Turn That Old Tablet Into A Sub-$100 Linux Laptop

Tiny laptops have always been devices that promise so much, yet fail somehow to deliver. From the Atari Portfolio palmtops through to the recent crop of netbooks they have been either eye-wateringly expensive if they are any good, or so compromised by their size constraints as to be next-to-useless. We’ve seen DOS, EPOC, Windows, WinCE, Palm OS, Linux distros and more in tiny form factors over the years, yet few have made a significant mark.

The prospect of a “proper” computer in your hand isn’t something to abandon just yet though. We are now reaching the point at which the previous generation of higher-end Android tablets are both acceptably powerful and sufficiently numerous as to be available at a very reasonable price. Perhaps these can provide the tiny laptop seeker with a basis for something useful. [NODE] certainly thinks so, because he’s produced a nice little Ubuntu laptop using a second-hand Nexus 7 tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard case. Android is replaced with an Ubuntu image, and a cardboard cut-out display bezel is held in place with magnetic strips. A step-by-step guide has been put up to help others interested in following the same path.

This is not the most amazing of hardware hacks, in that it involves mostly off-the-shelf items and a piece of software. However it’s worth a look because it does provide a route to a very acceptable little Linux laptop for an extremely reasonable price. One concern is that the Ubuntu version seems not to be a recent one, however we’re sure readers will point at any newer distribution builds in the comments. If you fancy a look at the finished laptop he’s posted a video which we’ve included below the break.

We’ve shown you a few home-made palmtops over the years, including this one with a Raspberry Pi at heart, and this Commodore 64. Or you could take a look at our DIY laptop roundup.

Via Lifehacker.

43 thoughts on “Turn That Old Tablet Into A Sub-$100 Linux Laptop

    1. I still have a perfectly wroking eeepc 701 from 2008, used as a telegram bot server and works like a charm with lubuntu. netbooks were just great, it’s a shame market didn’t care…

      1. I keep an old Eee-PC 901 with Lubuntu in reserve for vacations and riding in the back of an airplane as the effed-up kludge that even de-googled Cyanogen-mod w/F-droid is. The super tough Eee line of netbooks convinced me to try a jump off of the Thinkpad line for my primary laptop and I have never looked back. I truly wish I could get a modern Eee equivalent in the old sizing with an amd64 to run regular desktop Linux.
        This project looked exciting until I realized the newer Nexus 7(2013wifi) is not covered. I do pretty much the same with Cyanogen and a wired keyboard protective folder. I need to snip off the microusb on the KB and solder inline an OTG hub for a few extra USB ports for stuff like an external SD card. I think I will need to potch with digispark USB HID so I can make a Thinkpad style pointer stick mouse, as they do not seem to be available otherwise.

      2. I am still using my Eee 1005HA specially when travelling. I think that tablets killed the netbooks although they’re intended to different purposes. A touch screen (tablet) is aimed to consume data while a keyboard and a mouse are still today the best way to produce data.

      3. Yep. I still use my Eee-PC on a daily basis. It’s had two new keyboards and a (faster, larger) replacement SSD but it still works perfectly. Every time I pull it out people are like, “Whoah! A tiny PC! Where can I get one?”.

        Those things were perfect, it’s a pity they ever let the design department listen to whiny, ham-fisted ‘reviewers’.

        These days they could be slimline with retina displays, etc., but nooooo….they’re completely impossible to use because the keyboard is only 90% size, right? (sarcasm)

        1. I was late to the netbook party until I picked up one and then another dirt cheap used. I can type on them well enough, but find the keyboards, although previously abused, to be poor quality, I could do with replacing them. However, that’s investing as much again as they cost me. I am living the form factor for chuckarounds and take everywhereness. They run windows 10 surprisingly well, I was going to stick lubuntu or something on them, figuring they were too old and slow now for windows, but with 2GB w10 is quite usable.. Only other complaint is low vertical resolution on mine… Mine are a later aspire one and a very similar emachine both with n450s.

