Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): First Pass Evaluation

Taking apart this Chromebook immediately after taking apart the HP Split was a very instructive contrast in varied approaches taken when building a laptop. Even though the two devices were only 2-3 years apart, they ended up at very different destinations reflecting the philosophy of the software they were designed to run.

HP Split was built for Windows 8, together they positioned themselves to be all things to all people including ability to convert between tablet and laptop modes. And as a result the overall package is big and bulky. It tries to do everything, but it’s not especially great at any single task.

A Chromebook runs Chrome OS, which is a thin shell built around the Chrome web browser. It does not try to be anything else, and its simplicity in software was also reflected in a thin lightweight laptop built for a singular purpose and doing just that one thing well.

Windows 2-in-1 machines have evolved a lot since the first generation of devices like the HP Split, and while the penalty for compromises have been greatly reduced, they still exist in the form of weight, space, cost, or some trade off between them. In contrast, Chromebooks have remain thin and light machines in terms of software, hardware, and price tag.

If I wanted to turn this Chromebook into a robot brain computer, though, I need to break out of the Chrome OS sandbox and put it into developer mode. Unfortunately that menu is only visible on the primary display, which is broken. I could spend money on a replacement screen, but it seems wasteful just to use it to toggle the developer mode switch. A robot brain computer would not need a screen! So if I am to buy the screen, I should probably use it as a Chromebook laptop. The cost/benefit for that isn’t great, because Chrome OS may drop support for this hardware platform pretty quickly. When that happens,  security upgrades stop coming. [UPDATE: I returned to this machine and found a pleasant surprise on Chrome OS support.]

I will set this machine aside while I debate what to do. In the immediate future I have the third and final machine to examine in this research project.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Hardware Internals

While I contemplate buying a replacement screen to bring this Chromebook back to function, I removed the bottom panel as well, just for a look. Ten screws held the bottom panel in place, two of which were hidden under two rubber feet. (Top two as shown in this picture):

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 bottom

Once removed, we could see the surprisingly roomy interior.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 internals

This was a relatively thin laptop for its age and screen size, so I had expected components to be packed densely. The battery, a single large module in the center, dominated the volume as expected. On either side are speakers, each with the luxury of the largest enclosures than I’ve ever seen in laptop speakers. Far larger than the volume allocated to speakers within the HP Split. I’ve read that interior volume for audio tuning is at an extreme premium, with sound designers fighting for millimeters, so it was a surprise to see this. And even with that use of volume, there are still room left unused near the corners.

Electronics occupied the area close to the hinge. They covered less than half of the available surface area and far less than half of the available volume within this laptop. Most of the main circuit board was covered by a metal shield, so I removed it to see components underneath. (In this picture, the machine was rotated 180 degrees relative to previous picture.)

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 internals without EM shield

I see the CPU, RAM, and flash storage are all tightly integrated and soldered on board. No RAM or storage upgrades for this machine, which is consistent with the Chromebook ethos. About the only core component not soldered down is the commodity WiFi card, which I interpret to mean there was little to no cost savings to integrate an unit.

I had known about Chromebook’s concept of reduced complexity, but it was mostly in terms of software and maintenance. Since Chrome OS was running a Linux kernel under the hood, I expected the hardware to be just as complex as any other laptop. But apparently not this one, which I found very interesting. Now I’m curious if all Chromebooks have electronics guts simpler than equivalent full PC laptops. If I have the opportunity to take apart more Chromebooks in the future, I’ll keep an eye open to see if this is actually common across all Chromebooks or maybe the simplicity of this model is just good work on the part of the Toshiba Dynabook team which designed this Chromebook.

This was an interesting and instructive look inside the machine, time to put it back together and take stock of the current situation.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Replacement Screen Shopping

I have an old Chromebook that was pretty obviously retired due to a broken screen and I freed the damaged module for a closer look. I had no expectation that I could repair the display module, as there’s a visible crack. Interestingly the crack is inside the glass and not present at the outer-most surface. There’s also discoloration surrounding the crack hinting at more severe damage underneath. I could probably go online and find information on the display module used in this particular Chromebook, but getting the make and model is only a secondary objective. Before I contemplate a replacement, I wanted to first make sure I could install the replacement with low risk of damage. Hence the removal exercise to verify the lack of an impenetrable wall of glue or similar impediments.

