It seems like there are two camps, the small group of people who care about UEFI and everyone else who doesn’t really notice or care as long as their computer works. So let’s talk about what UEFI is, how it came to be, what it’s suitable for, and why you should (or shouldn’t) care.
Why did [Hales] end up hacking the BIOS on a 10 year old laptop left over from an Australian education program? When your BIOS starts telling you you’re not allowed to use a particular type of hardware, you don’t have much of a choice.
Originally [Hales] planned on purchasing a used Lenovo X260 to replace his dying laptop, but his plans were wrecked. A pandemic-induced surge in demand that even the used laptop market caused prices to bloat. The need for a small and affordable laptop with a built in Ethernet port led to the purchase of a Lenovo Thinkpad x131e. Although the laptop was older than he liked, [Hales] was determined to make it work. Little did he know the right-to-repair journey he was about to embark on.
Problems first arose when the Broadcom WiFi adapter stopped working reliably. He replaced it, but the coaxial antenna cable was found to be damaged. Even after replacing the damaged cabling, the WiFi adapter was still operating very poorly. Recalling past problems with fickle Broadcom WiFi adapters, it was decided that an Intel mPCIe WiFi adapter would take its place. When power was re-applied, [Hales] was shocked to find the following message:
Unauthorized network card is plugged in – Power off and remove the miniPCI network card
And this is where things got interesting. With off the shelf SOIC8 clips and a CH340 programmer, [Hales] dumped the BIOS from the laptop’s flash chip to another computer and started hacking away. After countless hours of researching, prodding, hacking, and reverse engineering, the laptop was useful once again with the new Intel WiFi adapter. His site documents in great detail how he was able to reverse engineer the BIOS over the course of several days.
But that’s not all! [Hales] was also able to modify the hardware so that his slightly more modern mPCIe WiFi adapter would come back on after the computer had been put in Hibernation. It’s an elegant hack, and be sure to check [Hales’] site to get the full details. And at the end, there’s a nice Easter egg for anybody who’s ever wanted to make their laptop boot up with their own logo.
We applaud [Hales] for his fine efforts to keep working equipment out of the landfill. We’ve covered many hacks that had similar goals in the past. Do you have a hack you’d like to share? Submit it via the Tips Line.
When learning a new programming language, it’s best to have a goal in mind and work towards it. [Timo] thought it was about time to learn python, and he also had a project in mind: removing the BIOS supervisor password from his old Thinkpad. From there it was just a few keystrokes (and some soldering) and he was able to change the BIOS password of this black box from the outside.
The build utilizes a BeagleBone to communicate with the laptop’s EEPROM via the I2C bus. An oscilloscope also monitors the bus to look for a specific window every four-seconds when the computer is not accessing the bus. During that short period, the EEPROM can be read and written to. Once the window opens, the BeagleBone executes the Python script, which attempts to read the EEPROM and can also perform actions such as removing or changing the BIOS supervisor password.
Of course, tinkering with the EEPROM on a laptop has a high risk of bricking the device, and not all laptops use the same security measures or even memory addresses for things like this, so documentation and precision are key. Also, with Thinkpads of this vintage it’s possible to replace the firmware on these chips entirely with a FOSS version called libreboot, and even though the process is difficult, it’s definitely recommended.
How many people still have a PS/2 keyboard kicking around in 2020? Admittedly asking such a question of the Hackaday audience is probably cheating (there’s a decent chance one of you will type a comment on one just to prove a point), but even the most pedantic reader has to admit that it’s a long dead standard. So we’re hardly surprised to hear that [Turbaned Engineer] didn’t have one handy when he tried to boot a motherboard so old that he couldn’t access the BIOS with a USB keyboard.
But rather than waiting for an adapter to show up in the mail, he decided to rig up an Arduino Nano to mimic a PS/2 keyboard just long enough for him to navigate the system configuration. Since that basically meant he only needed the arrow keys and Enter, he was able to rig up a handful of momentary buttons to serve as input. We wouldn’t recommend typing out your memoirs with such a spartan board, but it’s certainly good enough to juggle around the order of boot devices.
The fun didn’t stop there, though. [Turbaned Engineer] also had to clean some corrosion and fix a blown resistor on a bank of RAM to drag this old soldier over the finish line. He didn’t have a case handy, so he made a free-form one using the polycarbonate packaging that ICs ship in. The final machine isn’t exactly a sleeper, but it’s good enough to play Super Mario Bros. 3 on the TV.
