A T700 laptop motherboard with its parts labelled

Replacement Motherboard Brings New Lease Of Life To Classic Thinkpads

“They don’t make them like they used to.” It might be a cliché, it might not even be entirely true, but there’s something special about owning a piece of hardware that was built to a much higher standard than most of its contemporaries, whether it’s that bulletproof Benz from 1992 or that odd fridge from 1987 that just seems to last forever. For laptop aficionados, the Thinkpad series from IBM and Lenovo is the ne plus ultra: beloved for their sturdy construction and rich feature set, they have been used anywhere from the United Nations to the International Space Station. The T60 and T61 (introduced in 2006) are especially famous, being the last generation sporting IBM logos and such classic features as 4:3 displays and infrared ports.

The thing is, even the best hardware eventually becomes obsolete when it can no longer run modern software: with a 2.0 GHz Core Duo and 3 GB of RAM you can still browse the web and do word processing today, but you can forget about 4K video or a 64-bit OS. Luckily, there’s hope for those who are just not ready to part with their trusty Thinkpads: [Xue Yao] has designed a replacement motherboard that fits the T60/T61 range, bringing them firmly into the present day. The T700 motherboard is currently in its prototype phase, with series production expected to start in early 2022, funded through a crowdfunding campaign.

Designing a motherboard for a modern CPU is no mean feat, and making it fit an existing laptop, with all the odd shapes and less-than-standard connections, is even more impressive. The T700 has an Intel Core i7 CPU with four cores running at 2.8 GHz, while two RAM slots allow for up to 64 GB of DDR4-3200 memory. There are modern USB-A and USB-C ports as well as well as a 6 Gbps SATA interface and two m.2 slots for your SSDs.

As for the display, the T700 motherboard will happily connect to the original screens built into the T60/T61, or to any of a range of aftermarket LED based replacements. A Thunderbolt connector is available, but only operates in USB-C mode due to firmware issues; according to the project page, full support for Thunderbolt 4 is expected once the open-source coreboot firmware has been ported to the T700 platform.

We love projects like this that extend the useful life of classic computers to keep them running way past their expected service life. But impressive though this is, it’s not the first time someone has made a replacement motherboard for the Thinkpad line; we covered a project from the nb51 forum back in 2018, which formed the basis for today’s project. We’ve seen lots of other useful Thinkpad hacks over the years, from replacing the display to revitalizing the batteries. Thanks to [René] for the tip.

Removing Supervisor Passwords And Learning Python

When learning a new programming language, it’s best to have a goal in mind and work towards it. [Timo] thought it was about time to learn python, and he also had a project in mind: removing the BIOS supervisor password from his old Thinkpad. From there it was just a few keystrokes (and some soldering) and he was able to change the BIOS password of this black box from the outside.

The build utilizes a BeagleBone to communicate with the laptop’s EEPROM via the I2C bus. An oscilloscope also monitors the bus to look for a specific window every four-seconds when the computer is not accessing the bus. During that short period, the EEPROM can be read and written to. Once the window opens, the BeagleBone executes the Python script, which attempts to read the EEPROM and can also perform actions such as removing or changing the BIOS supervisor password.

Of course, tinkering with the EEPROM on a laptop has a high risk of bricking the device, and not all laptops use the same security measures or even memory addresses for things like this, so documentation and precision are key. Also, with Thinkpads of this vintage it’s possible to replace the firmware on these chips entirely with a FOSS version called libreboot, and even though the process is difficult, it’s definitely recommended.

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USB-C Charging On Your ThinkPad, One Step At A Time

Hackers love their ThinkPads. They’re easy to work on, well documented, and offer plenty of potential for upgrades. For the more daring, there’s also a wide array of community-developed modifications available. For example, [Berry Berry Sneaky] has recently put together a step-by-step guide on swapping the common ThinkPad rectangular charging port (also used on ThinkBooks and other Lenovo machines) for USB-C Power Delivery.

Now to be clear, this is not a new concept. But between freely sharing the STL for the 3D printed adapter, providing a full parts list, and providing clear instructions on how to put it all together, [Berry Berry Sneaky] has done a fantastic job of making this particular modification as approachable as possible. For the cost of a common PDC004 Power Delivery “trigger” module and a bit of PETG filament, you can add yet another device to the list of things that work with your shiny new USB-C charger.

While not strictly necessary, [Berry Berry Sneaky] recommends getting yourself a replacement DC input cable for your particular machine before you crack open the case. That will let you assemble everything ahead of time, making the installation a lot quicker. It will also let you keep the original rectangular power jack intact so you can swap it back in if something goes wrong or you decide this whole unified charging thing isn’t quite what you hoped for.

Not a member of the ThinkPad Army? No worries. We’ve seen a lot of interest in using these configurable USB-C trigger modules to upgrade all manner of devices to the new Power Delivery standard or sometimes put together custom battery chargers for their older mobile gadgets.