It turned out getting to the actual module label was useful because this device was apparently sold in multiple configurations. There’s at least one variant with a minimal 1366×768 low resolution panel, and this device was an upscale version with a 1920×1080 panel. A search on Amazon marketplace found replacement new LP133WF2(SP)(A1) available for roughly $75 (*) and eBay sellers in a similar price range.

The price was the last piece of information I needed, now I need to make a decision about this project. $75 isn’t a terrible price to pay to bring a laptop computer back up and running, but it doesn’t compare very favorably to what else that money can be spent on. Even if we limit ourselves within the Chrome OS ecosystem.

New Chromebooks can be had for a little over $100 with the occasional sale, though at that price point we’re limited to 1366×768 resolution displays. I’ve seen 1920×1080 resolution Chromebooks at around $150 on sale, or roughly double the cost of a replacement panel. A new Chromebook would have access to newer developer features like Crostini that this Chromebook does not. A new Chromebook will also receive Chrome OS updates for at least five years, where support for this 2014 vintage ‘swanky’ Chromebook would end considerably sooner. Even if I put Ubuntu on this machine via Crouton, it is still dependent on Chrome OS for Linux kernel security updates.

At $75 for a new replacement panel, the economics is a tough call. I may contemplate buying salvaged panels which are available for less. (As of this writing, as low as $47.) I’ll keep thinking about this for a while. In the meantime, I want to look at the rest of this Chromebook out of curiosity.


(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Screen Removal

If I wanted to turn this Toshiba Chromebook 2 into a robot brain, I need to put it into developer mode to install software outside of Chrome OS. Unfortunately the menu to put it into developer mode is only visible on the primary display which is damaged and illegible. Time to explore what it would take to bring the screen back.

The screen bezel are held in place by two screws and a lot of plastic clips. Once the screws were removed, I could go around the perimeter and pop loose all the plastic clips.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 screen bezel screws

After the bezel was removed, I noticed a small magnet held inside. This allows the base to detect if the lid is open or closed via a Hall effect sensor. If we end up going without the screen and need to spoof lid state, this is where we would place a magnet.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 screen bezel magnet

The lid had heat-set inserts that looked like they could be used to help fasten the screen in place, but no fasteners. I thought maybe someone had investigated screen replacement before me and just didn’t put the screws back, but as it turns out, screws wouldn’t have done anything.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 heat set insert but no fastener

This screen is held by four adhesive pads, one at each corner. Perhaps a different model used a different screen with metal brackets that would have been held using screws, but this screen was held by sticky pads.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 screen freed from adhesive pads

Once freed from the four pads, the final point of attachment was the electrical connector. The plastic tag is actually adhesive tape, helping to keep two sides of the connector together together. Once plastic is peeled away from metal, it was easy to unplug the connector.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 screen cable

Disconnecting that connector freed the screen, and we can take a closer look.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Developer Mode

The upside of a Chromebook is that the user never has to worry about hardware specifications, applications minimum requirements, or any of the typical headaches of computer ownership. It’s all handled through the Chrome browser. The downside of a Chromebook is that the user is not allowed to install traditional computer applications. Or at least, not by default. Under the hood, Chrome OS runs a Linux kernel, and it’s possible to use that as a foundation to extend computing experience outside the walled garden of Chrome OS. I started learning about Crouton, a project using chroot capability of Linux kernel to allow a variant of Ubuntu or Debian to run on Chromebooks.

Documentation for Crouton referenced the Crostini project, a way to get a Linux shell and container support without putting a Chromebook into developer mode. It sounds like a great thing to try first! But unfortunately this particular Chromebook is not supported. More specifically, this Chromebook hardware generation with the code name ‘Swanky’ does not meet the hardware virtualization support required for Crostini.

Especially frustrating is the explanation that, while the Intel spec sheet says the Celeron N2840 has the required hardware virtualization support, ‘swanky’ Chromebooks actually use a special variant of the chip without such support. I guess it saved them some money at the time? Keeping in mind the original intent of Chromebooks, it made sense to cut out virtualization support. But that decision now cuts this laptop off from Crostini.

