School Surplus Laptop BIOS Hacked To Remove Hardware Restrictions

Why did [Hales] end up hacking the BIOS on a 10 year old laptop left over from an Australian education program? When your BIOS starts telling you you’re not allowed to use a particular type of hardware, you don’t have much of a choice.

Originally [Hales] planned on purchasing a used Lenovo X260 to replace his dying laptop, but his plans were wrecked. A pandemic-induced surge in demand that even the used laptop market caused prices to bloat. The need for a small and affordable laptop with a built in Ethernet port led to the purchase of a Lenovo Thinkpad x131e. Although the laptop was older than he liked, [Hales] was determined to make it work. Little did he know the right-to-repair journey he was about to embark on.

Problems first arose when the Broadcom WiFi adapter stopped working reliably. He replaced it, but the coaxial antenna cable was found to be damaged. Even after replacing the damaged cabling, the WiFi adapter was still operating very poorly. Recalling past problems with fickle Broadcom WiFi adapters, it was decided that an Intel mPCIe WiFi adapter would take its place. When power was re-applied, [Hales] was shocked to find the following message:

Unauthorized network card is plugged in – Power off and remove the miniPCI network card

And this is where things got interesting. With off the shelf SOIC8 clips and a CH340 programmer, [Hales] dumped the BIOS from the laptop’s flash chip to another computer and started hacking away. After countless hours of researching, prodding, hacking, and reverse engineering, the laptop was useful once again with the new Intel WiFi adapter. His site documents in great detail how he was able to reverse engineer the BIOS over the course of several days.

But that’s not all! [Hales] was also able to modify the hardware so that his slightly more modern mPCIe WiFi adapter would come back on after the computer had been put in Hibernation. It’s an elegant hack, and be sure to check [Hales’] site to get the full details. And at the end, there’s a nice Easter egg for anybody who’s ever wanted to make their laptop boot up with their own logo.

We applaud [Hales] for his fine efforts to keep working equipment out of the landfill. We’ve covered many hacks that had similar goals in the past. Do you have a hack you’d like to share? Submit it via the Tips Line.

49 thoughts on “School Surplus Laptop BIOS Hacked To Remove Hardware Restrictions

  1. Very cool hack and very nice work! The chance of bricking a laptop messing with the BIOS always seems high.

    On thing–I think the 1802 Wi-Fi card error was (is?) a standard “feature” of Lenovo laptop BIOSes unrelated to it being a former education-market unit (as implied by the title.) Only Wi-Fi cards that were available from Lenovo for that unit are whitelisted in the BIOS.

    1. the bios is nothing more than a flash ( or eeprom on older pcs) chip. as you can see in the picture and the description he has an external programer so as long as he has a backup of the original rom theres (almost) no way to brick the laptop. but indeed very nice hack the personalized logo takes me back a while i did that back in the late 90s when i was fully into the raid craze at that time and unlocked a few boards for friends….. good times…..

    2. Yep I have the same laptop I keep around for doing OBD-II diagnostics on my cars. I had searched for a modded BIOS for it but there wasn’t one for the x131e that I could find. Maybe I should just do this instead. The factory Broadcom adapter is working okay but I’d rather have an Intel model in there as an upgrade.

  2. why was it necessary to put in the article that it was from a school. This really is clickbait trying to push that the school has some sort of custom bios installed when in reality it is that many lenovo’s and several other manufacturers do this all the time. neat article and this is the first time i’ve seen that particular method of getting around this issue so i will give you that.

    1. it’s just a detail. a lot of these old laptops are surplus from some mass purchaser who didn’t care about its lockdown, probably explicitly agreed to it as part of a support or site-licensing contract. in some sense, it could have come from any channel, but this one happened to come from a school. since schools are now throwing away 5-year-old ipads and chromebooks and so on by the thousand count, i think that’s a detail a lot of people will find pretty relatable. not my cup of tea but

  3. When is BIOS hardware whitelisting going to be illegal? It’s completely unacceptable behavior. Does any current right-to-repair legislation apply, or was it all for headlines but not effect?

    1. Illegal? It’s annoying but not tantamount to a crime and from a certain point of view, it’s protecting IBM from dealing with the inevitable xxxx device doesn’t work with my laptop. I dealt with IBM service calls that users put in for issues with aftermarket hardware like RAM and peripherals then once I proved it was the customer supplied device (we didn’t handle software issues) I’d note the call and leave.

      1. IBM never owned Lenovo. IBM sold their PC business to Lenovo in 2005 and their x86 server business to them 2014. Those purchases were done with a combination of cash and stock, so IBM ended up with 29% of Lenovo’s stock, but Lenovo has been buying back IBM’s shares steadily and gradually as part of the sale.

