows, or go for the macbook look of solid brushed aluminum. It would also be nice to see a modified cooling system to replace the noisy, aging fans.

  3. Depending on the age you can make an mp3 player, a 2nd screen for your desktop, a terminal ( I use a 486 thinkpad to plug into headless machines when they loose network), I saw a nice instructable on how to make a custom wall clock from an even older B/W laptop, you could make a picture frame, if you have an old tabled (like old touchscreen thinkpads) you could add some X10 stuff and make a home controller.

    I would like to see more ideeas !

  4. i want to turn an laptop LCD into a LCD Shutter
    for my motorcycle license plate..

    if it “flashes” at “the right rate” when picked up by speed cameras it will only show a couple of the license plate identifiers. “or parts of”

    but for the naked “slower than the speedcamera shutter” eye
    it will appere perfectly normal


  5. Installing Linux seems like the most straight-forward thing to do. Then you can load (or create) apps to make it do whatever gnifty thing you want done.

    In my opinion, at this point DeLi Linux is the best option for truly ancient hardware. I’ve got that on a Toshiba Satellite 490XCDT that I’m hoping to turn into a internet surfing machine, once I get an appropriate WiFi card for it.

  6. aside from the obvious (or maybe not) use as a tivo box, it could be used for a million things. hack a coffee maker and a toaster to be turned on by alarm. use it to make a digital table by projecting the screen through an old overhead projector onto an acrylic table and mount a camera to watch for movement (idea from http://www.instructables.com/id/Interactive-Multitouch-Display/). make your own alarm system with ir leds that are interrupted if the door/window/whatever is opened while the alarm is activated. make it look nice again and use it as a prop in a movie so you aren’t breaking a decent laptop, because everyone wants to make a movie. mount it on your wall like people do with their pets after they have gone to the taxidermist.

  7. I’ve started work on using an old laptop as a “black box” for my truck. Right now I’m in the planning and acquiring hardware stage, but I think that in the end, it could become something very useful for other people to duplicate and improve.

    Basic Hardware:
    Radar gun
    Make controller (or similiar)
    Power Inverter
    Mini Cameras (2-4)
    Video capture device (USB/PCMCIA?)
    Touchscreen LCD
    Small character LCD

    Instant vehicle stats
    Track fuel usage info
    Track speed and location
    Record surrounding traffic (video)
    Collision warning
    Advanced cruise control
    Instant traffic notifications
    Speed/Redlight camera notification
    Driving directions

    Prolly many more things than that. I don’t really care about multimedia capabilities.

  8. Might I suggest tearing the screen open and creating a digital projector, but taking it a step further by adding voice control and full multimedia streamed from another computer on the network. Then taking video clips next time you visit the beach, or finding a dvd of some exotic place that you would like to visit and converting an entire wall into a “window” that looks into another world. Alternatively if your computer is too old for any video (highly doubt it but you never know) you could display pictures downloaded from flickr using a simple script based on a keyword of your choosing. The biggest problem I see with a setup like this is the camouflaging of the projector setup as no one except a major geek wants to have a huge light leaking ugly projector in their living room.

    1. I like the idea of a projector. And although I cant afford a project like this id like to see someone try it. To take an external camera mounted on an exterior wall. And a projector aimed at the same interior wall. To create an interior effect of an invisible wall. This would be great for security purposes. this would in effect make a glass wall with perfect privacy.

  9. Own personal speedtrap.

    Connect it to a webcam and one of those cheap radar guns and keep an eye on the speed demons on your neighbourhood.

    You ‘ll get them unless they hav an LCD shutter on their licenseplates. ;-)

  10. You could always do the obvious digital picture frame… Build a wood casing, set a picture slideshow on a certain directory, file sharing on the network, put it to sleep at night, Never have to touch the picture frame, do it all remotely, get real fancy and VNC into it. I think it would be awesome to maybe have it networked and setup a program to capture display your current iTunes track from say… the computer upstairs, which is connected to your stereo. Not even a Digital picture frame, just a digital billboard of sorts. You could go even further and have it flash by your latest RSS headlines! I want one in my living room!

  11. My web server is located in my bedroom, where I don’t have room for a full keyboard or monitor, and for a while it kept having kernel panics and other sorts of things, but I could never see any of the output because of the lack of monitor. So I took an old Toshiba 7″ laptop with a serial connector and permanently attached it to the server and it acts as a nice little keyboard and monitor for the bigger box. Also, it fits nicely in the drawer in my nightstand.

