Kris And His DIY Laptop

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Experience with a barebones – Kris Courter

After Joe posted the results of his recent survey of laptop users, I saw that many people believed that they were stuck with “off the shelf” laptops. Laptops were perceived as a hard compromise between performance, size, battery life, and price. More often than not, you got to pick two of those four things, or three if you were lucky.

Earlier this year, I wanted something better than what the big vendors were offering in my price range (around $1500), but I wasn’t prepared to pay the price they wanted to get what I wanted either. My research only became more frustrating. Then, by accident, I found Notebookforums.com, and there was a “general laptops” folder. Here, people talked about “other” laptops that typically weren’t thought of: boutique and whitebox laptops. I saw that it was possible to get what I wanted at a price I was willing to pay. And it was here that I got the idea to build my own.

Background

As I poked around the forum, I learned that there are only a handful of ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) for laptops. Some you may have heard of before: ECS, Asus, Acer, and AOpen. However, there are other lesser known ODMs such as Compal, Mitac, Clevo, and a few others. Most of the big vendors buy from these ODMs and put their brand name on it. For example, Sager Notebooks uses the Clevo 375E for its NP3760 model. If a vendor’s big enough, they may have them customized to meet certain specifications or looks.

Assessing Your Needs

There are a few things you need to consider before you select your laptop to build or to buy:

First thing is to decide what you want to use it for.

Do you want it just for word processing and web surfing, or do you want it to be a portable entertainment center? How important is gaming? If you want to game, forget about using ANY integrated graphics, such as Intel’s Extreme Graphics 2.

Second thing to consider is battery life.

Are you going to be away from a power outlet for long periods of time, or will you be relatively close to a power source? For example, in a classroom setting where there’s power, battery life might not be much of a consideration.

Third thing to consider is size and weight.

Do you want a desktop replacement (DTR) for the best possible performance? Are you willing to lug around a 10 pound/4 ½ kilo beast in your backpack? Are you going to be on the go very much at all?

Once you decide what’s important, it’s not too hard to find a laptop in your price range.

I decided that I wanted

  • Something portable
  • Did well on battery power
  • Performed well
  • Could actually game on
  • And all for around $1500

{mospagebreak}

After doing my research, I determined that Compal CL56 fit the bill.

I do have a side note: for the AMD fans out there, AMD has a much more limited presence in the mobile arena. It is possible to find laptops based on mobile Athlon XPs and mobile Athlon 64’s, but your choices are a lot more limited. This may change in the future with the recently announced Turion platform.

The Compal CL56

Compal CL56

Compal CL56

The CL56 is a Centrino based laptop, meaning it has an 855PE chipset, supports the Pentium M, and has a mini-PCI slot for an Intel Pro/Wireless 2200BG card. For your gaming pleasure, it has an ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 Pro – think of it as performing close to a desktop Radeon 9600 Pro.

Until ATI released the Mobility Radeon 9800 Pro, this card ruled the laptop gaming world. However, the 9800 Pro’s drawback is that it was only found in bulky DTR laptops like the Dell XPS. Until ATI and Nvidia release their new PCI-Express solutions, the Mobility Radeon 9700 Pro is as good as you’ll get in most laptops. In terms of size, it’s fairly compact. It measures 13.07″ x 10.83″ x 1.26″ and weighs 6.34 lbs. Certainly not the smallest, but still very portable.

The nice thing about building your own is that you have control over what parts you put in it. Often times, too, I could find the parts cheaper than what the laptop vendors would sell them for. Aside from the then-difficult-to-find Intel Pro/Wireless 2200BG, I bought all my parts from Newegg and ZipZoomFly. I bought the barebones laptop kit from RJtech.com. The kit comes with the essential parts: chassis, motherboard, video card, battery, LCD, etc. All you have to add are the memory, drives, processor, and network card – the motherboard, video card, LCD and battery are already installed into the chassis.

Here’s what I finally ended up with in specs:

  • Intel Pentium M 735 – 1.7 GHz, Dothan core
  • Mobility Radeon 9700 Pro video
  • 768 MB PC2700 RAM
  • 60 GB Hitachi Travelstar HD, 7200 rpm
  • Liteon DVD/CDRW combo drive
  • Intel Pro/Wireless 2200BG

The rest is all the usual laptop stuff, like NIC, AC97 sound, etc. One nice feature this laptop has is a 3-in-1 flash memory reader for SD, MMC and Memory stick. This can make transferring files from a digital camera very convenient.

“All in,” I paid about $1600.

Remember, I built this in July – prices have come down since then. :) My point is that it still would have cost me about $200-300 more at the time to get the same configuration had I just bought it.

Now that we have all the parts, let’s see how it all goes together.{mospagebreak}

I will caution you that building a laptop is more difficult than a desktop.

The screws are smaller and much easier to lose. In my case, the screws were easy to strip, especially on the CPU’s heatpipe. I’ll show you some of the mistakes I made and how you can avoid them.

*I apologize if the pictures aren’t the sharpest. My digital camera isn’t that great, but I believe it shows enough detail to communicate the idea. Keep in mind that assembly will vary depending on make and model you choose. With the barebones kit, aside from everything in the chassis, you have to mount the other parts (like panels, keyboard, etc). Also, as I had built it in July, I’m tearing it apart for this article. Simply reverse the steps if you are building it.

The Easy Stuff

Certain parts were easy to install. In this picture

Bottom

you see four dots showing where the various components go. The yellow dot shows the memory cover, the green is the optical drive, orange is the hard drive and red is the battery. The battery came pre-installed.

Memory

Dimms

The memory cover is simple to remove – it’s held on by two screws. You see two SODIMM modules. The modules are very easy to install, as they’re inserted into the socket at a 45 degree angle and then pressed down into place.

