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. I’m surprised no one has mentioned using it for a robot controller. Older laptops usually have serial and parallel ports, which can be interfaced to relay and sensor boards, they often already accept a DC power so they are easy to power from the lead-acid batteries or whatever the main power source is. With wi-fi they don’t have to be quite so autonomous.

  2. I think an old semi functional laptop could be revived into a Cintique type drawing tablet with the addition of a touchscreen film to the laptop LCD. There would be a little bit of programming to get it to work properly but it sounds possible to me.

  3. Digital Signs.

    I am the Director of IT for a school and for a while now they’ve wanted signs that they can update with current information. I’m hacking together 4 laptops digital picture frame style, with Wifi cards and whatever linux distro I decide. They’re going to run a custom app I’ve written that watches an RSS feed and makes a “slideshow” (think powerpoint style) with updated news, lunch menu, schedule changes, etc. I’m saving us a bundle, a commercial system to do this is well over $5000

  4. You can remove the lcd from the body, turn it around and put it onto the back, then load some free slideshow software onto it, add a stand and voila! Digital picture frame! for extra fun, hook up the slideshow to a flickr account, so grandma can see pictures of the kids right after you upload them to your account!

  5. I was thinking about taking the screen off my old laptop and screwing it to the wall of my hobbyroom and have a connector of some sort and use the laptop as a electronic datasheet catalog.

    I have just installed Ubuntu on it and it runs a bit slow (Very old machine). It will work as a internet PC whit possibilities for eagle CAD and som other stuff

  6. Old laptops are great as :
    – under-the-sofa home server/ap
    – VT100 compatible terminal (some frenchie made a floppy named Termux, linux+minicom, I used it some years)
    – Car-embeeded PC
    – reuse the power supply ! (did this when my Ascienta AST910n died)
    – House automation system, old lappys often have a // port, useful for something like a relay board, and serial ports for devices like a rfid reader, temp sensor :)
    – Laptop ! who needs tons o’ gigahertz and petabytes of ram ? A PII with 128 Mb RAM is sufficient for quite a lot of things (kids computer ?), and a PIII / 256 Mb RAM can do nearly every task (except gaming, but honestly, who cares)

  7. well from my experience of trying to hack old laptops its sort of difficult to tap into the hardware. The most useful part is the flat screen but even interfacing that and providing power requires a lot of creativity. If you leave them intact and just extend the screen there are a lot of imbeding applications such as bar mounted media control.
    good news is that some of the new old laptops have hardware like dvd drives and larger hard drives. Using the device to feed an LCD projector like we saw with the overhead projector would make a quick down and dirty media solution with a strong interface.
    I have been thinking about integrating a machine into my car to tie in with my upgraded programmable systems like megasquirt. That two has its own unique set of problems and gifts. Screen and keyboard locations are problems but power supply is easier since you have an almost unlimited DC supply.
    anywhere a computer is needed a laptop provides a nice clean package.

  8. I’ve already tried turning an old laptop into a internet-controlled, webcam-equipped robot (or rover, maybe – it’s not autonomous). Motor control is through an L298 driven by the parallel port, on tank-style chassis from a R/C robot. Unfortunately, the laptop is a little too old and slow to run any videoconferencing software I’ve tried comfortably along with a VNC session for control, and the webcam’s narrow field of vision makes getting through doorways an ordeal.

    I don’t think I’ll be pursuing the project much more, although I’d like to eventually put a microcontroller in the chassis and do something else with it. Still, it has worked to some extent and it’s been an interesting experience. And I’ll take suggestions for lightweight Linux videoconferencing/video streaming software if anyone has any.

  9. >>> 45 RE: robot controller

    I was thinking about an old laptop with ports and using it to handle the servos on a telescope to handle aim and focus with a digital cam set up to take pictures over the course of the evening.

    Automate your star gazing and flip through the pictures the next morning type thing.

  10. I use a old 486 laptop with broken keyboard in my lab. I have wifi access to my lan, a sealed keayboard with incorporate mouse (from symcod) end I use it to stream mp3 to the lab, and , in future, to drive my cnc :-)
    Some other ideas for you :

    -use 5 laptor , build a cubic box and incorporate on it the 5 display, you can have a cubic super display :-)

    -Use a laptop in your car to take a look at the ODB2 values (Fast and Furious school)

    -Use it like a monitor for the security camera that you have in the garden, plus a ltp to realis board to trigger some lights or an alarm

    – Use like a remote interfacing with an old nokia phone (I’ve used years ago a 5110) in combination with a ltp relais board to swith on/off some lights and to power on the boiler for my shower…

    -use it like a super mega remote for your tv,dvd player,vrc, laserdisk and so on with a simple interface to learn all the remote. You can have a real BIG remote to control every IR items in your house :-)

  11. This may be a bit ambitious, but I’ve always been very interested in the idea of kitchen automation.

    Hack the laptop into an all in the screen type thing, ala what some people will do with older mac laptops (I’ve lost the link but the screen ends up being mounted in a thick plexi frame), hook it in to whatever you’ve got around (let it control a toaster, monitor fridge temperature, oven temp, even control the oven if you don’t have an ancient gas one you wouldn’t trust for anything like I do) then stick it on WiFi and give it Bluetooth so you can control/monitor across the network or from portable devices with bluetooth.