  12. Without getting too tricky, as has been suggested there are plenty of free and not free media centre options you could go for (specially since a lot of laptops seem to come with video-out built in). I’m also a fan of the kitchen PC concept, if you don’t already have one. You could possibly build it into a part of your kitchen and use it to show you the weather, news and such in the morning.

  13. i use my old toshiba 4400c (?) to program old radios and some flash devices (its the only machine that is slow enough)

    another idea that i read about was using an old machine with a busted LCD as a wifi bridge controller.

    they’re also great as servers that you need to fit in small places (like above ceiling tiles)

    and lets not forget the best kind of old laptops: the ones that arent too old (IE: my Latitude L400). its tiny, has a great price, and its small (smaller than a pad of paper)

  14. you could always use old p3 laptops as multimedia pc. just download a front end..

    or for the older ones, break the hinge and affix the pcd permanently at the back.. insta ebook reader.

  15. I’m working on turning an old laptop (Toshiba 9020CT) with broken screen into an Asterisk PBX – to:
    * take my voicemails (and give me web access to them),
    * forward my calls to whatever phone I’m near at the moment,
    * provide a flexible telephone interface to my weather station (or whatever other hardware I hack together and connect via RS232),
    * provide a home intercom,
    * conference calling,
    * etc.

    It not much of a hack though – Trixbox does most of this for me…

  16. Raises a good project, how do you use an old laptop screen as a electronically dimmed window? Is there an easy way to power it and control it to black out all the pixels without it being attached to the laptop itself? This would be most spiffing because there are just so many old dud laptops around.

  17. Use 4 with the same screen size and make a ‘window pane’ in which landscape photos are cut into 4 pieces and diplayed on each screen, so as to look like you are looking out your kitchen window into an open meadow with flowers and such.. make those back breaking dish chores a bit more cheerful.

    Urinal entertainment: Mount it on the opposite wall of your toilet and read the ‘news paper’ (feeds) or if its fast enough, streaming video.

    Embed them into electronic MIDI instruments. Take a keystation and turn it into a full strength Synth.

    Apply a touch screen film and turn it into an information access terminal.

    Mount it by your door way to allow people to leave you messages when you are not home. Add a USB camera for video door bell.

    Just as the screens can be used for projection, they can be used in a similar way as a color changer. Thus, you can have some cool changing mood lighting for a party.. no lenses needed.

    A while back there was a post about mounting fiber optics to the screen and using colored blocks to control the light output of a fiberoptic lamp.

    Dedicated weather station.

    Embed in a robot. etc etc etc.

  18. The obvious use, for me, was for running servers. Laptops get better uptime than desktops in my house because when I blow a fuse, the battery (even most old batteries) give me enough time to make it to the fuse box. And with a cheap surge protector in between the laptop and the wall I don’t have to worry about an expensive UPS.

    Going for the cool factor, though. I have a habit of buying more ThinkPads then I need off Craigslist (ok, it’s bordering on addiction…) I’m thinking of getting a GPS unit for one and mounting it upside down on the roof of my car. I’d have a crazy retro-futuristic-post-apacolyptic flip-down nagivation system like you’d expect to see on a the Millennium Falcon or something. I could also hook it into the radio for mp3s on the go. Or use it as a DVD player or game console (MAME in a ’93 Civic!). What else do people use computers for in cars?

  19. mount it in your fridge door for a digital post-it note/callender setup, shopping list.. etc
    Or if you are a food-aholic have it give you a hard time everytime you come to the door (via motion sensor). (again, using a touch film and stylus would be ideal).
    and it will be the coolest running PC in the house!

  20. Tablet for drawing and handwriting:

    Use the touchpad in absolut coordinate mode to input drawing and handwriting. Program a (graphic) software interface which let’s you control the padresolution-to-screenresolution ratio(sensitivity) and provides a drawing and writing area for which you can choose between storing the input as an image file or using a textinterpreter to export the input data to any texteditor.

    The tricky part is designing the input device, the pen if thats what you wan’t to call it. Due to the capacitive nature of the touchpad which works with the electrical resistance of your fingertip, you will either need to make a pen tip with similar electrical features or the tip has to be made of a highly conductive material and be wired to the position of your fingertip while holding it. Then you have to make sure that the surface of the tip is small enough to use for handwriting but still large enough to create a sufficiant surface for the touchpad to recognize it.

