I have this little hobby project going on for a while now, and I thought it's worth sharing. Now at first blush this might seem like just another screenshot with neofetch.. but this thing has quite the story to tell. This laptop is no less than 17 years old.

So, a Compaq nx7010, a business laptop from 2004. It has had plenty of software and hardware mods alike. Let's start with the software.

It's running run-off-the-mill Debian 9, with a custom kernel. The reason why it's running that version of Debian is because of bugs in the network driver (ipw2200) in Debian 10, causing it to disconnect after a day or so. Less of an issue in Debian 9, and seemingly fixed by upgrading the kernel to a custom one. And the kernel is actually one of the things where you can save heaps of space when you do it yourself. The kernel package itself is 8.4MB for this one. The headers are 7.4MB. The stock kernels on the other hand (4.19 at downstream revisions 9, 10 and 13) took up a whole GB of space combined. That is how much I've been able to remove, even from headless systems. The stock kernels are incredibly bloated for what they are.

Other than that, most of the data storage is done through NFS over WiFi, which is actually faster than what is inside this laptop (a CF card which I will get to later).

Now let's talk hardware. And at age 17, you can imagine that it has seen quite a bit of maintenance there. The easiest mod is probably the flash mod. These old laptops use IDE for storage rather than SATA. Now the nice thing about IDE is that it actually lives on to this very day, in CF cards. The pinout is exactly the same. So you can use passive IDE-CF adapters and plug in a CF card. Easy!

The next thing I want to talk about is the battery. And um.. why that one is a bad idea to mod. Finding replacements for such old hardware.. good luck with that. So your other option is something called recelling, where you disassemble the battery and, well, replace the cells. The problem is that those battery packs are built like tanks and the disassembly will likely result in a broken battery housing (which you'll still need). Also the controllers inside those battery packs are either too smart or too stupid to play nicely with new cells. On that laptop at least, the new cells still had a perceived capacity of the old ones, while obviously the voltage on the cells themselves didn't change at all. The laptop thought the batteries were done for, despite still being chock full of juice. Then I tried to recalibrate them in the BIOS and fried the battery controller. Do not try to recell the battery, unless you have a spare already. The controllers and battery housings are complete and utter dogshit.

Next up is the display backlight. Originally this laptop used to use a CCFL backlight, which is a tiny tube that is driven at around 2000 volts. To its controller go either 7, 6, 4 or 3 wires, which are all related and I will get to. Signs of it dying are redshift, and eventually it going out until you close the lid and open it up again. The reason for it is that the voltage required to keep that CCFL "excited" rises over time, beyond what the controller can do.

So, 7-pin configuration is 2x VCC (12V), 2x enable (on or off), 1x adjust (analog brightness), and 2x ground. 6-pin gets rid of 1 enable line. Those are the configurations you'll find in CCFL. Then came LED lighting which required much less power to run. So the 4-pin configuration gets rid of a VCC and a ground line. And finally you have the 3-pin configuration which gets rid of the adjust line, and you can just short it to the enable line.

There are some other mods but I'm running out of characters. Why am I telling you all this? The reason is that this laptop doesn't feel any different to use than the ThinkPad x220 and IdeaPad Y700 I have on my desk (with 6c12t, 32G of RAM, ~1TB of SSDs and 2TB HDDs). A hefty setup compared to a very dated one, yet they feel the same. It can do web browsing, I can chat on Telegram with it, and I can do programming on it. So, if you're looking for a hobby project, maybe some kind of restrictions on your hardware to spark that creativity that makes code better, I can highly recommend it. I think I'm almost done with this project, and it was heaps of fun :D

  • 6
    Neat, well done!

    Don't think I have the discipline to finish a project like this, but I'll keep it in mind
  • 5
    Thanks for sharing this, I likely won't have this amount of patience or rigor to come close, but it's amazing!
  • 4
    Congratulations on sticking with this machine for 17 years
  • 4
    I love this. Stuff like this brings me joy as a person forever tinkering with his X201.

    With an SSD and 8GB ram, old Thinkpads fly with Win10....fast and bulletproof.

    Plus you get the crazy best keyboard and the sexiness of a Thinklight.

    I bought mine late last year, 6 battery cycles and clear plastic protective stickers still on for 120Euros.

    Do you know your 220 can have 2ssds and 16gb? I'm looking for one right now. Dreaming of a new i7.
  • 1
    One of the best stories I've read here so far. Please add picture of the hardware. I'm interested how it looks after all those mods and years
  • 5
    @retoor Thanks! Here's a picture of it, but on the outside there's not much going on other than the stickers. There's 2 on the front and a couple of others on the back.
  • 2
    My beastly x201.
  • 2
    Jeeezuz. That's amazing. How long did the whole thing take you? Weekends?
  • 2
    @greengallop23 Good question... I don't remember when I started the project to be honest. Last year I got the laptop given to me, along with another one I installed Bodhi Linux on for someone else (that one had only 400MB of RAM and was only very basic, but I did eventually get that one working too). The 400MB one was given to the eventual user, while I got to keep this one. From then onwards, really just whenever I wanted to spend some time on it, I did. Say a year of off-and-on evenings, weekends, etc?
  • 3
    @Condor that's awesome! All my projects last about a month max before I forget or I'm bored lol
  • 2
    @greengallop23 at least you have a month of patience. My patience used to be until I went to sleep.

    If I had the adrenaline rush, I could go on with it for days and my body wouldn't complain about sleep. Other times, I'd just feel tired and just crashed never to look back on those projects for another couple years.

    Recently, with the pandemic and lockdowns, I've managed to push to beyond 1 sleep cycle to almost a whole week.

    This level of dedication is something I don't think I'll ever achieve.
  • 1
    @shine I think what's really important with big projects is to break it down. It's impossible to do when you look at it as one massive project, but doable when you look at it in smaller chunks.

    Basically the LCD mod, the flash mod, the battery mod, the Debian 9 installation, the custom kernel build, and eventually an upgrade to Debian 10 (which it is currently running after much anxiety).. all of those are (sub)projects in their own right. Each of those took maybe a few days. That is certainly achievable for many. Afterwards you can combine them and say "here's my big project" :)

    As for the Debian 10 issues from earlier, it turns out that those were indeed driver-related and only present on the stock kernel. Currently on Debian 10 with custom Linux 5.9.16, the network does not disconnect anymore. And it gives me the latest features (as far as Debian can be considered new anyway) on a super old device, yay!
  • 1
    Agreed. I do break down my larger projects. But what I was talking about were the sub-projects already 😧😔

    Another friend did suggest to try breaking them down even further. Now I'm spending more time breaking down projects than doing the actual work 😜
Add Comment