    With the basic framework set up you could hook it into all kinds of things, the automation wouldn’t need to end in the kitchen. But it would probably be quite a bit of work.

  12. These are some good ideas! I have a 5 year old toshiba p4 with a killed over battery and dying video card.

    If the video card wasn’t going out, you could make a media center projector (like a lumenlab). You could make a wireless streaming video tv to hang anywhere (or near a plug in my case).

    It’s the holiday season, you could mount it in a Turkey with a video of wild turkeys being hunted (morbid I know). Or, if you’d rather have something for Christmas. How bout hanging it on a limb or few of the tree and run a video or dancing lights. Put an elegant tree topper up with a video of an angel or star shimmering.

    Put a PC in a PC. Take the laptop screen, attach to the back of the laptop, then make the most interactive side panel to your favorite PC case.

    Build a home entertainment control system / Media Center Controller.

    Possibilities are endless.

  13. While working in a tiny little windowless closet/office, I actually designed an LCD “window” that used screens arranged together complete with molding, blinds, a ledge, etc. that connected to a wireless camera placed outside, giving me a window in my otherwise windowless office.

    Then, I realized: why stop there?

    Why have a window to your world, when you could have a window to anywhere? Imagine if you had an LCD window that looked out over the New York skyline? Or maybe Tokyo? The Grand Canyon?

    Imagine looking out over a beautiful Parisian sunrise while you sip your morning coffee…

    You could either have 24 hours of footage loaded into a hard drive discreetly hidden in the windowsill, or if the project really took off, maybe even connect wirelessly to a live streaming camera.

    It would be timed to correspond with the system clock so that what you saw always matched up with the current time.

    Other options could include:

    a)Weather mode – you would have several instances of weather conditions loaded on the computer (light rain, heavy rain, overcast, snowy, windy, stormy, etc) and depending on your local weather (pulled wirelessly from the internet) the screen would blend into that mode. If it was raining outside, it would be raining onscreen.

    b)Sound mode – designed to further the illusion of actually being in another part of the world, you could also have authentic sounds of your chosen location played lightly over a set of speakers (also embedded into the windowsill), so that the sounds of New York traffic, or the wind whistling through the Grand Canyon could be quietly overheard.

    This would be perfect for home offices, cubicles, kitchens, small apartments, and generally anywhere that you want to escape.

  14. the best hack for old hardware hands down is to load your fav linux distro on it with openoffice and donate it. you would be surprised how many local low income families do not have pc’s still. I’ve gotten more pc’s to churches and charities this way that redistribute them to low income families that use them than i can shake a stick at.

  15. Turn it into an automatic wardriving machine, with auto wep and or wpa cracking, with no or minimal user input. And maybe an auto e-mail notification once a wifi location has been hacked.

  16. a duck!

    I…i mean…robotics!

    Even a low power laptop could probably handle enough to make for either an autonomous robot _or_ an able co-pilot to monitor sensors and systems on board an ROV of some kind.

    Webcams, wifi connections and other stuff being more common means some cool potential!

  17. I use an old Dell Inspiron laptop as a car computer.
    I took the screen off (I might use that in another project), and resealed the laptop. It fits perfectly under my seat. I made all the wiring as a “quick disconnect” type, so I can take the system out from under the seat if I need to. I wired the reset and power buttons to a remote that is a part of my center console.
    For a screen, I got an 8-inch SVGA touchscreen that allows me to interact with the system easily while I am driving.
    Two 7 port USB hubs are connected to the laptop’s two ports. One of these hubs is located inside the dash, and connects the GPS, IR remote, car audio, engine sensor (OBD-II), forward facing webcam, touchscreen, and a spare cable for a USB thumb drive or USB Wi-Fi which allows for an external antenna. The second hub is located in the cargo compartment in the center console. This hub will eventually incorporate additional sensors, such as a multi-axis accelerometer (For location fixing with intermittent GPS signal), enhanced “quick controls” through re-wired USB keyboards, an EV-DO modem (when I start making money). Both USB hubs are powered using the same DC-AC power adapter (Which is also controlled by a dash switch).
    Using an open source “Front End”, the system has an easy to use graphic user interface that allows me to access common functions while I’m driving (Navigation, Music, Engine Diagnostics, and eventually web cam recordings with speed and location overlays).

