Laptop’s Aren’t Upgradable? Ha!

Laptop hardware hack

[MX372] is a pretty dedicated hardware hacker. Instead of chucking a 10 year old laptop with specs weaker than his latest cellphone — he decided to breath new life into it with a few hardware upgrades, and a switch to Linux of course.

Featuring a 1.1GHz Pentium M processor with a whopping 512mb DDR RAM, a dvd burner, a 40GB HDD, USB 2.0, BlueTooth, 802.11b/g wireless and even a FireWire port, his old Sony Vaio used to command a pretty hefty price tag. In fact, he’s pretty sure he paid $2,100 for it back in ’05. It was called an “ultrabook” before ultrabook actually meant a MacBook-Air sized laptop.

Still running Windows XP, it had gotten slower with age as all good computers do, and since XP is no longer supported, [MX372] thought it was time to switch it over to Linux. He started with Xubuntu 12, but quickly found Lubuntu instead. But, it still wasn’t that great.

This lead him to the idea of upgrading the hardware. It featured a 1.8″ 4200rpm HDD with 40GB of storage, and he could have bought an SSD to replace it… but he didn’t want to sink any money into this ancient laptop. So he looked around his parts bin and found a CF card and some USB drives — let the soldering begin.

He’s removed one of the USB ports to add an internal USB hub in order to connect the USB drive and memory card reader inside the laptop as his new data drives — all it took was a bit of nerve-wracking soldering. He then popped out the HDD in favor of a SATA to CF adapter with an 8GB CF card — which he spent a whopping $11 — the only part he had to buy.

Once everything was buttoned up, it worked exactly how he envisioned it. And quite a bit faster to boot. You can read more about it in part 2 and part 3 of his blog posts. What’s next? An external graphics card?? Oh, that’s been done already…

45 thoughts on “Laptop’s Aren’t Upgradable? Ha!

  1. Ha! Too funny! I just did the same thing to my 2005 Sony vaio! Picked it up from goodwill for $10. I always loved the design and wanted a compact legacy machine. Works great with a good battery (rebuilt with lipos from an old Hp) and SSD. Had some extra 2gb ram sitting around too. Great with XP and dual boots to debian.

          1. yeah – and the article never said that the final product had the sata-cf adapter, it simply stated that the next step in the process was to install it.

            Should we have a complete play by play in the ‘Summary’ or can it just be a ‘Summary’?

    1. Hardly qualifies as a hack? How does soldering an external usb hub and using a flash storage stick and card internally in place of an aging hdd not qualify as a hack? Especially on a laptop mainboard, which are definitely not designed to be upgraded. I guess its one of those situations where he didnt smelt the rare earths and then fab his own solid state memory at home.

    2. Wait what, when/where? Links?

      I ask because if it can be done there I dunno.. maybe upgrading the processer on my cr48 could be a thing? Honestly doubt it since you’d have to be some kind of soldering God to desolder the processor and put a new one on without totally ruining the thing.

    3. Definitely a hack. At it’s root to ‘hack’ is to use anything outside it’s intended purpose. When my aunts under-cabinet-lights stopped working and I used a hot utility knife to cut through the plastic case to get to an inaccessible fuse.

      Even though I just replaced a fuse, I think it qualifies as 3 hacks. 1) I fixed something not meant to be fixed. The fuse was in a plastic box with welded seams. 2) I created a hot knife out of what I had on hand- utility knife and an alcohol flame 3) the fuse was so inaccessible that I couldn’t even source a replacement fuse. Used a physically smaller fuse with the same ratings and filled the extra space in the through-hole fuse holders with solder.

      The spectrum of ‘hack’ is very broad and it seems your definition of hack only is equivalent to the visible part of the light spectrum.

  2. kudos for the life extension for the HW, that’s greener than any newer buy (think production energy)

    HAD: you slack!
    Replacing old PATA HDs with CFs is standard for me since ~10 years.
    E.g. NetBSD ever nicely fitted on 512MB CFs (yes: 0.5GB) for P1 machines.
    Another hint: TinyCore Linux.

    1. Love the BSD variants. Mileage doesn’t have to vary, if you used the HW as intended. Obviously, CF has limited write capacity; but this can be overcome by increasing RAM and using nfs. Or, if you can’t stick enough RAM on that old machine, add a PXE capable NIC plus an appropriate boot image, and shunt the workload off onto a TS.

  3. I have a dell with under 500MHz processor from 1996 that I upgraded to a modern OS and from 4GB to 80Gb hard drive.
    It’s not much of a hack considering they still sell the drives with the correct connector.
    While it would be cool to upgrade to solid state, I can just buy the proper drive for an older laptop, so it’s not too much of a hack as it is a long way to do something done easier, faster, simpler, and cheaply another way.
    It’s still cool, but it’s not like he replaced an impossible to find component or turned a block of core memory on an old UNIVAC into an SSD array.

  4. I tried a CF card to boot off of for one of my CNC machines. Incredibly, awfully slow. And you will wear out the memory pretty fast if you run a more complicated OS, it just was never designed for this kind of duty.

    1. Sure it is, you just gotta have enough ram, turn off swap, and make use of a nfs partition. Might also consider PXE booting to a terminal server. There’s lots you can do.

