The Best Laptop Gets Even Better

The ThinkPad is the greatest laptop ever created. It doesn’t come in rose gold, it comes in black. It doesn’t have a weird screen instead of an escape key. For less than half the price of a MacBook, you can have a capable laptop that will somehow fit three drives inside. It’s madness, but it’s still not the perfect tool for hacking. To get there, you’re going to need to load that thing up with an independent Linux system, and maybe a solderless breadboard. That’s what [ollie] is doing with his ThinkPad, and the results are the perfect addition to the perfect laptop.

This build is really just a 3D printed drive caddy for the Thinkpad UltraBay, the modular standard that allows you to add a CD drive, SATA drive, or even a serial and parallel port to your laptop. [ollie] is modeling this off the CD drive taken from a ThinkPad T420, so we’re looking at a ‘Serial Ultrabay Enhanced’ version of this standard, which is compatible with a T430, which is still the best laptop you can possibly buy.

Inside this 3D printed drive caddy is a Raspberry Pi Zero W, powered by the ThinkPad through the internal SATA connector. The Pi Zero has right-angle headers attached, giving access to the GPIO pins from the outside. Just to add a little flair, [ollie] added an OLED display to show the IP address, the CPU load, and the memory availability of the Pi.

This is a great project, if only because no one has any use for a CD drive anymore. Since these UltraBay drives are huge, it would be a simple matter to add a much more powerful computer to the drive like the recently announced Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+. There are — or at least there should be — some interesting internal connections on that UltraBay port, and it’s not inconceivable this Raspberry Pi UltraBay could be used as a coprocessor of sorts for its host laptop.

82 thoughts on “The Best Laptop Gets Even Better

      1. Just pining for the fjords. I just used one to boot a ~ 2000 era PIII computer to recover some code I’d written back then. Maybe not a really usable machine (subjectively the raspberry pi3 is faster) but…one of several I was trying to recover wouldn’t quite boot on its own – the dual boot win95/linux had somehow gotten messed up. None of these machines would boot from USB, it wasn’t a “thing” yet – even though they had ports.
        There are a few things I wish I’d just put on CD back then, this would have been easier.
        Mostly != all.

    1. That’s why I recently bought a HDD caddy that fits into the CD ROM bay of my laptop.

      I notice this project is just using power from the SATA port and nothing more.

      You don’t need a 3D printer to do similar.

      Just buy a $5 caddy from ebay. The one I have even has two empty pads on the circuit board to solder power wires to.

      The caddy has a second void that would fit a couple of small LiPo batteries. You could use the laptop as a charging station.

      For COMMS you could use a Serial to Bluetoooth module like the HC-06 or ESP8266 / ESP32 Wi-Fi

    2. You’ve fallen for a classic Benchoff ruse. He makes an offhand comment about technology that’s dead, waiting for the comments to come pouring in. Well, apparently now I’m a part of it too, so I hope this comment prevents a few in the future.

      Al Gore and I have been working on “Comment Offsets” that you can purchase. I don’t really see it taking off though, since the internet is dead.

  1. Interesting article. Unfortunately, both links point to the same wikipedia page for the ThinkPad UltraBay. The first link (referring to ollie’s work) should point to instead.

  2. This is a neat idea. I still have an A30P with one of those slots, although I haven’t booted it in a looong time.

    I wish they hadn’t changed the keyboard on “recent” thinkpads.

    1. These slots are great; you can also fit a HackRF into one if you remove the GPIO sockets.

      Also, why don’t modern laptops ship with a few GPIO pins broken out? I had cause to toggle a few physical buttons as part of an automated process the other day, and I wound up using a cheap MCU plugged into a USB port…

      1. Because 99.9…% of users would have no use for GPIO ports. And for those of us who do, we’re better off with something on a USB port, because we might want GPIO, or SPI, or ADC, or…
        plus just occasionally we have a habit of blowing a GPIO pin, and that’s much better done on a USB-attached $1 chip and on a $2k laptop.

  3. “This is a great project, if only because no one has any use for a CD drive anymore.”

    Commercial CDs and DVDs are physical, non-erasable copies of music and videos. Rip ’em and store the disks somewhere safe. Then when a power surge takes out your HD(s), you’re golden.