    The best thing about this system was that it cost me almost nothing to get it together. The big ticket item was the display. I’ve got a geardo father who got me the display as a birthday present. I spent $18 total on the USB hubs. Everything else was already lying around from previous projects.

    Taking apart the dash was the most daunting part of the project, and running the cabling was probably the most difficult.

  18. I have a few limping laptops, some I nursed back to health and others hingeless or screenless.

    I’m working on a paperless workflow project, so I can scan all of my notes and paper into the computer and toss them.

    The iBook G4 (with the classic Apple colors added beneath the apple on the lid) is aiming towards having the touchpad from an old PDA embedded into the palm rest, for taking notes without a really expensive touchscreen.

    [allen]’s comment is interesting since I’m currently machining a case for another iBook from aluminum. This is going to be one piece, tablet style. It will network with my desktop for mouse and keyboard control, and will control the Velleman K8055 board I bought for my dorm room automation.

    The third, screenless iBook is tentatively going to be stripped of everything but the important bits and stuffed into something awesome. Current ideas are: remote control helicopter, weather balloon, kite, Apple TV cousin, or web controller for a more complicated lighting project I’d like to do in the future. I’ll probably mill a case for this one too, so it will be interchangeable between several projects.

    I managed to snag handfuls of *useless* parts when I was gutting laptops at my middle school. Laptops are excellent sources for great LEDs, fans, and most importantly, microphones! I have a bag of laptop microphones that I’m going to work into projects sometime. I’m planning on a pocket sized recording set up. I may use the stripped laptop to record with the microphones, or create individual modules for each microphone that could write to a USB drive or send signals back to a main computer.

    I’m not doing this myself, but one idea I’ve heard thrown around for laptops is an organized Roomba colony for efficiently vacuuming large areas and buildings.

    I really like the window dimming idea! Sounds like a bit over the top, but it could be really good if done right.

  19. I’ve got an old laptop dismantled as the pretty banal digital photo frame. It boots windows 95 (!) and reads photo cds… Pretty unremarkable.


    a table top MAME arcade machine, complete with arcade style joysticks, but with a form factor small enough to fit on a dinner table…. Now that could be something.

  20. Hello!
    My idea:

    slim-sized HTPC-system with

    -remote control over ir (any remote)and network
    -possible to view EPG (Electronic program guide) and set recording timer with gsm-phone
    -video streaming (multicasting) over LAN,
    -using self made smartcard reader with pay-tv cards
    -sharing pay-tv cards over LAN to other computers
    -digital TV (DVB-t in europe) (3 tuners for multiple concurrent recordings)
    -recording to network server
    -passive cooling
    -RGB-scart for TV

    I have this system already working with normal ATX-hardware. It would be nice to build smaller version with parts from laptop… I have code, you have hardware =) Interested?

  21. I’ve always enjoyed the hype around RFID. How about creating an RFID transmitter that would transmit several different frequencies depending on the command given. These different frequencies could trigger events such as locking doors, turning on lights, etc.

    This is possibly a better project for a PDA given the size/portability constraints. However lacking usefulness, I think it would be interesting.

  22. I have always hated 3 things about laptops.

    1: Price

    2: Screensize

    3: The keyboard/mouse

    One thing I have wanted to do for a while is take two older laptops, strip the plastic shells, and mount them inside a regular size briefcase.

    After stripping, take the screens, turn them sideways, and mount them adjacent to each other on one wall of the briefcase. Directly in front of them, on the sidewalls, hardware to store your slim, but full sized keyboard, which doubles as a protective shield to keep other things int he briefcase from destroying those precious (not so much anymore) LCDs.

    Ideally, you may even have room to cluster those two old Pentiums to make for a machine that will run all those “briefcasey” things. Palm pilot kinda stuff, but with a web browser that works, and an interface you don’t need a microscope to see and Umpah Lumpah hands to use.

  23. I used my old Compaq as a secondary slide-out (using a keyboard tray) computer with an adjustable lcd screen mount to position it above my current laptop. Since the original screen died I had no qualms with striping it off and making a nice thin system, and then clocked the cpu down to keep noise/heat low. Using Synergy I used the old laptop as a sort of low load web browser and media player so I could work on my main system without gunking it up with small processes.

    Thanks to easy adjustments to KDE’s theme and colors I was able to mimic OS X well enough to match the main system too so that it really felt like a second display more than a second computer. It also came in handy for times when I didn’t want to unpack my laptop just to check my email.

  24. maybe boring, but useful: put linux, openssl and tinyca2 on it and use it to manage your self-signed certificates. for added security, you can lock this box away.
    and then there are lots of industrial applications – all that stuff that needs real parallel/serial ports and ancient operating systems, like eprom writers, control unit programmers.
    or use it as a data logger with built-in ups.

