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. Where is a tutorial for wiring a vga adapter to laptop screens? I wouldn’t know where to start… I’m sure the video is easy, but how do you wire a power cable to it so you don’t need the moboard or powersupply…?

  2. Would it be possible, with three identical laptops, to use them as a triple screen display, moving between the loaded operating systems with synergy? Aside from the power cords, ethernet, you’d need little else, giving a very clean look.

  3. Here is something that I am thinking of doing with a few C18 Toughbooks that I have laying around…

    Bash up an interface for the PCMCIA port using a FPGA, include a few PWM modules, mabey an ADC and external H-Bridges. Include the ability for switches and other sensors to be attached.

    Strip the case from the laptop and mount it all on a platform with a bigger (7.2AH SLA) battery. Use some decent motors to drive wheels and/or tracks. Connect up a USB webcam and replace the HDD with a large CF card with Linux on it. I may even add a spare WiFi card to the spare PCMCIA slot.

    Have it drive around the house annoying people, hooking up the sound card to speakers/mic would allow for voice/sounds to be played. The mic/line in port could be used as an ADC if only 2-Channels are needed. The screen could be maintained for interaction and the display of pictures/whatever (touchscreen).

    Sure it would be work to make the interface (haven’t googled anything yet) and to write drivers and software but it would make for a decent and fairly indestructible platform for tinkering.

  4. Assuming that you can wire up a decent power supply, either a workable solar cell arrangement or a decent battery set up, you could rig up an easy enough day bag for data gathering while hiking. It won’t be a light package since the older laptops weren’t big on the whole ultralight thing, and the batteries won’t help, but a more recent laptop might improve things.

    Anyhow, we have a laptop that should be able to run for a couple hours. Attach to it a gps, heart rate monitor, altimeter, barometer, etc etc. Have the laptop sample everything at a reasonable rate (heart rate should be sampled more often then air pressure for example). It’s a bit of overkill really, but you could also stop and pull the laptop out to take notes or dump pictures off of your camera as well (or have the camera download while you hike) and link the pictures to the data gathered at the points that they were taken.

    Between the weight and the bulk, I wouldn’t want this on anything where I had to pack much otherwise, but for a day trip where you might not pack anything other then snacks and water, shouldn’t be that bad. Then get home and dump all of the data to your main box for later examination (or upload it to a web page tracking your hikes or something)

  5. 1 idea. A dedicated Skype for linux Videophone.
    Like a Photo frame DIY Mod with webcam hanging on the wall with the RJ11 connector electronically modded to interface with a normal phone that will remain on the desk, so you can make Voip w/video, and normal calls.
    Make two and send one to your grandparents
    2 idea. Use the motherboard, and a flatbed scanner to make a Standalone network scanner with its own storage space/shared folder.

  6. Make an acrylic case for it and mount it on the outside of you door. When people want to leave you a message, they can type it up on the keyboard (which is exposed) or leave a video message with the screen-mounted webcam. Since there is a webcam on it, it can also be used as an electronic peephole. When in screensaver mode, it can show different cool animations, or maybe a picture of yourself so people know who lives there.

    I have an old 233MMX laptop that I was thinking of doing this to. Got the idea after seeing the limitations of the whiteboard on my door.

  7. I believe I got the oldest laptop/notebook of all, but I just can’t throw it away. So I am waiting and from time to time thinking about what one could do with an “Olivetti Quaderno” subnotebook (V30 8MHz, 1 MB RAM, 20 MB hard disk, IIRC). That thing is just too pretty and too cute to throw it out, and it’s in perfectly working state.

    The best idea I have come up with was extending its parallel/serial ports, reviving my leet DOS programming skills, and turning it into an aquaristics control computer …

  8. It might be kind of fun to make a control center for your car. Have interior climate sensors and exterior climate sensors with climate controls for your heater or A/C, your entire mp3 and movie collection, rig it up to your GPS and have a nice big map, and use your cellphone as a gateway to get to the internet where you can watch real time traffic cams while you sit in grid lock.

  9. attach the laptop to the underside of a kitchen cupboard then use software to flip the screen and use it as a kitchen pc, easily hide able just close it up. What can be done with a laptop screen with broken laptop (power book g3 screen) could it be hooked up for use with car pc via (VGA)for a giant GPS.

