Windows 3.1 In My BIOS? It’s More Likely Than You Think

It might be difficult for modern audiences to believe, but at one point Microsoft Windows fit on floppy disks. This was a simpler time, with smaller hard drives, lower resolution displays, and no hacker blogs for you to leave pessimistic comments on. A nearly unrecognizable era, to be sure. But if you’re one of the people who looks back on these days fondly, you might wonder why we don’t see this tiny graphical operating system smashed into modern hardware. After all, SkiFree sure ain’t gonna play itself.

Well, wonder no more. A hacker by the name of [redsPL] thought that Microsoft’s latest and greatest circa 1992 might do well crammed into the free space remaining on a ThinkPad X200’s firmware EEPROM. It would take a little fiddling, plus the small matter of convincing the BIOS to see the EEPROM as a virtual floppy drive, but clearly those are all minor inconveniences for anyone mad enough to boot their hardware into a nearly 30 year old copy of Visual Basic for a laugh.

The adventure starts when [redsPL] helped a friend install libreboot and coreboot on a stack of old ThinkPads by using the Raspberry Pi as an SPI flasher, a pastime we’re no strangers to ourselves. Once the somewhat finicky software and hardware environment was up and running, it seemed a waste not to utilize it further. Especially given the fact most firmware replacements only fill a fraction of the X200’s 8 MB chip.

Of course, Windows 3.1 was not designed for modern hardware and no proper drivers exist for much of it. Just getting the display resolution up to 1024×768 (and still with only 256 colors) required patching the original video drivers with ones designed for VMWare. [redsPL] wasn’t able to get the sound hardware working, but at least the PC speaker makes the occasional buzz. The last piece of the puzzle was messing around the zip and xz commands until the disk image was small enough to sneak onto the chip.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Windows from this era running on a (relatively) modern ThinkPad. For whatever reason, these two legends of the computing world seem destined to keep running into each other.

[Thanks to Renard for the tip.]

Thinkpad T25 Gets Less Retro with Hardware Swap

For many, the Thinkpad T25 was something of a dream come true. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the venerable business-oriented laptop that hackers love so much, it featured a design inspired by “retro” Thinkpads of yore, but with modern hardware inside. Unfortunately, as it was more fan service than a serious revitalization of classic Thinkpad design, the T25 was only ever available in a single hardware configuration.

[kitsunyan] liked the look and feel of the T25, but in 2019 was already feeling a bit let down by the hardware. The screen wasn’t up to snuff, and while the CPU is an i7, it only has dual cores. To make sure the T25 is still viable down the road, it seemed the only option was to try to transplant the hardware from one of the current Thinkpad models into the anniversary chassis. It certainly wasn’t easy, but given the fact that the T25 was more of a redress than a completely new product to begin with, everything came together a lot better than you might expect.

A custom mount installed in the T25

To help put things into perspective, the T25 is basically a modified version of the T470. Last year, Lenovo replaced the T470 with the new T480 that has just the sort of hardware improvements that [kitsunyan] wanted. The T480 was more of a refresh than a complete revamp, so the actual chassis of the machine didn’t change much compared with its predecessor. That being the case, it seemed like it should be possible to transplant the newer T480 components into the T470 derived T25. Got all that straight?

[kitsunyan] was able to put this theory to the test when the opportunity to connect a T25 keyboard to the newer T480 presented itself. Since the 7-row keyboard on the anniversary edition was one of its biggest selling points, seeing if it would work on another machine was kind of a big deal. It didn’t fit physically, and some of the keys didn’t work as expected, but it at least had the same connector and didn’t let out the magic smoke. It represented the first tiny step of a much larger journey.

In the end, it took a lot of trimming, gluing, hacking, and fiddling to get all the new hardware from the T480 to fit into the T25. But if you’re brave enough, the process has been detailed exquisitely by [kitsunyan]. Not only are the part numbers listed for everything you need to order, but there’s plenty of pictures to help illustrate the modifications that need to be made to all the clips, brackets, and assorted widgets that go into a modern laptop.

While we’re very impressed by this project, we can’t say it comes as a complete surprise. We’re well aware of the incredible lengths Thinkpad aficionados will go to keep their machines running into the 21st century. But don’t just take our word for it, you too can join the ranks of the Thinkpad elite.

[Thanks to Pierre for the tip.]

Hack A ThinkPad Display

Hackers really like their tools. This leads to holy wars over languages, editors, keyboards, and even laptops. The problem with laptops is that they age, and not always gracefully. [Syonyk] likes his ThinkPad T430S, except for one thing, its TN display wasn’t really very good. These flat screens use an older technology and show color changes with different viewing angles among other problems. So he managed to upgrade the device’s screen to IPS with the help of a replacement screen and an adapter (see right). Apparently, many similar ThinkPads can take the same sort of upgrade.

The problem is that the laptop uses LVDS to talk to the TN screen, while newer screens are likely to use Embedded DisplayPort (eDP) which is a different protocol entirely. However, there’s now a converter that [Syonyk] found on eBay (from China, of course). For about $70, the motherboard’s LVDS output can transform to eDP. Of course, you also need an IPS display panel.

