Steady Hand Repurposes Cheap SSD Modules

For hackers, cheap (and arguably disposable) consumer hardware makes for a ready supply of free or low-cost components. When you can walk into a big box store and pick up a new low-end laptop for $150, how many are going to spend the money to repair or upgrade the one they have now? So the old ones go to the bin, or get sold online for parts. From an ecological standpoint our disposable society is terrible, but at least we get some tech bargains out of the deal.

Case in point, the dirt cheap 32 GB eMMC SSDs [Jason Gin] recently scored. Used by Hewlett Packard on their line of budget laptops, he was able to snap up some of these custom drives for only $12 each. Only problem was, since they were designed for a very specific market and use case, they aren’t exactly the kind of thing you can just slap in your computer’s drive bay. He had to do some reverse engineering to figure out how to talk to them, and then some impressive fine-pitch soldering to get them plugged in, but in the end he got some very handy drives for an exceptionally low price.

[Jason] starts by figuring out the drive’s pinout using the cornerstone of the hacker’s electronic toolkit: the multimeter. By putting one lead on an obvious ground point such as the PCB’s screw holes, you can work through the pins on the connector and make some educated guesses as to what’s what. Ground pins will read as a short, but the meter should read power and data pins as a forward-biased diode. With a rough idea of the pin’s identities and some luck, he was able to figure out that it was basically a standard SATA connection in a different form factor.

To actually hook it up to his computer, he pulled the PCB off of a dead SATA hard drive, cut it down to size, and was able to use fine magnet wire to attach the conductors in the drive’s ribbon cable to the appropriate pads. He sealed everything up with a healthy dose of hot glue to make sure it didn’t pull loose, and then ran some drive diagnostics on his cobbled together SSD to make sure it was behaving properly. [Jason] reports the drive isn’t exactly a speed demon, but given the low cost and decent performance he still thinks it’s worth the work to use them for testing out different operating systems and the like.

[Jason] seems to have something of an obsession with eMMC hacking. Last time we heard from him, he was bringing a cheap Windows tablet back from the dead by replacing its shot eMMC chip.

You’ll Flip for This 7404 IC Motherboard Fix

We often lament that the days of repairable electronics are long gone. It used to be you’d get schematics for a piece of gear, and you could just as easily crack it open and fix something as the local repairman — assuming you had the knowledge and tools. But today, everything is built to be thrown away when something goes wrong, and you might as well check at the end of a rainbow if you’re searching for a circuit diagram for a new piece of consumer electronics.

But [Robson] writes in with an interesting story that gives us hope that the “old ways” aren’t gone completely, though they’ve certainly changed for the 21st century. After blowing out his laptop’s USB ports when he connected a suspect circuit, he was desperate for a fix that would fit his student budget (in other words, nearly zero). Only problem was that he had no experience fixing computers. Oh, and it takes months for his online purchases to reach him in Brazil. Off to a rocky start.

His first bit of luck came with the discovery he could purchase schematics for his laptop online. Now, we can’t vouch for the site he used (it sure isn’t direct from Dell), but for under $5 USD [Robson] apparently got complete and accurate schematics that let him figure out what part was blown on the board without even having to open up the computer. All he had to do was order a replacement IC (SY6288DAAC), and solder it on. It took two months for the parts to arrive, and had to do it with an iron instead of a hot air station, but in the end, he got the part installed.

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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.