On the left, the Thunderbolt chip as mounted on the motherboard originally. On the right, the shim installed in place of a Thunderbolt BGA chip, with the IPEX connector soldered on

Macbook Gets NVMe SSD With Help Of A BGA-Imitating PCB

Recently, we stumbled upon a video by [iBoff], adding an M.2 NVMe port to a 2011-2013 MacBook. Apple laptops never came with proper M.2 ports, especially the A1278 – so what’s up? The trick is – desoldering a PCIe-connected Thunderbolt controller, then soldering a BGA-like interposer PCB in place of where the chip was, and pulling a cable assembly from there to the drive bay, where a custom adapter PCB awaits. That adapter even lets you expose the PCIe link as a full-sized PCIe 4x slot, in case you want to connect an external GPU instead of the NVMe SSD!

The process is well-documented in the video, serving as an instruction manual for anyone attempting to install this specific mod, but also a collection of insights and ideas for anyone interested in imitating it. The interposer board ships with solder balls reballed onto it, so that it can be installed in the same way that a BGA chip would be – but the cable assembly connector isn’t installed onto the interposer, since it has to be soldered onto the mainboard with hot air, which would then melt the connector. The PCB that replaces the optical drive makes no compromises, either, tapping into the SATA connector pins and letting you add an extra 2.5mm SATA SSD.

Adding an NVMe drive is an underappreciated way to speed up your old laptop, and since they’re all PCIe under the hood, you can really get creative with the specific way you add it. You aren’t even limited to substituting obscure parts like Thunderbolt controllers – given a laptop with a discrete GPU and a CPU-integrated one, you could get rid of the discrete GPU and replace it with an adapter for one, or maybe even two NVMe drives, and all you need is a PCB that has the same footprint as your GPU. Sadly, the PCB files for this adapter don’t seem to be open-source, but developing a replacement for your own needs would be best started from scratch, either way.

We’ve seen such an adapter made for a Raspberry Pi 4 before, solderable in place of a QFN USB 3.0 controller chip and exposing the PCIe signals onto the USB 3 connector pins. However, this one takes it up a notch! Typically, without such an adapter, we have to carefully solder a properly shielded cable if we want to get a PCIe link from a board that never intended to expose one. What’s up with PCIe and why is it cool? We’ve talked about that in depth!

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Developing Your Own Digital Film

In the olden days, you would have a roll of film that you could take to your local drug store and have them develop it. But a serious photographer would likely develop their own photos to maintain complete creative control. While photo editing software has largely replaced the darkroom of old, the images are still held on physical media, and that means there’s room for improvement and customization. In an article for photofocus, [Joseph Nuzzo] shows how you can make your own CFexpress card — the latest and greatest in the world of digital camera storage tech — for less than $100 USD.

The idea here is pretty simple, as CFexpress uses PCIe with a different connector. Essentially all you have to do is get a M.2 2230 NVMe drive and put it into an adapter. In this case [Joseph] is using a turn-key model from Sintech, but we’ve shown in the past how you can roll your own.

Now you might not give it much thought normally, but NVMe devices get pretty hot. This usually isn’t problem inside a large computer case, where they often have large amounts of air blowing over them. But inside a camera you need to dissipate that heat, so thermal compound is a must. With everything screwed together, you have your own card that’s faster and cheaper than commercial offerings.

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of love for NVMe. It’s easy, fast, and adaptable. Since the M.2 slot format includes SATA and PCIe, there’s a likely chance there is a PCIe bus in many cameras. The PCIe bus on the Pi has been convenient for hacking, and we wonder what sort of hacks are out there for cameras.

Pi Compute Module Is Love-child Of Raspberry And Arduino

The Raspberry Pi compute module is a powerful piece of hardware, especially for the price. With it, you get more IO than a normal Pi, plus the ability to design hardware around it that’s specifically tailored to your needs rather than simply to general-purpose consumers. However, this comes at the cost of needing a way to interface with it since the compute module doesn’t have the normal IO pins or ports, but [Timon] has come up with a handy development board for this module called the Piunora which solves a lot of these prototyping issues.

The development board expands the compute module to the familiar Arduino-like form factor, complete with IO headers, USB ports, and HDMI output. It doesn’t stop there, though. It has an M.2 connector, some built-in LEDs, a camera connector, and a few other features. It also opens up some other possibilities that would be difficult or impossible with a standard Pi 4, such as the ability to run the Pi as a USB gadget rather than as a host device which simplifies certain types of development, which is [Timon]’s intended function.

As a development board, this project has a lot of potential for the niche uses of the compute module when compared to the standard Raspberry Pi. For embedded applications it’s much easier to deploy, with the increased development costs as a tradeoff. If you’re still unsure what to do with the compute module 4, we have some reading for you. And Timon’s previous project is a great springboard.

Adapter Brings M.2 WiFi Cards To The Pinebook Pro

The Pinebook Pro is a considerably more capable machine than the $99 Pinebook released in 2017, but the open source laptop still isn’t exactly a powerhouse by modern standards. The system is intended to compete with mid-range Chromebooks, and to that end, few would argue it’s not worth the $199 price tag. But there’s still room for improvement, and at this price point that makes it a hardware hacker’s delight.

[TobleMiner] has recently released the design files for a drop-in adapter that allows you to install M.2 wireless cards like the Intel AX200 in the Pinebook Pro. With the latest-and-greatest WiFi 6 technology onboard, transfer rates as high as 600 Mbps have been demonstrated on this relatively low-cost Linux laptop. It sounds like there’s a possibility the adapter will be offered officially through the Pine store at some point in the future, but in the meantime, you can always spin up your own copy if you feel the need for speed on your Pinebook Pro.

The adapter takes the place of the official M.2 SSD upgrade board, which means users will need to choose between expanded storage and an upgraded wireless card. But [TobleMiner] hints that a version of the adapter with a second M.2 slot should be possible in the future. The design also features pads to install an optional voltage regulator, as testing has shown that the Pinebook Pro’s 3.3 V line can fluctuate a bit depending on battery level.

We took a close look at the original Pinebook when it was released, and came away cautiously optimistic. The Pro model appears to be an improvement in every way imaginable, and upgrades like this show just what’s possible when users are free to explore their hardware.

Tiny FPGA Board Fits In Your Laptop

There are a bunch of FPGA development boards to choose from, but how many will fit inside your laptop? The PicoEVB is a tiny board that connects to a M.2 slot and provides an evaluation platform for the Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA family.The PicoEVB Block Diagram

This minimalist board sports a few LEDs, a PCIe interface, an integrated debugger, on-board EEPROM, and some external connectors for hooking up other bits and pieces. The M.2 connector provides the board with power, USB for debugging, and PCIe for user applications.

A major selling point of this board is the PCIe interface. Most FPGA boards with PCIe will cost over a grand, and will only fit in a large desktop computer. The lower priced options use older FPGAs. The PicoEVB is tiny and retails for $219. Not a bad deal when the FPGA on-board costs nearly $100.

The PicoEVB is also open source. Design files and sample projects can be found on Github.

[Thanks to Adam Hunt for the tip!]