Old Laptop? Mobile x86 Game System!

Between smartphones and tablets, computing is becoming increasingly mobile in nature. It used to be that everyone had a desktop computer, then laptops became the norm, and now many people don’t have anything beyond their mobile device. Unless you’re the kind of person who actually needs the power and versatility offered by a “real” computer, mobile devices are simply a more convenient option to browse the web and consume content.

But what if your needs are somewhere in the middle? You want an x86 computer and full operating system, but you also want something that’s more mobile than a tablet? If you’re like [mnt], you take an old Atom laptop that’s on its last legs and rebuild it as the Hacktop.

[mnt] describes the Hacktop as an “Emergency Gaming/Hacking Station”, and says he uses it everywhere he goes. Inspired by his Nintendo DSi, gaming controls are front-and-center on the Hacktop and he uses the machine to play everything from Half-Life to classic emulators.

But the Hacktop is capable of more than just playing Amiga games. The hand-soldered QWERTZ keyboard can be used with his thumbs, and the D-Pad doubles as the cursor keys. There’s a laptop touch pad on the back of the case, and the ten-inch LCD display is a touch screen as well. Definitely no shortage of input devices on this thing. It’s also packing some interesting special features, such as integrated RTL-SDR and LIRC hardware for mobile exploration and experimentation. [mnt] says the nine-cell battery should keep it alive and kicking for twelve hours or so, but it of course depends on what kind of stuff he gets into while out and about.

Hackers have been building their own mobile devices for a long time, and we’re always struck by the creative approaches individuals take compared to the rather cookie-cutter world of mobile consumer technology.

ESP8266 Keeps Tabs on the Kid’s Tablets

Assuming you have a child and it’s no longer womb-bound, there’s a fairly high chance they’ve already had some experience with the glowing beauty that is the LCD display; babies of only a few months old are often given a tablet or smartphone to keep them occupied. But as the child gets to the age where they are capable of going outside or doing something more constructive, staring slack-jawed and wide-eyed at their tablet becomes a concern for many parents.

[Richard Garsthagen] is one such parent. He wanted a way to monitor and control how much time his children were using their iPad, so he came up with an automated system based on the ESP8266. Not only does it keep track of how long the tablet is being used, it even includes a reward system which allows the parent to add extra usage time for good behavior.

At the most basic level, the device is a sort of “holster” for the child’s tablet. When the tablet is placed in the slot, it presses a microswitch at the bottom of the cavity which stops the timer. When the switch is open, the LED display on the front of the device counts down, and the ESP8266 pushes notifications about remaining time to the child’s device via IFTTT.

Time can be added to the clock by way of RFID cards. The cards are given out as a reward for good behavior, completion of chores, etc. The child only needs to pass the card in front of the system to redeem its value. Once the card has been “spent”, the parent can reset it with their own special card.

It’s a very slick setup, making perfect use of the ESP8266. Reading the RFID cards, updating the timer, and using IFTTT’s API keeps the little board quite busy; [Richard] says it’s completely maxed out.

You might be wondering what happens when the clock reaches zero. Well, according to the video after the break…nothing. Once the time runs out, a notification simply pops up on the tablet telling them to put it away. Some might see this as a fault, but presumably it’s the part of the system where humans take over the parenting and give the ESP8266 a rest.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a microcontroller used to get the little hackers on schedule. At least (so far) none of them have gone full Black Mirror and started tracking when the kiddos are watching it.

Continue reading “ESP8266 Keeps Tabs on the Kid’s Tablets”

People with Dementia can DRESS Smarter

People with dementia have trouble with some of the things we take for granted, including dressing themselves. It can be a remarkably difficult task involving skills like balance, pattern recognition inside of other patterns, ordering, gross motor skill, and dexterity to name a few. Just because something is common, doesn’t mean it is easy. The good folks at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, Arizona State University, and MGH Institute of Health Professions talked with a caregiver focus group to find a way for patients to regain their privacy and replace frustration with independence.

Although this is in the context of medical assistance, this represents one of the ways we can offload cognition or judgment to computers. The system works by detecting movement when someone approaches the dresser with five drawers. Vocal directions and green lights on the top drawer light up when it is time to open the drawer and don the clothing inside. Once the system detects the article is being worn appropriately, the next drawer’s light comes one. A camera seeks a matrix code on each piece of clothing, and if it times out, a caregiver is notified. There is no need for an internet connection, nor should one be given.

Currently, the system has a good track record with identifying the clothing, but it is not proficient at detecting when it is worn correctly, which could lead to frustrating false alarms. Matrix codes seemed like a logical choice since they could adhere to any article of clothing and get washed repeatedly but there has to be a more reliable way. Perhaps IR reflective threads could be sewn into clothing with varying stitch lengths, so the inside and outside patterns are inverted to detect when clothing is inside-out. Perhaps a combination of IR reflective and absorbing material could make large codes without being visible to the human eye. How would you make a machine-washable, machine-readable visual code?

Helping people with dementia is not easy but we are not afraid to start, like this music player. If matrix codes and barcodes get you moving, check out this hacked scrap-store barcode scanner.

Thank you, [Qes] for the tip.

Hot Air Surgery Revives a Cheap Windows Tablet

[Jason Gin] recently wrote in to tell us about his adventures replacing the eMMC storage chip on a cheap Windows tablet, and we have to say, it’s an impressive amount of work for a device which apparently only cost him $15. Surely much better pieces of hardware have been tossed in the trash for less serious failures than what ailed his DigiLand DL801W tablet. We’d love to see the lengths this guy would go to restore something a bit higher up the food chain.