  10. Hmm,
    most obvious to me is as a Media center, thats what i used my old box for (500mhz system) just for playback, home control and such
    Car pc is the best one ive seen, GPS, music and video playback

  11. 1. Cut it in two pieces using saw-cutter and make a video of it. (that’s my best guess for laptops aged 4yr or more!)
    2. Use its hard drive by buying an cheap external HD enclosure.
    3. Use it as a streaming server for my nokia N800. I use orb.com, may not work on very old machines.
    4. For very old ones as file server for remote access to your files or as backup server, you may use any open source tool that backs up file shared through your (new)laptop.
    5. Create home server. It should have remote logging, can have attached wireless camera’s [+$60] so you can view your home from anywhere or your street, attach an fm transmitter so you can enjoy your music (shuffle mode) anywhere in house, run torrent which can accept request from your home PC/laptop and download files to your (home)HD.

  12. I’ve got an older dell pIII laptop that I use as a wireless webcam. I modified knoppix (aka Darnix) and compiled in my webcam drivers and added palantir for the streaming video. It now sits behind my couch pointing at my digital thermometer. The lack of hdd makes it far more power efficient as well.
    Old pentium laptops make great lpt/serial port controllers too (with linux of course).

  13. 1. Add a pcmcia usb card & a couple of external drive boxes for a homemade NAS. FreeNAS works nicely.

    2. Cheap IP-camera; use the parallel port for reading temp or other environment monitors (i.e. Dallas 1-wires)

    3. Scanner server

    4. Replace the HDD with a Compact Flash card, add Puppy Linux and surf forever without recharging. Okay, not quite forever but pretty darn long. My record is 8+ hours.

    5. Anyplace you need a quiet, cool, low-power single purpose box. Remove the screen for even less power and run headless.

  14. step 1)
    install linux or some other low speed OS that you can control wirelessly

    take the screen completly apart, extend the ribbon tape and remove any plastic or metal coverign the back

    3) connect it to your wireless network and make sure it all functions and you can use remote deskop functions or something similar

    4) place the screen over a projector or similar light soure, make it look nice and build it into a piece of furniture, wall, etc.

    turn this comp and your main comp on to throw movies or whatever you want up on the wall :)

    simpler than it sounds.

    i take no responsibility for stupidity … NONE
    So chill out on the power tools.

  15. I have an oold ACER extensa 500 (’96 – ’98) in working condition with both the serial and parallel ports! Screen hinge is gone, so its a bit squeaky. Otherwise, this one gave me the most company on my first year at college.

    the best thing, as many have said, linux, since I am an Elec. Engineer (final year) all I’d love to do is use it as a very advance I/O sys with serial and USB input too, and maybe, just maybe, try RTOS linux to utilize full potential of the CPU.

  16. I once saw a pretty cool project using an old laptop in a record store. This developer guy had taken an old laptop and webcam, and written a program to record a-la 2.75 hours of video to the laptop, and then after the memory was full it would play back the recorded video many times faster(in about 25 minutes), then start over again. It was a pretty cool art piece if anything.

  17. I have always thought about using an old laptop with a dailup modem and a wireless setup as a secure drop point for info. Take the laptop and secure it in a spot that makes it safe and difficult to find and plug it into a wired phone line. Enable the wireless to allow you to connect as you come by. Using a remote session, then you could kick off a dial up connection to a (free) isp, then you can e-mail, ftp, telnet, etc. whatever you like around. This way you could put a file or script on the box to do whatever task you would like and it can go on doing it while you are miles away. You never have to deal directly with the laptop again and you have a hidie hole for info drop off. You could even share the info with others who could pass by and ‘pick up’ the info. You could also schedule any dialup work to be at night so as to not interfere with the phone line’s normal use. The connection would not be fast, but most older laptops would not make full use of the speed of a fast connection anyway. On a roof in a weatherproof enclosure is a good idea of where to put it. Make the enclosure look like any other electrical generic box. If you need a better wireless range, just tie in an antenna mounted in a spot that does not draw attention. Other expansions of this can be taken from things people posted above. You could have it a security cam. Have it take video, compress and upload to a site you can pick it up from, or just connect and watch it over the wireless. Your uses are many and not all have to be so ‘spyish’ or nefarious.

