Laptop Motherboard? No, X86 Single-Board Computer!

Sometimes a Raspberry Pi will not cut it – especially nowadays, when the prices are high and the in-stock amounts are low. But if you look in your closet, you might find a decently-specced laptop with a broken screen or faulty hinges. Or perhaps someone you know is looking to get rid of a decent laptop with a shattered case. Electronics recycling or eBay, chances are you can score a laptop with at least some life left in it.

Let’s hack! I’d like to show you how a used laptop motherboard could be the heart of your project, and walk you through some specifics you will want to know.

And what a great deal it could be for your next project! Laptop motherboards can help bring a wide variety of your Linux- and Windows-powered projects to life, in a way that even NUCs and specialized SBCs often can’t do. They’re way cheaper, way more diverse, and basically omnipresent. The CPU can pack a punch, and as a rule PCIe, USB3, and SATA ports are easily accessible with no nonsense like USB-throttled Ethernet ports.

What Makes Laptop Motherboards Cool?

Apart from unparalleled availability all around us, laptop motherboards can help you add a range of cool features to your project, without reinventing the wheel! Want some hardware-accelerated video encoding? The CPU’s integrated GPU is at your service, and if there’s a discrete GPU, it might be just what you’re looking for in a DVR project of yours. Do you want a display attached to your project for your notification or video playback needs? It was born to have a display, just make sure you have a suited cable and a compatible LCD panel – usually, most of them from the same date range. A SATA drive or two, perhaps? A laptop was born to work with those; at least, the not-so-recent ones are.

Sometimes, the laptop works, but you know you won’t be using it as a laptop anymore

Do you want battery backup for your project – perhaps, do you want to safety shut everything down when power cuts out? Laptops are meant to do that! If you base your DVR or DIY security system around a laptop motherboard and add the laptop battery to the mix, it can easily last an hour-two when the power goes out, and if you use one as your pick&place machine controller, it won’t lose all job data when someone trips the breakers in your hackerspace.

Are you looking to run some VMs for your home automation, safety, convenience or other purposes? You might go for a $300 multi-core ARM SBC, learning the questionable joys of ARM virtualization and containerization hiccups along the way. Alternatively, you might go for a $50 piece of consumer hardware with a, still, pretty powerful CPU that will flawlessly run all your likely-already-x86 VMs. Hardware-accelerated encryption, for whatever you might need it? Both Intel and AMD will serve you well here.

Oh, and it’s x86 – most software will run on it, and some software runs on x86 exclusively; in such cases, going for a x86 board is a no-brainer. Is a laptop mainboard going to be as low-power as an ARM core? No. Will it be really damn close, with laptops always optimized for low power? Yes! Will it give you less grief in quite a few scenarios? Also yes! Is it widely tested hardware with a trove of software to use? Yes, yes and yes.

Apart from discussing the purpose-tailored aspects, however, there is something seriously fun about taking a piece of technology that’s almost-but-not-quite suitable for your project, and making it fit your needs exactly as you need it. It makes for quite a learning experience, too. Especially if you can access schematics, you get a glimpse into what it takes to design a product fit to reach tens of thousands of people in different circumstances, and a pretty complex product electronics-wise, at that.

Even in cases where the advantage of a laptop board over a Raspberry Pi isn’t clearcut, it makes your project journey bit more remarkable. By now, I build projects based on laptop motherboards as a bit of a hobby – it’s not just a means to an end, but also a lovely way to spend some time, and a bit more noteworthy than using a generic single-board computer for achieving whatever need you’re looking to get fulfilled.

What Can You Build?

You can indeed build a DVR, or a VM server, a general-purpose server with more oomph, or a controller box for that one machine that requires Windows for its software – a pick and place, lasercutter, or a fancy printer with one-of-a-kind software setup requirement. Apart from all the fun aspects that laptop board reuse has, it generally makes sense to use laptop motherboards in projects that take advantage of x86 strengths – and there’s quite a few examples that come to mind.

For instance, I’ve built a dual display-over-the-network receiver for my workshop needs, with a cheap laptop motherboard from some 2012 laptop, showing datasheets and browser windows on a far away desk where pulling video cables wasn’t practical. Its CPU, while anemic, decodes video streams easily thanks to out-of-the-box hardware acceleration. Its Ethernet connection is gigabit by default, backed by a decent PCIe link instead of a USB bottleneck – throughput isn’t a problem. Given the dual video output requirement, I also didn’t have to dedicate a Pi 4 to the task – after all, those are rare beasts nowadays. Best of all, of course, was that I only spent $20 on the components.

