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.

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.

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.)

[UPDATE: I figured out Windows 10 activates itself on Windows 8 machines.]

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 is 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.

No AC Adapter, No Problem! Alternate Power Source for an Acer Aspire Switch.

Once I was done gawking the clever magnetic attachment mechanism of the Acer SW5-012, it’s time to get back to trying to get it to run. The machine was able to power up on its remaining battery power for a little bit, but now it needs more juice. Since I was given this computer in nonfunctional “as-is” state, the AC power adapter was not part of the package.

Disinclined to spend any money on this machine, but willing to spend time, I went online to look for information about the AC adapter. Unfortunately there appeared to have been several similar but different computers sold under the “Acer Aspire Switch 10” name. And while it’s unclear if all of them use the same AC power adapter, the adapters were consistently stated to be an unit that outputs 12V DC.

This is great news as I have many ways to deliver 12V DC among my collection of tools and parts. But I have no plugs on hand that fits the existing power socket. I examined the power connector to the motherboard and saw four wires. A continuity check confirmed that it’s a simple positive terminal and ground terminal, with a pair of wires electrically connected for each. None of the wires are electrically distinct from power, so I don’t have to worry about data handshaking signals that are involved in charging certain other laptops.

Armed with this information, I removed the existing 12V power socket and the associated bracket. I cut the wire connecting the socket to the motherboard and soldered a JST RCY connector in its place.

Acer JST RCY adaptation

This type of connector is popular with remote-control aircraft and frequently used to carry roughly 12 volts (3-cell lithium rechargeable battery) at up to 3 amps. I reassembled the tablet, connected a 12V power source, and was reassured by illumination of the charging activity light. After a few hours, the tablet was charged up and ready to go again. Success!

 

Functional Simplicity of the “Acer Smart Hinge”

Yesterday’s post was about trying to bring an Acer SW5-012 back to life, which was fortunately as easy as reseating a ribbon cable. One of the reasons I was so eager to crack that thing open was my fascination with its hinge attachment mechanism. This was one of the “convertible” machines launched in the Windows 8 era and evolution of the category continued to this day with computers like the Microsoft Surface Book.

The hinge attachment/release mechanism for the Surface Book featured precisely machined components and electronics to control a wire of memory alloy. This Acer is a much cheaper machine so its nifty connector must also be simpler. Before I pried it open, I mentally tried to figure out how I would design such a mechanism.

At the time I thought the battery was flat, so I excluded any electronics in the design. It had to work without power, which made me think about magnets. A few small magnets to detect when the base is close to the screen, and pull against some spring-loaded arms to hold the thing together. When I pull on the screen, the force overcomes the springs to releases the arms.

Once I popped off the back cover of the computer, I could check my design against the answer and… well, I got the magnets part right even though it was based on a false premise (the battery was not flat like I thought.) And all the spring-loaded arms and clips and levers? Unnecessary complexity. I knew it had to be simpler than the Surface Book mechanism, but it was far simpler than what I imagined.

The actual mechanism consisted of magnets and… that’s it. Just some very cleverly placed magnets. When the screen is installed on the base, the magnets attract like we expect them to do, holding things together.

Acer Hinge Engaged

So what happens when we lift the screen away from the base? What’s causing that mechanical “click” sound?

When the base is lifted, the magnets in the screen is pulled away from the magnets in the base. Lacking the strong attraction, the magnets in the screen searched for the next best thing and finds a few metal plates slightly recessed into the cavity. The “click” is the magnet moving from the no-longer-there base magnet to the metal plate. When the magnets are attached to this inner metal plate, they are a few millimeters away from the edge of the unit but that’s far enough to keep it from picking up errant metal bits (paperclips, staples, etc.) while it is in tablet mode.

Acer Hinge Released

When the screen is reinstalled on the base, the screen magnet leave the metal plate in favor of the magnet in the base, making another “click”.

The Acer manual called it the “Acer Smart Hinge” and I agree it’s very smart – on the part of the people who designed it. Its simplicity lends to lower manufacturing cost and also to its reliability – no springs to break, no latch to wear out.

I am impressed.

Acer Aspire Disabled By Loose Cable.

I recently received an old Acer Aspire Switch 10 computer that no longer ran: there was no response when pushing the power button. The most obvious hypothesis is that the batteries are flat and need to be charged. Unfortunately, my gift of the computer did not include its matching AC power adapter.

If I was confident that was the only issue, I would go out and buy a power adapter. But I didn’t know if there were more serious problems in this machine and didn’t want to throw money at an unknown quantity. Besides, I received this computer on the premise that I wanted to take it apart for fun, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Putting its serial number into Acer’s support site told me the model number (SW5-012) and part number (NT.L4TAA.018), but no service manual. I’m spoiled by Dell who usually releases a service manual detailing how to take apart and service a computer. Apparently Acer does not follow the practice.

There were no obvious external fasteners I could loosen, so I started prying at the visible seams to see if I could release plastic clips. Once I had three loose, the remainder (~25 in all) easily popped off in sequence.

My target was the battery module which I planned to remove and charge directly. Removing the battery required removing several pieces of tape. Some of these pieces of tape were applied over connectors, presumably to help the cables stay in place. One of these cables traversed the length of the battery so I had to remove the tape and the cable to free the battery. After I carefully peeled off the tape, I reached out to disconnect the cable and… it fell off freely.

Hmm, that wasn’t supposed to happen.

This cable connects the motherboard on one side of the machine to a small circuit board on the other side. The small circuit board hosts the Windows button, the volume up/down buttons, the headphone jack, and… the power button. If this cable was disconnected, it would explain why pushing the power button had no response.

Acer Power Ribbon

Since the battery was accessible now, I checked its voltage: 4.01V. Comfortably above the ~3.7V nominal voltage of a lithium-ion battery so the problem with this computer was not a dead battery. Maybe it’s the loose cable I just came across? I reinstalled the cable and pushed the power button again.

And… it’s alive!