Dell XPS M1330 Battery Pack Teardown

We had an earlier success tearing down a Dell laptop battery pack, where the six salvaged cells still have 70% of original capacity after ten years of service. However, that was from a laptop that could still boot and run from its battery pack. This XPS M1330 battery pack is in far worse shape. How much worse, we were about to find out.

The first critical detail was realizing the battery pack was not the original Dell battery pack. It is an aftermarket type of unknown manufacture. The earlier battery pack tear down yielded Samsung cells, we’re probably not going to get anything nearly as nice this time around.

Once the case was cracked open the suspicion was confirmed: These appear to be generic 18650-sized lithium cells with no manufacturer branding. The nine cells of the battery pack were divided into three modules in series, each module had three cells wired in parallel. The module in the worst shape exhibited severe corrosion and had no voltage across their terminals.

Corroded 18650

The other two modules were in slightly better shape, but they have self-discharged down to approximately 1 volt DC, well under the recommended voltage range. A web search found some details on what happens to overly discharged lithium cells. In short: the chemistry inside the cell starts dissolving itself. If recharged, the dissolved metals may reform in inconvenient ways. Trying to use these cells has three potential outcomes:

  1. Best case: The metals dissolved into the electrolyte will hamper chemical reaction, resulting in reduced capacity.
  2. Medium case: The dissolved metals will reform in a way that damages the cell, causing it to fail as an open-circuit. (As if no battery was present.)
  3. Worst case: The dissolved metals will reform in a way that damages the cell, but causing it to fail as a closed circuit. Short-circuiting the internals will release a lot of energy very quickly, resulting in high-pressure venting and/or fire.

The corroded cells that have discharged down to zero volts have the highest risk and will be discarded. The remaining cells will be slowly (and carefully) charged back up to gauge their behavior.

Dell XPS M1330 Power Port Salvaged Using Desoldering Tool

Recently a dead Dell XPS M1330 came across the workbench. The battery was dead and the machine fails to boot. After some effort at reviving the machine, it was declared hopeless and salvage operations began. Today’s effort focuses on the motherboard port for the AC power adapter.

Dell Octagonal PowerThe power plug on this Dell different from the typical Dell laptop AC adapter: octagonal in shape rather than round. The shape meant it could not be used on other Dell laptops designed for the round plug. However, the dimensions of the octagon are such that an AC power adapter with the typical round Dell plug fits and could be used to charge the laptop. So while the laptop could be charged with any existing Dell-compatible AC adapter, the AC adapter that came with this machine is specific to this Dell.

Once the XPS M1330 died, its octagonal plug power adapter is not useful for other Dell laptops. It still functions as a power supply transforming household AC to ~19V DC so it might be useful for future projects. To preserve this possibility, the octagonal power port will be recovered from the system board.

The solder used in Dell assembly was possibly one of the lead-free types and is definitely reluctant to melt and flow. Trying to desolder the power port using hand tools (desoldering wick and hand suction pump) had no luck. So this project was chosen as a practice run of using a dedicated desoldering tool, in this case a Hakko 808. The tip of this tool heats up to melt the solder, and with a press of the trigger an electric vacuum pump pulls the melted solder through center channel of the heated tip and into a chamber for later disposal.

The desoldering pump was able to remove more solder than hand tools could, but was still not quite enough to free the port. Using a soldering iron, some user-friendly leaded solder was worked back into the joints to mix with the remaining Dell factory solder. Upon second application of the electric desoldering tool, enough solder was removed to free the port from the system board with only minimal damage.

Desoldering Tool

A test with the voltage meter confirmed this port is now ready to be used to provide ~19V DC power to a future project.

Socket Extraction Success

 

Remove Camera From Acer Aspire Switch 10

When the Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) was received in a non-functioning state, it had a sticker covering the webcam lens applied by the previous owner. This is a common modification from owners who are concerned about malicious hackers activating the camera at unauthorized times. Some computer makers are finally meeting customer demand by placing physical shutters over webcams, but until that becomes commonplace, we’ll continue to have stickers/tabs/post-it notes covering webcams.

