Novena Open Source Laptop Reborn As Desktop Machine

When your 5-year-old laptop dies it’s usually time for a replacement. But [Andrew Menadue]’s Novena laptop is fully open-source. He has full access to all the documentation, so he decided to try his hand at repairing it instead. The power supply circuit board went up in smoke one day — he attributes this to poor battery health due to him not using it frequently enough. Given his usage pattern, he decided to switch the Novena into a desktop machine.

He made the conversion with a new pass-through power supply board, and the computer booted up but with no display. It seems that the power supply failure took out additional circuits as well. [Andrew] goes down a deep rabbit hole of board and chip swapping, all to no avail. Eventually the display suddenly springs to life, and he concludes the problem was with the EEPROM configuration settings and not LCD display hardware.

Experimenting with LCD Outputs on the Mainboard

It’s comforting to know that you can easily spin a replacement PCB for your computer when needed. But this situation is far from mainstream. Furthermore, all projects, open-sourced or not, face the issue of part obsolescence, even Novena. Back in 2019 founders [Bunnie] and [Xobs] issued an end-of-life announcement on the project’s five year anniversary for this very reason. The fact that Novena availability even lasted five years was due to up-front purchases of critical parts.

We wrote about the Novena way back in 2014, and more recently the MNT Reform project. What are your thoughts on these open source laptop projects? Do you have any laptops that you’ve rehabilitated after five or more years? Let us know in the comments below.

35 thoughts on “Novena Open Source Laptop Reborn As Desktop Machine

  1. My daily driver at home is from around 2010-2011 and it works great! Until around 2018 I used a laptop from 2006 (64 Bit AMD Turion x2 that’s outrunning some laptops from 2009), but that finished falling apart in 2018 and if I try to use it now, it’s showing its age not just physically – I can still do pretty much everything I want with it (except moving it while it’s on), but some Youtube videos are turning into slideshows, some just run fine, everything takes ages to load from its 80GB spinny disk…

    1. My main laptop still has a Windows Vista logo stuck on it. It’s been on Debian for ages. Still use it happily every day. Installing noscript helps with web browsing on that kind of oldie.

      1. It’s so old, it still uses (mini) IDE for the hard drive. And the biggest CF card I have around is 4GB. And it’s running Ubuntu. And as I said, Youtube is a crapshoot. Some videos run okay at 480p, others are a slideshow even at 144p.
        Although I do have a 286 laptop with a 128MB DOM (looks like a Compaq-286SLT wannabe that’s actually better, but when that came out, Compaq already had a better machine out already). It didn’t really speed the machine up.

  2. “When your 5-year-old laptop dies it’s usually time for a replacement.”

    I bought my laptop second hand almost 10 years ago. I might buy a new one next year. I just don’t think it’s normal that a laptop that’s only 5 years old dies.

    1. Yeah, it’s thanks to planned obsolescence that the life of electronics has started to be measured in years instead of decades.

      And that just when the rate of progress has slowed down enough that if not for lack of hardware support (Looking at you Microsoft), a 10 y.o. laptop would still perfectly usable for almost all of a typical consumer’s tasks.

        1. Well, all the components of a PSU have a mean time to failure, and manufacturers all take that information into account while designing their products. Usually the component with the lowest MTTF will define the longevity of the product. So yes, it’s definitely planned obsolescence, in the literal sense.

          1. The most abused part of a laptop’s power supply is in the brick outside of the laptop. That we immediately throw out and replace when it stops working. Additional regulators and bucks for the battery charger and supply lines are the next to go. Sadly these aren’t quite so easy to replace.

          2. First, “broken” isn’t the same as “obsolete”; you can repair a broken thing or replace it with an identical replacement and put it back in business. Second, the intent of “planned obsolencence” by a designer is having you buy the next model _from them_; this was at best bad luck in component selection and at best cheaping out.

        2. And yet a power supply can last decade after decade, or be dead almost immediately, especially if you get close to or over the over current protection trip.

          There is a huge amount of designing in a limited lifespan, but that isn’t always malice, sometimes it just makes good sense – there isn’t a point in building a power supply that will last decades when the rest of the devices useful lifespan is fractions of that.

  3. My daily driver is a Thinkpad Yoga S1, anno 2013. I have not been gentle to it, dropped it a few times and it have lived in my backpack together with screwdrivers and “embedded” stuff. But still going strong.

  4. I still prepare and sell Dell E6410 and E5510 laptops from 2012. They even have 1-2 hours of battery life. They work just fine for what they’re being bought for. You can buy a brand-new laptop today for twice the price and these would even outperform it!