Mount

Hard Drive

Laptop hard drives are smaller (2.5″ form factor) and optimized for power savings. Keep in mind that 5400 rpm hard drives are the standard, while 7200 rpm drives are the high end. Beware that 4200 rpm models exist as well.

Mounting the hard drive is pretty easy. The Compal CL56 has a cage to which you fasten the hard drive.

Cage

Then all you do is slide it into the side and use one screw (shown with red arrow)

Slide

to hold it in place. This automatically puts the drive into the IDE interface. No cable is needed.

The Optical Drive

I’ll admit I was a bit picky on this part. I picked the LiteOn LSC-24082K DVD combo drive as is was 8x24x24x24. Most optical drives being used were 8x24x24x10 or 8x24x10x10. One user on Notebookforums.com had the official Compal parts list, so I knew it would fit. HOWEVER, there is a serious “gotcha” here:

After I ordered the barebones kit, RJTech contacted me and reminded me that I hadn’t ordered an optical. I told the rep that I was using my own, as I found a cheaper one (or so I thought :). It turns out that while the drive itself would fit, you need a special frame to hold it in place and make the connection to the laptop.

CD

While it might not seem like a big deal, that part cost $40. So, unless you have a specific optical drive you want, such as a slot loading DVD burner, I’d recommend buying the drive from the barebones vendor as an add-on to the kit.

That said, once the drive is attached to the frame, it’s easy to install. Just slide it in and it will lock in place. Also note that as this is a modular bay – you can buy a battery that will fit in place of the optical drive. Switching is easy, as you just click a button (circled in yellow) and the drive comes out easily.

Chassis

The Hard Stuff

Now comes the harder part. I made two mistakes in this part that nearly killed my laptop, so I’ll show you where the “gotchas” are.

First thing we need to do is remove the keyboard. The cover over the power buttons snaps off easily, allowing access to the two keyboard screws.

Off

You’ll see a small ribbon cable for the keyboard. I’ll show you how to install the keyboard later. Also, in the upper right corner, you’ll see the CPU heatpipe.

In the picture below

Under KB

you’ll see two covers marked with dots. The yellow marks the wireless card cover, while the red dot covers the screws to the CPU heatpipe. There’s a tiny screw that holds both covers in place which requires a Torx T5 screw driver. This is the only screw like this in the whole build (the others used Phillips screws), so I don’t know why they did that. At any rate, you can pick up a Torx screwdriver at Sears for $2.

We’ll hit the wireless card first. Mini-PCI cards are nothing to be afraid of – they look very much like a really big SO-DIMM and mounts the exact same way. There are also two antenna leads (circled in red) that snap onto the card, as shown below:

Card

Now let’s go to the CPU.

The CPU heatpipe assembly mounts with four spring loaded screws:

HP

Be VERY careful with these screws, as they are easy to strip if you’re not careful. I stripped one in the picture below (marked with the bottom yellow arrow) and had to drill the top to get it off.

HP Removed

It still holds in place very well. The other issue to watch is that the CPU locks into place with a screw (the top yellow arrow). When I first built it, the laptop refused to POST. I was used to the desktop where you have a nice little lever. You have to turn the screw a quarter to a half turn to lock it into place.
{mospagebreak}

On to the keyboard.

KB

The keyboard ribbon cable mounts with a ZIF socket (yellow arrow), and is a bit tricky. The last “gotcha” is that this ZIF socket is VERY easy to break. I broke one of the ends off (red arrow in pic below). It still holds the keyboard securely, but it’s not as tight as if it weren’t damaged.

KB

Once it was in, I didn’t mess with it. After that, close everything up and you’re ready to rock.

Warranty and Other Issues

One thing Joe asked about was the warranty issues. On the retail parts, it’s simple: you get the manufacturer’s warranty on all the parts. OEM parts will vary by the seller’s terms.

RJTech was good to work with on warranty issues. I showed you my mistakes. After the laptop was assembled and working, I sent it back to them for evaluation. Richard, RJTech’s main contact, said that the mistakes were minor and he would still warranty the laptop for future issues, but I could replace the damaged parts at my expense if I so chose.

As the situation was my fault, he charged me $25 for the testing and the return shipment, but knowing that my warranty was still intact was worth the money.

My wireless card died, and they replaced it promptly as well.

Support was generally pretty good. All my emails were generally answered within 24 hours, weekends excepted.

Some may wonder about the heat.

Intel designed a pretty cool running chip in the Dothan. When running on battery and doing basic web surfing, the fan rarely turns on and the bottom is only mildly warm. Gaming will get the fan going and the heat’s noticeable if it’s on your laptop, but it doesn’t come close to burning.

I can get nearly 5 hours of battery life out of it. I watched a movie and played a game in Linux for most of a Baltimore to Los Angeles flight and I still had power left. As always, though, your battery life will vary by what you do.

Linux support is a little lacking for the wireless component, but battery life wasn’t an issue for me. You also have to manually install some drivers, which can be a pain.

All in all, building a laptop was a good experience. It was challenging and I made some mistakes, but I learned a lot. As I mentioned in my comments that Joe posted earlier, I was able to save a good bit of money compared to buying the same laptop from other vendors.

If you’re not comfortable building a laptop, there are other vendors out there that sell laptops that may meet your needs. Notebookforums.com has a wealth of information on vendors and the folks there can share their experiences buying from them. Even if you don’t build your own, you can still customize it and have it built for you for $100-300 more.

Building your own laptop, or even buying a custom one from the smaller vendors, can provide you with a laptop that performs very well at an affordable price. When you find a laptop that lets you have your cake and eat it too, you’ll have an awesome portable computing experience.

Kris Courter

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