the SoM module used to power a Dell Mini 1210, in an extended SODIMM form-factor

When Dell Built A Netbook With An X86 System-on-Module

Just like with pre-touchscreen cellphones having fancy innovative features that everyone’s forgotten about, there’s areas that laptop manufacturers used to venture in but no longer dare touch. On Twitter, [Kiwa] talks a fascinating attempt by Dell to make laptops with user-replaceable CPU+RAM modules. In 2008, Dell released the Inspiron Mini 1210, with its CPU, chipset and RAM soldered to a separate board in an “extended SODIMM” form-factor – not unlike the Raspberry Pi Compute Modules pre-CM4! Apparently, different versions of such “processor cards” existed for their Inspiron Mini lineup, with varying amounts of RAM and CPU horsepower. With replacement CPU+RAM modules still being sold online, that makes these Dell netbooks to be, to our knowledge, the only x86 netbooks with upgradable CPUs.

You could try and get yourself one of these laptops or replacement CPU modules nowadays, if you like tinkering with old tech – and don’t mind having a subpar experience on even Linux, thanks to the Poulsbo chipset’s notorious lack of openness. Sadly, Dell has thoroughly abandoned the concept of x86 system-on-module cards, and laptops have been getting less modular as we go – we haven’t been getting socketed CPUs since the third generation of mobile Intel boards, and even RAM is soldered to the motherboard more and more often. In theory, the “CPU daughterboard” approach could improve manufacturing yields and costs, making it possible to use a simpler large board for the motherboard and only have the CPU board be high-layer-count. However, we can only guess that this wasn’t profitable enough overall, even with all the theoretical upsides. Or, perhaps, Google-style, someone axed this project internally because of certain metrics unmet.

If you think about it, a laptop motherboard is a single-board computer; however, that’s clearly not enough for our goals of upgradability and repairability. If you’re looking to have your own way and upgrade your laptop regardless of manufacturer’s intentions, here’s an old yet impressive story about replacing the soldered-in CPU on the original Asus EEE, and a more recent story about upgrading soldered-in RAM in a Dell XPS ultrabook. And if you’re looking for retrocomputing goodness, following [Kiwa] on Twitter is a must – last seen liveblogging restoration and renovation of a Kaypro someone threw out on the curb.

Linux Fu: The Ultimate Dual Boot Laptop?

I must confess, that I try not to run Windows any more than absolutely necessary. But for many reasons, it is occasionally necessary. In particular, I have had several laptops that are finicky with Linux. I still usually dual boot them, but I often leave Windows on them for one reason or another. I recently bought a new Dell Inspiron and the process of dual booting it turned out to be unusually effective but did bring up a few challenges.

If you ever wanted a proper dual-booting laptop, you’ll be interested in how this setup works. Sure, you can always repartition the drive, but the laptop has a relatively small drive and is set up very specifically to work with the BIOS diagnostics and recovery so it is always a pain to redo the drive without upsetting the factory tools.

Since the laptop came with a 512 GB NVMe drive, I wanted to upgrade the drive anyway. So one option would have been to put a bigger drive in and then go the normal route. That was actually my intention, but I wound up going a different way.

Continue reading “Linux Fu: The Ultimate Dual Boot Laptop?”

Hacking Dell Laptops To Use Off-Brand Chargers

Dell, along with many other manufacturers, have begun to implement smart features into their laptop charging circuitry. This leaves the user out of luck if they wish to use an off-brand part, or get caught short when their original charger fails. [Neutrino] was in just such a position, and decided to hack around the problem.

The laptop verifies the identity of the attached charger by a third pin. This communicates with a One-Wire IC embedded in the charger, which reports the charger’s identity when queried by the laptop. When [Neutrino]’s charger broke, an attempt was made to use an off-brand charger, with the third pin hooked up to the original failed unit. This tricked the laptop into charging successfully.

For a more permanent workaround, [Neutrino] harvested the One-Wire IC from inside the original charger, and instead hooked it up inside the laptop, directly to the charge port. Thus, the laptop always thinks a Dell charger is connected when power is applied. There is some risk, in that if the user plugs in a lower-power charger than the original, there could be an overload event, but that’s just the risk inherent in the hack.

It’s a tidy workaround for an annoying problem that is all too common in the post-DRM world. Laptop chargers are often prime candidates for failure too; we’ve seen fixes as creative as repairing a Magsafe with a pistacchio nut before!

[Thanks to Levi for the tip]

Old Laptop Gets New Lease On Life With Raspberry Pi

It seems not a day goes by that we don’t see somebody cramming a Raspberry Pi into some unwilling piece of consumer electronics. But despite being a pretty obvious application for the diminutive ARM board, we don’t often see it installed in an actual computer. Which makes this very clean Raspberry Pi laptop conversion by [Sherbethead2010] all the more interesting.