  5. come on!! really? since when is this a hack? i’d like to see bios customisation, plugging sata controllers to the pci(express?) bus, changing to a non supported cpu (or dual cpu ), modifying a graphics card slot mxm2 to mxm3 or 4, changing the battery (or changing it alltogether for something hacked up) etc.

  6. One problem with the old Vaio laptop line is one specific version of the jog wheel/roller software has been taken off their support site, and Sony also made the Web Archive delete all copies of it they’d snagged from old versions of the Sony site.

    A friend of mine does some DJ gigs and uses an old Vaio laptop to play all the music off a USB drive. It’s so old it doesn’t even have USB 2.0, but it does have a firewire port and a Memory Stick slot. It also has the wide jog roller. The first time I set it up for him, I had all his audio software on the click and roll menu for the roller. Then he got some bad malware on it (I told him not to use it on the web!) so bad it had to be wiped. He’s lost the CD-R I made with all the drivers. Of course this happens to be one of the models that requires the one version of the jog input software that Sony won’t let anyone have.

  7. I did something less intense for my Project 50/50 ( about 18 months ago. I recently re-did it with CrunchBang++ and it’s just horridly slow when browsing the web. It wasn’t that bad a year and a half ago, but these days websites are just too intense for that poor little deceleron. For everything else it’s great, but given how web-centric computer use is these days, it’s kind of a show stopper. It’s still the one I grab when I need battery life (5+ hours) on something bigger than a tablet, which is frankly, not often.

  8. I think that laptop doesn’t have SATA, it mentions 1.8″ PATA drive.
    I’ve done the same with my iAudio X5 player, that is one of the first mp3 players with “big” 30GB storage and excellent sound. But the problem is it had 30GB 1.8 IDE drive, which sucks battery very quickly. So few years later big capacity CF cards became more affordable, and players matching iAudio’s sound quality were not that common. So I ditched that 1.8″ drive (actually bought case for few bucks so now I have very small portable HDD) and replaced it with 32GB CF with 1.8″IDE->CF adapter. It works perfectly, battery now lasts at least 10 times longer and player lost some weight also. I also bought cell-phone battery, and replaced iAudio’s original one (it is simple Li-Ion cell, all you have to do is remove protection circuit from original one and solder it to replacement one), to get even some more play hours.

  9. BTW, IIRC, 1.8″ IDE and CF have the same interface and same connector, but some evil people decided it should have different pinout, so if you connect your CF directly to 1.8″ IDE connector it will start to warm and die. You must have adapter which is just a male-female connector with few pins swapped.

  10. See how confusion can arise when someone misuses an apostrophe? “Laptop’s Aren’t Upgradable” Does that mean that the laptop’s SOMETHINGS aren’t upgradable, or simply that some dimwit refuses to learn proper punctuation? And don’t give me the usual “you know what I meant” spiel.

    I know it’s probably like talking to a brick wall, but I’ll at least try.

  11. I added SATA to a Lenovo T43. It came out when SATA first came out, and the drives were not available in the numbers they needed. So they put a SATA -> IDE converter on the motherboard. You can remove the converter chip and solder in a SATA connector :-)

  12. I upgraded a few Panasonic CF-18 toughbooks with SSD drives by simply buying a mSATA to IDE adapter. install linux and they are awesomely fast and very useable. The ham radio club loved my donation for the ARES training.

  13. Just because something is “solid state” doesn’t mean it is faster. I have a hard time believing that 32GB USB 2.0 drive is going to be faster than that 40GB HDD, even if it is IDE.

  14. For those worried about write endurance, that’s an S-Tec industrial SLC CompactFlash card. Per cell write limit is something like 2M writes, which at the speed/size of the card means you can probably swap to it for the useful life of the card and not have issues. I recently picked up a lot of similar industrial spec cards so I could stop putting /var on a ramfs/nfs for embedded projects.

  15. I do this all the time. There is something liberating about working on stuff that it literally doesn’t matter if you break it. I have old laptops that I take places there is a good chance they will get broken in any number of ways. My previous computer was sold old (after replacing caps etc) that only after my fellow employees laughed at me for having a computer worse then the currently worse server at my job did I upgrade it haha

  16. i did this a few years back. stuck a 16 gig cf card in an old hp laptop (with less ram than this one). the cf card is too slow to get any performance out of windows (i was running 2k). so its probibly good they went with linux. which is what i should have done. ultimately the laptop ended up becoming my porn computer, at least till i scraped it for parts.

  17. I have a ca. 2003 Dell Latitude D400 that I’ve kept alive in a similar fashion. It’s more of an “ultrabook” than the author’s Vaio, given its tiny (for 2003) size and relevant power. I did try to switch it to flash based storage using a IDE to CF module, since spinning IDE drives for laptops are getting scarce, but it actually ran slower than the original hard drive so I gave up on that route. Even so, with RAM maxed out at 1GB and Slackware Linux running on it, it’s more than capable of doing everyday computing jobs.

    The only downside is that the original Pentium M CPU has a bug that causes most Linux distros to balk at running on it; while the CPU does support PAE, the flag for PAE support in the CPU is flipped to indicate it doesn’t, and distros that require PAE (which is most of them these days) will not boot. You can get around this with a “forcepae” boot flag, or you can install a distro that supports non-PAE hardware and therefore ignores the flag.

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