Removing the camera module would be a far more secure solution if the webcam is not to be used anyway. While impractical for some difficult-to-disassemble devices like an Apple iPad, we’ve already cracked open this Acer and test the concept. It turned out to be a straightforward exercise. The camera module is a distinct unit, the ribbon cable detaches from the motherboard easily, and it was only held in place by what felt like double-sided tape.

Acer Aspire Switch 10 Blinded

With five minutes of removing the back panel of the machine, the camera module was removed. The only lettering on it said CIFDF31_A2_MB and a web search on that designation returned several vendors happy to sell a replacement module. Sadly no technical information was found in a cursory search, so we won’t be trying to drive it with a PIC micro controller or anything. It’ll just sit in a zip lock bag for now.

And this intentionally-blinded Acer tablet is now available for use by house guests who are wary of hackers getting into the camera: no hacker in the world can activate a camera that is sitting in a zip lock bag in another room.

Windows 10 Can Activate With Windows 8 Hardware Key

Our recent project with the Acer Aspire Switch 10 laptop had concluded with one mystery: how did it get the license key? Because we didn’t have the password for the installation of Windows 8 on the machine, the hard drive was wiped clean and Windows 10 installed from scratch. We expected we’d need to purchase a new license of Windows to activate on this computer. Fortunately, Windows 10 proclaimed itself activated without the need for a new license.

At the time we did not understand, but we were also not going to complain.

A second data point came in the form of a Dell laptop, which also shipped with Windows 8 but purchased by someone who decided they did not like it. A Windows 7 license was purchased and installed on this computer, which was then upgraded to Windows 10 during the free upgrade period. The original Windows 8 was lost. Recently a new SSD was installed on this computer and Windows 10 was installed from scratch. And like the Acer, Windows 10 proclaims itself to be activated even though no product license key has been entered.

Curiosity now demands a web search for answers, where we learn both of these computers participated in a new licensing scheme launched with Windows 8. Instead of a counterfeit-resistant license sticker attached to the bottom of the computer, their product license is embedded in the hardware instead. We will never have to worry about the license key becoming illegible, or getting lost and separated from the corresponding hardware.

Windows 8 could access this key and activate itself. Windows 7 installed on the Dell laptop could not. Windows 10 could access this key and, more importantly, are willing to activate on it even though the license was technically for Windows 8. The official free Windows 10 upgrade period has ended but we can still get a free step up under these circumstances.

Windows Key Sticker
The Windows Certificate of Authenticity is now a relic of the past.

Acer Aspire Switch Runs Windows 10 (Fall Creator’s Update)

After Secure Boot discouraged me from putting a Linux variant on the recently revived Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) convertible laptop, I tried to replace the existing Windows 8 installation (locked with passwords I don’t have) with the latest Windows 10.

The first thing to check is to look in the BIOS and verify the CPU is not a member of the ill-fated Intel Clover Trail series, whose support was dropped. Fortunately, the machine uses a newer CPU so I can try installing Windows 10 Fall Creator’s Update. I had an installation USB flash drive built with Microsoft’s Media Creation Tool.

I needed an USB OTG cable to start the installation. Once in progress, I deleted the existing Windows 8 system partition (~20 GB) and the recovery image partition (~7 GB), leaving the remaining two system partitions intact before proceeding.

When Windows 10 initially came up, there were significant problems with hardware support. The touchscreen didn’t work, there was no sound, and the machine was ignorant of its own battery charge level. Fortunately all of these hardware issues were resolved by downloading and running the “Platform Drivers Installer” from Acer’s support site.

Acer Win10

After the driver situation was sorted out I started poking around elsewhere on the system and found a happy surprise on Windows licensing. Since I couldn’t get into the Windows 8 installation, I couldn’t perform a Windows upgrade. Because I performed a system wipe, I thought I lost the Windows license on this machine. But I was wrong! I don’t know exactly what happened, but when I went to look at the computer’s information, it claims “Windows is Activated.”

The sticker on the bottom of the machine says it came with Windows 8 Pro. The new Windows 10 installation activated itself as Windows 10 Home. It is technically a step down from Pro to Home but I am not going to complain at the unexpectedly functional Windows license.