  18. I’m in the process of hacking up an 15 inch laptop right now. Probably will make some sort of aliminium frontplate and make it hang on the wall. I’m considering a webcam in the plate to make some cool “mirror” effects, also the usual picture frame option, and maybe some monitoring of wireless clients and perhaps an alpha blended syslog from the computers on the home network on top :)

  19. Hook up a bar-code reader, make some software, hang it on the wall near your food storage and use it to keep track of what you’ve got stocked.

    Expand it to print out or mail you shopping lists on a daily/weekly/whatever basis whenever something is needed.

    Combine with recipe list to get a list of what you can make with what you’ve got, or what you need to make a selected recipe.

  20. I’m actually experimenting with a linux distro called ThinStation Linux right now. Its supposed to let me use any old x86 machine as a dumb terminal to connect via RDP, VNC, and a whole bunch of others. I have a W2k3 terminal server and an old Sony Vaio 505FX, so I’m gonna boot the Sony right into an RDP seesion on my TS and get full speed of the session (instead of the super low speed of the 505FX proc).

    Plus, if you wanted to make a digital picture frame, and you had a terminal server, you could still use this approach and have your slideshow start at login on the TS. Its great! You can have 1 image of thinstation using different user accounts to get to RDP and you can make all kinds of gadgets!

  21. I use a Compaq Elite 486-75 as a really big caller ID box. It sits in my entertainment center and can be seen from 30 feet away. I have also used really old laptops as print servers, web servers, and consoles for routers network switches, and “headless” Unix servers.

  22. Donate it to someone who cant afford one.
    Imagine how many people would benifit from a program that distributed used laptops to the needy. Buy a new laptop get a deduction for a trade in that is refurbished and given to someone who would otherwise go without. Feel good twice !

  23. Most older labtop screens are high resolution screens. It would be possible to convert the screen into one of those DIY projectors that people built. it would produce a pretty high native resolution screen 1080i? Convert the whole unit into this player – use as a media all in one projector box. Throw a bare bones operating system and make it into a dvd player/media player projector.

    example of a diy projector –


    waterproof it put on one of those microsoft fish screen savers and throw it in a fish tank.

    – i really like the licence plate dimmer idea!

  24. I say rip the back of the screen and use it as a fighter-jet-style heads-up display in your car. You could even have an IR camera facing forward for a night vision overlay, as well as turn-by-turn GPS direction overlay with a bit of creative coding ;)

    It’ll even go to sleep and stay ready for action on those short around-town trips with the laptop battery.

  25. take apart the screen, hook it up to some kind of timing circuit so the LCD flicks between transparent and opaque really quickly (probably a variable rate) and mount it infront of your camera to take stroboscopic photographs.

  26. KVM

    I’m not sure where to start on something like this, but I would LOVE to be able to use an old laptop as a Keyboard / Video / Mouse to connect to systems that stay interfaceless 99% of the time.
    Every now and then, you need to see what’s really going on, or access the boot/bios screens, instead of remotely connecting.

    Picturing being able to plug a little laptop in, instead of lugging over a keyboard, mouse and MONITOR.

  27. Take a grandfather clock, mount the screen in place of the face and wire some rubber-tipped solenoids to the parallel port in order to strike the chimes – Then re-implement the clock face: in place of the lunar-phase indicator, use a faux rotating weather indicator. Link it into your schedule, so it knows when to keep it’s chiming mouth shut. Bonus points for a program to play the Solenoids from a MIDI file.

  28. Second on the e-reader idea. I’ve got an old NEC versa laptop (celeron 366mhz) that is gathering dust. I would really love an e-reader, but you can’t buy them yet where I live. So I thought about turning the laptop into a reader by getting rid of the keyboard (replaced with a usb connected one), optical drive, HDD, floppy drive, making a new case for it, installing some flash memory and loading DSL (damn-small-linux) or something similar on it. Though I don’t have no where near the knowledge or experience to pull off such a job yet, but maybe someone out there who could might be interested in such a task and creating a tutorial for it :)

  29. I’m not sure if this was mentioned, but I’d throw some simple linux distro on one and put it in that pull down shelf that you normally keep a cookbook on in the kitchen. Then I could just keyword search recipes on it and if it was wifi capable browse the net for recipes.

    Another good use for 4 of them would be to mod them into the surface of a square table with glass over the screens and network them for a good tabletop gaming table. little network IM clients for private messages and GM ability to display info on all screens would be awersome.