  4. Best of all this older Thinkpad probably had a sturdy power connector with some flex and strain relief, that didn’t make your heart race and unplug in panic every time a kid enters running across the room. I understand the love for USB C but using it as the sole charging port is horrifying. /rant

    1. And magsafe had its own host of bullshit, from gathering iron filings and shorting out to the baffling fact that apple insulated those cables with some kind of play-doh derivative. Seriously, what kind of plastic frays and cracks that way?

      1. I’ve been using magsafe for 10 years and it’s fantastic. They break with time like everything in this world, but we’re talking many years of daily wear, nearing a decade. Getting rid of magsafe is the most moronic decision Apple ever took, including Sculley years. In fact Sculley was a genius compared to what they’ve got now.

        Well at least I still can plug a monitor and a usb device to my Thinkpad without a dongle.

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but those UltraBay slots have SATA connector (with power) and battery connector so you can insert additional battery shaped like CD drive. And that’s it, so there are no any more interesting connections in there, unfortunately. It would be cool if some USBs, ethernet and other stuff are present in there, but unfortunately they’re reserved for Thinkpad docking station.

    1. Depends on the model. That wikipedia article lists the versions that have support for pcmcia, seria/parallel ports and also PATA hard disks. It would be nice to see an article where someone actually built something for that expansion port, instead of just buying an IBM-approved part.

    2. Right, the modern ones are just SATA and power, sadly. I miss the time it was basically ISA/PATA. You could do anything with ’em back then.

      I thought about adding some USB pads into mine, and then putting pogo contacts on a modded sled, but then I got a new thinkpad with no bay at all. :(

    3. Mega Thinkpad nerd here. As far as Intel Core i-series Thinkpads, the T420s/T430s are the two that support the Ultrabay batteries. No newer models do, only the -s versions had it but they phased out the Ultrabay with the T440s and gave it the ability to hot swap batteries instead (it has a small battery built inside the laptop in addition to the big slotted one).

    4. Mega Thinkpad nerd here. As far as the Lenovo Thinkpads go, only the T420s and T430s support it. The non-s variants do not and they phased out the Ultrabay on the T440s cause nobody uses DVDs nowadays. T440s and above more come with a battery backup built in to allow you to hot swap batteries without plugging it into power.

      1. Thought WP didn’t post my first comment but it turns out it did. Oops.

        Anywho, fun fact. Some models of IdeaPad have a full PCIe slot in their Ultrabays for SLI GPUs. With some work it may be possible to add to a Thinkpad because you can steal PCIe lanes from the internal mPCIe slot or the ExpressCard port. You’re on your own for figuring out what power lanes you can tap into – I’m fairly sure it won’t let you take 35W+ from the SATA port :p

        1. you wouldn’t happen to know which models have the full (even 8x is good) PCIe?

          As for the power – it probably will not allow taking 35+W from anywhere, the internal power management system just doesn’t have that much overhead :P

    5. Lenovo still makes all the Hardware Maintenance Manuals available for most of the Thinkpad line, so you could look through and find out for yourself what Ultrabay options are available. Be a PITA, but it could be done.

  6. “There are — or at least there should be — some interesting internconnections on that UltraBay port, and it’s not inconceivable this Raspberry Pi UltraBay could be used as a coprocessor of sorts for its host laptop.”

    What? SATA’s not enough for yah? Maybe slapping in an SATA->IDE adapter would make it more interesting?

  7. /looks at the title
    THATS NOT THE BE..
    /scrolls a little
    Oh wait, this is the best laptop ever made!

    Too bad it uses klunky connection over wifi. Afaik T420 UltraBay is pure power + SATA. You could hack USB from one of the mPCIE connectors/dock connector/keyboard connector/screen (there are like 7 free USB connections inside the laptop) to the pee and treat it as a build-in USB IO dongle.
    fun fact Y410p/Y510p have full 8x PCIE 3.0 routed to the UltraBay and people managed to run AMD GPUs over this https://www.techinferno.com/index.php?/forums/topic/11794-y510p-ultrabay-graphics-adapter-configuration-thread/

    1. I agree, the Touchpad of the T420 is simply the worst touchpad I ever used. I switched to a USB mouse right away.

      Besides that, the T420 is pretty good, stick a USB3-card into the express slot and add a mSATA-SSD to the slot next to the RAM module, fiddle a bit with the BIOS to boot from it and it is still a very usable laptop. It will drive a 2560 x 1440 display through the display port output and the combined eSATA/USB-connector does come in handy quite often.