The machine outperformed my expectations. It handily outperformed my other computers with Intel Atom processors. I think the key part is its 2GB of RAM, double the 1GB RAM of the other Atom machines. The machine is surprisingly usable relative to its Atom peers.

Some credit is due to Acer for building a low-end computer in 2014 that is still capable on the software of 2017 (almost 2018.)

Acer Aspire Switch is Linux Unfriendly

Now that the hardware of an Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) is back up and running, the focus turns to software. Windows 8 is installed but locked with passwords I don’t have. I didn’t care much for Windows 8 anyway, and whatever data exists is not mine to recover. So – a clean wipe is in order.

As with the Latitude X1, my first thought was to turn this little old machine into an almost-Chromebook with Neverware CloudReady. And just like with the Latitude X1, the attempt was foiled. The Latitude X1 was too old and did not support some processor features required by CloudReady. The Acer problem is just the opposite – the hardware is too new and deliberately blocks the installation.

The blocking mechanism isĀ Secure Boot, which according to its own web site is a “security standard developed by members of the PC industry to help make sure that a device boots using only software that is trusted by the Original Equipment Manufacturer.” I would describe it with different terms. Either way, trying to install CloudReady – or a Linux distribution – results in the error screen “Secure Boot Error”.

Intentional or not, this puts the Acer in a bad state. It gets stuck neither fully on nor off, the screen dark but burning battery power and making itself warm. I had to disassemble the computer again to pull the battery from the main circuit board in order to reboot the machine.

In theory Secure Boot can be disabled, but various efforts by other people on the internet indicated this isn’t straightforward. I certainly had no better luck when I tried it: I can see the menu option, and I could change it from black on white (disabled) to white on gray (enabled) by creating an admin password, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually change the Secure Boot mode out of “Standard”.

Acer Secure Boot Menu

And it might not even be worth the effort, as forum traffic indicates there is very poor Linux driver support for this class of hardware. Probably related to the secure boot barrier but either way I’m giving up. I’ll stay with Windows on this machine.

Dell Latitude X1: A 2005 Laptop Tries To Fit In 2017

I thought it might be fun to try to get the twelve-year-old Dell Latitude X1 laptop up and running. My expectations were not high, but when I looked over the hardware specs I found the out-of-date hardware surprisingly within reason to run current software.

The computer came with Windows XP, which is long out of service. The previous owner of this laptop switched to running Ubuntu 11. Since that’s far out of date as well and I had no login information anyway, a clean wipe is in order.

I thought I’d jump straight to the latest Ubuntu 17.10, but was unable to find a 32-bit installer. The lack of a 32-bit installer turns out to be an intentional omission, part of Ubuntu’s plans to phase out 32-bit support. So I installed an older version (16.04 LTS) which did have a 32-bit installer, and upgraded from there. The resulting system was quite sluggish. After using it a bit, I decided part of the problem was the spinning-platter hard drive but there’s also the old graphics chip struggling to handle the visual effects of a modern OS.

To isolate the latter, I installed Ubuntu MATE, a variant of Ubuntu with the MATE desktop. MATE is a simpler alternative which is supposed to run better on lower-end hardware. That part was true – after installing Ubuntu MATE, the Latitude X1 didn’t spend as much chugging through graphical transitions. But the overall experience was still slow – the spinning platter hard drive remains a significant influence on performance.

Switching to MATE would have made a larger difference if I had a larger screen (or multiple monitors) running multiple windows. But since the Latitude X1 screen was so small, I only have one window at a time running full-screen, reducing the influence of the desktop environment.

The Latitude X1’s performance on modern software is held back by the spinning-platter hard drive. Which led to the next idea: can we upgrade the hard drive to a SSD? I have a few old SSDs available for such a project.

Dell always publishes excellent manuals for working with their machines. They also keep them online and available, even for twelve-year old machines. So getting to the hard drive was no problem. As soon as the hard drive was visible, though, I knew I was in trouble. The drive is much smaller than the standard laptop hard drive.