        The whitelisting was done partially to prevent support calls for untested hardware, but also to ensure compliance with various regulations. They sell a lot of machines to military and government users, which require tests on the entire machine as a whole and the results are invalidated when used with an untested component. I would also assume they are being pushed by Broadcom as part of a deal. Broadcom will usually offer steep discounts to OEMs in exchange for exclusivity.

        1. (author here)

          > The whitelisting was done partially to prevent support calls for untested hardware

          This doesn’t seem very likely. Customers will plug USB devices in and still complain. Customers can install their own RAM DIMMS (wrong types), their own SATA disk (wrong sata standard, won’t turn on), their own aftermarket battery (bad % reporting). Why are only wifi cards a support problem serious enough to enforce whitelisting in the design?

          > They sell a lot of machines to military and government users, which require tests on the entire machine as a whole and the results are invalidated when used with an untested component.

          I’ve head this story before and I don’t think it makes much sense. Using a USB wifi stick would invalidate this in the same way — it can’t work independently of the laptop and the ground half-plane of the antenna is the laptop body itself.

          If a military shop modifies the laptop in a way that doesn’t match their maintenance agreement with the OEM then the OEM is completely off the hook. They can easily do a lot worse than change the wifi card.

          If a government body needs it to be super known/identical/secure then they will use glue. Whitelisting wifi cards does not protect the government; if they are notified about an EMI issue then they will politely fix it and get on with their day. If it’s a fault in the design from the OEM then they will get into an argument with the OEM. If it’s due to them changing the wifi card themselves then the OEM is completely off the hook.

          > Broadcom will usually offer steep discounts to OEMs in exchange for exclusivity.

          This is starting to sound more reasonable. Business and money. These are real motivations to make product design decisions.

          I put a table of x131e editions into the article, they offer several different SKUs with different wifi cards. I suspect the models with better cards would have cost more.

          1. From what I have seen, USB devices are HIGHLY controlled on military laptops.
            It’s a security thing – no stealing files with a USB, no loading of virus software.

            Heck, I’ve heard stories of people trying to recharge their phone triggering alarms.

          2. Eight years in the Marines, if you plug anything into the USB drive or any other driver on a military computer and you or the device is not specifically authorized, you are breaking orders. The level of classification specific to the system will determine the level of issue. If it is a “normal” none classified computer it could be just informal punishment but it it holds a security classification you could face charges.

          3. The internal module has access to a PCIe lane, it can potentially do a lot of harm in an evil maid attack, since DMA is a thing…
            That being said, all that would be sufficient would be the revocation of TPM authorization and a warning that “the HW is not what it should be, press x to continue”, not a brick wall that makes it impossible to upgrade the wifi without having to hack the damn BIOS.

    2. Right-to-repair legislation still seems to be extremely rare. The Manguson-Moss Warranty Act protects U.S. consumers from bogus warranty-voiding, but doesn’t prevent scumbag companies from locking down their products. International Harvester must rank as one of the most despised perpetrators of this bullshit; I hope some Chinese company comes in and destroys their business with open hardware.

    3. From what I have seen so far John Deere is in a big legal battle over this right to repair issue and there are others I’m sure, like Cat, either way I’m also sure there are lawyers digging into this on both sides of the fence. It will be forthcoming I’m sure that whatever is in writing concerning right to repair laws will be expanded and defined. That part about defined, I definitely did see along with clarifications. Proprietary hardware and software can only take you so far before it crosses into monopoly. China has already violated that more than once I know.

    4. It won’t be illegal, it’s an FCC requirement for a finished consumer product to have FCC certification. This laptop is has only been FCC certified with it’s whitelist of cards. Using an unauthorized card means the laptop now does not have FCC certification. As for the “hack” this isn’t much of one. Information on moding the bios whitelists on lenovos is nothing new. This is hardly a hack. An eeprom programmer was bought and some howtos on one of many forums that specialize this was read and followed step by step. Even your mom or grandma could “hack” a lenovo bios

  4. I see nothing bad here. The laptop with it’s WiFi is a RF-device and is certified to adhere to FCC and similar rules. The WiFi card is only one part of the microwave stuff, swapping the card with a different model voids all approvals, which would theoretically make the laptop illegal in most countries around the globe.

      1. The system as a whole has to be taken into account, the radio, the antennas and the cabling between. If you put a wifi card in that is capable of more transmit power than the stock wifi card you may end up with a total system capable of transmitting at higher ERIP than allowed for part B devices in the unlicensed ISM bands. You can plug any old USB wifi dongle into a laptop because the antenna in those dongles are usually built in. The FCC certification for that USB dongle is for that complete system of radio and antenna in the dongle.

