When Dell Built A Netbook With An X86 System-on-Module

the SoM module used to power a Dell Mini 1210, in an extended SODIMM form-factor

Just like with pre-touchscreen cellphones having fancy innovative features that everyone’s forgotten about, there’s areas that laptop manufacturers used to venture in but no longer dare touch. On Twitter, [Kiwa] talks a fascinating attempt by Dell to make laptops with user-replaceable CPU+RAM modules. In 2008, Dell released the Inspiron Mini 1210, with its CPU, chipset and RAM soldered to a separate board in an “extended SODIMM” form-factor – not unlike the Raspberry Pi Compute Modules pre-CM4! Apparently, different versions of such “processor cards” existed for their Inspiron Mini lineup, with varying amounts of RAM and CPU horsepower. With replacement CPU+RAM modules still being sold online, that makes these Dell netbooks to be, to our knowledge, the only x86 netbooks with upgradable CPUs.

You could try and get yourself one of these laptops or replacement CPU modules nowadays, if you like tinkering with old tech – and don’t mind having a subpar experience on even Linux, thanks to the Poulsbo chipset’s notorious lack of openness. Sadly, Dell has thoroughly abandoned the concept of x86 system-on-module cards, and laptops have been getting less modular as we go – we haven’t been getting socketed CPUs since the third generation of mobile Intel boards, and even RAM is soldered to the motherboard more and more often. In theory, the “CPU daughterboard” approach could improve manufacturing yields and costs, making it possible to use a simpler large board for the motherboard and only have the CPU board be high-layer-count. However, we can only guess that this wasn’t profitable enough overall, even with all the theoretical upsides. Or, perhaps, Google-style, someone axed this project internally because of certain metrics unmet.

If you think about it, a laptop motherboard is a single-board computer; however, that’s clearly not enough for our goals of upgradability and repairability. If you’re looking to have your own way and upgrade your laptop regardless of manufacturer’s intentions, here’s an old yet impressive story about replacing the soldered-in CPU on the original Asus EEE, and a more recent story about upgrading soldered-in RAM in a Dell XPS ultrabook. And if you’re looking for retrocomputing goodness, following [Kiwa] on Twitter is a must – last seen liveblogging restoration and renovation of a Kaypro someone threw out on the curb.

33 thoughts on “When Dell Built A Netbook With An X86 System-on-Module

    1. Don’t even need it to RE it *that much*, the schematics are out there, so the pinout for the edge connector is available (and the block diagram is available in the twitter thread, first link in the article). Only worry of mine would be – how much does the CPU board’s operation depend on the LPC communications between the EC and the CPU?

  1. Unfortunate it was a netbook model. Means you’re stuck with an Atom CPU and all the artificial limitations that Intel/MS put on that platform. Nearly useless for a “desktop” experience today. A Pi4 is probably more powerful and power efficient than that thing is. Just did a quick search on ebay and it looks like the most powerful variant is a 1.6ghz dual core with 1GB ram. Maybe there were 2GB upgrade boards? I think 2GB of ram was the artificial limit of the Atom era configurations since Intel didn’t want them to chip away at their low end mobile CPU market. I can’t imagine it being very cost effective to upgrade the RAM on your netbook this way, since you’re basically also having to pay for a new CPU / Chipset at the same time, even if you didn’t make a speed bump.

  2. ComExpress is a really fun format thats not seen enough use in laptops. They are commonly found in casino and bar games. I run a type6 I7 on a custom backplane with a pcie X16 breakout.

  3. Id like to see a laptop designed to use Nvidia Jetson Nano / Xavier NX / Ovid NX modules.
    I’ve been thinking of designing a carrier board for them to use to upgrade my Pinebook Pro Laptop.

    1. I’d like to see Pine64 release a laptop kit, tablet kit and phone kit for their new SOQUARTZ compute module, since as though it’s pin to pin compatible with a Raspberry Pi CM4. Sadly, i’ve absolutely no interest in using any Pine64 SBCs or SOMs as the support for them is pretty terrible.

  4. I had a Toshiba Satellite laptop that used a desktop CPU in a socket. That was fun. I can’t remember what the model was, but it came with Windows 98, so it was from that era.

    1. I once worked on a laptop with a regular desktop Socket A CPU. That was a weird one. The top of the case came off and the mainboard was pretty deep down in the bottom of it. Unlike most other laptops, everything was on top of the PCB so it was directly down against the bottom of the case, no removable panels etc on the bottom. The gotcha was to open it I had to buy a slim torx driver long enough to reach the deeply recessed screws from the bottom side of the case.

    2. Up until about 2004ish Intel’s laptop CPUs (Pentium M) were mostly socketed (instead of being soldered to the board), so many laptops were somewhat upgradeable. Or there were a few companies selling ‘bare-bones’ laptops, where the end user had to provide the CPU, memory and HD and CD drives. I built a lot of these for Evesham Micros back in the day.
      I think AMD might have lasted a few more years with socketed CPUs in laptops, but at that point their mobile CPUs weren’t much to write home about.

