Waveshare’s Pi CM3 Laptop Arrives A Bit Too Late

The good news it that you can now buy a pretty decent laptop that’s based around the Raspberry Pi Compute Module (CM). The bad news is that it was conceived before anyone knew the interface was going to change for the new CM4, so it doesn’t have any of the features that would make it really interesting such as support for PCI-Express. Oh, and it costs $300.

Waveshare, the company that most of us know best as a purveyor of e-paper displays, also made some rather interesting design choices on their laptop. See that black pad under the keyboard? No, it’s not a trackpad. It’s just a decorative cover that you remove to access an LED matrix and GPIO connectors. Make no mistake, a laptop that features a GPIO breakout right on the front is definitely our jam. But the decision to install it in place of the trackpad, and then cover it with something that looks exactly like a trackpad, is honestly just bizarre. It might not be pretty, but the Pi 400 seemed to have solved this problem well enough without any confusion.

On the other hand, there seems to be a lot to like about this product. For one, it’s a very sleek machine that doesn’t have the boxy and somewhat juvenile look that seems so common in other commercial Pi laptops. We also like that Waveshare included a proper Ethernet jack, something that’s becoming increasingly rare even on “real” laptops. As [ETA PRIME] points out in the video after the break, the machine also has a crisp IPS display and a surprisingly responsive keyboard. Though the fact that it still has a “Windows” key borders on being offensive considering how much it costs.

But really, the biggest issue with this laptop is when it finally hit the market. If Waveshare had rushed this out when the CM3 was first introduced, it probably would have been a more impressive technical achievement. On the other hand, had they waited a bit longer they would have been able to design it around the far more capable CM4. As it stands, the product is stuck awkwardly in the middle.

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Mirror, Mirror, On Your Cam, Show Us What You’ve Drawn By Hand

Working and learning from home may be the new norm, and if IKEA shelves are any indication, folks are tricking out their home office with furniture, gadgets, and squishy chairs. While teleconferencing has proven to be an invaluable tool, paper documents aren’t going down with out a fight.

Unfortunately dedicated document cameras require significant space and monies, so they’re impractical if you only share once in a while. [John Umekubo] didn’t want students and teachers hobbled by the same costs and inconveniences, so he modeled a mirror holder that slides over a laptop’s webcam and directs the view downward.

[John]’s adventures started with a Twitter post, as seen below, but the responses were so encouraging that he published his design on Thingiverse for everyone. There’s also a version that can be laser cut out of cardboard, though we imagine a pair of scissors would work in a pinch. He admits there’s already a consumer model, but wasn’t planning to sell them anyway. Like us, he wants to get people to share their work.

We recently covered a simpler version of the same idea in use at Northwestern University, and we’ve seen a similar hack that gives a split-screen effect to sketch and maintain eye contact. If you want to share the view in your room, we have a Raspberry Pi streaming option that’s worth checking out.

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Building An Open Source ThinkPad Battery

If you own a laptop that’s got a few years on the clock, you’ve probably contemplated getting a replacement battery for it. Which means you also know how much legitimate OEM packs cost compared to the shady eBay clones. You can often get two or three of the knock-offs for the same price as a single real battery, but they never last as long as the originals. If they even work properly at all.

Which is why [Alexander Parent] decided to take the road less traveled and scratch built a custom battery for his ThinkPad T420. By reverse engineering how the battery pack communicated with the computer, he reasoned he would be able to come up with an open source firmware that worked at least as well as what the the third party ones are running. Which from the sounds of it, wasn’t a very high bar. From a more practical standpoint, it also meant he’d be able to create a higher capacity battery pack than what was commercially available should he chose to.

A logic analyzer wired in between one of the third party batteries and a spare T420 motherboard allowed [Alexander] to capture all the SMBus chatter between the two. From there he wrote some Arduino code that would mimic a battery as a proof of concept. He was slowed down a bit by an undocumented CRC check, but in the end he was able to come up with a fairly mature firmware that even allows you to provide a custom vendor name and model number for your pack.

The code was shifted over to an ATtiny85, with a voltage divider wired up to one of the pins so it can read the pack voltage. [Alexander] says his firmware still doesn’t do a great job of reporting the actual battery capacity remaining, but it’s close enough for his purposes. He came up with a simple PCB design to hold the MCU and support components,  which eventually he plans on putting inside of a 3D printed case that actually plugs into the back of his T420.

This project is obviously still in a relatively early stage, but we’re very interested to see [Alexander] take it all the way. The ThinkPad has long been the hacker’s favorite laptop, and we can think of no machine more worthy of a fully open hardware and software battery pack.

Open Hardware Laptop Built On Power PC ISA

Since Apple switched to Intel chips in the mid-00s, the PowerPC chips from Motorola and the PowerPC Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) that they had been using largely fell by the wayside. While true that niche applications like supercomputing still use the Power ISA on other non-Apple hardware, the days of personal computing with PowerPC are largely gone unless you’re still desperately trying to keep your Power Mac G5 out of the landfill or replaying Twilight Princess. Luckily for enthusiasts, though, the Power ISA is now open source and this group has been working on an open-source laptop based on this architecture.

