Help, I’m Buried Alive By Tablets!

It’s fair to say that many Hackaday readers will have a propensity for hoarding electronic or tech junk. Who hasn’t hung on to something because “It might be useful someday”? Spare a thought for [Mike Drew], who in his own words is “buried alive by tablets”. In this case the tablets are Intel-based ones that look as though they ran one of those cut-down Windows versions, and they appear to be rejects from a repair shop processing customer returns that he saved from the dumpster. They are missing their backs, and not all of their screens work, but they amount to a tidy pile of Stuff That’s Too Good To Throw Away.

The exact spec is a 1.4 GHz quad-core Atom with 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of Flash, and appear from the photos to have HDMI and USB 3 interfaces. Happily they run Linux Mint 20 so they have plenty of potential, but there is only so much that one person can do with them before running out of ideas. He tells us he’s made a Folding@Home cluster, but beyond that he’s open to suggestions. Depending on the age of the commenter no doubt he’ll be exhorted to run Beowulf or mine Bitcoin, but we’d suggest more sensible ideas.

So, what would you do with them? They lack the handy GPIO port of a Raspberry Pi, but with suitable USB peripherals could you use them in any lowish-power distributed node project where the popular SBC would be the usual choice? Perhaps something like WeeWX, or OpenEnergyMonitor. Or how about distributed mesh network nodes, after all there’s an x86 port of LibreMesh. It’s obvious that there’s plenty of potential to be found, so help [Mike] with his problematic bounty in the comments.

47 thoughts on “Help, I’m Buried Alive By Tablets!

  1. If they have working screens I’d say picture frame or weather display, or a NAS if not. At some point I’d ask myself what’s the replacement cost of these items, with SBCs being so cheap nowadays. I have a local place that recycles old electronics.

  2. My first thought goes to home automation/iot.

    With screens would be great for a UI for octoprint, without screens could still be useful for a print server.

    Could be good for in-dash computing like android auto, too.

  3. With working screens you can do alot with them – fun and practical both. I’d be tempted by a wall of them just for fun – show my solar array, printer status, feeds from various news agencies and websites I like etc. Nice big panel in the middle for todays XKCD as everyone needs some humour and being us we need it to be science, and maths humour.. (Perhaps a PIR to active the screens, can of course use all the spare computing power for a rendering cluster etc)

    A selection of those separately would make sense practically, the wall is just daft.

    Also make a good USB microscope/ Oscope/ logic probe/sdr display. For myself I have an old DSLR over my workbench for screw positions while dismantling etc but no screen so if I’ve bumped it out of focus or need to move it its hard to tell – So I’d build one into the camera stand.

    The busted screen ones are probably useless though, being very low spec really..

  4. If they run a browser with decent javascript with websockets support, try using them with MQTT backend for generic user interfaces/dashboards.
    paho-mqtt is a nice javascript/websocket MQTT client. mosquitto server can be compiled (not sure if/what distros support it) with websockets – the compilation is mercifully easy with few dependencies.

    Allows reusing even old discarded cellphones with not-too-ancient android.
    …less-ancient androids support termux, on which various server stuff can be run – including python. Not relevant to the tablets in question, though another python interpreter could run on them.

    1. Whatever OS they come with, they should be capable of running a full Linux or Windows OS, and therefore capable of running your choice of good browsers. His even have 4 GB of RAM — a luxury for such things, most of those cheap tablets only have 1 or 2 GB, and some only have 16 GB of storage.

      The only likely problem with getting them going is that it may be difficult to find the correct touchscreen drivers. The accelerometer drivers can also be a challenge. Without those you would be limited to projects that don’t need those peripherals. The rest of the hardware usually works with a standard OS installation.

  5. Since they have Intel processors, one potential use is for things that require Windows-specific applications. If I had one I’d think about making it the core of a portable SDR-based station; a lot of the best SDR software is Windows-only. You would have to track down a license but there are inexpensive sources.

    1. I find most SDR software needing better hardware then this…
      I got an SDR and a computer not doing anything useful most of the time, but it’s just to slow to get a decent user experience of the SDR

  6. A thing I’ve been wanting to make is a panel mounted outside the door of my home office that can tell when I’m on a video call and warn my family not to barge in. “On Air,” basically.

      1. So what? Being slower than newer hardware isn’t a big deal if it will do what you want it to – heck I have a similar sort of spec Panasonic Toughbook tablet (mine actually has less RAM) and it gets quite a bit of use being able to run a full but lightweight linux os, hotswappable batteries, nice daylight readable screen – its still useful so I use it. Its now also low value enough if it gets damaged doesn’t matter much, can get a replacement for very little so good for having in the workshop to look up stuff.