Another laptop board now serves as my backup processing server. It came out of a fancy laptop with four SATA drives, and plenty of PCIe exposed – great for backing up my NVMe drives. There’s no network connection – a backup handling server is best off without it; I did, however, replace its SATA plugs with sockets so that I could wire them up to some cheap 3.5″ drives. Nowadays, I boot it up once in a while, run a time-consuming backup or compression/encryption job, and comfortably leave it for a while until it finishes processing – this way, if I need to backup or encrypt something, I don’t need to leave my main laptop tethered to a HDD.

Buyer’s Guide

You typically won’t need to look out for much if you’re getting the board as part of a broken-case laptop. However, if you’ve found a bare motherboard deal, you’ll want to know some things. First off, don’t buy boards that come without a heatsink, unless you can get one on the cheap separately. The CPU / GPU / chipset heatsinks are custom-tailored for each board out there, and unless you want to spend a ton of time figuring a cooling solution for the bare chip, I advise you not to bother. Also make sure you receive the necessary daughterboards, especially if the daughterboard looks crucial for functioning: like it has the power switch, CMOS battery, or project-required ports. For the first two, schematics might help, but of course, won’t always be sufficient.

Make sure the cooling solution is included

It also helps if you can find schematics for your board online. You can usually simply look them up in your search engine of choice. This can get you into a legal grey zone, though, because sometimes these copyrighted schematics are being given away without permission. I’ll put it this way – if you ever want to get more out of your board, say, wire a few buttons up to the keyboard connector or tap into a 3.3 V power rail for part of your project, schematics will help you quite a bit.

Laptop chargers are important, too! In essence, they are power supplies – the battery charging is done with a separate chip on your laptop’s mainboard. If your laptop works from 18 V to 20 V, then any 18 V to 20 V charger will work with it; solder wires to the board if you don’t have a matching plug for the socket. If your laptop is from the HP-Dell-Lenovo dark triad and you use a different charger, you will want to spoof the charger power detection – accessible as the third pin on the DC input socket. HP and Lenovo use resistors to ground, and Dell uses 1-wire EEPROM chips, that you can either buy online or spoof with an ATTiny. As usual, higher amperage charger is okay, lower amperage charger is likely not sufficient. With USB-C-powered boards, you shouldn’t have any problems of the sort. I recommend against using 24 V power supplies – components on the power input path, like input capacitors, might only be rated to 25 V.

In general, the more parts that come together with your board, the better; however, working with the bare board itself is also okay. Whichever you pick, plug some RAM in, and let’s get going – in the next installment!

47 thoughts on “Laptop Motherboard? No, X86 Single-Board Computer!

    1. I mean, I know ARM is growing but it seems like Windows and every major Linux distro supports x86 first and ARM second, if at all. M1 and RISC-V are still very niche.

      It is a hopeless ISA, I agree. I hope x86 can finally be replaced by a RISC architecture soon.

        1. I rather doubt your doubt – most software thesedays doesn’t know or care at all about the CPU, it is built on the pretty common library and/or runtime environment and so will just work or can be compiled against any CPU target. It is seemingly very rare for more bare metal abstraction free stuff where the software will require matching hardware to exist now.

          I’d also have to disagree with Cad – ARM is pretty well supported by the distros, pull practically any software you like from the repo and have the same experience as using x86-64 if your ARM hardware can actually hack that load. It is the device tree and driver blob lower level stuff that can be problematic* for ARM boards – as they require the blobs/sources to be available and the user to understand enough to set it up (or for it to be some really really common ARM board like a Pi where the distro’s can choose to ship everything in ready to run fashion for that device).

          *read as “hell, or at least hell adjacent to deal with” – device tree as a concept isn’t really problematic at all – its actually quite simple and elegant as a method for defining where and what everything in the hardware is for the kernel. If you have the information to actually make it work.

  1. I’ve been using an old laptop (2009-ish Core 2 Duo) for 3 years as personal server for many tasks: DVR, torrent client, NAS and host for small services (personal telegram bots and web apps).

    It was a relief to replace that stack of arbitrary sized modules – two USB HDD adapters, power supply, battery pack, a RPi 3 (ouch), heat sinks and cooling fans – with a single black box and its power supply.