While development is ongoing and there are no end-user products available yet, the progress that this group has made shows promise. They have completed their PCB designs and schematics and have a working bill of materials, including a chassis from Slimbook. There are also prototypes with a T2080RDB development kit and a NXP T2080 processor, although they aren’t running on their intended hardware yet. While still in the infancy, there are promising videos (linked below) which show the prototypes operating smoothly under the auspices of the Debian distribution that is tailored specifically for the Power ISA.

We are excited to see work continue on this project, as the Power ISA has a number of advantages over x86 in performance, ARM when considering that it’s non-proprietary, and even RISC-V since it is older and better understood. If you want a deeper comparison between all of these ISAs, our own [Maya Posch] covered that topic in detail as well as covered the original move that IBM made to open-source the Power ISA.

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Broken Smartphones: Laptops In Disguise

Modern smartphones are a dizzying treatise on planned obsolescence. Whether it’s batteries that can’t be removed without four hours and an array of tiny specialized tools, screens that shatter with the lightest shock, or (worst of all) software that gets borked purposefully to make the phone seem older and slower than it really is, around every corner is some excuse to go buy a new device. The truly tragic thing is that there’s often a lot of life left in these old, sometimes slightly broken, devices.

This video shows us how to turn an old smartphone into a perfectly usable laptop. The build starts with a screen and control board that has USB-C inputs, which most phones can use to output video. It’s built into a custom aluminum case with some hinges, and then attached to a battery bank and keyboard in the base of the laptop. From there, a keyboard is installed and then the old phone is fixed to the back of the screen so that the aluminum body doesn’t interfere with the WiFi signal.

If all you need is internet browsing, messaging, and basic word processing, most phones are actually capable enough to do all of this once they are free of their limited mobile UI. The genius of this build is that since the phone isn’t entombed in the laptop body, this build could easily be used to expand the capabilities of a modern, working phone as well. That’s not the only way to get a functioning laptop with parts from the junk drawer, either,  if you’d prefer to swap out the phone for something else like a Raspberry Pi.

Thanks to [NoxiousPluK] for the tip!

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Hacking A ThinkPad USB-C Adapter

USB-C has brought the world much more powerful charging options in a slimline connector. With laptop chargers and portable battery packs using the standard, many with older hardware are converting their devices over to work with USB-C. [victorc] was trying to do just that, purchasing an adapter cable to charge a ThinkPad. Things didn’t quite work out of the box, so some hacking was required.

The problem was the power rating of the adapter cable, versus the battery pack [victorc] was trying to use. In order to allow the fastest charging rates, the adapter cable features a resistor value which tells the attached Lenovo laptop it can draw up to 90 W. The battery pack in question could only deliver 45 W, so it would quickly shut down when the laptop tried to draw above this limit.

To rectify this, [victorc] looked up the standard, finding the correct resistor value to set the limit lower. Then, hacking open the cable, the original resistor on the Lenovo connector was removed, and replaced with the correct value. With this done, the cable works perfectly, and [victorc] is able to charge their laptop on the go.

For all the benefits USB-C has brought, there’s been plenty of consternation, too. Whether this clears up, only time will tell!

Netbooks: The Next Generation — Chromebooks

Netbooks are dead, long live the Chromebook. Lewin Day wrote up a proper trip down Netbook Nostalgia Lane earlier this month. That’s required reading, go check it out and come back. You’re back? Good. Today I’m making the case that the Chromebook is the rightful heir to the netbook crown, and to realize its potential I’ll show you how to wring every bit of Linuxy goodness out of your Chromebook.

I too was a netbook connoisseur, starting with an Asus Eee 901 way back in 2009. Since then, I’ve also been the proud owner of an Eee PC 1215B, which still sees occasional use. Only recently did I finally bite the bullet and replace it with an AMD based Dell laptop for work.

For the longest time, I’ve been intrigued by a good friend who went the Chromebook route. He uses a Samsung Chromebook Plus, and is constantly using it to SSH into his development machines. After reading Lewin’s article, I got the netbook bug again, and decided to see if a Chromebook would fill the niche. I ended up with the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, codename Scarlet. The price was right, and the tablet form factor is perfect for referencing PDFs.

Two Asus Netbooks and a ChromeOS tablet.
Behold, my netbook credentials.

The default ChromeOS experience isn’t terrible. You have the functionality of desktop Chrome, as well as the ability to run virtually any Android app. It’s a good start, but hardly the hacker’s playground that a Linux netbook once was. But we can still get our Linux on with this hardware. There are three separate approaches to making a Chromebook your own virtual hackspace: Crostini, Crouton, and full OS replacement.

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