So no Crostini for this machine, back to looking at Crouton. And the next critical step is to switch this Chromebook into Developer Mode. Holding down ESC + Refesh then pressing power, I can see the broken display is illuminated but the external monitor is not. It appears the recovery/developer mode menu is shown only on the built-in display, which I can’t read. And unlike the power wash menu earlier, the screen mirror key combination has no effect on the developer mode menu.

I searched online for a complete procedure to put this Chromebook into developer mode. Unfortunately all I found were”press control-D from recovery screen and follow menus” which isn’t helpful when I can’t read the screen!

It appears if I want to venture outside the Chrome OS sandbox, I have to look into screen replacement and the first step is investigating its removal.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Hardware Specifications

The old Chromebook retired due to cracked screen has been updated to latest Chrome OS, so I started searching for its technical specifications. I stumbled right out of the gate, failing to find anything on toshiba.com. Eventually I learned Toshiba sold a majority share its laptop business to Sharp and the new company (does that make it a joint venture?) is called Dynabook.

This would explain why every single product support page for the CB35-B3340 I found was under the Dynabook domain. There is not a lot of detail here, as a Chromebook is supposed to be low maintenance and they carried that concept through to reduced number of things a user has to worry about. A Chrome OS user shouldn’t ever have to worry about gigahertz or gigabytes.

But I did get some useful information implying this machine meets requirements for running robot operating system (ROS). The Intel Celeron N2840 processor is 64-bit capable. The maximum clock speed is up to a very respectable 2.58GHz. But it is constrained to run under 7.5 Watts, so it’s still an open question whether it has enough processing power in practice. Typical web browsing only need CPU power in short bursts: render a web page, then wait for the user to read the page, before rendering the next page. But robot intelligence puts a consistent high workload and if the machine needs to stay under 7.5 Watts it might have trouble sustaining maximum clock speed.

Its 4GB of memory and 16GB of flash storage meet bare minimums for even contemplating an Ubuntu installation. I’m not sure if 16GB storage is enough for the full suite of ROS nodes, but it can certainly run the subset necessary to operate a particular robot. And just like how CPU operating pattern differs between Chrome OS and ROS, the storage I/O pattern will be very different between typical Chrome OS and ROS. There’s a risk the flash storage will wear prematurely, a concern to keep in mind.

But first, we have to get this system to a point where we can install ROS, because ROS doesn’t install on bare Chrome OS.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Reset and Restart

I have a Chromebook with a damaged screen. Fortunately I could connect an external monitor via HDMI and mirror the primary display. It makes the machine usable, which is an improvement, but I have to command display mirroring every time there is a change in state. I have to press the magic key combination after every boot-up, every user log-in, and every user log-out. It is rather less than ideal but at least I can proceed.

The first order of business is to erase the system. The Chrome OS login screen showed the image of someone’s Google profile. I don’t know who it is, and I don’t care. This person’s data is none of my business and, since it is a Chromebook, I know all their data is still available online with Google.

Chrome OS has a “Log in as Guest” option, which allowed me to access the system settings menu. I thought this was where a system reset could be commanded, but after coming up empty handed I went online for more research and learned a Chrome OS reset is actually triggered by a particular key combination upon power-up. I was worried the reset process would be restricted to the primary monitor, fortunately I could mirror that display to initiate the reset process which someone at Google decided to call a powerwash. Cute.

Once up and running on a blank slate, the next order of business is to update the system. There’s no telling how long it has been since this machine received a security update.

Chromebook 44.0.2403.156

This model Chromebook launched in 2014. Chrome OS 44.0.2403.156 was released August 19, 2015. Since Chrome OS auto-updates itself, it appears this particular machine lasted less than two years in use, possibly far less, before its screen was damaged. This makes me feel bad for the original owner.

Chromebook 53.0.2785.154

Update was a multi-stage process, I assume due to its age. I’m not familiar with Chrome OS development history but each of these steps probably transition across large architectural changes. The first round of update only took it to 53.0.2785.154 (October 2016).

Chromebook 72.0.3626.122

Another round brought it to 72.0.3626.122 (March 2019) This update resulted in a very different looking user interface and many items were moved around.

Chromebook 79.0.3945.123

Yet another round of updates brought it to 79.0.3945.123 (Jaunary 2020) which is the latest available. This is a pleasant surprise, as I had not expected this device to still be supported but it looks OK on the Developer Information For Chrome OS Devices page. This model launched in 2014, and Google only guarantees Chrome OS support for 5 years, so this device is probably living on borrowed time.