    Even though it is 7 years older than a RPi 3, it still has better performance, lower price and higher maintainability…

    1. It’s also usually environmentally better to use something that already exists, and would otherwise be e-waste, than to use newer equipment, even when you take energy efficiency into account. This is especially true of latops, which are engineered to be energy efficient to extend running time on a battery charge.

    1. Sure! That one was some HP dv8t-1000 – a high-end 1st gen Intel 18″ laptop (socketable CPU, only supports GPU-less i7); has two HDD bays, one ODD bay and one eSATA, for a total of 4; plus, IIRC two mPCIe and ExpressCard; so, three spare PCIe 1x links ^^ No hardware acceleration for encryption (AES-NI) because 1st gen, but, can’t have everything, I guess =D

    2. dell E4300 has four too – hdd,dvd,combined usb/esata port on one side, esata on docking station
      just google schematics, first link goes to some google drive, it s on first page, however it is only SATA300.
      There are also 3 available pci-e lanes (2 mini slots, one express card) but they are only gen1 2.5GT/s

      1. oh and also dell E6540 (Vala) hdd,dvd,minipcie wwan slot with sata (have mSATA ssd there), docking station. that is Haswell hardware so more powerfull than E4300, gen2 pcie slots, schematics available

      1. I got a SABRENT USB 3.0 4 Bay 2.5” Hard Drive/SSD Docking Station with Fan (DS-4SSD) for one…built a software Raid thru USB 3.0 and it does really well, not screaming fast, but faster than the 4 refurb 1TB HGST drives I put in it can go

    3. You can sometimes find them in unusual places as well. Some Thinkpad docking connectors have SATA lanes available for docks with DVD drives, like the X220/X230 docks. mSATA is another source, plus DVD drives in the laptop just use Slimline SATA that’s easy to get adapters for.

  2. For a true Pi replacement, I would be interested in getting recommendations for GPIO on it. I assume something USB connected, and with the right drivers for something like Python. Any suggestions?

    1. not opposing the ftdi suggestion, but personally i would go with a raspberry pico rp2040 thing.

      i have gpio on my pc through an stm32 discovery board, which is roughly the same thing but a lot more expensive and without as much niftiness. in particular, the stm32 on it has no usb support so it actually has a second stm32 that just does usb-to-swd interface…so i actually use gdbserver to interface with it, i send a stop command, read/write a memory buffer, and then send a continue command :)

      i think the rp2040 makes that a lot easier, especially because it has a decent library of bootloaders and micropython and what-not you can use. and it has a lot more i/o flexibilty than the ftdi…and isn’t it crazy, it’s actually cheaper?

      1. Yeah there’s a “u2if” interface that allows use of an rp2040 board with mainline python for circuit python like functionally. There’s also an mcp2221a board Adafruit has that does a similar thing (and is secretly a factory programmed PIC iirc) though a Pico is probably still cheaper.

    2. Just get a regular pc mainboard with an lpt port (also known as paralel port). This gives you 12 gpios and 8 digital inputs. There are still new boards made with lpt ports, so you dont have to use some old pentium 1.

  3. I hope the BIOS modding community can help with this idea so boards that have OEM restrictions on them like restricting what PCIe devices they will allow to be enabled can be removed to enable more PCIe devices to be used in laptop mainboard based projects. Maybe hackers will find ways to populate and use extra options on these like unpopulated headers originally intended for cell network connectivity.

    It’s a shame none of the Pi copycats have been able to capitalize on the shortage and deliver a solid, cheap, easy to use, and well supported alternative. But I also find some humor that people are turning to older x86 systems to fill the gap. Intel tried to carve a niche for themselves in this space but all it took was a RasPi shortage and SBC prices to match that of 6-7 generation old used PC hardware :P

    1. Yeah locked down hardware is the biggest reason I’d not deliberately purchase a ‘junk’ laptop for a project. If I am spending money (even only very little money) I want to be sure there can be life in the parts after whatever project is over, so grab an ATX/ITX leftover instead. As otherwise you end up buying a new junker to get the funcitonality for the next project with ever more ‘oh if only it could do …’ junkers kicking around.

      I’m not surprised there isn’t a Pi clone of note out there though – parts are still not close to being back to what they were from my last look for bits so actually creating anything now is a challenge. And then putting in the good levels of support is an ongoing cost and expensive initially (and that is assuming you can get parts to make your SBC that are not under even more restrictive NDA than the Pi’s bits so it is possible).