Atreus Gets A TrackPoint And Layer LEDs

Fancy, split keyboards are cool and all, and they can really help with repetitive strain injury issues depending on a lot of different factors. But the big, glaring problem is that they often lack nice features that regular keyboards have — things like a number pad, media buttons, or in [discordia]’s case, a ThinkPad-style pointing stick. Fortunately, there’s a perfect spot for one between the two halves of the Keyboardio Atreus.

[discordia] is happy with the Atreus, but the whole layers thing can take some getting used to. Since Atreus only has 44 keys, it utilizes a layering system to change their function to cover all the keys you’d find on a full keyboard. After getting stuck in one rarely-used layer for a while, they decided to remedy the situation with some RGB LEDs to indicate the active layer. If you’ve got an Atreus that could use a few upgrades, check out [discordia]’s step-by-step instructions for adding a trackpoint and one-wire RGB LEDs.

If you have an old enough ThinkPad on your hands, then you may want to liberate the clicky keyboard, too.

Building An Open Source ThinkPad Battery

If you own a laptop that’s got a few years on the clock, you’ve probably contemplated getting a replacement battery for it. Which means you also know how much legitimate OEM packs cost compared to the shady eBay clones. You can often get two or three of the knock-offs for the same price as a single real battery, but they never last as long as the originals. If they even work properly at all.

Which is why [Alexander Parent] decided to take the road less traveled and scratch built a custom battery for his ThinkPad T420. By reverse engineering how the battery pack communicated with the computer, he reasoned he would be able to come up with an open source firmware that worked at least as well as what the the third party ones are running. Which from the sounds of it, wasn’t a very high bar. From a more practical standpoint, it also meant he’d be able to create a higher capacity battery pack than what was commercially available should he chose to.

A logic analyzer wired in between one of the third party batteries and a spare T420 motherboard allowed [Alexander] to capture all the SMBus chatter between the two. From there he wrote some Arduino code that would mimic a battery as a proof of concept. He was slowed down a bit by an undocumented CRC check, but in the end he was able to come up with a fairly mature firmware that even allows you to provide a custom vendor name and model number for your pack.

The code was shifted over to an ATtiny85, with a voltage divider wired up to one of the pins so it can read the pack voltage. [Alexander] says his firmware still doesn’t do a great job of reporting the actual battery capacity remaining, but it’s close enough for his purposes. He came up with a simple PCB design to hold the MCU and support components,  which eventually he plans on putting inside of a 3D printed case that actually plugs into the back of his T420.

This project is obviously still in a relatively early stage, but we’re very interested to see [Alexander] take it all the way. The ThinkPad has long been the hacker’s favorite laptop, and we can think of no machine more worthy of a fully open hardware and software battery pack.

USB-C Where It Was Never Intended To Be

The USB-C revolution is well under way, as first your new phone, then your single-board computer, and now your laptop are likely so sport the familiar reversible round-cornered connector. We’re still in the crossover period of requiring to keep micro USB, proprietary laptop, and USB-C power supplies at hand, but the promise of a USB-C-only world is tantalisingly close. For [Purkkaviritys] that’s a little bit closer now, as he’s modified his Thinkpad T440s to take a USB charger instead of its proprietary Lenovo square-plug part. (Video, embedded below.)

At its heart is a USB-PD emulator module that does all the hard work of negotiation with the power supply, giving the laptop the DC voltage it needs. It’s not quite that simple though, because a resistor is required to reassure the laptop that it’s got a genuine power supply. The module is encased in a carefully-designed surround that neatly takes the space vacated by the original connector, and since this laptop has its internal power connector on a short cable it is made very straightforward to fit into the case. If you didn’t know it was a home-made upgrade, you could be forgiven for thinking that this laptop left the factory with a USB-C power socket.

The USB-C module used here is a versatile part. We’ve previously seen it in a soldering iron conversion.

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Hacking A ThinkPad USB-C Adapter

USB-C has brought the world much more powerful charging options in a slimline connector. With laptop chargers and portable battery packs using the standard, many with older hardware are converting their devices over to work with USB-C. [victorc] was trying to do just that, purchasing an adapter cable to charge a ThinkPad. Things didn’t quite work out of the box, so some hacking was required.

The problem was the power rating of the adapter cable, versus the battery pack [victorc] was trying to use. In order to allow the fastest charging rates, the adapter cable features a resistor value which tells the attached Lenovo laptop it can draw up to 90 W. The battery pack in question could only deliver 45 W, so it would quickly shut down when the laptop tried to draw above this limit.

To rectify this, [victorc] looked up the standard, finding the correct resistor value to set the limit lower. Then, hacking open the cable, the original resistor on the Lenovo connector was removed, and replaced with the correct value. With this done, the cable works perfectly, and [victorc] is able to charge their laptop on the go.

For all the benefits USB-C has brought, there’s been plenty of consternation, too. Whether this clears up, only time will tell!