We’ll worry about that later. Now that we are up and running with latest Chrome OS, time to start looking at technical information.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 (CB35-B3340): Cracked Screen

By the time I wrapped up investigation of the HP Split tablet/laptop convertible, the Targus type I adapter arrived. I needed it to charge the battery in the remaining two machines of my research assignment from NUCC. I set aside the HP Split and started charging the Toshiba Chromebook. Once the charge LED turned from orange to white, I turned it on and the answer to “why was this machine retired?” was immediately apparent.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 CB35-B3340 screen detail

There is a large diagonal crack across the middle of the screen. Sometimes when a screen is damaged we could still read the content around the crack, but not here. The entire screen is illegible. Turning the machine on and off a few times, I saw the content is not consistent between runs. Either Chrome OS is booting to a dynamic splash screen every time, or what’s visible just have no correlation with the intended content.

Fortunately, this Chromebook has a HDMI video output port. Plugging it into a monitor, I see a very pretty picture of a night time landscape. This is probably a background picture, but without any controls, it is merely the secondary screen. The login prompt is still on the primary display I can’t read.

Since this was my first Chromebook, I didn’t know if there was a key combination I could press to toggle from this “extended” mode to “mirrored” mode where the login screen is sent to both displays. A little bit of research implied that there was, and a few minutes of fumbling found the magic keystroke: control plus an icon that might be maximizing a window or possibly going full screen.

Chromebook keyboard closeup

I’m not sure if it’s common to all Chromebooks or specific to this model, but at the moment it doesn’t matter. I can see the ChromeOS login screen on my external monitor, time to get down to business.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): First Pass Evaluation

After I had my fun looking inside this retired tablet/laptop convertible, I put it all back together and verified everything still worked. As far as I could tell there’s no functional problem with this machine, no deviation from original designed performance. It’s even capable of running the latest release of Windows 10.

Why it was retired by its original owner? My personal opinion points to the nature of a tablet/laptop convertible. When this class of devices were introduced alongside Windows 8, they were advertised to be machines that combine the best of both worlds. But Windows 8 failed to deliver its promised revolution in touch-centric tablet computing. So machines that made design compromises instead found themselves saddled with the problems of both worlds.

Even though it offered bigger screen real estate than the standard iPad, it had inferior resolution and responsiveness is sluggish. It is also significantly heavier on account of having all the hardware of a PC inside the case, including the hard drive I failed to replace. For normal web browsing and content consumption, it isn’t any better than an iPad. Sure, it can be docked into the base to do things an iPad can’t, but that just brings in a different set of problems.

The laptop mode dock had to support the weight of a full PC inside the tablet module, whereas normal laptops only had to support the weight of the screen. This class of hardware became inherently top-heavy and required a lot of design work to keep from toppling over. Up to and including unfortunate additions of counterweights. The hinge and docking mechanism adds parts weight and cost, resulting in a laptop that is bulkier and more expensive than non-convertible counterparts. This machine is nominally a 13″ laptop but it is almost double the physical volume and weight of a 13″ Macbook Air from the same era.

The computer market of 2020 have some pretty compelling 2-in-1 machines, built with the advantage of several years of hardware advancement. High resolution screens, flash storage, and power-efficient CPUs that can run on smaller lighter batteries. They incurred a much smaller penalty for the compromises of a convertible design. Technology moved on, and first generation convertibles like this model were left behind.

But even if it is no longer desirable as either a tablet or a laptop, this machine is still capable of running latest generation of software. Including latest releases of Windows 10, Ubuntu, and both ROS 1 and 2. Despite being saddled by the performance of a hybrid hard drive, I’m confident some interesting use for this machine will be possible. I’ll set this promising machine aside for now to examine the next unit in line.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Docking Base Internals

After I’ve poked around in the main tablet unit of this convertible laptop, attention shifted to the docking base. There were 9 screws, 4 of which were hidden under rubber feet which had to be removed.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx base

Once the screws were removed, only a few tabs held the panel in place. Since the base had functionality in addition to just hosting a keyboard and touchpad, it was not a surprise to find circuit boards near the USB ports, HDMI port, and SD card reader. But there is also a long, much larger than expected, circuit board. This base must be more sophisticated than what I gave it credit for.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx base unused connector

