2006/02/02

Building a decent laptop from free and cheap parts

I may need to revise this document a few times, but here is the first version. It is purposefully vague in a lot of aspects; it's a guide, not an instruction manual. Today I'm going to post the introduction and Part I. All rights are reserved, copyright me, etc.

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Introduction:

This paper is intended to describe some methods, techniques, and caveats for parting together a decent laptop at a minimum of cost. Why piece together a laptop from parts when a new one can be had for under $500? One reason is quality. That bargain basement Dell will be dead long before your two-year old model IBM Thinkpad. Cost is still a consideration. It may cost $300 to scrounge your parts, but $200 is $200, any way you shake it. Another consideration is performance. Do you really need the latest whiz-bang processor and a gigabyte of RAM? I doubt it. If you do, you probably aren't reading this document. The final aspect to consider is that you will know your laptop better than most. Although laptops are certainly more proprietary, you will be in much better shape to deal with problems with your additional knowledge than you would be otherwise,

Caveats:

This is a project which could end up costing more than you expected. An Ebayed part can fail to perform as expected, you can make a mistake about parts compatibility, and so on. Although just about anyone with some common sense who can follow directions can do this, the more time you spend on research, and the more experience you have, the cheaper it will get.

Part I – Which laptop to choose?

Due to the proprietary nature of laptops, you'll need to choose a base model to use. There are several factors involved in this decision. One of the most important factors is the commonality of the base machine. Generally speaking, you'll want to choose something that is popular/common. These are typically going to be the easiest and cheapest to build; think supply and demand. Once you start researching, you'll notice that many times the same laptop will be sold under different names.

For example, the Dell Inspiron 3800 is pretty much the same thing as the Dell Latitude Cpx series. The only difference of concern to us is that the motherboard of the 3800 was flashed with a BIOS that prevents the use of certain docking stations. This was a rather pathetic ploy by Dell to force anyone who wanted to use their high-end docks at the time to buy the higher-end laptop. Besides the BIOS and a small removable plate in the Inspiron, the machines are part-for-part 100% compatible.

Many other laptops will be largely part-compatible as well. IBM Thinkpad T20s, T21s, and T22s are all mostly compatible. The plastic, keyboards, processors, and memory all work. The key is to do some research.

Another thing to think about is what parts you already have, or what you can get cheaply. When I recently parted together a laptop for school, I looked at what I had. I had a large number of usable parts for one particular model. Given that budget was the key, and the machine that could be made with those parts was acceptable, I decided to base it off of that.

Keep in mind that some parts work across most systems of similar vintage. We've had 2.5” Parallel IDE drives for probably ten years now; only on the newest laptops will you find SATA drives. Memory will usually exchange between laptops of approximately the same age. Processors get to be a little tricky, but if you can fit it in the socket, it will usually work.

A final note: You will be tempted to look at so-called “barebones” laptops. Although these machines can be built to very high specifications, they will almost always cost more than an equivalent name brand machine. Remember: generic ≠ cheap in what we're doing here.
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Part II will be coming tomorrow...

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