Long ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous and children in restaurants were quieted with awful games on iPads, there was a beautiful moment. A moment in which the end user could purchase, at a bargain price, an x86 computer in a compact, portable shell. In 2007, the netbook was born, and took the world by storm – only to suddenly vanish a few years later. What exactly was it that made netbooks so great, and where did they go?
A Beautiful Combination
The first machine to kick off the craze was the Asus EEE PC 701, inspired by the One Laptop Per Child project. Packing a 700Mhz Celeron processor, a small 7″ LCD screen, and a 4 GB SSD, it was available with Linux or Windows XP installed from the factory. With this model, Asus seemed to find a market that Toshiba never quite hit with their Libretto machines a decade earlier. The advent of the wireless network and an ever-more exciting Internet suddenly made a tiny, toteable laptop attractive, whereas previously it would have just been a painful machine to do work on. The name “netbook” was no accident, highlighting the popular use case — a lightweight, portable machine that’s perfect for web browsing and casual tasks.
But the netbook was more than the sum of its parts. Battery life was in excess of 3 hours, and the CPU was a full-fat x86 processor. This wasn’t a machine that required users to run special cut-down software or compromise on usage. Anything you could run on an average, low-spec PC, you could run on this, too. USB and VGA out were available, along with WiFi, so presentations were easy and getting files on and off was a cinch. It bears remembering, too, that back in the Windows XP days, it was easy to share files across a network without clicking through 7 different permissions tabs and typing in your password 19 times.
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.
Do you sometimes feel that your custom mechanical keyboard is not quite loud enough to proclaim your superior hacking powers? Or do you need a more forceful way shout in all caps at someone who is wrong on the internet? For all this and more, [Jesse Li] has got you covered, with a set of bash scripts that allows you to type by slamming your laptop closed repeatedly, using Morse code.
The scripts are quite simple, and work receiving the lid open/close events from ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), recording the open and close timestamp and converting the timing to dots and dashes. After slamming to the required rhythm, you keep the lid open to see the character appear.
Why would want this? Well, you can now type the letter E by closing your laptop, instead of locking it. Maybe use it to send an emergency message while you’re being held by terrorists in a B-grade action movie. Otherwise, we think this is just an entertaining little hack that’s probably the product of quarantine induced boredom.
Morse code, otherwise known as CW, is still in surprisingly widespread use by ham radio operators, because it’s good at getting messages across intercontinental distances when signal conditions are bad and CW-only ham radio gear is cheap and easy to build yourself. We’ve also covered the Koch Method of learning CW, so don’t be afraid to dabble a bit during the quarantine.
Many of us will have broken a laptop at one point or another, destroying the screen or smashing the case. It can be frustrating, as there’s a perfectly usable computer in there, trapped inside a broken husk of a body. [Matthew] saw this not as a problem, but an opportunity – and built a beautiful all-in-one desktop PC. (Video, embedded below.)
With a badly damaged Thinkpad laptop to hand, an ASUS monitor was sourced with a thin body and flat back, perfect for mounting hardware. An MDF base was created, on to which the laptop motherboard was mounted. A USB hub and audio amplifier were then added, along with a USB power isolator and soundcard to avoid problems with groundloops from the onboard headphone output. Speakers were Harman Kardon units salvaged from an old television, providing great quality sound for the build.
There’s plenty of great ideas in the video, from using epoxy for a strong permanent assembly, to a nifty hack to make the power button work. It has us contemplating a build for our own broken laptops in the junkpile. We’ve seen other creative all-in-one builds too, like this one inside a printer.
Well-seasoned readers will no doubt remember GRiD laptops, the once and always tacti-cool computers that dominated the military market for decades. GRiDs were the first laptops to go to space, and they were coveted for their sleek (for the time) good looks and reputation as indestructible machines.
The GRiDs went through many iterations, and even though their military roots make them nearly unobtanium, [Simon] scored a GRiD laptop and set about restoring it. His theme was the 1986 movie Aliens, which featured a few GRiD Compass computers as props. [Simon]’s 1550SX came a little later than the Compass 2, but documents with the machine reveal it was a Royal Air Force machine that had been deemed unserviceable for reasons unknown.
[Simon] carefully tore it down – pay close attention to the video below and you’ll hear the telltale plink of the magnesium case parts rather than the dull thud of plastic; they don’t make them like that anymore – and cleaned it up. He replaced the original display with a PiMoroni 10″ retro game display to keep the original 4:3 aspect ratio. A Raspberry Pi 4 went inside, along with a Teensy to take care of adapting the GRiD keyboard to USB and lighting up some front-panel LEDs. A second Teeny allows the original IsoPoint mouse to be used, which is a real gem. With the addition of appropriate graphics, the machine looks like it would be at home on a Colonial Marines dropship.
We love the retro feel of [Simon]’s build, and the movie nostalgia. We’re just glad he didn’t include a LiPo battery, which might not get along with the magnesium case. Game over, man!
In our community it is common for ancient laptops to be used way beyond their usual service life, held together by stickers and lovingly upgraded to their maximum capabilities. We hope it’s unusual for such a venerable machine to be stolen, but it seems that grab-and-run thefts are very much a thing for owners of much shinier hardware. [Michael Altfield] has a solution to this problem, in the form of a kill cord that when broken by the crook making off with the loot, triggers a set of scripts that can wipe the device or otherwise make it useless.
Hardware-wise it’s simple enough, a USB magnetic breakaway adapter and a USB extension cable to a drive clipped to the laptop owner’s belt. On the software side it’s as straightforward as a udev rule to launch the disaster script of your choice. Perhaps you could link it to something like a glitter bomb and fart spray. But we can’t help worrying that it might be too easy to get up and accidentally detach yourself from the laptop, making it deploy whatever anti-theft measure you’d installed in error. If this goes some way to reducing theft though, it has to be worth a second look.
How better to work on Open Source projects than to use a Libre computing device? But that’s a hard goal to accomplish. If you’re using a desktop computer, Libre software is easily achievable, though keeping your entire software stack free of closed source binary blobs might require a little extra work. But if you want a laptop, your options are few indeed. Lucky for us, there may be another device in the mix soon, because [Lukas Hartmann] has just about finalized the MNT Reform.
Since we started eagerly watching the Reform a couple years ago the hardware world has kept turning, and the Reform has improved accordingly. The i.MX6 series CPU is looking a little peaky now that it’s approaching end of life, and the device has switched to a considerably more capable – but no less free – i.MX8M paired with 4 GB of DDR4 on a SODIMM-shaped System-On-Module. This particular SOM is notable because the manufacturer freely provides the module schematics, making it easy to upgrade or replace in the future. The screen has been bumped up to a 12.5″ 1080p panel and steps have been taken to make sure it can be driven without blobs in the graphics pipeline.
If you’re worried that the chassis of the laptop may have been left to wither while the goodies inside got all the attention, there’s no reason for concern. Both have seen substantial improvement. The keyboard now uses the Kailh Choc ultra low profile mechanical switches for great feel in a small package, while the body itself is milled out of aluminum in five pieces. It’s printable as well, if you want to go that route. All in all, the Reform represents a heroic amount of work and we’re extremely impressed with how far the design has come.
Of course if any of the above piqued your interest full electrical, mechanical and software sources (spread across a few repos) are available for your perusal; follow the links in the blog post for pointers to follow. We’re thrilled to see how production ready the Reform is looking and can’t wait to hear user reports as they make their way into to the wild!