        And these are whole systems HID, screen etc all in one that cost nothing…. Why waste that and put in lots of your own effort and money to create new if this will do the job just fine.

        1. They also likely consume enough power to cover the cost of replacing them with equivalent modern compute over a surprisingly short timespan – especially if you describe the time relative to the amount of time somebody’s been sitting on them doing nothing.

          The only reason to keep these if is if you are personally entertained by hacking on this specific hardware for the challenge. Throwing them away and starting fresh will be a cost savings over powering them all.

    1. I agree. Move on. All things in your life require space (in your home) and time (your time) and probably energy (yours and/or utility). If you cannot dedicate all three to your thing (whatever it is) you should get rid of it. Don’t serve your stuff. Let it serve you. And if it doesn’t serve you, let it serve someone else or dispose of it so it doesn’t drain others’ time, space, and energy.

      I got rid of my guitar, as much as I liked it, because I knew I didn’t have time and didn’t plan give it my time. So instead I got space, freed up some mental mental energy by never having to think about my guitar (“when will I play? will I play?”), and I got some cash. Aren’t those things you want, too?

      If you enjoy that time you spend with your broken tablets and enjoy coming up with new things to do with them, great! If it’s a chore, ask yourself the why questions and be honest with yourself when answering.

  7. Build an invisibility suit. Set them up in pairs with the cam in one is shown in the display of another and build something to mount them on your person. First thought would be a tube frame using pvc pipe but there are surely better options.

  8. Mike,

    If that’s a Z8350 based board (which, from the spec, it very well could be) it’ll also run FreeBSD and OpenBSD very well, so you have the basis of some very nice little low-power, general purpose servers. DNS/DHCP/NTP etc, etc.

    You can throw a couple of disks onto the USB3 (with a hub) and have instant llow-power, low-cost NAS (FreeBSD will happily mirror root, as well as the other filesystems, using ZFS …and yes, it may not be AWS grade, but a Z8350 with 4GB will quite happily handle a couple of 4TB disks with multiple pools). You can create a TimeMachine server for your Macs and iPhones/iPads and keep all of your data locally, or you can make the machine a VPN endpoint and save/serve your remote family member’s data, too.

    You could set up a reverse-proxy server with Pound and Let’s Encrypt to add HTTPS to an in-house web server and, at the same time, make all of your in-house ESP8266 or TASMOTA devices only accessible via HTTPS from the internet.

    Have fun!

  9. Decide how much time you can afford to spend on them and use that time to create as many fully functional, usable, units from the broken ones as you can (perhaps running a GUI Lunux with web browser) and chuck the rest. Donate the working units to a charitable organisation that will ship them to a needier part of the world.

  10. Tile a bunch of the ones with working displays to make an immersive wrap-around Flight Sim display. Use more for a glass cockpit, or even to simulate the displays of icky analog gauges.

    1. Icky?
      Analog guages are easier to determine if something is wrong.

      I am not a pilot, but AIUI, the analog guages point to the 9 o’clock position when the information being displayed is normal.

  11. A few months back I found 10 Kindles in e-waste. 5 of them fired up after being charged. They’re 4th gen 6” wifi models. They must have been for evaluation because the model and FCC info on the back are just Xs.

    Being sub-amateur at best, I jailbroke them but haven’t gone beyond that. My programming and electronics skills are slowly improving, so I’m hoping to turn them into displays for Arduinos. Or maybe the Pi Zero W that I’m trying to learn Linux on.

    1. You’ve got a couple working and jailbroken? You’re halfway there!

      Just turn it into a WiFi image receiver and handle the rest from the Pi Zero.
      https://hackaday.com/2012/09/17/turning-a-kindle-into-a-weather-display/
      https://hackaday.com/2013/04/01/kindle-weather-and-recycling-display/

      Here’s a fancier / more flexible method, for your second version.
      https://web.archive.org/web/20150503005815/http://guilev-concept.net/pink

      Can you tell I have a few (mixed vintage) Kindles in the to-hack pile?

  12. Make a smart TV that doesn’t rely on spy/etc.
    (TV schedule, weather, other useful information wrapped with an easy to use interface that can be navigated with a TV remote/smartphone/game controller.) Something simple that non-technical people could use.

    Make a zoom/skype/etc. board to connect to televisions that is easy to use for vulnerable populations (seniors/nursing home occupants/etc.) So people who are not computer savy and are stuck alone in their rooms could connect with their friends/family. (In off times it could
    show WindowSwap, https://www.window-swap.com/ A lot better for mental health than most of what is on TV.)