As any good hacker knows, you can’t fix the problem until you understand it. So the first step [Jason] took was to conduct some troubleshooting. The tablet would only boot to the EFI shell, which didn’t do him much good since there was no on-screen keyboard to interact with it. But he had the idea of trying to connect a USB keyboard via an OTG adapter, and sure enough that got him in. Once he was able to enter commands into the EFI shell, he attempted to read from a few different sectors of the eMMC drive, only to get the same nonsense repeating data. So far, not looking good.

But before he fully committed to replacing the eMMC drive, he wanted a second opinion. Using the same USB OTG adapter, he was able to boot the tablet into a Windows 10 environment, and from there got access to some drive diagnostic tools. The software reported that not only was the drive reporting to be half the appropriate size, but that writing to the chip was impossible.

With the fate of the tablet’s Foresee NCEMBS99-16G eMMC chip now confirmed, [Jason] decided it was time to operate. After pulling the tablet apart and masking off the PCB with Kapton tape to protect it from the heat, he slowly went in with his hot air rework station to remove the failed chip. But rather than put another low-end chip in its place, he used this opportunity to replace it with a Samsung KLMBG4GEND-B031. Not only does this chip have twice the capacity of the original, it should be noticeably faster.

With the new Samsung eMMC chip installed, [Jason] put the tablet back together and was able to successfully install Windows 10 onto it. Another piece of tech saved from the big landfill in the sky.

If the casual confidence of this particular repair wasn’t enough of a clue, this isn’t the first time he’s showed some unruly eMMC chips who’s boss.

Tricked-Out Tablet Becomes Workbench Tool

The workbench of the typical electronics hobbyist today would probably be largely recognizable by Heathkit builders back in the 60s and 70s. But where the techs and tinkerers of yesteryear would have had a real dead-tree SAMS Photofact schematic spread out on the bench, today you’ll get more use out of a flat-screen display for data sheets and schematics, and this handy shop Frankentablet might be just the thing to build.

Tablets like the older Nexus 9 that [enginoor] used as the basis for this build have a little bit of a form-factor problem because unlike a laptop, a tablet isn’t very good at standing up on its own. To fix that, they found a suitable silicone skin for the Nexus, and with some silicone adhesive began bedazzling the back of the tablet. A bendy tripod intended for phones was added, and with the tablet able to stand on its own they maximized the USB port with a right angle adapter and a hub. Now the tablet has a USB drive, a mouse, and a keyboard, ready for perusing data sheets online. And hackers of a certain age will appreciate the eyeball-enhancing potential of the attached USB microscope.

[enginoor]’s bench tablet is great, but we’ve seen full-fledged bench PCs before too. Take your pick — wall mounted and floating, or built right into the workbench.

Thanks to [ccvi] for the tip.

Huge Functionality, Small Package: A Custom Tablet, Raspberry Style

As the adage goes, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” Desirous of a tablet but preferring to eschew consumer models, [Stefan Vorkoetter] constructed his own compact and lightweight Raspberry Pi tablet, covering several extra miles in the process.

The tablet makes use of a Raspberry Pi 3 and the official touchscreen, with the final product marginally larger than the screen itself. Designed with a ‘slimmer the better’ profile in mind, [Vorkoetter] had to modify several components to fit this precept; most obvious of these are the removal of the Pi’s GPIO headers, USB, and Ethernet ports, and removing the USB power out port from the touchscreen controller board so the two could be mounted side-by-side.

An Adafruit PowerBoost 1000C handles charging the 6200 mAh battery — meaning up to six hours(!) of YouTube videos — via a micro USB, but only after [Vorkoetter] attached a pair of home-made heatsinks due to negligible air flow within the case. A modified USB audio adapter boosts the Pi’s audio capabilities, enabling the use of headphones, a mic, and a built-in speaker which is attached to the tablet’s back cover.

Continue reading “Huge Functionality, Small Package: A Custom Tablet, Raspberry Style”

Bricked Intel Tablet Lives Again

We’ve probably all taken a look at the rash of cheap Intel-Atom-based tablet computers and wondered whether therein lies an inexpensive route to a portable PC. Such limited hardware laden down with a full-fat Windows installation fails to shine, but maybe if we could get a higher-performance OS on there it could be a useful piece of kit.

[donothingloop] has an Intel tablet, a TrekStore Wintron 7, bought for the princely sum of $60. Windows 10 didn’t excite him, so he decided to put Ubuntu on it, or more specifically to put Ubuntu on an SD card to try it on the Wintron before overwriting the Windows installation. His problem with that was a bug in the Baytrail Atom chipset which limits the speed of SD card access and made Ubuntu very slow, and in trying to fix the speed issue he managed to disable a setting in the BIOS which had the effect of bricking the machine. A show-stopper when the BIOS is in a tiny SPI Flash chip and can’t be wiped or restored.

What followed was an epic of desoldering the BIOS chip and reflashing it, though that description makes the process sound deceptively easy. The specification says it is a 1.8V device, so after attempts to flash it using an ESP8266 and then a home-made level-shifter failed, he was stumped. With nothing but a cheap tablet to lose, he tried the chip in a 3.3V programmer, and to his amazement despite the significant overvoltage, it survived. Resoldering the chip to the motherboard presented him with a working tablet that would live to fight another day.

We’d have said that this work might reside in the “Don’t try this at home” category, but since Hackaday readers are exactly the kind of people who do try this kind of thing at home it’s interesting and reassuring to see that it can be done, and to see how someone else did it. A tablet that can be bricked through a mere BIOS setting though is something a manufacturer should be ashamed of.

We like unbricking stories here at Hackaday, something about winning against the odds appeals to us. In the past we’ve covered Blu-ray drives crippled by dodgy DRM and routers rescued with a Raspberry Pi, but the crown has to be taken by the phone rescued with a resistor made using paperclips and pencil lead.