      I run mine with Xubuntu 16.04 LTS and everything works as expected.

      1. I used to love the trackpoint on my old Compaq and Toshiba laptops back in the 90s. For quite a while I had laptops without them and missed them. Now I have an old Dell which is on indefinite loan from work and has a trackpoint. i remember them being soft, grippy rubber. This thing is hard plastic and nowhere near as pleasant to use as what I remember.

        Trackpoints are an “old” way of doing things and I really do think that when manufacturers decide they want to move on they release crappy versions of things so that all the short memoried consumers think they sucked and it was actually the market that decided to change to something new.

      1. The sole point of using thinkpads is the trackpoint mouse. It’s what makes the whole thing useful for anything that requires any control over the mouse cursor with all the three mouse buttons accessible at once. CAD applications for example need you to middle click and drag to rotate the view – which is impossible with a touchpad.

        It’s too bad Lenovo doesn’t put them in all of the models – but then again they’re trying to sell you the more expensive ones.

      2. Exaaactly. I’ve retrofitted the trackpoint module from several replacement keyboards and soldered them directly to a ps2-usb adapter for this reason. Trackpoint is my jam. I’ll twiddle that little keyboard nipple all day.

      3. One of the first things I do on a new laptop! :)

        I’m one of the old farts still using “focus follows mouse” and so any touchpad on any laptop is a dealbreaker; thumbs will cause keyboard input to switch apps frequently. And I don’t use tabbed GUI terminals, I just use a grid of xterms so that they’re all visible all the time, so it doesn’t take much motion from the mouse to change the recipient.

        (I use focus-follows-mouse because it improves select/paste on *nix where you can select text and paste with a middle click without needing a “copy” step)

        But with a trackpoint it is heaven.

  8. “It doesn’t come in rose gold, it comes in black. It doesn’t have a weird screen instead of an escape key. For less than half the price of a MacBook.”

    Can you not with the constant anti-mac bs?

    1. But it is fun to have my bias confirmed!

      But seriously, the hardware side of Apple devices today is sad. I still find it funny that the article makes fun of the aspects of the computer that aren’t terrible. Just find some Louis Rossman videos and let the real criticisms roll in.

      1. Who leaves them with the software they put on at the factory? They jumped the shark on a few models, but…linux and you know the rest. Software = easy to change. Hardware, not so much, hence the article on how to do this neat thing.

    2. It will continue until they stop with their hardware abuse.

      I don’t mind mac software. Their hardware is a warcrime. They sit on every decent patent for things like displays or fingerprint scanners from companies they’ve acquired and make decorative hardware designed to infuriate you. They’ve systematically betrayed every class of power user and professional in order to entertain the idiot mac-as-status-symbol crowd. Assholes.

      1. Apple makes claims about being “green” while producing products that are next to impossible to take apart to repair and uneconomical to take apart to salvage good parts for repairs, or rip apart destructively for recycling.

        Apple also hides the most money overseas to avoid US taxes, while the “Occupy” numbskulls protesting against such tactics blindly use Apple’s products.

        1. The decision to not “hide money overseas” cannot be made by any company’s management — stockholders would kill them by moving their investments to other companies which did not. It must be made legislatively, and must apply to all corporations equally, in order for it to actually work.

    3. I hope you are joking. If not, then I suggest you do a system check to make sure you don’t have any browser hijackers. HaD only hates Windows.

      On a side note: my R61i is still going strong :)

  9. This looks like a great project for my W530, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be even more useful if you could access the breadboard while you were using the laptop. That would take hacking the CDROM drive so that the breadboard slides out on the drawer when you push the button. The display might be more useful if it were mounted facing up on the CD drawer, too, at least for RPi projects.

  10. I must be missing something here. Why in gods name would you wanna stick any kind of a pi in a functioning x86 machine? And from what I read all it does it consume power. If you don’t like the optical drive just take it out and 3D print a cover for the hole, at least that way you are not pissing through your battery. It would be perhaps a bit different if you could use the pi for something useful. Back in the C64 days a friend and I worked on a graphics rendering program and we used the 6502 in the 1541 disk drive to work on one thing while the cpu in the 64 did something else. I guess you get a pi and some gpio’s but what good is a notebook with a big bunch of wires tethering it. Sorry but I am not seeing this one at all.