  13. Lots of good ideas here. Personally I really like the @home projects, but you could simultaneously set up an in home video intercom system. Talk to others in other rooms without having to leave your room. Maybe have it track people based on phone mac addresses. Whichever screen is closest to the phone of the person you’re searching for rings. Have it compare signal strengths and do the routing based on that.

  14. There are some great star trek control panel projects out there that use touchscreens, compete with button sounds! The only hard part is figuring out enough things for the buttons to do unless you have a full home automation set up. I think just having half of the buttons simply play quotes from the show would be great fun, “Smooth as an android’s bottom eh, Data?”

  15. Hang them on a walk by a door put LCARS wallpaper on them with a voice that when touched says “program complete enter when ready” …. because life these days is a holosimulation.

    Computer !!! ARCH. ! Nope still 2020….

  16. Can you both charge the battery (or at least run off external power) and use usb host at the same time?
    I find that this is usually the biggest limitation to using old, cheap tablets in new projects.

    Or, missing the backs do these even have batteries? I guess you could just use a dc/dc converter in place of the battery and then the usb port is freed up to control some device making it useful as a control panel.

    You could mount two of them on a frame to make a book scanner. But then that seems like overkill having basically two computers just to run both cameras. Do these have front/back cameras? I guess if they aren’t part of the mainboard they could be repositioned with on to capture one page, one the other. If they both have good enough resolution. Or, if they are USB, maybe the camera from one can be added to another to get a two-camera device and make the book scanner out of that.

    Do you belong to a hacker/makerspace? I’ve thought of hanging one on the wall, configured to be an IRC-kiosk constantly logged into the space’s IRC page. Perhaps it could also run a bot that listens for a command sent to it and rings a bell or flashes a light when it receives it to get people’s attention at the space. If so it definitely needs some sort of waiting period, after 3 rings in the same 5 minutes no rings for the next 15 or something like that so it can’t be abused. While you are at it might as well serve as a webcam too.

    One can be an SDR. Add an RTL-SDR stick and a series of relay-selectable bandpass filters, stick it all in a box and code up a nice UI w/ Python and GNURadio.

    How about a Octoprint box? 3d print a wedge-shaped case so the LCD faces up and forward at a comfortable viewing angle when the bottom is flat on a desk or printer bottom. Add a cheap USB hub inside so you can connect the printer but also add a card reader, make a place for that in the case design so cards can easily be plugged into the front. If you can do charging and USB at the same time then this is great. Add a small microcontroller in there that hangs on the USB and monitors the power in. If it cuts off it sends a signal to the tablet guts which activates a shutdown script. That way the user can just flip the power switch without worrying about unmounting filesystems first. The case design should also include a movable arm to hold the camera so it can be positioned to watch the print.

  17. In short? Stick with Intel Atom thin clients instead that can take a PCI board and an actual hard drive while having multi UBS port support..

    Tablets are USELESS. We have had smartphones and tablets for how many years now? And not one has a proper post-it note copy/past macro buffer.

    Overall they make humans dumb. And ita pretty much useless unless you can desolder the BGA package and somehow have a custom 8 layer board with the required bridges and connectors.

    Just because you can make a Dress suit, slacks, Dress Slacks, t-shirts, underwear, socks and shoes OUT OF CARDBOARD AND BROWN PAPER BAGS FROM THE DUMPSTER … doesn’t mean you should. Learn to identify when you have tech that can’t be upgraded.

    Just look at the comments.. Ardiuno? Raspberry Pi? I’m surprised someone has thrown in the obligatory 555 timer comment.

  18. I think these are Nuvision Kickstand 11 tablets. There aren’t a lot of tablets out there that have the webcam on the long edge and the Windows logo on the short edge. It’s rather distinctive. And the specs are about right: 1.4GHz Atom x5 Z8350, 2GB RAM, 32GB EMMC flash.
    https://www.cnet.com/products/nuvision-kickstand-11-draw-tm116w715l-11-6-atom-x5-z8350-2-gb-ram-32-gb/

    I have a Nuvision Solo 10 Draw tablet that I took apart to break out the signals from the touchscreen. The solder mask lettering on the mainboard of these tablets looks the same as the lettering on the Solo 10 Draw. I was hoping to see an ODM name, or a recognizable model number (Quanta model numbers all begin with a 3-4 letter code and start with the letter Z), but no such luck. A Google search of the model number written on the Solo 10 Draw PCB came up with nothing. I assume the same would be true for the model number on his PCBs.

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