Using A ThinkPad Keyboard Over USB

kbIt doesn’t have buckling springs, Cherry blues, or even the wonderful if forgotten Alps switches, but the keyboard found in ThinkPads has the best keyboard action of any laptop around. They would make a great USB conversion keyboard, but the board to board connector is very hard to find, and no one has yet managed to get the keyboard and track point working as a USB HID device. Until [rampadc] came along, that is.

[Rampadc]’s keyboard adapter is built for the ThinkPad T60 keyboard, which is shared between the Lenovo T60, T61, Z60, Z61, R400, R500, T400, T500, and X41 laptops, among many others. The connector is an extremely odd proprietary deal, that can be found through the usual channels for about $5 in quantity 100. On top of this, the keyboard doesn’t have a controller – that’s offloaded to the laptop’s main board. The only electronics in this keyboard is just a matrix. Despite all this, [rampadc] managed to create a breakout board with a decade counter and an SPI GPIO expander.

The board [rampadc] made features one of the proprietary connectors, a few chips, and a receptacle for an Arduino Micro. With just a little bit of code, the old keyboard becomes one of the best portable keyboards in existence, and probably a bit cheaper than the official Lenovo USB-bound ThinkPad keyboard.

[rampadc] has a few of the expansion boards available over on Tindie should you want to build your own. It’s only cost-effective if you have one of these T60 keyboards sitting around in a junk pile; not a likely situation because these machines just don’t die.

31 thoughts on “Using A ThinkPad Keyboard Over USB

  1. Reading this post via my trusty T60p. Nice props for a nice machine (and its keyboard). If the ol’ girl ever does kick the bucket, I’ll consider putting this hack to good use!

    1. Glad to see another T60p still in use! On mine right now, still chuging away. Just got back from class where it was running Autocad 2013 and playing a movie on a second monitor!

      1. And one more — maxed out ram and and SSD drive do the trick: Ubuntu with open source graphics drivers runs flawlessly.. The forward-thinking of the T60 design continues to amaze — who would have thought it is equipped with Gigabit Ethernet. At time of purchase in 2006 I don’t recall there even being consumer Gigabit equipment readily available. Some of the new machines these days surprize in precisely the oppose way, for example ”why is this virtual machine running unusably slow.. oh, my 2014 processor doesn’t support virtualization extensions…’ Or, the thinnest Thinkpad ever, surely if it’s so small docking is of highest priority, but no, docking port not included. Also, modern powerful quad core machines are same weight as the good old T60 or heavier if you include the monster AC adapters.

        When the present-day high-performance quad-core is packed into the form factor of a modern-day ultrabook, I’m retiring this T60, until then, it’ll continue to be fixed up. Already had to replace the keyboard, and blown fuses for the display on the motherboard (my fault ;))– btw, there are schematics for the whole machine online and ebay is full of parts, which is useful. The only persistent damage so far is the lid sensor would wrongly indicate lid open events, so it had to be disabled.

  2. “but the keyboard found in ThinkPads has the best keyboard action of any laptop around”

    Didn’t we learn our lesson with the whole “chic necklace” nonsense, about touting things as chic or cool or best without having any real life evidence to backup such claims?

    “best laptop keyboard” which besides being a oxymoron is completely debatable.

    Nice hack, but a mini USB keyboard will not only look better (without crap dangling every which way) but will also work alot better.

      1. Ah, you’re right. I just quickly glanced at the instructibles page and didn’t see anything (though I was curious about the tp_clock and data lines), but looking at it again I do see it mentioned. Good stuff. I’ve been wanting to play with one of these.

      1. OMG! I just spewed orange juice (for really reals)!

        Just FYI though: it was originally to be called a ‘clitmouse’, but most men in their test group couldn’t find it.

    1. I wrote this Instructables for Arduino because the masses on Instructables, I assume, are more Arduino oriented, and also because I had a friend who was working on the same thing but connecting with hosts via Bluetooth instead of USB. He chose to use Arduino so I decided to write a few sketches and help him out.

      I’m actually working with the MSP430F5510/5502 for this project. It supports a lot more features: num lock, key combinations, remote wake-up and the full matrix.

      (By the way, this is [rampadc])

  3. The sold-by-lenovo thinkpad usb keyboards do exactly that –
    Notable things about it in comparison between it and a standard 20-series (X220/T420…) thinkpad keyboard:
    1) The trackpoint is a bit different (it uses the same rubber dome as the – older thinkpad X300 keyboard)
    2) It uses the same connector as the 20-series keyboard *and* it works with thinkpad laptops when disassembled – even the connector tape is of proper length
    3) It lacks a bit of plastic on the keyboard and the power button is covered (but functional otherwise)

  4. I’ve got an old T43 (yeah, it takes forever for them to die). I ripped out the screen to use as an external monitor. And, yes, the keyboards are fantastic. It was the best button-mouse/keyboard combo I ever had. My Dell button-mouse won’t work at the same time as I’m pressing keyboard buttons, making it useless for playing CounterStrike 1.6 like I did in college on the T43. Good times. :)

  5. Amen. I’ve got 2 Thinkpad USB keyboards. It’s great that all 4 computers I use (2 Thinkpad, 2 desktop) always have the precise same layout. Totally maximizes typing speed.

  6. You know it makes perfect sense to change the T440 keyboard to a T60 one, the new layout is crazy and probably designed by monkeys. Now all we need is a 3D printed top case and we are set.

  7. You know what would be cool ? To put a raspberry pie in case of a dead Thinkpad (T40 for example) thanks to this keyboard can be connected via usb only screen is a problem i don’t know how to connect that :(

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