    You will be surprised by the resolution the touchpad has to offer.

    The whole idea behind this is to use old laptops like digital paper. I.e. writing in steno or using your own handwriting shortcuts and symbols as well as adding scetches of i.e. circuit diagramms to document a lecture but not having to make the conversion from paper to computer all the time. Sure you can draw and write with your mouse, but it’s much less efficiant and natural then with a pen. Keyboard works fine too, but I find my self often getting more hung up in formating and designing the document rather then filling it up with information.

    Most of the things you need to know you will find on the synaptics.com website.

  21. I really want to make a box dedicated to playing mp3s. I’ve considered getting an old laptop, putting a little lcd display like from an old phone on the outside of the screen showing track title and such (should be an easy mod – space permitting – I’ve seen some tools made precisely for putting winamp meta on phone lcd’s via a parallel port) and moving the inevitable media buttons from the keyboard part to the outside of the screen so that you can use them with the box closed.

    For the record I am fully aware that this whole project is obsoleted by nearly every mp3 player ever.

  22. I use an old laptop with Windows 98, and a wifi card. I placed it next to my monitor and installed a program called MaxiVista, it uses any computer on your network as an extended screen or mirror display.

  23. Build yourself a small scale arcade cabinet with controllers then detatch the screen and mount it in the cabinet. The rest of the laptop could be put behind a door for easy access where the coin mech would be in a normal cabinet.
    Instal Mame and you have yourself a mini arcade game!

  24. #5… I love the idea of a License plate shutter…

    I would think the two biggest problems would be to get it to withstand the elements and look natural built into a license plate frame. The former isn’t as important on a motorcycle that rarely if ever sees bad weather but for a car it would have to be a lot stronger. Temperature is another issue as LCDs don’t like extremes on either end.

    I could also see the possibility of making it switch activated to fully block the plate on demand. So you could completely shut off the plate when you gun it to make it through that yellow etc…

  25. I use an old Acer laptop to run media center on a Touch Screen LCD I have mounted on the wall, I simply use this to scroll through music that operates on a wireless setup around my house.

    It’s a bit “Star Trek” but hey, that’s what this technology is designed for ;)

  26. Hmm… well, let’s see. I’ve been wanting to mount one upside-down on a wall(turning the keys around, of course) and using it as a control panel for my home-automation system… unfortunately, I don’t have enough money/parts/time to build a home automation system, so I can just plan.

    Alternatively, a laptop with a parallel port or serial port can be used to run a robot chassis- you can access the parallel port from QBasic or something like that, making it easy to program, and run control wires from the parallel ports to the various systems in the robot.

  27. Install Linux and some sniffer tools. set it up to hide on a network and sniff all traffic, add a wifi card to sniff and crack all the WEP passwords it can. Leave it hidden in an air vent connected to the company network for a few months running your EVIL.

    retrieve it 5 months later, OWNZ the company.

    Better yet, plant LOTS of them as your relay’s / zombies around town. connect through them to do your hacking so when the cops nail the location they only get a POS crap laptop that is full of insults.

    Non cracker/hacker uses….

    Laptops are nothing special, they are general purpose computing platforms with low horsepower. use one as a picture frame, router, digital signage, firewall, etherape console, Xterm, webpad, ALDL/ODBII scanner, Car tuning PC, garage laptop (best for old discarded toughbooks), webcam server in remote locations, install Zoneminder an a couple of cheap usb webcams and make a security PVR better than anything you can buy (P-III 500 or higher for this)

    non technical uses…

    Trebuchet projectiles, deadly frizbies, halloween costume, paint them green for Xmas decorations.


  28. you could take a decent laptop and mount it inside a cabinet in the kitchen, use it for movies, message board,music,internet device for getting recipes,weather alert, make it run linux and itll run the stuff even if its windoz counterpart cant because of speed.

  29. you can always do what i did with mine [a 300mhz toshiba portege 7010ct]

    harden it and use it as a security evaluation tool. it super light, fast enough to do any network task, and you can give a report on bluetooth, wifi, ethernet, etc.

  30. Although some of the niftier ideas are suggested above, I see a couple not represented. One is to find any old laptop new enough to run windows xp (450-500MHz, 192MB+ ram, and a network card and use them for traveling web surfing or typing. That way you don’t risk your nice laptop on no firewall setups or water damage. Another option which has been hinted at, but I see no direct reference too, is to add a touchscreen overlay and use it as a portabnle touchscreen for ahome automation system, or even security wall device or touchpad.