    1. >outperform
      In the amount of heat they put they sure do outperform the newer ones. Literally anything else : no.
      Those cpus are maybe a tenth as powerful as a new 11/12 gen entry level i3.
      Maybe its time for you to get your hands on a machine what’s not 10+ year old and see how far the “$hitty new ones” come in terms of performance.

      1. My daily driver/gaming laptop is a Dell G3 so yeah I’m well aware that newer laptops CAN outperform them. But such laptops cost significantly more also.
        Tell me where someone struggling financially can buy a faster laptop for $120 or even $240? So much crap hardware exists at that price point that is barely up to the task of running a web browser.

      2. Incorrect. The 11th gen i3-1115G4 only benchmarks between 50% and 300% higher than the i7-620m from the 2010 E6410. 50% faster in wPrime, 112% faster in Cinebench multi-core. If we go to 2012 and the e6430’s i5-3320m, the difference is only 75%.

    2. I love old laptops like that, I never use a laptop but I have a 3rd gen (i think, or maybe 4th) i5 Dell. Socketed CPU as it should be, two RAM slots, no bullshit. With a decent SATA SSD it’s perfectly fast, and tbh it handles heavy stuff like Adobe crap just fine

      Granted, I’m a repairman in a 3rd world country, where laptops are used at least 15 years (the great majority of the laptops I fix are from 2010-2013, especially Macbooks). Those benefit a LOT from an ssd, even with windows 10.

  5. The new ones sure do use less power, and get more done with it. A used E6410 is maybe $100, and an Alder Lake i3 can’t even be bought yet, because the chips were announced last month. I’d expect prices to start around $800. A 10th-gen i3 is probably a better comparison – 4x as powerful, and can be had for about $400 currently. has a great tool for estimating power cost per year. Comparing the i5-520M from an E6410 with an i3-1005G1, 8 hrs a day, 25% utilization, and 0.25/kWh, it would cost an extra 3.65 USD/yr to run the older laptop.

    Let’s say you actually used that better processor to get four times more work done in the same amount of time. That’s certainly an overestimate, but this is just for fun.

    The back of my napkin says it would take 20 years to break even on that $300 price difference, just by performance & power dissipation. But you’ll never reach that if you throw the laptop away every five years!

    My point is, it’s still very much an economically sound decision to use older hardware, as long as the performance is good enough for a person’s use case. “Maybe it’s time” indeed.

    1. Thank you for the scientific explanation of my point :-) If a person needs a laptop for online learning – MS Office, Zoom, maybe a bit of Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and the E6410 can do these things, why would they buy a laptop whose CPU alone costs more than the entire laptop?
      My point is – after 10 years these laptops are still working. They were built to last. They are proof that there is no excuse for a device to fail after 5 years.

      1. I have to agree here. My personal laptops range from a Lenovo IdeaPad 330 (approx. 3 years old) down to a Dell Latitude D630 (more like 13 years old) and once you max out the RAM and install an SSD, a lot of what should be performance differences really start to disappear. This is, of course, doing the sort of things mentioned above.

        The one place where I run into issues is with gaming. I’m not a big gamer but I do play some World Of Warcraft. Ironically, the IdeaPad with its 8th gen i3 and Intel UHD 620 graphics is not the best performer; that title goes to my Dell Precision M6700 with its 3rd gen i7 and Nvidia Quadro K3000M graphics. Runner up is my Precision M6500 with its quad-core 1st gen i7 and ATI FirePro graphics that can still pull decent frame rates for regular questing. Both with gorgeous 17″ screens.

        Speaking of screens… What is the industry’s fascination with 1366×768 resolution? Y2K called and they’d like their vertical resolution back.

        One final thought- Perhaps it’s my imagination but most of the people who tout running older laptops seem to be running business class laptops (Latitude, Precision, ThinkPad) as opposed to consumer grade laptops (i.e., Inspiron, Pavilion, etc.).

        1. It’s no coincidence that business grade ones last longer – they’d likely have been made with better materials, and the specs of them would’ve been their days mid-to-high-end. Sadly many units of an old favourite – ThinkPad T400 – seem to be suffering from failure of their CCFL backlights these days though.
          Also, everyone talks about CPU benchmarks completely overlooking one key point – SSD vs HDD. My mum has a much newer laptop, can’t remember the exact CPU but it’s an AMD APU, DDR4 RAM. Wayyyyy slower for most purposes than the E6410 – even one with a 7200rpm HDD – until an SSD was put in replacing the shameful 5400rpm HDD. Benchmarks are just a pissing contest compared to real-world “how well can it perform the tasks it’s used for”

          1. Some of the pre-Ryzen APU’s had appalling issues (with a modern workload) that I never could pin down. It was definitely something binding the overall throughput in a way it shouldn’t have on paper.