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Teensy Liberates the ThinkPad Keyboard

[Frank Adams] liked the keyboard on his Lenovo ThinkPad T61 so much that he decided to design an adapter so he could use it over USB with the Teensy microcontroller. He got the Trackpoint working, and along the way managed to add support for a number of other laptop boards as well. Before you know it, he had a full-blown open source project on his hands. Those projects can sneak up on you when you least expect it…

The first step of the process is getting your laptop keyboard of choice connected up to the Teensy, but as you might expect, that’s often easier said than done. They generally use a flexible printed circuit (FPC) “ribbon cable” of some type, but may also be terminated in any number of weirdo connectors. [Frank] goes over the finer points of getting these various keyboards connected to his PCB, from searching the usual suspects such as Aliexpress and Digikey for the proper connector to throwing caution to the wind and cutting off problematic nubs and tabs to make it fit.

You might be on your own for figuring out the best way to connect your liberated keyboard up, but [Frank] has done his part by designing a few PCBs which handle routing the appropriate connections to the Teensy LC or 3.2 microcontroller. He’s such a swell guy he’s even written the firmware for you. As of right now there’s currently a dozen keyboards supported by his software and hardware setup, but he also gives tips on how to get the firmware modified for your own board if you need to.

It should come as no surprise that it was a Thinkpad keyboard that got [Frank] going down this path; as we’ve documented over the years, hackers love their Thinkpads. From fitting them with more modern motherboards to going full on matryoshka and putting a second computer inside of one, it’s truly the laptop that launched a thousand hacks.

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The Best Laptop Gets Even Better

The ThinkPad is the greatest laptop ever created. It doesn’t come in rose gold, it comes in black. It doesn’t have a weird screen instead of an escape key. For less than half the price of a MacBook, you can have a capable laptop that will somehow fit three drives inside. It’s madness, but it’s still not the perfect tool for hacking. To get there, you’re going to need to load that thing up with an independent Linux system, and maybe a solderless breadboard. That’s what [ollie] is doing with his ThinkPad, and the results are the perfect addition to the perfect laptop.

This build is really just a 3D printed drive caddy for the Thinkpad UltraBay, the modular standard that allows you to add a CD drive, SATA drive, or even a serial and parallel port to your laptop. [ollie] is modeling this off the CD drive taken from a ThinkPad T420, so we’re looking at a ‘Serial Ultrabay Enhanced’ version of this standard, which is compatible with a T430, which is still the best laptop you can possibly buy.

Inside this 3D printed drive caddy is a Raspberry Pi Zero W, powered by the ThinkPad through the internal SATA connector. The Pi Zero has right-angle headers attached, giving access to the GPIO pins from the outside. Just to add a little flair, [ollie] added an OLED display to show the IP address, the CPU load, and the memory availability of the Pi.

This is a great project, if only because no one has any use for a CD drive anymore. Since these UltraBay drives are huge, it would be a simple matter to add a much more powerful computer to the drive like the recently announced Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+. There are — or at least there should be — some interesting internal connections on that UltraBay port, and it’s not inconceivable this Raspberry Pi UltraBay could be used as a coprocessor of sorts for its host laptop.

Installing LibreBoot the (Very) Lazy Way

Recently I was given a somewhat crusty looking ThinkPad T400 that seemed like it would make a good knock around machine to have on the bench, if it wasn’t for the fact the person who gave it to me had forgotten (or perhaps never knew) the BIOS password. Cleaning the machine up, putting more RAM in it, and swapping the wheezing hard drive for an SSD would be a relatively cheap way to wring a few more years of life from the machine, but not if I couldn’t change the boot order in BIOS.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. I could have installed an OS on the SSD from my desktop and then put it into the T400, but there was something else at play. The locked BIOS gave me the perfect excuse to install LibreBoot on it, which is one of those projects I’ve had in the back of my mind for years now. Replacing the BIOS with something entirely different would solve the password issue, but there was only one problem: the instructions for flashing LibreBoot onto the T400 are intimidating to say the least.

You’re supposed to take the entire machine apart, down to pulling the CPU cooler off and removing the display. All so you can flip the motherboard over to access a flash chip between the CPU and RAM that’s normally covered by a piece of the laptop’s frame. Oh how I hated that diabolical chunk of magnesium which kept me from my silicon quarry. Flashing the chip would take a few minutes, but YouTube videos and first hand accounts from forums told me it could take hours to disassemble the computer and then put it back together after the fact.

Deep into that darkness I peered, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting. Then a thought came to me: maybe I could just cut the thing. If it was a success, it would save me hours of work. If it failed, well, at least the computer didn’t cost me anything. Time to roll the dice.

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Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in 2018

It’s been 25 years since Microsoft released Windows for Workgroups 3.11. To take a trip back to the end of the 16-bit era of operating system, [Yeo Kheng Meng] got WFW 3.11 running on a modern Thinkpad.

To make things difficult, a few goals were set for the project. Obviously, this wouldn’t be much fun in a virtual machine, so those were banned. A video driver would be needed, since WFW 3.11 only supports resolutions up to 640×480 in software. Some basic support for sound would be desirable. Finally, TCP/IP networking is possible in WFW 3.11, so networking hardware would allow access modern internet.

[Yeo Kheng Meng] accomplished all of these goals on a 2009 Thinkpad T400 and throughly documented the process. Some interesting hacks were required, including the design of a custom parallel port sound card based on the Covox Speech Thing. Accessing HTTPS web servers required a man-in-the-middle attack to strip SSL, since the SSL support on WFW 3.11 is ancient and blocked by most web servers today.

If you want your own WFW 3.11 laptop, the detailed instructions will get you there. [Yeo Kheng Meng] has also provided the hardware design for the sound card. You can watch a talk on the process after the break.

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