  25. sorry if someone already said this, I don’t have time to read all 65 prior entries:

    Tape two laptop screens to the front and back of a business suit. Then connect two webcams to each side, and feed the input to the screen on the opposite side: the result, a see-thru outfit. You’d have to hide the batteries (carefully) in your pants or make flat battery packs lining the inside of your jacket.

  26. I am currently using an old pentium 100Mhz laptop running windows95 as a watering system controller through its parallel port. Made up a simple relay circuit which activate solenoids. It turns the water on and off in 3 areas of the garden at the moment which I will expand as I get time, I have plans of also adding some moisture sensors so if the moisture in the soil is over a certain level it will skip the days watering in that area.

    I also have plans of adding a swimming pool temp and if possible chlorine and PH sensors and later put it all on a local webpage so I can keep an eye on the pool and watering system from any computer.

    Still got lots to do but slowly getting there.

  27. There are at least 3 ways of making an LCD screen from a laptop into a

    1, easy: loading specialized software to let you have a
    2, hard: hacking the LCD driver chip to accept a DVI signal.
    3, harder: Same as 2, but VGA.

  28. What abut using the collective power in all those four and five year old laptops that people are ready to just chuck out to make a really freaking powerful cluster based computer. The other option is to is to use the screens as a cheap source for flat panel monitors to case mod.

  29. lots of great ideas, I would like to expand on a few.

    for the office “window” you could hook up some webcams or the like to strategic locations around the office, so that you know when the boss is comming, or that annoying guy so that you can hide under your desk/ stop playing games. you could even hook up a motion sensor outside your office so if someone walks in while your away it switches the pic to something else. Or if your still living with your parents you could use it in your room for pretty much the same thing.

    I also like the case-mod idea, if you hid it well enough you could make it look like your compy is completely cable free, or maybe so it looks like an empty case. or just have it running a continuous loop of pong/space invaders/ even lemmings. Or if your good with video editing , make it look like some rodent is running in one of those wheels and turning your cpu fan, or hook some temp sensors to it and if your cpu/vid-card gets hot enough they just burst into flames. You could even use the speed line to sync the video with the fan. If your computer happens to be water cooled, take some video of an aquarium and overlay it into your case, so that it looks like you’re truly water cooled.

    I don’t know exactly how lcds work so forgive me for any stupidity but I’ve always wondered if it was possible to decrease the ammount of power used by replacing the backlighting (i’m assuming thats what it is) with a mirror to use the ambient reflected light to illuminate the screen, would be nice for the still picture frame thing so it uses less power if its on batteries.

    one last idea, if you have a wall safe you could make it more high tech by using the lcd as the picture thats in front of it and even add touchscreen to make an interface to open the picture part of the safe. or throw in some palm reader stuff and get a picture that reads your palm and opens.

    hope to hear more good ideas.

  30. For those looking on info for media car PCs, I worked on a project like this last summer. Even my old dell (700mhz) was able to do voice recognition. The pc ran some software I wrote which interacted with winamp. I have a video on youtube demonstrating it:


    If you want some details you can contact me at sbben@comcast.net

  31. Old laptop can be used to test Your hacking skills. Let somebody to change BIOS passwords without telling You. Then try to unlock it.
    I have one such laptop (100% legal, with all papers), but with corrupted CMOS-RAM data makes me to reverse engineer the BIOS or most likely to throw it into junk-box to wait better times.

  32. A Bomb… Yeah thats the first thing that came to mind…
    or you could turn it into a rediculous calculator, or if you have a touch screen one make A DDR pad using 4 of them…

  33. Permanently mount it in your car or van as a war driving and entertainment center. Upload music, and movies and older games or emulators. It would be great to play some X-wing or Sonic the HedgeHog while on a long trip.

  34. If you take an old laptop and a wireless card, you can rig up a way to hang the laptop upside-down on a shelf above your workbench. This allows the screen to function like one of those flip down DVD players in your car. You have to rotate the image on screen so you can see it “upside-down”. This allows you to check out a wiring schematic without a display on the work area. When you are done, just flip it up and its out of the way. Hook up a crappy stereo and you can even stream music while you solder! This also work in the kitchen for recipes and such. I just have been to cheap/chicken to try it out. Good luck everyone!

  35. I already use a laptop as my firewall / caching internet access server with Microsoft ISA Server. It uses less power than a desktop, produces less heat and has a built in UPS! Most newer laptops already have an onboard network adapter so with the addition of a PCMCIA network adapter its easy to create a firewall with whatever OS of choice (freesco for example).

  36. i have a screen from an old hp jornada sub-notebook that i’ve been hanging onto for a project idea.
    i want to connect it directly to a pin hole camera on the end of a flexible shaft. the plan is to use it to inspect the inside of my parrot nesting boxes to check for eggs or hatchlings to reduce the stress on the adult birds who could destroy eggs or hatchlings when they feel treatened.

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