An unused connector caught my attention. Typically when a connector is not used, it is not even soldered to the board. (See earlier examination of a potential M.2 connector.) This connector is soldered, but unused. Perhaps supporting a feature of an upscale model or an optional upgrade, but I have no guesses on what it might be.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx base possible ballast

Another unusual point of interest are these two pieces of metal flanking the touch pad. They appear to serve no electrical or structural purpose, and I speculate they are here just to provide a few grams of weight. Convertible tablets like this device are top-heavy and it’s a challenge to prevent them from toppling over backwards when open. Clever geometry could solve most of this problem, but when all else fails, bolt some counterweight to the base far from the hinge for leverage. Some laptop shoppers compare by weight, motivating companies to go to great lengths to reduce overall weight. Adding counterweights negates the effort, so I would guess these were done as a last resort.

There was more inside this base than I had expected. Now that I’ve looked around the insides, it’s time to put this machine back together and write down some concluding thoughts before moving on.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Tablet Innards

I took apart this convertible tablet/laptop with the goal of upgrading a SATA hybrid drive to a full SSD, but I was foiled. Since I had it open anyway, I took a look around. With the hybrid drive sitting directly in the middle and batteries on either side, circuit boards were necessarily scattered on either side with ribbon cables connecting them.

Most of the computing brains resided on a circuit board up top, and peripheral interfaces lived on the bottom. Including the microSD slot, headphone jack, charging port, and the docking connector. In between them were black speaker assemblies, one left and one right.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx wifi module

There were also provisions for interface cards to flank left and right of the main processing board. On one side is a WiFi interface module, with wires leading to antennae. The antenna is smaller than I had expected, but I don’t know enough to say if this necessarily meant reduced WiFi range. I also noticed the WiFi module didn’t occupy the entire width of the interface slot, leaving a few pins unconnected. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx unpopulated connector

The opposite side is even more interesting, with pads for an absent connector. This has roughly the pin counts to be a M.2 “B key” edge connector which could support a M.2 SSD. There’s also a hole cast into the chassis that’s roughly the correct distance to secure a M.2 2280 card. But like my previous experience with unpopulated connectors, several adjacent supporting components also seem to be missing from the circuit board so I am not confident I can just solder a M.2 connector and make things go.

I was curious if the 4GB RAM on this board could be upgraded. If a standard memory module is here it would be under the metal shield covering most of the processing board, but I didn’t want to dig that deep just yet. 4GB is enough to cover basic tasks and it is clearly not designed to be easily upgraded.

[UPDATE: I dug deeper and didn’t find memory modules.]

With curiosity about the tablet internals satisfied for the moment, I reassembled the tablet module and turned my attention to the docking base.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): SATA But Not As I Know It

I got this retired laptop up and running, but it felt sluggish and I thought I should try upgrading the SATA hybrid drive to a full SSD, which meant it was time to bring out the screwdriver set and dig in. When the tablet module is removed from its docking base, we can see four circles for the screws holding the tablet together. Unfastening those four screws allowed me to travel around the perimeter to pop clips loose all around the shell, allowing me to extract the heart of the machine. Flipping it face down, we see the hard drive is in the center flanked by battery modules on either side.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx tablet internals

Quite a few black adhesive-backed sheets help keep things from rattling loose. I had to peel several back to access the drive, which was itself in a foil package that I couldn’t figure out how to remove without damage. I ended up tearing the whole foil off to expose the hard drive and its data connector. I immediately realized I had a problem.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx unexpected SATA connector

I’ve never seen this kind of drive connector before. This machine’s spec sheet called it a SATA drive, but it is apparently not the same kind of SATA drive I’ve dealt with to date. Certainly the SATA SSD I had planned to install into this machine would not fit, seeing how it has an entirely different (and much larger) connector.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx will not take SATA drive on hand

Removing the original drive, its label identifies itself as a WD Black Solid State Hybrid Drive. 500 GB capacity with 8GB NAND Model WD5000M21K. A search indicates this connector is called SFF-8784. (*) Adapters are available (*) to put one of these drives in a SATA slot type I’m familiar with, which looks to be only possible because of its compact dimensions. And because of those dimensions, the reverse is not possible: we can’t put the popular form factor SATA drive into a space designed for SFF-8784. However, there exist adapters (*) to put a mSATA drive into such a location, or adaptor for a M.2 form factor SATA drive (*).