        1. Then you are responsible for the modifications, not the manufacturer. Nothing stops you from adding an amplifier to Wi-Fi antenna (after the card) and you will get “more transmit power than the stock wifi”.
          So do we need to come up with new digitally authorized antennas? Or maybe seal whole cable from card to antenna with epoxy. ;)

          I think that if someone would sue manufacturer for exceeding power after users modifies it, the court would call them crazy. It’s clear that user tinkered with hardware, so I don’t see the need for them to put those restrictions.

          Also there are USB Wi-Fi dongles with detachable antennas. Put an antenna with a bigger gain – FCC comes knocking at your door. ;)

          All those “illegalities” around FCC certifications are so pointless, that if you try to put it in car analogy or fridge, they lose their ground instantly. Not to mention that the “certification” really means that you have to write “This equipment generates, uses and can radiate radio frequency energy and, if not installed and used in accordance with the instructions, may cause harmful interference to radio communications. However, there is no guarantee that interference will not occur in a particular installation.” somewhere.
          There is no guarantee, yet we try to guard it strongly. :D

    1. Seems like a pretty flimsy pretext to force you to have to go to the manufacturer for a replacement considering how many other devices are around where you can swap the wifi card at will.

    2. This argument is used for the blacklisting BIOS functionality in many laptops. While it is true that this action does void the FCC testing – because the wifi module has to be tested together with the antennae – it does not mean the laptop is in violation of the FCC regulations, it just means it is not tested.

      In theory it should be possible to pre-certify the wifi modules by themselves, but this is a rare enough issue that the bureaucratic machinery does not bother.

      The really annoying ban is when the laptop starts whining for non OEM power supply – looking at you DELL, or non OEM battery – again looking at you DELL.

  5. I might be wrong but wouldn’t have been easier to go to one of the many bios hacking sites and download the appropriate non restricted bios and just flash it. I mean it was great that you were able to do all the work and as a learning experience is invaluable but some times the best path is the one with the least resistance.

    #JustSaying

      1. Plus you can’t “just download” a premade bios, since it contains serial numbers, licence keys and who knows what other unique identifiers required for the machine to function. Each bios modification needs to be done from a dump of that machines bios.

  6. Original need: small and affordable laptop
    Reality: cable replacement + wifi card replacement + countless hours of researching, prodding, hacking, and reverse engineering

    OMG, that’s why I stopped hacking and just buying.

    1. “A pandemic-induced surge in demand that even the used laptop market caused prices to bloat.”

      The whole point is that “just buying” has *not* been a viable option for many things this year.

      1. I don’t disagree with you, but I also found this line to be a little curious. How is the secondary/used market so depleted? Why do so many people need new laptops suddenly? Are there seriously so many people buying new laptops every year? Is it because of population growth? I bet it’s planned obsolescence. Looks like we need people to repair laptops more than we need more laptops. More than that, we need companies that build laptops to last and that support their hardware beyond the first sale. This is a shortage born out of our own greed. From laptop makers’ perspectives, everything is going according to plan.

        1. Kids learning from home,and maybe they need one for each kid.

          Someone working from home, getting by without a computer before now need one, or a dedicated one.

          So demand is up, but maybe supply down since schools and offices aren’t discarding old for new.

          Not everyone can afford a new computer, and with the pandemic, no garage and rummage sales, and less chance to pass on that old computer lying around, so refurbished become more in demand.

  7. What is the actual need for a laptop as opposed to a desktop? Since people are at home not allowed to go out, travel etc; then why aren’t people buying desktops?
    Why?, well because of vanity mostly. As desktops are faster, have more storage, and always have cd-rom drives. They have better graphics, better capabilities all round. I think people can be ignorant and think that a laptop is “better” because it’s portable.
    Well, should they actually compare laptops and desktops, they would find that for their money they are getting much better value with a desktop. No battery to charge, and we all know laptop batteries don’t last forever, not only that but within a few months most of them only hold half the charge than when they were new; and eventually the only way to use laptops is to have them always plugged in.
    But let everyone buy laptops, at hiked prices, so that I can get a new desktop at throw away prices because people just have to have a laptop because they think portable=better.

    1. Sometimes, you need the portability. It’s an incredible PITA to try and power a full-size PC in car, same for needing to take a PC with you on a plane…good luck getting a ATX case and monitor as a carry-on for a flight :P
      I have a watercooled battlestation with a 32” monitor, but I still keep around a Lenovo x230 (ironically also with a hacked BIOS to allow a better wifi card) as both a backup and when I need a portable PC to for example reset an error code in my car or show my grandmother some photos.