          I am torn between spending money on them, SSDs and new keyboards, and finding another more betterer one with 768 or 900 vertical res. Seeing some dell ones in refurb channels that are tempty.

          Though I’m wondering if I would have as “much fun” with them if I had paid more, since I don’t care where I bring them if you know what I mean, I wonder if spending a few $$ on a good one would have me leaving it at home more often… I’m like that with stuff, keep the “good one” in reserve until the old thing is absolutely beaten to death and can’t even.

          I have a V2000 series presario though that is almost as compact, the screen backlight died. I have half a mind to refurb that and use it for the chuckaround, cram in a 2Ghz Turion and it’s gotta be as good as the 1.6G Atoms. I tried some live CDs on it in the past and they didn’t seem to play nice with teh powersaving. Will have to try again.

          1. Running a Dell Mini 9 here, I run it with XP and Enhanced Write Filter (EWF) to prevent any permanent changes to the OS. I pretty much treat it as an appliance. Anyways, I use it with a USB Oscilloscope for portable trouble shooting. It’s nice since I’m totally isolated from the mains (no isolation transformers etc to worry about).

            I really wish netbooks would make a resurgence. I’ve got more I/O on this Dell Mini 9 than the last couple generations of macbooks combined… an odd comparison I know, but it seems the market tends to follow Apple’s trends. So I’m afraid not only will we see fewer netbooks, but fewer laptops with functional ports in the future.

            Anyways three cheers for netbooks.

          2. Just found out Turions are about 20% faster at the same clock as N450 Atoms and with only minor improvements up and down the line in the refreshes, probably still faster clock for clock…

            So, as I suspected, Turion64 subnotebooks with the RAM crammed, might offer an alternative to netbooks. Although there were also in subnote low power models, Core 2 Duos, at lower clocks, 1.2 1.4 etc, that might also be worth looking into. The Semprons are also faster than the Atoms, but not by as much, and it can be really tricky to figure out from labelling and product specs whether you’re getting an AMD64 capable one, or whether it’s actually a low power one or one of the “DRP” versions that was up around 30 or 40 watts, i.e. that’s gonna suck juice fast.

            Netbooks were kind of a reaction to notebooks not being so notey any more and getting huge and power hungry, 17″ screens etc but before that came about the subnotebook class existed, and kinda died out around the mid 00s about 3 years before netbooks took off*, however this is also the peak era for tail end of bad cap troubles and front end of lead free solder troubles, so finding anything fast enough, expandable enough and working enough is a crap shoot.

            *I guess it’s kinda the ultrabook that killed off the netbook somewhat, as consumers demanded more power, it was hard to get in real CPUs in the netbook price bracket it has set for itself, $700 netbook? hard sell…. had to go more premium.

  1. What I’d like (and what I’m sure others would like) is a comprehensive guide to port *any* Android device to boot Ubuntu.

    I tried doing it 4ish years ago to the Toshiba Thrive, but I could never get it to boot. Heck, I for all I knew, it was booting, but USB and display support wasn’t there.

    1. I agree with you. A hardware agnostic Linux distribution that could be loaded onto any cheap Android tablet would be awesome. It’s strange to think that, even though tablets are running hardware from diverse manufacturers, they all have nearly identical TYPES of hardware. Surely, there are “generic” drivers out there which will run nearly every piece of hardware out there.

      1. Possibly the most annoying part is that there are several Tegra 2 devices that had “official” support (Asus Transformer, Motorola Xoom, Advent Vega), but you can’t just grab one of the other kernels and throw it in and have it work.

        I still have the Thrive I want to put Ubuntu onto. It isn’t much worth it to try to sell it at this point, so I might as well try to get Ubuntu booting on it.

        1. I also have a Thrive which I really liked due to all the items I can plug into it. I know there are linux lite versions for older, slower computers, is this something that could apply to the Thrive? I am not computer savvy at all, but I would love to have you contact me to let me know what you find out.

