Breathing New Life Into Old School ThinkPad Keyboards

The ThinkPad is generally considered the unofficial laptop of hackerdom, so it’s no surprise that we see plenty of projects focused on repairing and modifying these reliable workhorses. But while we usually see folks working on relatively modern incarnations of this iconic line of computers, this project by [Frank Adams] and [Brian Chan] shows that the hacker’s love affair with the ThinkPad stretches back farther than many might realize.

As explained on the project’s Hackaday.io page, the duo have produced an open hardware board that will allow you to take the keyboard and trackpoint from a late ’90s ThinkPad 380ED and use it as a standard USB input device on a modern computer. According to [Frank], the keyboards on these machines are notable for having full-size keys rather than the “chicklet” boards that are so common today.

Now you may be wondering why this is significant. After all, we’ve seen plenty of projects that hook up an old keyboard to a USB-equipped microcontroller to get them speaking the lingua franca. Well, the trick here is that the trackpoint on these older ThinkPads actually required additional circuitry on the motherboard to function. The keyboard features three separate FPC connections for the matrix, the trackpoint buttons, and the analog strain gauges in the trackpoint itself.

After a considerable amount of reverse engineering, [Frank] and [Brian] have developed a board that uses the Teensy 3.2 to turn this plethora of pins into something useful. In the video after the break, you can see the new composite USB device working perfectly on a modern Windows computer.

It will probably come as little surprise to find that [Frank] is no stranger to hacking ThinkPad keyboards. In 2018 we covered a similar adapter he built for the far more modern T61, which was an absolute cakewalk by comparison.

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New ThinkPad Guts Bring Intel Core I, DDR4, USB 3 To Cult Laptops

We often see people funneling their passion into keeping beloved devices in operation long past their manufacturer’s intent. These replacement Thinkpad motherboards (translated) bring old (yet beloved) Thinkpads a much desired processor upgrade. This is the work of the user [HOPE] on the enthusiast forum 51nb. The hack exemplifies what happens when that passion for legendary gear hits deep electrical expertise and available manufacturing. This isn’t your regular laptop refurbishment, [HOPE] is building something new.

ThinkPads are known for their zealous following (as our own [Brian Benchoff] underscored last year). Lenovo has steered the venerable brand into the future while the laptop market has drifted deeper and deeper into the wilds of tight integration at the expense of user modification. Along the way 4:3 screens were traded for media-friendly 16:9, TrackPoints were traded for trackpads, and the classic ThinkLight gave way to real keyboard backlights. These progressions left a shrinking but vocal group of old school Thinkpad enthusiasts — the cult of Thinkpad — clinging to beloved devices like 2007’s X61 and T60 ignored by a changing market.

In an astounding turn of ingenuity [HOPE] has revitalized these classic ThinkPads by entirely replacing their motherboards. And not just for one particular model, there are options available for at least 3 families of computers. The new devices are referred to by model numbers never used by IBM or Lenovo; the X60/61 motherboard makes an X62, the X200/201 motherboard makes an X210, and the T60 motherboard makes a T70. Depending on the customer’s preference either a bare motherboard or a fully assembled unit is available.

Classic stickers with non-classic ports

Depending on the exact model in question these motherboards slot directly into the original chassis but add recent generation Intel Core I processors, DDR4, USB 3.0/3.1, Thunderbolt 3 and more. Often they reuse the original heat sinks and fans, and expose these ports through the same chassis apertures the original motherboards used. Considering these machines are a decade older than the hardware being crammed inside them the level of integration is truly impressive. The end result looks like it could have come out of a Lenovo factory just before Spring Festival. If you look closely at the image at the top of this article, you might notice they even included an improved “Intel Inside” sticker on the palm rest and a model number label at the lower left of the display!

There is an implicit economic statement here that’s worth calling out. A motherboard for anything more significant than a basic microcontroller is an incredibly complicated piece of technology. When the bar is moved from “small ARM processor” up to “modern x86 system” this counts extra. Not only are they complex electrically but the fabrication processes required to physically create them are at the edge of what you’d find at your favorite cheap PCB fab house. We’re talking CPUs studded with about 1100 pins, DDR4 and PCI-E with extremely tight electrical timing requirements driving elaborate board layouts, and a plethora of off-board peripheral parts. On top of those constraints the board itself must be small enough to fit inside, not a purpose-built enclosure, but an existing laptop body with whatever combination of mounting brackets and connector placements Lenovo decided on. That a hobbyist (we assume) can make their own devices in this range to sell for $500-$700 is nothing short of astounding.

Fresh replacements being installed

This shouldn’t be possible. More accurately, it’s likely possible because there are other drivers which make the cost of PCB fabrication and assembly lower and more accessible than ever. The general march of technology certainly, but perhaps the presence of mobile devices and a desire to repair and improve them. After all and if the rumors are to be believed, anyone who can find the right Huaqiangbei stall can get the NAND replaced in their iPhone, a once complex process made simple.

It’s difficult to track the progression of each model as they are primarily covered on the 51nb forums (a Facebook page called [Lcdfans] makes some of the information available in English). However it’s possible to find hands-on information like [koobear]’s review on Reddit.

Powering A Laptop With Supercapacitors

What do you do when you find a small horde of supercapacitors? The correct answer is a spectrum of dangerous devices ranging from gauss guns to quarter shrinkers. [Rinoa] had a less destructive idea: she’s replaced the battery in a laptop with a bank of supercapacitors.

The supercaps in question are 2.7 Volt, 500 Farad caps arranged in banks six for a total of about 3 watt-hours in each bank. The laptop used for this experiment is an IBM Thinkpad from around 1998. The stock battery in this laptop is sufficiently less advanced than today’s laptop batteries. Instead of using a microcontroller and SMBus in the battery, the only connections between the battery and laptop are power, ground, and connections for a thermocouple. This is standard for laptops of the mid-90s, and common in low-end laptops of the early 2000s. It also makes hacking these batteries very easy as there’s no associated microprocessors to futz around with.

With all the capacitor banks charged, the laptop works. It should – there isn’t a lot of intelligence in this battery. With one bank of six supercaps, [Rinoa] is getting a few minutes of power on her laptop. With a stack of supercaps that take up about the same volume as this already think Thickpad, [Rinoa] can play a few turns of her favorite late-90s turn-based strategy game. It’s not much, but it does work.

Check out [Rinoa]’s video below.

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