  30. I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while. This is really stupid, but my idea was to remove the screen, and mount some sony glasstron (or similar) glasses and a head mounted webcam for vision on a helmet; then install linux, and stick it in a backpack. Then just plug in a usb handheld keyboard, and word process while you walk. :)

  31. Home automation, because laptops are of course flat in there design they could be fixed to a wall, then using an appropiate piece of s/w (homemade possibly) you could interface with the lights, fit electronic locks even attach actuators to the doors thus meaning you could open and close any door from anywhere. also considering this you could incorporate voice recognition, thus meaning you could open doors simply by voicing the word ‘open’ likewise you could close them. Another aspect you could incorporate would be motion tracking. in each room you could have motion sensors which relay information to the central computer (old laptop) which rooms are ocupied. this in turn could take the idea of home automation one step further in the sense that the computer could automatically turn lights on and off therfore saving on energy bills. another possibility would to automate blinds/ curtains, home entertainment heating infact almost anything in the qhole home that is electrical or could be made electrical.

    Someone try this, it would be ace to see it happen!

  32. This is probably mentioned before, but I really like the idea of a general-purpose PC just for email, flash games and the like. I have a Dell C400 which is pretty much useless since it has 1 USB1.1 port and 1 PC card slot, no optical drives.

    I’m thinking of doing the reverse-screen idea mentioned earlier, putting a touchscreen kit on it, and putting it somewhere so it can work as a picture frame, but for email, general browsing and other usual activities as well. It pains me everytime i hear my family powering up the noisy old P4 just to check a little email.

    More useful things to do with laptops definitely exist, but I think I’d start with this first.

  33. run win 98 , netmeeting and wifi – you have a remote control computer, hack an interface to a couple of motor/wheels, add a camera – and there you go a remote presence rig!!

  34. This is actually original:

    With some electronics and an old pc that can be on permanently, you can put a mic and a speaker on every room, connect the doorbell button to the computer, and read constantly the noise level in each room, and if anyone knocks, play some sound thru each speaker according to the noise level that you got from the mics… that way you will never miss someone calling at your door when you’re using your big azZ speakers, but if you are on a silent moment (or asleep) it will not scare you

  35. I use an old IBM Thinkpad 600 for a car GPS. Bought a SIRF III usb GPS on ebay and Delorme Streets & Atlas 2007. Running Windows 2000 (no updates. S&A gives voice directions. Issue with Pentium II speed when making many turns in short space. Also Delorme S&A does not match residential areas well (S&A street maps are not geographically accurate).

  36. I think number 138 is BRILLIANT!! I am thinking about trying this, if you don’t mind!

    My best idea (kind of covered already) is to use a laptop with a shattered screen as a in car entertainment computer. Use auxiliary displays instead of the shattered screen. I would use it for DSMlink (or Crome or Uberdata with an ostrich) to tune my engine on the fly, with infrared foglights and some weatherproof webcams for night vision, with pvr software for back/up camera and race recorder. I would have a wireless access point in my garage and a script running to update my mp3 collection from my desktop every time I park within range. As a bonus, I would run a SNES emulator.

    Alternatively, when I DJ i would like to have a terminal set up for the crowd to automatically browse my song collection and make requests. There would be a mysql database of all my songs on my DJ computer and a web server on that computer sharing a search page. When a user made a request on the search page, scripts and an xmms plugin would automatically add the requested song to my playlist.

  37. I had the KVM idea, too. I used to work in a lab integration environment and always wanted to hack some old laptop to use on the servers in the lab without having to haul a monitor, keyboard and mouse over.

    This also reminded me of a project I tried starting on a while ago. I’ve purchased old/classic video game systems (Atari 2600, NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, etc) from thirft stores (dirt cheap). I wanted to hack the parts out of the laptop leaving only the frame and the monitor. Then I wanted to create an “insert” out of each of the gaming systems. This would change the former laptop into a portable, swappable console game system.

    The hardest part about it is getting the LCD to work. I envision converting the video out to VGA or something like that. I would love to see this picked up by someone. I just don’t have the time or resources to get it done for a while.

  38. world community grid uses computing power to help solve and find cures for diseases such as cancer and AIDS through distributive computing…hook up the laptop to the internet, lock it in a closet, leave only the WCG software running, and save the world for the cost of electricity

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