HDD18HDD35

Even if the SSD could physically fit, it did not have the correct data interface. The interface connector is unlike anything I’ve seen in a laptop hard drive. The closest thing I can recall is a CompactFlash connector.

HDD18Plug

The label on the drive proclaims itself to be a Toshiba MK3006GAL. Sadly, unlike Dell, Toshiba does not keep documentation online for old hardware. I remain ignorant of the details and industry specification for this specific hard drive interface and form factor. Maybe it is rare enough that there would be no SSD upgrade possible at all. Since I was not planning to spend money on this project, though, the details are irrelevant. This old computer will stick with its old spinning platter hard drive.


If I had to make a prediction 12 years ago about how well the Latitude X1 would hold up to the years, I probably would have predicted the CPU speed as the largest bottleneck, followed by the quantity of RAM. I would not have guessed that the growth of cheap tablets would demand that operating systems continue to run on a 1 gigahertz processor and within 1 gigabyte of RAM.

I also would not have guessed that solid state drives would have dropped in price and become such a cost-effective boost to overall system performance. The hard drive turned out to be the most significant sign of age in this twelve-year-old laptop.

Dell Latitude X1 is Almost a Teenager

Today’s new toy is actually an old toy: a Dell Latitude X1 ultra-portable laptop that was originally released in early 2005. The fact that it is still running twelve years later is fairly impressive. I was once skeptical of the price premium Dell charged over their consumer product line, but I’ve seen enough consumer Dell die off while their business Dell counterparts kept trucking to change my mind. While I still might not choose to pay that premium, I now believe the price difference buys a more durable product.

Or perhaps the credit should go to Samsung? When I searched for reviews of this old laptop, I found this review which claimed the laptop is a rebadged Samsung Q30. The article even helpfully included a picture of the Q30 so we can see cosmetic similarities (and the differences.)

There are dings and dents from over a decade of service, but aside from the expected degradation in battery capacity, the machine seems to be running much as it did over a decade ago. I booted it up to verify that it could still do so (Looks like the previous owner installed Ubuntu 11) before I started digging into the hardware.

Looking into the BIOS, I find the processor is an Intel Pentium M ULV 733, a 32-bit single-core low-power processor running at a modest 1.1 GHz. It is definitely out of date in the current age of 64-bit multi-core multi-gigahertz CPUs but we might still be able to work with it.

There is 1.2 gigabytes of RAM, an unusual amount that I’m sure it was quite a luxurious amount in its day. Not so much today, but not as bad as it could have been. In the days of Windows Vista there was an expectation that computer memory baseline would keep moving up, 2 then 4 then 8 gigabytes and beyond, but it hasn’t panned out that way. Demand emerged to run on lower-end hardware so recent builds of Linux and Windows 10 both included provisions to run on inexpensive tablets with 1 gigabyte or less of RAM.

The same break in the capacity trend also applied to storage. This machine has only a 30 gigabyte hard drive, and hard drive capacity have grown to multiple terabytes within the past decade. But the advent of solid-state storage plus the desire for inexpensive tablets with modest storage meant operating systems had to stay slim.

All the remaining accessories follow the same trend – definitely out of date but surprisingly still within the realm of relevance. A screen with resolution of 1280×768, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Ethernet and USB, SD card reader, all the trappings expected of a modern laptop.

There are a few amusing anachronisms: a CompactFlash reader in addition to the SD reader. There is no HDMI video out port – just VGA. And the best one of all – a telephone jack for dial-up modem connectivity.

LatitudeX1Modem

 

 

Tired PCI-Express Extension Cable Caused System Instability

I was ready for a break from working on the Luggable PC Mark II project and wanted to enjoy the results of my labor for a while. I started learning PIC programming but was frustrated by an unstable computer.

Revision A proved that the system works, and all components can happily run together reliably for a few weeks. But revision B was a problem child. It started off with occasional temporary recoverable system freezes. Then the system freezes would not recover and I had to power cycle the computer. Degrading further, the unpredictable failures would spontaneously reboot the computer.

