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.

Friend in Need Gets Junk Bin PC for Cramped Quarters

If you doubt the power of the Hackaday community, check this one out. Stalwart reader and tipster [starhawk] has pitched in to help a friend in need, someone he met through Hackaday.io. Seems this friend’s current living arrangements are somewhat on the cramped side, and while he’s in need of a PC, even a laptop would claim too much space.

So with a quick trip to the store and a few items from the junk bin, [starhawk] whipped up an all-in-one PC the size of a tablet for his friend. As impressed as we are by the generosity, we’re more impressed by the quality of his junk bin. The heart of the compact machine is a motherboard from a Wintel CX-W8, scarcely larger than a Raspberry Pi model A. After the addition of a larger heatsink and fan, the board was attached via a sheet of plastic to the back of a 7-inch touchscreen, also a junk bin find. A cheap picture frame serves as the back of the all-in-one, complete with Jolly Wrencher, of course. Alas, the DC-DC converter was one of the only purchased items, bringing the cost for the build to all of $22, including the $15 for a wireless keyboard/touchpad on clearance from Walmart. After some initial power troubles, the fixes for which are described in this update, the machine was ready to ship.

Does this one seem familiar? It should — [starhawk] built a similar “laptop” for himself a while back when he was low on funds. Now it seems like he’s paying it forward, which we appreciate. For more details on how he pulled this all of, check out The Anytop, [starhawk’s] portable computer anyone can build. It was his 2017 Hackaday Prize entry!

Soldering Saves Data From Waterlogged Laptop

What happens when you drop your laptop in the pool? Well, yes, you buy a new laptop. But what about your data. You do have backups, right? No, of course, you don’t. But if you can solder like [TheRasteri] you could wire into the flash memory on the motherboard and read it one last time. You can see the whole exploit in the video below.

There’s really three tasks involved. First is finding the schematic and board layout for motherboard. Apparently, these aren’t usually available from the manufacturer but can be acquired in some of the seedier parts of the Internet for a small fee. Once you have the layout, you have to arrange to solder wires to the parts of the flash memory you need to access.

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A Plywood Laptop For Your Raspberry Pi

[Rory Johnson] writes in to tell us about PlyTop Shell, a Creative Commons licensed design for a laser cut wooden laptop that he’s been working on since 2016. It’s designed to accommodate the Raspberry Pi (or other similarly sized SBCs), and aims to provide the builder with a completely customizable mobile computer. He’s got a limited run of the PlyTop up for sale currently, but if you’ve got the necessary equipment, you can start building yours while you wait for that new Pi 3B+ to arrive.

Originally [Rory] was working on a 3D printed design, but quickly ran into problems. The vast majority of 3D printers don’t have nearly the build volume to print out a laptop case in one shot, so the design needed to be broken up into multiple smaller pieces and then grafted together into the final case. Not only did this take a long time and a lot of material, but the final result had the rather unfortunate appearance of a plastic quilt.

Eventually he got hooked up with a maker collective in Minneapolis that had a laser cutter, and the PlyTop was born. There’s still a 3D printed component in the design that goes in the screen hinge, but the rest of the PlyTop is cut out of a three 2′ x 4′ sheets of 1/8″ Baltic birch plywood. As you might expect, plenty of fasteners are required, but [Rory] has a complete Bill of Materials (complete with purchase links) for everything you’ll need to turn the cut pieces into a fully fledged laptop. He’s considering selling kits in the future, but is still working on the logistics.

In keeping with the idea of complete flexibility, there’s no defined layout for the internals of the PlyTop. Rather, there’s an array of star-shaped openings on the bottom plate that allow the builder to connect hardware components up in whatever way works for them. [Rory] actually suggests just holding everything down with zip ties to allow for ease of tinkering.

He’s also come up with a list of suggested hardware for the keyboard, touchpad, and display; but those are really just suggestions. The design is open enough that it shouldn’t take much work to adapt to whatever gear you’ve got laying around.

Of course, this isn’t the first open source laptop we’ve seen here at Hackaday. It isn’t even the first wooden one. But we love the lines of the PlyTop and the focus on complete customization.

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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.

Laptop with Raspberry Pi Inside Learns to Speak Battery

Early in November we took a look at a one of the best Raspberry Pi laptops we had ever seen, using the shell of a Sony VAIO. Laptops used to be hulking beasts, and that played into [Frank Adams’] hands as he got rid of the motherboard and had enough space to replace it with a Raspberry Pi and a few other support boards. This took advantage of the laptop’s screen, keyboard, LEDs, etc. But what’s a laptop without battery power? [Frank] hadn’t cracked that nut until now.

Inside of Sony VAIO laptop turned Raspberry Pi computer
VAIO battery and charging PCB seen to lower left

Adding battery power is trickier that it sounds, but [Frank] managed to get the Raspberry Pi to talk to the original Sony VAIO internal battery. His work on the project is shared, but this part of the story is best found starting on page 29 of his PDF project details.

Using the original battery is a good move since it’s designed to fit and has a charger ready to interface with the port on the laptop case. But these batteries have logic inside them, and there’s the rub. Communications use the 2-wire System Management Bus (SMBus) which is well documented. But the when trying to use the Pi’s I2C [Frank] couldn’t figure out to send a repeated start command.

He ended up writing his own C program that bit-bangs the communications he needed and now has the Pi speaking to the battery and listening to what it hears coming back. Reading through his description of this is fun since he includes his observations from a logic analyzer captures. He suspects an occasional bad read is due to Linux interrupting code execution. He watches for and catches these bad reads in software and can now reliably read all the battery vitals.

The hack leaves him with a system that functions in much the same way the original computer did: plug it in and it charges. He did add some hardware that lets him take a voltage reading from the battery using an ADC on the Teensy that was already present to control the keyboard and case LEDs. This adds a small constant draw on the battery, but for now he doesn’t leave the battery connected when the laptop is not in use.

If you’d like to read our original coverage of this laptop, here it is.

The VAIO WIth A Pi Inside

Raspberry Pi laptops are not an uncommon sight, as many hardware enthusiasts have shoehorned the tiny board behind LCD panels into home-made cases.

[Frank Adams] has created one of the best Pi laptops we’ve ever seen, (for which we suggest you skip straight to the PDF). He’s removed the guts from an aged Sony VAIO laptop and replaced it with the fruity computer, alongside a Teensy to handle VAIO keyboard, buttons, and LED I/O via the Pi USB port. An M.NT68676 video board interfaces the VAIO display to the Pi HDMI, and a USB to SATA cable is connected to a 240Gb solid state hard drive. The laptop’s Wi-Fi antenna is routed to the Pi via a soldered on co-axial connector, and there is also a real-time clock board. There are a few rough edges such as a USB cable that could be brought inboard, but it’s otherwise well-integrated into the case. His write-up is a very comprehensive PDF, that should serve as a good primer to anyone else considering such a laptop conversion.

The result is a laptop that looks for all the world like a commercially produced machine, yet that is also a Raspberry Pi. In a strange way, a Sony laptop is an apt homecoming for the board from Cambridge, because other than red soldermask or very early Chinese-made models, all Raspberry Pi boards are made in a Sony factory in Wales. Whatever the donor laptop though, this is definitely a step above the run-of-the-mill Pi laptops. To see its competition, take a look at this very ugly machine with a bare LCD panel, or this laser-cut sandwich laptop.