    2. There are a few really great reasons to choose laptops that have nothing to do with its portability.

      – Laptops are almost always vastly better on energy efficiency
      – Laptops can be stored away almost anywhere – they don’t take up your limited desk space all the time
      – Laptops come with a built in UPS – and those things ain’t cheap
      – Laptops are also often cheaper than a similar spec desktop IFF you have to buy the extras like the monitor – that 144hz display (if high refresh is you primary concern) or HDR, high colour space (for the creatives) can cost as much in a stand alone package as the laptop containing it! If you already have the screen and peripherals even then a desktop isn’t always cheaper, though it usually will be – as desktops being so much larger need more raw materials and often many more parts – like 5 fans vs the one, which does drive up the cost..

      Then there is the obvious reason we excluded earlier, its portable – that makes it vastly more versatile.

      All that said I do most of computing on a really nice monitor, with model M and decent trackball mouse driven by either a Pi4 or my Workstation. The Pi 4 is always on, so used for almost everything as it is good enough for almost every task – its only the serious work stuff – like CAD bits and gaming (as yes that is work, at least when its with my friends…) that forces the big workstation to turn on…

      Which leads nicely into my final point a laptop, even a budget one has way more computing power than most people will ever use! Its only those with serious number crunching computer work or gamers that actually need anything more performance wise. And data storage wise these days most folks trust it all to their Google/MS/AWS overlords and just trust the cloud – so don’t need masses of local data storage space (This I personally think is a massive mistake, but to each their own).

    3. I’ve still got laptops with working batteries over a decade old, and by working I don’t mean just holds a charge long enough to run to the next plug, I mean proper hours of battery life working…

      How long and how well they last is hugely varied and changes by user as well make/model, but they really can last very well. Generally I would say are not rubbish, last heaps longer than the average phone battery, and generally trivial to swap in comparison, even for the glued up super cheap netbook with no screws…

    4. If you are off grid, you notice the energy consumption difference between a desktop and a laptop is huge, but the incremental utility of a desktop is quite questionable, for most coding, browsing and PCB design tasks.

      I use the laptop tethered anyway, and consider the battery to be a UPS.

      (typed on a 10 year old netbook running lubuntu bought when going out on clearance).

  8. My friend has a T430 or T431. It has the same restriction and the old CD with a “get rid of Error 1802” program for an older IBM did not work. Does anybody has a hint for a solution? I mean, except of week long BIOS hacking :-)

  9. My CH340 has been a trusty ally for BIOS modifications.

    These whitelists are very common, but you can do more; like swap firmware for onboard devices (AHCI/RAID, network adapters, etc), change microcode (required on some older hardware to get the “new” Windows bootloader to actually boot), modify ACPI tables (needed to fix many sleep/hibernation issues or those “weird” reboot issues he between Linux/Windows where some hardware doesn’t work) or quite trivial… change the boot logo.

    I think manufacturers should be a little more forthcoming on that logo, this should be a standard feature as most EEPROMs are simply padded with a bunch of empty blocks totaling enough space to warrant a simple animation.

  10. Wonder if this might work on the *ackard *ell junker here which has a perfectly good battery etc but is stuck with a flashing cursor and unable to access BIOS? Yes its one with the “special” RAM stick and network card so machine won’t POST unless both are installed. Interestingly the same RAM stick works perfectly in a different machine.
    This happened with no warning one day after shutting down Windows 7, possibly a rogue update?
    Only reason for fixing it is to see if it can be done, right to repair and all that.

  11. I’ve found one in a council erdside cleanup too it home and boot up with the message “please return to the police as it illegal to use school property privately??? -ARRHHHHH

  12. I remember when I was in university buying an old laptop so I had something to take to calls with me, I got an IBM T60, as I thought the tablet mode would be useful.
    The thing came with a bios lock on from the school I bought it from preventing installing a new OS, I managed to stick Ubuntu on a HDD and just plugged that in and that worked for a bit till I needed to do a simple bios reset, and I got “HARDWARE TAMPERING DETECTED, ENTER PASSWORD TO CONTINUE”

    And that was it, the fully functional lovely little laptop was a brick.

  13. I used to have a BIOS hack tool for this exact thing. IBM ThinkPads have an OEM hardware lock. I had a small tool called “no 1802”. It’s simply flipped the bit on that line in the BIOS, from on to off, hereby allowing aftermarket hardware. Perhaps that tool doesn’t exist online before, but I would doubt that. Interesting he wasn’t able to discover it or, maybe it didn’t work for him. It worked great for me.

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