Teensy Liberates the ThinkPad Keyboard

[Frank Adams] liked the keyboard on his Lenovo ThinkPad T61 so much that he decided to design an adapter so he could use it over USB with the Teensy microcontroller. He got the Trackpoint working, and along the way managed to add support for a number of other laptop boards as well. Before you know it, he had a full-blown open source project on his hands. Those projects can sneak up on you when you least expect it…

The first step of the process is getting your laptop keyboard of choice connected up to the Teensy, but as you might expect, that’s often easier said than done. They generally use a flexible printed circuit (FPC) “ribbon cable” of some type, but may also be terminated in any number of weirdo connectors. [Frank] goes over the finer points of getting these various keyboards connected to his PCB, from searching the usual suspects such as Aliexpress and Digikey for the proper connector to throwing caution to the wind and cutting off problematic nubs and tabs to make it fit.

You might be on your own for figuring out the best way to connect your liberated keyboard up, but [Frank] has done his part by designing a few PCBs which handle routing the appropriate connections to the Teensy LC or 3.2 microcontroller. He’s such a swell guy he’s even written the firmware for you. As of right now there’s currently a dozen keyboards supported by his software and hardware setup, but he also gives tips on how to get the firmware modified for your own board if you need to.

It should come as no surprise that it was a Thinkpad keyboard that got [Frank] going down this path; as we’ve documented over the years, hackers love their Thinkpads. From fitting them with more modern motherboards to going full on matryoshka and putting a second computer inside of one, it’s truly the laptop that launched a thousand hacks.

33 thoughts on “Teensy Liberates the ThinkPad Keyboard

  1. This has me thinking.

    A future project that I have been pondering for a long time now.. is it a tablet, is it a laptop, is it a phone? Yes, it’s a modular “all of the above”.

    Anyway… one of the things I have been unsure about is the keyboard. Building (a good) one from scratch could get EXPENSIVE! Maybe this is the answer!

    Is it? The only thing I am left wondering about is the Teensy. Those are pretty powerful right? Does that mean they are also power hungry? How is the power consumption on this thing when considering it as part of a battery operated portable device?

    Yah, I know, I could Google it. But.. to really do the job right would require researching the Teensy AND dozens upon dozens of alternative devices. Also, it’s not just a simple matter of looking up what their ‘normal’ current draw is. It would require researching power saving techniques and what power saving features are available on each chip.

    I bet someone here already has a lot of experience in this field. I bet somebody can just say, Teensy Yes or Teensy No and I can do the research of Teensy How at a later date if this project ever gets off the ground.

    Thanks!

    1. Teensy LC running at the full 48 MHz speed without any low-power effort (like the Snooze library) consumes about 13 mA.

      If you drive pin 13 high, the orange LED adds ~3 mA.

    2. I was thinking about a DIY laptop too and the Keyboard, Screen, and Trackpad were the only things stopping progress because of the proprietary connectors and drivers. Maybe all we need next is a DIY Trackpad to finally usher in a generation of awesome DIY laptops. Screens would be nice too, but it might be possible to just hack an existing monitor with a hinge and 3D printed case to make it work. All other component are ready to go off the shelf, especially with the Intel NUC style boards.

  2. Lenovo actually makes and sells USB keyboards that look just like that one from article picture, TrackPoint and mouse buttons included, of course with housing. Nevertheless, featured project is cool as it can make practically any laptop or non-USB keyboard USB compatible.

    1. No, actually, they don’t. They haven’t sold that keyboard layout since 2011, excluding the insanely overpriced Thinkpad 25. That’s the whole reason why he had to go through this to get that keyboard in a USB form.

  3. Because of my preference to the key layout of the older Lenovo/IBM lappies this beats the readily reusable Dell E6440 keyboard hands down. The E6540 has a number-pad though and readily connects to the EC via a PS2 compatible bus from a little PCB under the keyboard.

    This, though makes for a difficult choice on my DIY laptop build I’m planning in the future. Nice one [Frank Adams] and hackaday for this news :)

    1. The newer style and I believe even the older style thinkpad keyboard with trackpoint and buttons are in ready made cases officially created by Lenovo. I have seen both USB and bluetooth variants on sites like ebay. Search for terms like “Lenovo USB Keyboard” or “Lenovo Bluetooth Keyboard”

      1. The SK-8855 Thinkpad USB keyboard with the old-style keys and layout is no longer in production. As a result, it’s quite rare, and those that do pop up are expensive– prices generally start at 150 USD.

    2. > One might wonder what has gotten into the Lenovo designers with the new keyboard.

      The point of the six-row keyboard is you get more room for a bigger trackpad.

      I don’t care about the trackpad but that’s the reason I’ve seen Naitoh-san say.

  4. I bought an “As Is” Lenovo Thinkpad T61 laptop for $10 from my local PC recycling store (repc.com) and used the keyboard for all the development of this project. Out of curiosity, I put the keyboard back in the laptop and fired it up and the laptop still worked great. I didn’t have the heart to part-out such a great laptop so I gave it to my daughter as an early Christmas present. I’ve gone back to the recycling store multiple times but no more Thinkpads. I ended up purchasing a Thinkpad keyboard from Green Penguin on EBay for $11.

    1. In the Instructable page, [Frank Adams] mentions that he built a mobile KVM for a friend using a laptop with a dead system board as a base. Put an LCD controller board inside, and converted the keyboard and touchpad to USB. I’ve been planning to build one using the carcass of an ancient Thinkpad, so this project makes it much easier to do so.

    1. Yes I would like to keep the USB and add bluetooth but I’m not sure which chipset to use. Is BLE the way to go for a HID or should I stick with Classic or use a dual mode? I was thinking of adding a battery and charge it from the USB 5 volts. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks

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