  31. I’m still trying to find a way to salvage parts out of an old blown laptop to make a digital picture frame. Basically everything still works, with the exception of the motherboard. The price it would be to buy an ITX motherboard with LVDS to cram into a picture frame along with the LCD is pretty close to the same price as just buying a comparable digital picture frame. Suggestions? Help? Parts are off an old Dell D600 if it helps any.

  32. I have an old g3 ibook that i broke the screen off a while back. I made a wooden frame and a stand for it and turned it into an imac. not very creative i admit, but it looks good and works well.

  33. Though a lot of people mention using the laptop screen as a second screen for whatever purpose, or making a wall-mounted screen out of it, I’d like to see how you’d connect it. I might sound completely stupid now, but perhaps if someone could figure how to connect it to a DVI port, that would really be nice since most modern computers have a DVI port these days.

    I have an old Toshiba, Pentium 120 MHz, something like 24 MB of RAM and 4GB harddisk. It has a working CD player, but it’s a useless brick right now. I have a MP3 CD-player that cost me under EUR 100 years ago, now they even come cheaper. So if it would even be able to play MP3 CD’s that’s not really interesting except for the fact that you can display more information on the laptop display. I build a Gentoo Linux install for the laptop, but everything is too slow to be useful. Perhaps some CLI applications that require a lot of human interaction won’t ‘feel’ slow, but there’s no way you’d really want to use it with X, fluxbox and Firefox (way too slow).

    Then again, a lot of people were talking about setups where you don’t really have much interaction, as in displaying pictures. That’s one of the few things old laptops might be able to do quite well, but having it as a monitor on a video card with some real power (and not an 1M card as in a lot of old laptops) would really be nicer.

    Using the screen and the laptop keyboard and touchpad (or perhaps a tablet layer) it would make for a nice addition to any MythTV box. I hate having to turn on my TV, changing the TV to the right channel and stuff like that just to schedule a recording. But of course you can just as well use MythWeb and schedule it from a browser on a standalone machine.

    Also, when you’re not gonna use a laptop as laptop anymore, take of it’s casing. Take out the floppy drive, CD drive and perhaps if possible the harddisk. Take out the battery. Laptop parts are small, really small. It might be possible to shrink the motherboard size a bit too, because you probably won’t be using all of the connections. This way you can get something as small as a Mac Mini, or perhaps even as small as a wireless router, or a normal router for that matter. This is only useful if it doesn’t cost too much though, I bought my Mac Mini with 1.5 GHz Intel Core Solo for EUR 350, new and at a certified Apple reseller.

    I think what I’d like to see most is either one of the following three:
    – Laptop with most parts removed, rehoused so that it’s smaller, providing some kind of web access. Tablet would be nice, so you can easily navigate. Have it display current playing songs, upcoming myth recordings, program guide and RSS feeds. If there’s a keyboard attached (or it runs synergy and you always have another machine with keyboard and mouse connected which you can use) also allow it for easy access to machines/servers you need to maintain. It’s always a pain that when you’re playing a game someone needs you to change something on a server and you need to quit your game or even reboot… Also messaging could be nice, takes the clutter from your desktop. All in all this way it’ll end up as a home Internet/Media PC and needs quite some horsepower, more than my Pentium 120 MHz anyways…

    – An other option I like is having the display attached to another device, in a cheap and reliable way. DVI->LVVDS or something would be really nice, also TV->LVDS is nice, because most devices can do TV output.

    – The third option that would be nice is to take only the stuff you can really use from the laptop and put it in a small box, as a silent server, serving whatever you need/it’s capable of. It can serve as Calendar server, perhaps small web server or maybe Network Attached Storage (assuming it isn’t old and slow, with no USB 2 and a slow old harddisk). You can run a Daap server on it to stream music to iTunes and other Daap-capable clients and have it log from remote servers.

    Because I bored you all to death I’m gonna stop right now… Hope someone likes all I wrote :)

  34. embed a screen in a table or counter that can play videos or news or anything. read hackaday while your eating your cereal–like you father used to read the newspaper.
    embed a screen on your fridge and a put a digi cam on the inside of your fridge so when you look at the screen you can see inside your fridge.