The first step involved taking a Dremel to the Dell’s chassis and essentially leveling out the entire internal volume. The only component that got reused was the fan, and even that appears to be relocated, so all the mounting posts were just standing in the way of progress.

[Sherbethead2010] mounted the Raspberry Pi towards the rear of the case so its USB and Ethernet ports would be available from the outside, and installed a driver board for the original Phillips LP171 LCD panel in the old drive bay. Power is provided by two custom 18650 battery packs connected to dedicated buck converters, along with an onboard charge controller to safely top them off.

Rather than trying to adapt the original input devices, [Sherbethead2010] decided to take the easy route and installed a Rii K22 wireless keyboard with integrated track pad into the top of the laptop. It turned out to be an almost perfect fit, and beyond the keys being slightly off-center, at first glance it looks like it could be stock.

The last time we saw a Raspberry Pi so well integrated into a real laptop, it was to create a functioning version of one of the props from Hackers. While that build was a joy for its own reasons, it’s hard not to be impressed with how unassuming this computer looks after all the work that’s been done to it.

Dumpster Finds Combined Into 4K Desktop Monitor

Dumpster diving is a time honored tradition in the hacking community. You can find all sorts of interesting hardware in the trash, and sometimes it’s even fully functional. But even the broken gadgets are worth taking back to your lair to strip for parts. If you’re as lucky as [Jamz], you might be able to mash a few devices together and turn them into something usable.

In this case, [Jamz] scored a LG 27UK650 monitor with a cracked display and a Dell OptiPlex 7440 “All-in-One” computer that was DOA. Separately these two pieces of gear were little more than a pile of spare parts waiting to be liberated. But if the control board could be salvaged from the monitor, and the working LCD pulled from the Dell…

After taking everything apart, [Jamz] made a frame for this new Frankenstein monitor using pieces of aluminum channel from the hardware store and 3D printed side panels. With the Dell LCD mounted in the skeletal frame, the control board from the LG monitor was bolted to the back and wired in. Finally the center section of the LG monitor’s back panel was cut out and mounted to the new hybrid display with a 3D printed frame.

Admittedly, these were some pretty solid finds as far as trash goes. You won’t always be so lucky. But if you can keep an open mind, the curb is littered with possibilities. How about some impressive home lighting that started life as a cracked flat screen TV?

Factory Laptop With IME Disabled

Unfortunately not all consumers place high value on the security of their computers, but one group that tends to focus on security are businesses with a dedicated IT group. When buying computers for users, these groups tend to have higher demands, like making sure the Intel Management Engine (IME) has been disabled. To that end, Reddit user [netsec_burn] has outlined a pretty simple method to where “normal people” can purchase one of these IME-disabled devices for themselves.

For those unfamiliar with the IME, it is a coprocessor on all Intel devices since around 2007 that allows access to the memory, hard drive, and network stack even when the computer is powered down. Intel claims it’s a feature, not a bug, but it’s also a source of secret, unaudited code that’s understandably a desirable target for any malicious user trying to gain access to a computer. The method that [netsec_burn] outlined for getting a computer with the IME disabled from the factory is as simple as buying a specific Dell laptop, intended for enterprise users, and selecting the option to disable the IME.

Of course Dell warns you that you may lose some system functionality if you purchase a computer with the IME disabled, but it seems that this won’t really effect users who aren’t involved in system administration. Also note that this doesn’t remove the management engine from the computer. For that, you’ll need one of only a handful of computers made before Intel made complete removal of the IME impossible. In the meantime, it’s good to see that at least one company has a computer available that allows for it to be disabled from the factory.

Proprietary Fan Blows, Gets PWM Upgrade

Proprietary components are the bane of anyone who dares to try and repair their own hardware. Nonstandard sizes, lack of labeling or documentation, and unavailable spare parts are all par for the course. [Jason] was unlucky enough to have an older Dell computer with a broken, and proprietary, cooling fan on it and had to make some interesting modifications to replace it.

The original fan had three wires and was controlled thermostatically, meaning that a small thermistor would speed up the the fan as the temperature increased. Of course, the standard way of controlling CPU fans these days is with PWM, so he built a circuit which essentially converts the PWM signal from the motherboard into a phantom thermistor. It’s even more impressive that it was able to be done with little more than a MOSFET and a Zener diode.

Unfortunately, there was a catch. The circuit only works one way, meaning the fan speed doesn’t get reported to the motherboard and the operating system thinks the fan has failed. But [Jason] simply disabled the warning and washed his hands of that problem. If you don’t want to use a CPU fan at all, you can always just dunk your entire computer in mineral oil.