  5. In the mid 1990’s Intel made the Mobile Pentium II and Mobile Pentium III on special modules. Many laptops (like the Toshiba Tecra 8000) were able to be ordered with either.

    I searched quite a while for a sanely priced PIII for my Tecra 8000. The thing took over 5 minutes to boot Windows 98SE with the 4200 RPM (and apparently cache-less) 40 megabyte hard drive it came with. Simply swapping in a (IIRC 120 meg) 5400 RPM drive with some cache got boot time down to under 2 minutes.

    The poor thing topped out at 256 megabytes RAM so it was never going to be any good with XP, even if I could’ve found a PIII selling for less than just buying a newer used laptop that would have been better all around.

  6. I owned a Dell mini 1210 and it was cute and not zippy but it was nice to have something small like that when laptops were still clunky. I managed to upgrade it to XP before I sold it. Many computer manufacturers over the decades have played with the upgradeable cpu card/plugin concept but dropped it due to cost or because of rapid technology advances making it unfeasible. Wasn’t that one of the benefits of the S100 bus of “ancient” times ? Even the cash register company NCR tried it ( Decisionmate V and PC4i ) It would be nice if we could extend the life of our computers with just a plugin. Unfortunately in the past the upgrade was nearly the cost of a new computer and nowadays manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell their overpriced box of “air” ! (Why do they still make and sell the big hunking towers ?)

  7. Apple Powerbooks G3 and G4 had CPU cards under the keyboard. You just had to remove two screws.
    Batteries and drivers where swappable at the push of a lever too.

    Not like today at all, of course…

  8. > the only x86 netbooks with upgradable CPUs.

    Not sure what you mean? To my knowledge a lot of business laptops up until Broadwell had socketed CPUs. I distinctly remember upgrading the CPU in my Dell E6410 to a quad core model

    1. Specifically *netbooks*! Built around Atom CPUs or AMD APUs, and those were never socketable. Otherwise, I’ve upgraded my own fair share of laptop CPUs where it was an option =)

        1. No you aren’t! That’s the kind of human mistake we’re all bound to make at least on a monthly basis =) I recall reading about a scientific study speculating that we recognize and distinguish words by their shape when reading text from a page, and of course, that capability is impacted by all kinds of different fonts we use, giving plenty room for error because of all the variability. Plus, expectations when reading would impact what we read from the page, as opposed to what’s written in there – we kinda “predict” the text-to-be-read sometimes, which is useful for fast reading but also error-prone.

  9. to matters more interesting, Dell is currently in R&D to design a “modular” laptop to enable “circular manufacturing”. Sounds a lot like re-inventing their cpu and ram on a module tech illustrated above.

  10. Long before the word “netbook” had dripped from some marketroid’s lips, the Zenith Z-Note FLEX was a barely-notebook-sized laptop with a field-replaceable CPU and RAM. ISTR it was availble in 486 SX/25 through DX/50 speeds, possibly more. The whole machine was modular and I could tear mine to pieces literally blindfolded; did this a few times in a coffee shop just for laughs.

    The CPU was held in with a single optional screw, under a cover with a thumb latch; no tools strictly required. The SODIMMs were under another cover without even the option for a screw, and then the standard SODIMM latches.

    The LCD panel came off at the hinge (two latches), and you could put on a monochrome (lighter, less power) or color display, and there was an extender cable that would let the display sit several feet from the rest of the machine. This was devilishly hard to find on the market at the time, and is even rarer now. I believe there may have been a backlight-less version of the display for use as an overhead projector presentation panel.

    There was one battery-specific bay, and a second bay that could hold either a floppy drive or another (identical) battery. There was a desktop charger for the batteries, though I didn’t have this, I did have 3 or 4 batteries that I kept in my bag; I’d charge them at home and swap on the fly. Each contained four 4/3-long-A NiMH cells, if memory serves.

    The hard drive was in a little padded cartridge, also held in by a thumb latch. This had another optional screw, but I never installed it.

    The CMOS/RTC battery was a 3s NiCd module, which would just pull out if you got your fingernail under the edge just right. The machine would keep time without it as long as one of the main batteries was installed, so I added a small momentary switch and a white LED to mine, since white LEDs had recently come on the scene, for use as a little pull-out flashlight.

    Pretty good writeup here:

    1. Per the user manual, that weighed 13.3 lbs with a 2 AHr battery. Pretty cool to see a user manual that is a cross-breed service manual. I miss those days.
      Note: The report button is still annoying on mobile, ignore.

  11. uh…last I checked, intel 1st through 4th gen laptops had socketed mobile options, so where is this “the ONLY upgradable x86 laptop” coming from? Mind you, that’s if you don’t count the various clevo systems with desktop and workstation sockets.

  12. With the recent adapter boards being sold by Waveshare, BIGTREETECH etc., RPi-based laptops (like the pi-top [3] and MNT Reform) can now be upgraded with compute modules, of which there is now some choice in terms of different CPUs, different RAM and different eMMC combinations, so that’s probably the closest we can currently get to socketable CPUs in commercially available modern laptops?

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