The unpredictable nature of these events makes diagnosis difficult. Sometimes many hours would pass before an event, sometimes they would happen twice within the same minute. When one variable is changed, the system has to be left running to test if the change helped. Sometimes this meant running a system for hours before another reset occurred.

My initial suspicion was on overheating because a tremendous heat wave hit Los Angeles this week. But there was little correlation between temperature and stability. One of the “reboot itself multiple times within a minute” events occurred during the cool night.

The next suspicion was on power, as an under-voltage could cause these symptoms and the heat wave means a lot of air conditioners running in the neighborhood. But reboots continued after swapping in a different power supply and putting the system on an UPS.

The key insight was a system freeze during a work session where I had music playing in the background. The music continued but the screen is frozen, implying the video subsystem.

The PCI-Express extension cable was an unknown. I explicitly excluded one from Luggable Mark I just to eliminate that variable. As a test, the video card is inserted directly into the motherboard. The system is not luggable at all in this state but it proved informative because the system stayed stable for 24 hours.

NonLuggableState

Looking at the cable I removed from the system, I can see a lot of wrinkles from all the times I experimented with the layout and changed relative dimension of the components. Hypothesis: metal fatigue has started cracking some of the wires in this ribbon cable causing intermittent connections and general system chaos.

Wrinkly Cable

Normally a system installer would bend the ribbon cable into place once and leave it. I consider my usage pattern of performing many different bends over many weeks beyond normal expectation. Like bending a paperclip back and forth until it breaks.

In short: “My bad”.

I ordered another cable from the same vendor off Amazon, installed the replacement, and that restored system reliability. I plan to leave this second cable alone as much as possible. When I start working on revision C, I will use the old cable (now labelled “TEST”) to try out different layout ideas. Bend and flex and twist as I experiment. I won’t change the bends on the new cable until I settle on a layout.

Gigabyte Z270N-WiFi and its F1 Firmware

When I embarked on the Luggable PC project, the primary goal was to build a computer using components I already had on hand. This translated into the requirement to accommodate full-sized desktop PC components. Now that I’ve used it for a while and started to like carrying my full-time computer around, I’m building up for an upgrade. This time, instead of building a chassis around components I already had, I will buy smaller components with the intent of assembling a new luggable chassis.

First up: The motherboard. Out of all the commodity form factors, the best balance of small size, computation power, and reasonable price is the Mini-ITX form factor. I’ve already worked with a few boards of that form factor, but none with leading edge components. This changes with the purchase of a Gigabyte Z270N-WiFi.

GigabyteZ270N-WiFi
Image by Gigabyte

The specifications of the motherboard looked great on paper. In additional to the small Mini-ITX form factor, the features important to my project are:

  • Support for Intel’s latest Kaby Lake generation of processors
  • M.2 slot for SSD
  • PCIe x16 slot for full-power GPU
  • Wireless networking

Factors that were not critical, but used as tie-breakers against its competition:

  • Dual-port Intel gigabit wired Ethernet
  • 6 SATA ports
  • USB-C port
  • Bluetooth

Looks great on paper! Sadly in reality the motherboard made a very poor first impression due to the onboard firmware. It was heavy on flashy looks and light on usefulness. I ran into many problems with basic functionality.

Example 1: The USB mouse support was useless: I could move the cursor around with the mouse, but clicking has no effect.

Example 2: Upon startup, it shows a full-screen Gigabyte logo (basically an advertisement) that I find annoying. If I select the firmware option to disable the logo, the motherboard no longer boots: I have to reset the firmware settings via jumper to get back to square 1. This was such an unexpected thing that it took three resets before I determined it was the logo setting that caused the problem.

So the “F1” version of the motherboard firmware was a disaster. Fortunately by the time I bought the board, Gigabyte has released updates and is currently on “F4”. Upgrading allowed me to disable the Gigabyte advertisement and still have a functional computer, in addition to addressing other functional annoyances.

This motherboard was clearly pushed out the door with incomplete firmware and the expectation on users to upgrade. I now have a good motherboard, but there’s a sour taste in my mouth from the bad out-of-box experience.