            Ryzen arch APUs are phenomenal in comparison.

        2. No, everyone uses crappy Celeron and Pentium laptops from 2011 too. And those are reliable as hell, albeit only decent for web browsing as of now.
          In fact the older Ideapads were really unreliable, unfortunately. Hope they fixed that already.

  6. It’s everyone’s favorite time, when all of the HaD posters brag about how old their laptops are and shake their fists at the clouds loudly proclaiming, “they don’t make em’ like they used to” or “that’s cool, but my computer is older AND better. You are clearly wrong for purchasing this product”.

    1. Well if you inisist I can, maybe throw in a brag about using a keyboard older than I am too (still the nicest keyboard I’ve ever used)…

      It is however a clear progression – all the laptops of the earliest days of portable computing are largely still functional, or at least repairable (though not worth it performance wise anymore), but the bulk of machines from this millennium, particularly in the 2010+ thinness craze are just not built well enough to last – they are built down to such a level many of them can’t survive, and often glued and clipped together such that they are almost impossible to get into without significant breakage anyway…

      Rather clear why this is though, in the earlier days laptops cost significantly more being a niche market and performance was rather low compared to the desktops of the day, so they were premium products, for those people that really needed/benefited from the portability. The sort of thing lots of people would have because they were worth it for them, but not everyone would have as between library computers and cheaper more performant family desktops many wouldn’t. Now a personal computer, one for every family member (often a laptop but perhaps a smartphone) is almost a requirement as the world has gone so digital and shared computers in library and the like are rarer – so they are largely not premium products at all, but built down to the lowest possible price so everyone can buy one.

  7. Well .. even when the framework laptop is not really a open-source device (but they’re damn close to it;), you basically can reverse-engineer every single part of the actual specification and design you own replacement parts..

    IMHO this could bring this open-source hardware realm up to a completely new level.

    And we actually need that.. Just consider the idea for the Novena laptop to be upgrade-able like it is planned for the framework device.

    HECK i personally still dream of/want a desktop replacement class laptop in framework style/base… If i actually wanted and were capable of designing it myself, i bet they would not have any problems in supplying me with their usual parts for it. ;)

    Thanks for the reminiscence about how far we have come already in this topic! Yay! ;)


    1. Look at AMD’s current crop of APU and the mini-itx thin spec motherboard – its very very close to being what you want, you just need to build or source the laptop frame (the ‘thin’ motherboard spec supposedly contains LVDS so driving a laptop display should be possible too!)

      Almost as versatile and upgradeable as a normal ATX motherboard, just less PCIe lanes available, and while the AMD APU can’t best or even match contemporary discreet graphics and bigger CPU they are astonishingly high powered in computing performance, graphics good enough you wouldn’t think they were onboard graphics by all accounts and with a tiny power budget ideal for such use!

  8. You’re not wrong for whatever you purchased, Bill. You’ve got a more demanding workload for your laptop than the other posters.

    The art of keeping older hardware running with pride is certainly a subset of hardware hacking, and is something I personally really enjoy about Hackaday. There are other sites that discuss which is the best laptop being marketed this year – maybe you can recommend your favorite?

  9. Nonsense! My Thinkpad 380ED was built like a tank! Still does everything it was meant to do to this day! It’s just the internet has become broken somehow. but that’s just a fad, anyway.
    Now, get off my lawn!

  10. The main issue with cheap/old laptops is often RAM rather than slow CPU speed. Even “tiny” Linux distros seem to keep increasing their RAM requirements with each version.

    If you can upgrade your RAM to the max allowed for the board it will have the greatest impact on responsiveness and HD wear for the least cost, and since the RAM is probably previous generation, it can often be had for a good price.

    The only issue is that DRAM refresh requires current proportional to capacity, so battery life will probably be reduced somewhat.

    1. No surprise that the demands for RAM goes up, to provide something like a fully fledged modern desktop experience is an ever growing requirement. You can pare out a great deal of that need if you are willing to make some sacrifices in how it looks and works – heck go pure terminal and who needs RAM at all almost…

      That said the lightweight ones for my money stay very workable – I have machines with the earliest Atom processors in and bugger all RAM (I think its 1G, but it might be half that, and being 32 bit its starting to require a hunt for off the shelf distros that still support them at all) and they are still great for what I use them for – they have great waccom digitizer pen touch screen things that are really easy on the eyes and visible in sunlight (transflexive) so are superb for back of the envelope type doodling in a way you can save for, and edit later and can still do web tasks just fine, as long as its not smooth video you are wanting. They are nothing like as responsive as the Pi4, can’t handle half as many tabs etc, but still work rather well.

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