    1. When you are a student, you are doing a lot of work not at your desk at home. Having a breadboard and Pi handy to work on things, whether it’s for school or personal, is nice to have. Storing it in the empty slot in your laptop seems even more reasonable. My optical drive died in my T420 so I would stick my phone in that slot during class so I could see notifications but not take up what little desk space I had in lecture halls.

  11. I love my T430– I’m posting on it right now. Apart from its weight and crappy screen and short battery life and… a bunch of other things… it’s a great computer. And it’s great that the optical drive bay can be used for lots of cool stuff.

    BUT… this Apple bashing is a big fat load of garbage. Apple makes great computers– I own and have owned a bunch. I don’t like the Touch Bar either, but slamming Apple like this is moronic.

    Bashing Apple’s color options is particularly misguided since our laptops are the most important machines we own and we use them ALL. THE. TIME. Do you wear only white or black clothes? If so, that’s cool, and that’s your choice, but if people want to wear pink or gray, that’s fine too.

    1. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before OSX becomes locked down just like the iPhone. If Apple hasn’t approved an “app” for the Apple Store you won’t be able to run it. If you want to develop for it.. you will have to pony up $100/year for a developer account. And if you want to share the code you write with anyone (in compiled form) you will have to jump through more hoops than a circus animal to get it into their store.

      Or maybe not. But… for reversing a decade of social progress by popularizing such an environment they way they did with the I-Phone… they can burn in hell. Before the i-crap people who never had shown interest in technology before were buying computers and (slowly) learning how they worked. People who barely owned a screwdriver previously were even learning to install their own upgrades!

      I will not be sending any money their way for phone or for laptop! No self respecting maker or hacker should consider supporting that devil.

  12. Has anyone noticed (while grandstanding and dreaming/speculating of what this device isn’t in the comments) that this project has almost no usability? It only gets power from the internal sata connection. It has a breadboard but you can’t use it while the device is plugged into the laptop. Should read “how to make a 3d printed Thinkpad UltraBay shell”. A Hardwired connection would make this more of a hack. Wouldn’t a USB power connection work better, you could fit it all in the shell that was printed.

  13. Does adding a Pi really make it the “perfect tool for hacking”?

    Don’t get me wrong, this is a cool hack and quite sharp looking too. The maker should be proud! I wouldn’t go this way to make the “perfect tool for hacking” though.

    First… the Pi. Ok.. so it’s an embedded Linux computer. Cool. But.. the laptop itself can run Linux. Then there is that annoying problem of having to make sure the Pi is shut down properly before the laptop is shut down. Unless you handicap the pi by using a read-only filesystem.

    And the breadboard.. cool but I don’t think it’s very practical. Can you still slide it back in with components in the breadboard? I’m guessing not. Having to take every project apart before putting it away kind of limits the attraction IMHO.

    What would I do instead?

    Instead of the Pi how about a Bus Pirate?!?

    Instead of a breadboard how about a pocket where probes for the bus pirate may be stored?

    And of course the OS on the laptop itself must be Linux. So.. if you really miss that Pi just use Raspbian x86 edition for the OS!

    Now you have the “perfect tool for hacking”!

    1. Good but you can still do better!

      Design the tray to slide all the way out, completely detaching from the laptop.
      Add a battery to the tray so that the pirate keeps going even when separated.
      Bonus points if there are pogo pins so that the battery recharges off the laptop whenever the tray is plugged in.
      Replace the USB chip on the pirate with a bluetooth serial chip.*
      Add bluetooth to the laptop if it doesn’t already have it.

      Now you have a detachable wireless bus pirate that is mated to your laptop. That might just BE the perfect tool for hacking!

      (Bluetooth serial, yet another reason no maker should ever chose Apple!)

  14. We tend to forget about the greats HP elitebook, I guess it is because it was only since 2009 that HP made great laptop and it lasted only 5-6y before they screwed the line with the cheap, disposable elitebook/probook xxx.

    But elitebook 24xxp, 84xxp were/are great devices and very well supported on Linux, the keyboard is as good as the Thinkpad t/x line.

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