    1. You know ArtMarx, you’re totally right. This definitely isn’t a hack; sticking a tablet in a cardboard case BARELY qualifies as creative let alone a hack. This whole site is going downhill rapidly. I can’t believe I still come here for absolutely free content and project ideas

      1. I have 4 tablets in keyboard folio cases all running Android, so if I just slap some stickers and glitter on em is that a hack? Wow hackaday is reduced to lame arts and craft as posts now.

  2. Qu, Why don’t you sell your completed netbook/pda in your shop for me to buy ?

    TBHonest your post interested me. Been looking at the [Sharp ISO1](https://www.amazon.co.jp/dp/B003V8OOFK “google translate required”) (£50/$60+postage) and other things that pop up on ebay UK once in a while to the tune of £100/$120.
    Sharp need to bring out the next version, soon – which could well run Ubuntu Touch.

    Links to where I can find the inventory of parts would have worked well too.

  3. I picked up 5 lenovo x130e laptops for 60 each they have an embedded windows 8 license, and but run Gentoo if I have anything to do with it, or … they work fine and are super sturdy due to being designed for kids. I upgraded the ram in one of them to 8Gb (the max though they’ll recognize 8Gb sticks only half will be used)

    Not the fastest but a 1.8Ghz AMD cpu isn’t terrible either.. I have one setup running my 3d printer, and another that I take with me on trips and they have ok battery life too.

    1. Well the article was about a sub-$100 hacked together touchscreen “laptop”. I’m not knocking your idea, it’s certainly feasible and would probably be a better, faster solution for most folks, but it’s not what the article is about.

      Nothing to do with hardware hacking either, but I’m definitely interested in the Pyra (from the creators of the OpenPandora). It’s a true retail Linux palmtop that is mostly open hardware, and it’s designed for dual roles of mobile emulation-gaming and mobile Linux hacking. The price is steep, but it’s almost worth it considering they do all the grunt work. It has a SIM card slot and telephony support, so theoretically it could be one’s cellphone as well.

  4. Although not a hack, I did pick up 10 HP ProBooks for $25 USD ea., slipped in a sata pull drive, and installed Ubuntu 64 bit. Flawless install, all drivers recognized, and with the Celeron Dual core @ 1.8, fast as needed.
    Thirteen inch screen, light and fast.. One system I used a SSD, and damn, what an improvement.. Rocket fast.
    And, as a kicker, the keyboard is spill proof, and the case is aluminum. A re-purposed Thin Client from HP.
    Model 6360t.. (With a display port) This simple conversion allows KODI for media server duty, even Windows 7 Professional installs without complaint. Not a hack, but functional..

  5. Neat. This gave me inspiration. I pulled out my old Nexus 7 with a cracked screen. I blasted out ubuntu 13.04 on it, then found a usb keyboard and a usb to mini usb adapter and ubuntu found the keyboard, letting me get through the install process. Connected it up to wifi, install ssh, and now using it as a headless server. Thanks it made my day to re-purpose it.

  6. I had exactly that Zagg bluetooth keyboard for my Nexus 7, 2013. I got it from Best Buy for about $80 with a ~$15 insurance, replacing it once early on, and then near the end of the insurance they didn’t have any more, so I exchanged it for a gift card. Both times replaced it because the plastic flange near the ends of the tablet would visibly stress and start to tear/break. In spite of the design flaw, I really liked the setup, even with regular android on the tablet (termux gives me a Linux terminal and a pretty good repository of apps (like emacs) and compilers.) I got the tablet itself for about $150 from T-Mobile with an data plan on my wife’s phone.

    I guess I wrote all of that to say that this is a very viable setup, but the total cost for just the keyboard (and insurance) and tablet was about $250, plus my data plan. I really liked how I could just pull it out on the subway and tap messages or notes into my tablet.