  35. Hmmm. Originally I was going to suggest the TabletPC doorbell idea. But now that that’s beet done, ooooh. What to suggest!?

    I’ve always been a fan of the terminals on the later Star Trek series’ – the Information Points as mentioned in a previous post, are essentially the same thing. However, it’s easy enough to get old Pentium 2/3 systems in bulk buy from business resellers these days, and if you’re lucky, it’s possible to get Tablet’s too. Even if the TabletPC’s are a no go, it’s feasible to remove chunks of Laptops, such as the inner casing, keyboard and trackpad and screen hinge – and mount the display above the motherboard.

    With a touch panel, or the addition of an old desktop Wacom (see the DIY Cintiq projects all over the intarwebz) will give you a slate tablet useful for many things. With the appropriate application of GNU/Linux, you can even get a comfortable KDE display on these machines – although you will then lose streaming video capability. With a “light” WM, such as XFCE or my personal favourite tiny-DE, blackbox – you have a fully capable web information point. Here’s the easy, but cool bit.

    These boxes are perfectly good terminals (especially with a battery in) for recessing into fixtures and even walls! If you live somewhere free from Chavs, Raj’s or well, any general acronym-enabled unpleasant people. You can mount one in a custom built pedestal outside your door. With a little more hacking, you could use a simpler screenless laptop mod to control an electronic door bolt based on the input to this external enclosure. (Of course, this works best if the e-bolt has a manual override, such as a key – and using the WACOM based hacks, since they can be fully waterproofed.)

    So you have your neat front door tablet, working as an electronic lock, and with a webcam, speaker and microphone – as a full intercom too. Then you could mount another one, say on a tv mount type boom next to your bed. Useful for accessing the intercom, or checking email, or watching Naruto cartoons on YouTube. Same goes (Without the webcam) for the bathroom, for the kitchen, you could hook up another screenless one to your HD capable TV in the living room, Have a spare running a server (or even being part of a server farm) in the attic, basement, or appropriate closet.

    The possibilities are wide. Although here’s another one, for that “$30,000 kitchen” feel.

    Take your laptop, and remove most of the components. Attach the hinge to a piece of Aluminium angle, and the keyboard (And perhaps a wacom tablet) into your choice of furnishing material. I personally like glass furniture – tough glass is very durable, and easy to clean. Follow the Multitouch display idea again, and have a virtual keyboard and mouse, too!

  36. I use old laptops for a variety of reasons. I have one running a satellite emulation 24/7. Another (combined with a TV-capture pc-card) is my portable television/pvr. I also have a really really old armada 4131t being used as a permanant dummy terminal for a wrt54gs router.

  37. This “extra monitor” stuff is giving me an idea… I have a screen I salvaged from a Compaq Presario z700. I think I’ll find an S video/VGA cable and hook it onto my current laptop with a hinge. Then I can lay it flat against the top when it’s closed, to read an ebook/watch a movie, for example, or swing out and provide a second screen next to my existing one.

    Time to get planning… ;-)

  38. I always thought it would be fascinating to hack the LCD to turn it into a really powerful LCD projector system. If you ever try and black out an LCD projector, there is always a little bit of light that gets through.

    When working in a theatre, I found one of the toughest things to do was to project a nice clean video or presentation onto a backdrop in an otherwise dark theatre. I would like to try hacking the LCD so you put a theatre light behind it so you can control the fading in and out better to go from totally black to fully bright as smoothly as any other stage light.

  39. a few years ago, back in first year, i disassembled an old XT laptop and hung parts of it on the wall of my residence room and had it running a neat screensaver.

    i had heard a rumor that a friend of a friend had somehow done something similar many years before with 4 old laptop monitors running simultaneously with 4 different screen savers off one XT.

  40. I was thinking of taking about 10 or so laptops and putting them together on a sheet of plywood or some such and massive segmented digital picture frame. I think it would be neat to set it up to run different transitions from one picture to another, sort of like the puzzles with the mixed up picture and the one empty square where you have to move them around.
    If nothing else it would make for an interesting art project and hacking together the controller code for it should be fun!

  41. I’m too lazy to see if anyone has already posted this.
    If it’s fast enough and has two built in usb ports, get an eye toy (or the web cam of choice), an irobot create (that cheap roomba that is just a moving platform), a serial cable to connect the laptop to the roomba, and a power source for the laptop. Use them to make a moving webcam.

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