At the end of the day, the minimal input device [Turbaned Engineer] put together isn’t so far removed from other homebrew keyboards we’ve seen recently. It seems that QMK even has some basic support for the PS/2 interface. Not that it would come up very often, but a “retro” mode might be an interesting addition to your next custom keyboard build.
Upgrading the BIOS in older computers is a great way to get a few more years of life out of old hardware or improve its performance. ThinkPads are a popular choice around these parts, but often flashing new firmware involves directly programming the chips themselves. Luckily, there’s a new flashing tool for some older Thinkpads that is much simpler.
The ThinkPads involved are the xx30 models with IvyBridge processors built around 2012, and a tool called 1vyrain now allows unlocking the bios without disassembling your computer. This means that there’s support for custom BIOS images such as coreboot, and in certain computers this also allows for overclocking, replacing WLAN hardware, and a number of other customizations. It will also allow you to disable the Intel management engine, which is not something we tire of talking about.
If you have one of these older computers floating around, some new RAM, an SSD, and this update will get you well on your way to a computer that feels brand new at virtually no cost, and the upgrades to the BIOS that you can easily make now only add to that. ThinkPads are a popular choice, especially for their hardware, but you do need to make sure that the software on them is trustworthy too.
Header image: Ashley Pomeroy [CC BY-SA 4.0].
It might be difficult for modern audiences to believe, but at one point Microsoft Windows fit on floppy disks. This was a simpler time, with smaller hard drives, lower resolution displays, and no hacker blogs for you to leave pessimistic comments on. A nearly unrecognizable era, to be sure. But if you’re one of the people who looks back on these days fondly, you might wonder why we don’t see this tiny graphical operating system smashed into modern hardware. After all, SkiFree sure ain’t gonna play itself.
Well, wonder no more. A hacker by the name of [redsPL] thought that Microsoft’s latest and greatest circa 1992 might do well crammed into the free space remaining on a ThinkPad X200’s firmware EEPROM. It would take a little fiddling, plus the small matter of convincing the BIOS to see the EEPROM as a virtual floppy drive, but clearly those are all minor inconveniences for anyone mad enough to boot their hardware into a nearly 30 year old copy of Visual Basic for a laugh.
The adventure starts when [redsPL] helped a friend install libreboot and coreboot on a stack of old ThinkPads by using the Raspberry Pi as an SPI flasher, a pastime we’re no strangers to ourselves. Once the somewhat finicky software and hardware environment was up and running, it seemed a waste not to utilize it further. Especially given the fact most firmware replacements only fill a fraction of the X200’s 8 MB chip.
Of course, Windows 3.1 was not designed for modern hardware and no proper drivers exist for much of it. Just getting the display resolution up to 1024×768 (and still with only 256 colors) required patching the original video drivers with ones designed for VMWare. [redsPL] wasn’t able to get the sound hardware working, but at least the PC speaker makes the occasional buzz. The last piece of the puzzle was messing around the
xz commands until the disk image was small enough to sneak onto the chip.
Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Windows from this era running on a (relatively) modern ThinkPad. For whatever reason, these two legends of the computing world seem destined to keep running into each other.
[Thanks to Renard for the tip.]
Recently I was given a somewhat crusty looking ThinkPad T400 that seemed like it would make a good knock around machine to have on the bench, if it wasn’t for the fact the person who gave it to me had forgotten (or perhaps never knew) the BIOS password. Cleaning the machine up, putting more RAM in it, and swapping the wheezing hard drive for an SSD would be a relatively cheap way to wring a few more years of life from the machine, but not if I couldn’t change the boot order in BIOS.
Alright, that’s not entirely true. I could have installed an OS on the SSD from my desktop and then put it into the T400, but there was something else at play. The locked BIOS gave me the perfect excuse to install LibreBoot on it, which is one of those projects I’ve had in the back of my mind for years now. Replacing the BIOS with something entirely different would solve the password issue, but there was only one problem: the instructions for flashing LibreBoot onto the T400 are intimidating to say the least.
You’re supposed to take the entire machine apart, down to pulling the CPU cooler off and removing the display. All so you can flip the motherboard over to access a flash chip between the CPU and RAM that’s normally covered by a piece of the laptop’s frame. Oh how I hated that diabolical chunk of magnesium which kept me from my silicon quarry. Flashing the chip would take a few minutes, but YouTube videos and first hand accounts from forums told me it could take hours to disassemble the computer and then put it back together after the fact.
Deep into that darkness I peered, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting. Then a thought came to me: maybe I could just cut the thing. If it was a success, it would save me hours of work. If it failed, well, at least the computer didn’t cost me anything. Time to roll the dice.