      1. Depends on what you need. I found a fanless 3050 Ryzen based motherboard, has a pcie x1 and x4 m.2 slots. I can put an adapter in both slots. Wifi to NVMe in the wifi slot. And an “egpu” adapter in the NVMe spot. Can stick a SAS adapter in and you have a fairly good base for a NAS. I also am still thinking of shoving the board in an old WiiU tablet to make a weenie steamdeck

    2. honestly, i wouldn’t call it “a shame,” i’d say it’s nothing less than “an astonishment!” there are so many absolutely phenomenal arm products out there, but all the hobbyist-oriented SBCs seem to suffer from a combination of poor SoC selection, poor driver support, and closedness. basic tasks that 10 year old PCs (and even 10 year old ARM chromebooks) have let us take for granted are still a big uphill battle on raspberry pi or pine64 rockpro boards.

      to the comment below this, i already have my reply “it simply ain’t so! those aren’t the facts, sir!” foldi-one wrote:

      1. No idea what you are objecting too…

        But I’m going to assume its the bit about the Pi, and in the ongoing effects of a parts shortage making something nearly as functional as a Pi, more open and even remotely cheap isn’t going to be easy if it is even possible… Heck if it was that easy it would have happened long before the parts shortage, the Pi really proved there was a market for it!

        I’d also love to know what you ‘take for granted’ and are struggling with on a PI3 or 4 compared to an ancient chromebook though as the things are pretty dang potent and the default software stack just works and is actually updated… There is a reason the Pi has become such a popular industrial and hobby computer, cheap, powerful, easy to use, and very functional…

  4. Also check thin clients on ebay. They are small, low power and typicaly also passive with no fan. Recently got HP t520 and t630 and they are quite good. t630 is even good enough as a desktop and is perfectly supported in linux including 3d acceleration, hevc decoding, suspend to ram (and windows 10 works fine too). t630 is ~50 eur thing including power adapter, 8GB ram and sata ssd.

    Laptops may be fine but I hate those fans there.

      1. I think it’s quite epic that that ^^ site is still alive and kicking. :-)
        Used it myself 10~15 years ago and still wherever you surf and reusing thin clients is the topic someone will drop that URL. Did it myself a few times too.

        Kinda wish it were more like a wiki and not running on one private server (I assume “” is a dyn-dns domain?).

        1. It’s not – it’s as established as, and I believe the domains are the same price to buy, but intended for individuals rather than companies (or other organisations, or academic establishments).

    1. If you’re expecting a couple of hours or less, easiest would be to get one with a still functioning battery and just never have it turn off. Make sure you get a laptop that has the charging managed to where it won’t kill the battery if plugged in all the time (I’ve had this issue on some older laptops).

      If you want to recover after a natural disaster that takes out power for days/weeks, you could build a circuit that hits the power button just once after receiving power itself.

  5. What you won’t find is a x86 laptop that supports running MS-DOS with EMM386 for expanded memory. Not even with LIM 4.0 where the 64K window doesn’t all have to be in one piece. Not even with even fancier 3rd party EMS drivers that can work where LIM 4.0 can’t.

    Laptops tend to have their upper memory area fragmented excessively or too full for using all the built in peripherals so there’s not enough free to scrape together for the EMS window for paging.

    I’ve been looking for a cheap x86 SBC or thin client capable of running DOS with EMS to run an old CNC milling machine for which the only control software available only works with EMS. It cannot use XMS.

  6. You must have access to a better waste stream than I do… I’ve got a few tower machines that are basically scrap at this point, and one curb-rescue laptop that’s intact enough that I’m just leaving it in its own case for now.

    1. If you’re in .au, the e-waste bin at officeworks has been good for me. Just be careful how you do it because the staff are utterly humourless about letting you have hardware that they’re only going to chuck in a skip anyway.

  7. The Apple MacMini 2012 A1347 is a good alternative. 4 USB3 ports, HDMI video and upgrading RAM and HD is easy through the bottom cover. 60-75$ typically for 4 GB RAM and 500 GB HD.

