Intern’s Corner: Old Laptop, New Tricks

Computers & Mobile
Intern’s Corner: Old Laptop, New Tricks

In this semi-regular column, MAKE’s awesome engineering interns tell us about the projects they’re building in the MAKE Labs, the trouble they’ve gotten themselves into, and what they’ll be making next. – Gareth

Our upcoming MAKE Volume 30 includes some cool home automation projects, from an alert system activated by motion to a thermostat that interfaces with the internet. So, when my laptop decided to give up the ghost last weekend, I wanted some home-integration ideas to use in bringing it back to life. The case had been damaged after five years of regular use, and a crack in the body kept the fan from spinning correctly. Every once in a while, I’d have to remove the body plate around the keyboard, lift out the fan, and tighten the center screw that kept vibrating loose. But this time, I decided to try something different than just a fix. Armed with new-found interest in home automation, I set about cannibalizing it in hopes that a project might pop out!

Before I started, I moved everything to an external hard drive, in case I seriously damaged anything. Then, I painstakingly removed the plastic body, setting the screws aside. Much to my horror, my dog decided to play with the parts tray, sending screws flying off the bench. Luckily, my feet have a way of finding them, especially in the dark! On the bright side, I successfully removed all of the crucial components, and the laptop can still be linked together and powered on.

Next, I fiddled with the different components to determine what could be left out (for space/power savings) and still allow the computer to run.

Among the removable pieces were (left to right): the modem hookup, USB jack, power button, the external display port, the AC converter port, webcam, the WiFi antennae, and the volume up/down/mute button strip. I’ll keep the power button and AC port to turn everything on, but the rest is inconsequential.

Now…what to do with it? A quick online search for possibilities gave me three ideas: use the display as a photo frame, use the hard drive as a jumbo USB drive, or use the system as a server for a printer. I ruled out the photo frame, because I want something interactive, not just a wall display. I also decided against the USB, because I already have a terabyte external drive for backups.

The server was the best fit for me, but I’m not using it for a printer because mine’s already wireless. So, instead, I decided to use my laptop as a media hub. I’ve deleted programs and whittled system space down to just under 20 gigs of the drive, leaving roughly 230 gigs for music and movies. I’ll keep the WiFi antenna attached, so that four wireless speakers can link to the hub. With no password set and only one operating system loaded, I can boot the computer without the need for a keyboard. So with just a wireless mouse (the trackpad was lost in the cannibalization), I can navigate my libraries!

I need help with the last step-housing the “hub.” I first thought of a fancy acrylic box with appropriate holes for wires, that I could then stash in a drawer and leave on. But the display has limited wire length, so it needs to be in the box as well. I want the screen to be independent from the box, so the hub can remain in a drawer while the screen is out. This led to my current idea: leave the box in the center sliding drawer of a desk, and mount the display in the desk surface. I have a desk at home with a glass pane over the wood top, so I could cut out a square in the wood and fit the display up against the glass. This way, the box is out of sight in the drawer, and the display is always viewable from the desk! Before I start sawing into my desk, though, I wanted to throw it out there to all of you. Any better ideas? I’m happy to hear them! Until next time…

Paul Mundell
MAKE Labs Engineering Intern

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