Custom SSD Gives New Life To Handheld Atom PC

Two revisions of Wenting's custom SSD board - earlier revision on the left, later, sleeker and more complete, on the right.

People don’t usually go as far as [Wenting Zhang] has – designing a new IDE SSD board for a portable x86 computer made in 2006. That said, it’s been jaw-dropping to witness the astounding amount of reverse-engineering and design effort being handwaved away.

The Benq S6 is a small MID (Miniaturized Internet Device) with an Atom CPU, an x86 machine in all but looks. Its non-standard SSD’s two gigabytes of storage, however, heavily limit the OS choice – Windows XP would hardly fit on there, and while a small Linux distro could manage better, it’s, and we quote, “not as exciting”. A lot of people would stop there and use an external drive, or a stack of adapters necessitating unsightly modifications to the case – [Wenting] went further and broke the “stack of adapters” stereotype into shards with his design journey.

Tracing quite a few complex multi-layer boards into a unified and working schematic is no mean feat, especially with the SSD PCB being a host to two BGA chips, and given the sheer amount of pins in the IDE interface of the laptop’s original drive. Even the requirement for the SSD to be initialized didn’t stop him – a short fight with the manufacturer’s software ensued, but was no match for [Wenting]’s skills. The end result is a drop-in replacement SSD even thinner than the stock one.

This project is well-documented for all of us to learn from! Source code and PCB files are on GitHub, and [Wenting] has covered the journey in three different places at once – on, in a YouTube video embedded down below, and also on his Twitter in form of regular posts. Now, having seen this happen, we all have one less excuse to take up a project seemingly so complex.

Hackers play with SSD upgrades and repurposing every now and then, sometimes designing proprietary-to-SATA adapters, and sometimes reusing custom SSD modules we’ve managed to get a stack of. If case mods are acceptable to you aesthetics-wise, we’ve seen an SSD upgrade for a Surface Pro 3 made possible that way.

12 thoughts on “Custom SSD Gives New Life To Handheld Atom PC

  1. Intel GMA500 (poulsbo) is a PowerVR in disguise, Brrr.. I once bought a Dell mini 1010 with the explicit intent of running Linux for email and, music and photo’s on holiday’s. Was I in for shit show when I found out it wasn’t running a true Intel GPU with open source drivers, But an unmaintained binary blob from PowerVR. That drastically reduced the laptop’s usefull lifetime. It still stings.

    1. Indeed Poulsbo is horrible, but I have some and they are functional enough, opensource drivers are nice but sadly not as common as we would like, and way back when Poulsbo was new almost unheard of for many things…

  2. “The Benq S6 is a small MID (Miniaturized Internet Device) with an Atom CPU, an x86 machine in all but looks. Its non-standard SSD’s two gigabytes of storage, however, heavily limit the OS choice – Windows XP would hardly fit on there, and while a small Linux distro could manage better, it’s, and we quote, “not as exciting” ”

    I really don’t mean to moan, but..

    a) Windows XP really is the best choice here. Except maybe, Win98SE+KernelEx – if drivers are available.
    MicroXP will fit nicely, too, capacity wise.
    Back in the early 2000s, I did run the then-new Windows XP SP0 on a Pentium MMX with an 1.5GB SCSI HDD and 64MB RAM.
    Bare minimum, but it worked. Ran SNES9x acceptable, even. And without the quirks of 9x.

    b) Windows XP was what made netbooks popular circa 2010.
    No other OS was able to perform as good (512MB RAM wasn’t enough).
    Not even the big, popular Linux distros.
    They crawled. Slowly. On all fours.
    With their finger nails scratching the ground. ;)

    c) Atom CPUs are hellish and not worth the trouble.
    I’d rather use a VIA CPU (C3/7/Nano etc) or a Transmeta Crusoe, even.
    Not fast, but at least tries to compatible to industry standards and not a notebook-technology with crippled GPU and flaky device drivers.

    d) Linux is a memory hog, by definition.
    – Unused RAM equals wasted RAM to *nix.
    So unless it runs in text-mode, it’s horrible to use on low-end hardware.
    Even a recent Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GB and multiple cores is just about close to being smooth.
    Now let’s imagine some Atom single-core.😨
    I’d rather install ArcaOS, MenuetOS, Minix 3 or something like Haiku/BEOS. Or wait – Zeta! 😂

    Imho, I’d even go so far to think people using Atom CPUs are either masochist, uneducated or just simple minded.
    Like a “friend” of our family who’s still buying new Atom Shuttles again and again. 🙄
    Despite being told and shown how horrible Atoms are and how much better his flight sims would run on “normal” PCs.
    He’s resistant to any advices, also and has mental health issues (officially confirmed).
    He refuses to use SSDs, also. He uses mechanical notebook HDDs all the time.
    Okay, maybe that’s just sime fetisch, not sure. 🤷‍♂️

    1. No offense, though. The job of upgrading this handheld was very well done, imho. Thumbs up! 😎👍
      What I said was just about the Atom platform itself and my personal experience.
      I don’t mean to hurt others feelings whatsoever.
      The handheld device itself looks fine, too, I think.