    1. There’s really a lot of untapped potential with laptop motherboards in DIY projects, here’s a few examples:

      * DVD drives in laptops use a SATA interface, just with a 5V only plug. This is called Slimline SATA, the adapter are cheap and they’ll work for anything that doesn’t need 12V, and it’s pretty easy to add 12V if you do need it (mainly for 3.5″ HDDs)

      * Many people know that laptops have mPCIe/M.2 slots available for PCIe lanes, but ExpressCard slots are also PCIe interfaces! And they’re externally accessible! On top of that, NVMe bays do exist for them – you’ll likely need a patched BIOS to boot from it, but you can still use them for general high performance storage, or some OS’s let you put the bootloader on your “normal” drive that then point to the NVMe for everything else.

      * Webcams, Smart card slots, and often fingerprint readers use USB interfaces

      * Docking connectors are a whole ‘nother world of untapped potential as they often have extra lanes for all sorts of stuff – USB 2.0/3.0, SATA lanes intended for dock DVD drives or eSATA ports, audio interfaces, GbE interfaces/passthroughs, DisplayPort lanes, VGA lanes, etc. Many Thinkpad mods take advantage of this to use NVMe drives, eDP display upgrades, etc.

      * eDP and LVDS are pretty flexible standards, basically any screen with a matching pin count will work, and you can often upgrade the cable if your laptop came with different display SKUs . As an example, many modern Thinkpads come with 30 pin eDP connections on 1080p non-touch models, but have 30+10 cables for 1080p touch or 40 pin cables for 2K/3K/4K screens. As long as you have enough lanes, you can often get away with non-factory screen types like different aspect ratios, different refresh rates, screen sizes, etc. Any laptop screen used in 3D Vision capable laptops is 120hz as well.

      * Most laptops use 18-20V, and 20V USB PD trigger boards are super cheap for adding USB C charging to a laptop. Some laptops require a resistor be added to identify the charger amperage, which can be a pain, but certainly not unsolvable.

      * mPCIe and many M.2 interfaces have USB 2.0 lanes available that often go unused by the card in the slot, which can be an easy way to get USB lanes. WiFi+BT cards use the USB for BT, and you can safely tape the pins off to disable the BT and use the USB 2.0 lanes for something else. Many M.2 keys support I2C and/or SPI as well, though that’s a relatively untapped world.

      * Laptop mobos may not have GPIO available, but any Arduino or RP2040 or devices like the Adafruit FT232H will let you get GPIO.

      1. And like another comment mentions, NVMe slots are just PCIe. You can get all sorts of PCIe devices in an M.2 form factor, like 5/6 drive SATA controllers or HDMI capture cards or NICs, and there’s dozens of adapters to step up to a full size PCIe slot.

        There are also caddies for fitting a 2.5″ SATA drive in a DVD bay, just make sure you get the right height – iirc the two standard sizes are 9.5mm and 12mm, or something of the sort, but they’re easy to check by measuring and or checking your DVD drive’s spec sheet.

        There are also adapters for plugging M.2 WiFi cards into mPCIe slots. You’ll need antenna interface adapters or new antennas since M.2 WiFi cards use smaller antenna connectors, but they otherwise work fine.

        There’s a lot of folks mentioning whitelists, which have rarely beem an issue in my anecdotal experience. My XX30 series Thinkpads had WWAN/WLAN whitelists, but those are easily patched or sometimes easily spoofed, but they otherwise didn’t give a shit about what’s plugged in. I’ve done probably 50 WiFi card replacements by now and I’ve never seen one with a whitelist problem, despite using much newer cards. Your mileage may certainly vary.

  8. Note that with laptops that are recent enough to have nvme, you can buy nvme to many stuff adapters.
    For instance, nvme to ethernet. Or nvme to 5 SATA ports.

    Nvme after all is just a pcie x4 link, so easy to use for anything.

    There are also adapters for the key type used on WiFi cards. WiFi is nice but on a serverified laptop I’d rather have Lan or another interface.

    Last but not least you can get pcie hubs/multiplexers that allows using multiple devices on the same interface. So you could build a 10 SATA drive nasm or a multi gigabit opnsense router…

    1. As long as its not one of those machines that has locked down whitelist only in the BIOS, or you have the skills and information required to fix that issue (probably with the opensource BIOS, but maybe its possible to turn the feature off ‘easily’ too).

  9. Very cool! I actually did this exact thing with one of my 3D printers…the hard part was getting an external screen to work, then figuring out the keys to get it to boot from USB so I could install linux on it…then installed octoprint and I was off to the races!

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