    I would like to get that keyboard again, instead I have a sporty case with a kickstand that I got on Amazon, (had to modify the stand with a nail file to make it open like it was designed to be) and a Best Buy price-matched bluetooth keyboard. Can’t exactly touch-type on the subway anymore, but it works fine on a lapdesk or table-top. In fact, after typing this up, I found one on ebay, new, for $18 delivered, so I pulled the trigger.

  7. I wish someone would figure out how to root the Nobis NB7850S android tablet. Staples sold millions of them. 1024×768 LCD, aluminum housing, USB OTG, front and rear cameras. Android locked down *tight*. I’ve tried every ‘guaranteed to work’ root hack I could find and only managed to get something borked to where whenever it’s turned off or restarted it does a factory reset. As long as I don’t do that it works like it should.

  8. HP made the original palmtop PC, an IBM-PC compatible with LCD text only screen and an 8088 CPU. Toshiba had a good run with their Libretto series. IIRC the first ones (or the first ones available outside Japan) had a 486 CPU. Those were quickly replaced by models with Pentium CPUs running Windows 95.

    Took Toshiba forever to kick out a 32bit driver for the floppy drive. Plugging in the floppy was problematic due to its 16 bit driver, dunno how they managed to make it work, perhaps they were “inspired” by Win 95’s support for 16 bit Windows 3.1 printer drivers? It made reinstalling the original Win95 release off floppies an interesting experience.

    Another palmtop was the Palmax, which had two models, the PD1000 and PD1100 with Cyrix MediaGX chips.

  9. Not sure how many follow this thread but I’ve switched to a win10 10.1″ convertible. Z3537f and similar processors with 2gb ram do almost anything hacker-related, under Windows. Was 120e 1 year ago and trumps the early eeepcs in performance.
    Unfortunately they’re difficult to get running on Linux but on Windows mine has 9-10h battery life. It weighs ~1.2kg of which the metallic base (can be hacked off) is ~400g.
    Going up in price a dell e6220 or e6230 runs everything decently and can be had for 150-250 euro, 1.4-1.5kgs, 5-9h battery life. Horrible screen. It even runs OS X which brings me to the next point:
    MacBook Air if you’re really made of money. 1.2kg, fits in every backpack, 10+h of battery life. Doesn’t come cheap though, a used 2011 model can still set you back 6-800 euro.

    The most important points in an ultraportable should be: weight, comfortable keyboard and touchpad with backlight, battery life, durability, serviceability. Just my 2c after using so many of them and carrying i7 ‘gaming’ notebooks in the backpack.

    1. I still don’t see the point – it’s better to do this on a Nexus 10 and get a BT keyboard with touchpad. Using any laptop with just the touch quickly gets annoying. Also, the BT keyboards are really limited and have poor tactile feedback. I have 4 of those.
      Not sure what Ubuntu on a tablet achieves if you need a keyboard; just get a Celeron (N4200 for example) laptop and be done. Or if you need command-line tools, those are available under Win, Android and iOS.
      Also, assuming the tablet has all the needed ports (micro HDMI, micro SD, micro USB otg) they are usually squeezed together. On one tablet I have you cannot use OTG and charge at the same time, even through a switchable OTG hub.
      I’ve also used an iPad Air with the Sharon keyboard case – ok for ssh-ing in and basic *nix stuff but it’s annoying to use. At least you get great battery life (>1 day) and good media performance.
      After a few of these experiences I just gave up and bought a cheap win laptop, sometimes I live boot in linux. That was until I killed the USB port while doing ICSP on a live circuit.
      Sorry for being long-winded (again!) but I haven’t found any cheap AND decent solution to this problem for the past 5 years.

  10. 3e pc with VGA port was adaptable. i use two of them running tiny windows XP. They also have DDR2 RAM, which is easy to upgrade to 2 GB. i even had one running AI + speech recognition + an attractive, animated virtual assistant to converse with – back in 2007! The market went to sleep letting companies monopolize with convenience for idiots to pay for, rather than maintaining adaptability that buyers could enjoy personalizing. Now you need an SBC, and i don’t mean the over-priced Arduino crap.

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