    2. Having owned many of these atom-based machines, I can confidently say that Linux was the only OS that would run with any kind of acceptable speed for me. XP ran terribly on the slow spinning disks that came with every computer back then, but the 1 GB of RAM that shipped standard most of the time was enough to throw `toram` on the kernel and have it positively fly.

    3. XP is awful on these things, slow to do everything to the point that the NHS bought a bundle of devices with the poulsbo atoms and stopped using them almost immediately, and the NHS doesn’t replace stuff it doesn’t have to very often…

      They do however run perfectly well with a lightweight Linux distro – and Linux memory management isn’t a problem at all, its working as designed and things run well and soo sooo much faster on the right Linux distro on these things… Its not ‘hogging’ memory to use it for better performance on existing tasks while its available and fill the pagefile (to keep you happy with the windows terms) when you need to free up RAM for a new task (also its configureable to suit your needs)…

      There is a reason why most low specs machines go Linux, and that is because its inherently not a memory (or any other resource) hog – all the old machines I’ve ever played with – even ones with stickers saying for a later version of windows run like dog shit on XP compared to even the all singing and dancing fancy ‘resource hog’ end of the Linux distro pile – partly because WINDOWS REQUIRES MORE MEMORY by its nature, it is just full of bloat that is always loaded (at least without a large amount of skilled trimming it out)…

      I do agree Atom’s are (especially these older ones) not worth the hassle now, as they are really not impressive in any way, don’t even have great energy efficiency going for them… Arm is where things are right now for seriously low power, and in the higher computing power requirements AMD (more efficient per calc) and Intel’s (lower idle thanks to the latest gen’s ‘e cores’) standard desktop lineups are usually the best choice…

      What are you trying to do on a Pi4 that qualifies as ‘just about close to being smooth’?

      I’ve thrown everything at Pi4 and CM4’s with various levels of ram, including the lowest spec and they as superbly smooth and performant at basically everything (with the lowest ram level just don’t try leaving everything running at once, and don’t expect it to magically be as fast as the 250W GPU and 100W CPU with many times more ram and the fastest of fast NVME SSDs – there is a vast difference between working really well at almost everything and being comparable to just about as fast as you can get in the consumer price ranges…)

      Heck my default CAD/media/browsing computer is the Pi4 built into my desk’s bench powersupply cubbyhole (It was there to run the USB o-scope/signal sniffer, but its a huge energy saving over running the old workstation (poor thing finally died) and still very significant over its new much more efficient replacement), and even with VM’s running hogging memory it handles it all like a champ up to really really complex CAD, by the time you are pushing it hard enough to actually need a ‘real’ computer in FreeCAD the parts and assemblies you are creating are way beyond the normal level for anything you see on this site.. Just don’t expect the same pi to simultaneously stream many videos or other reasonably demanding task all at once, and while it can handle 4K pretty well for many things (even on two monitors!) its definitely happier at lower resolutions.

      As long as you don’t set it up for failure a Pi4 is remarkably capable, with a little bit of work setting up for success on harder tasks (like making sure you can use the hardware acceleration, adding the fan and/or heatsink, not using crap SD cards) and it really can do almost anything in a perfectly usable way – basically just short of the most heavy computational loads that generally are run on systems many many many times more expensive with far larger power draw…

      The one thing I will say is DON’T USE SD cards, unless you want to spend some time looking for an actually decent one for this role – a good SD card makes the Pi work about as well as a USB 2 slow spinning rust drive overall in my experience (sometimes a little better), but most of them are so bad for being the OS disk that every time something is written or read its sluggish in comparison – put a USB3 SSD of some sort (or if compute module directly connect the NVME SSD) and you really can see what the Pi4 can do)

      1. Not sure all this Atom hating is justified?! I’m running Win 10 on an atom netbook just fine. Heck I can even play steam games on it… Some reasonably impressive first person shooters. Love a bit of Fallout 3 :-)

        1. The earliest Atoms are well worth hating, as they were never well supported and just plain under performing even when new, which doesn’t stop me using one and being happy enough with it… The more recent ones are just that awkward middle child – not really low power, not got real performance either, so for almost any job you can think of either an Arm or the bigger Intel/AMD CPU would be a better fit – particularly now the low end AMD APU are really getting great efficiency and performance with really impressive built in graphics processing (for when that matters).

  3. For a Windows experience on limited hardware like this, WinFLP is probably a better choice. Much leaner than XP. Runs faster at slower clock speeds, and you can easily install any missing XP features if you think the hardware can take it. only thing really missing is the compatibility tab.

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