I own a few M.2 SATA SSDs, but they are currently in active use. When I retire one it might be interesting to get a M.2 adapter to put in this machine. I’ll wait until that happens, or until an interesting project arises, before buying anything. [UPDATE: A M.2 SATA SSD became available for experimentation, and I got an adapter (actually two) to perform the upgrade.]

I have to abandon the SATA SSD upgrade project for now, but since I already have the shell open, I’m going to look around just for curiosity’s sake.


(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Up And Running

I’ve looked over exterior and spec sheet for the first of three research project laptops from NUCC. With its battery charged, I turned it on to see what we have. I was greeted with the login screen for an installation of Ubuntu 14. This was enough to verify the system boots and runs. I do not have the password, so it was time to wipe the disk and install a fresh operating system. I have a suitable USB flash drive on hand with the Ubuntu 18.04 installer.

I usually work with Dell laptops, whose typical convention is to hold down F12 while turning it on to select booting from a USB installation drive. This did not work, so I went back to HP documentation to find it is actually F9 for this laptop. Furthermore, since this keyboard is the type to make function keys pull multi duty, it appears I had to also hold down the Fn key at the same time as F9. It’s important not to lose the docking base as neither F9 upon powerup nor USB installation disk is possible with just the tablet module.

It took a few tries before system boot selector recognized the Ubuntu 18 installation USB drive. I don’t think it is random when USB drives are recognized as a boot option. But if it is not random, it was definitely following a system I did not quite understand. Still, I eventually got Ubuntu 18 installer to run successfully.

Normal everyday functionality appears to work under Ubuntu 18, surprisingly this included the portrait/landscape orientation sensor and a touch friendly on-screen keyboard. When Ubuntu abandoned Unity in version 18, I thought their ambition of a unified tablet-friendly interface also died. I now know I was wrong. But even though single-point touch worked well, multi-point touch support is lacking. One example: two finger pinch failed to zoom in/out as expected.

Which meant if I wanted consistent multi-touch support on this screen, I will need to install Windows. Touchscreen tablet/laptop convertibles like this are likely to be from the Windows 8 era, which meant it’s likely to have a Windows license key embedded in the hardware. This hypothesis was confirmed when Windows 10 build 1911 reported itself activated after an uneventful installation onto this laptop.

Both Ubuntu and Windows were more sluggish than I had expected for this machine. A look at system activity shows a lot of time waiting for disk. I guess neither OS is compact enough to fit within the 8GB NAND cache of this hybrid drive. To verify this hypothesis, I’ll try to upgrade the SATA hybrid drive to a full SATA SSD and see if it makes the system more responsive.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Hardware Specifications

The first of three old laptops from NUCC to be examined stumped me at first. I found very little information printed on the device and it took a while before I realized it was a convertible tablet. All the information labels were hidden while the tablet was docked. Once I separated the pieces, I could read all the identifiers including its model number 13-r010dx. From there it was easy to find HP’s product page for this machine.

While in laptop mode, the device has a full size SD memory card slot, one HDMI port, and two USB ports. By detaching the base turning it into a tablet, we also expose a duplicate charging jack, a headphone jack, and a microSD memory card slot. I find it odd that the headphone jack is a tablet mode exclusive, and even more odd that they felt it was important to have two flash memory slots.

For robot brain purposes I would have preferred to have a physical Ethernet jack but I can do without. USB Ethernet adapters are plentiful, though the ones I’ve tried had problems with long term reliability. On the upside, both memory card slots are full depth slots so cards sits flush against exterior and would not jut out. So for example, I could keep a microSD card in the tablet and still dock it to the keyboard base without mechanical interference. For robot brain purposes, memory cards are useful for data transfer and logging.

Keyboard feel is decent and the accompanying touchpad is satisfactorily large. Sadly the screen resolution was a disappointing 1366×768. It was accompanied by tablet style features like a touchscreen and a portrait/landscape orientation sensor. None of these would be critical as a robot brain but might be pertinent for other uses.

A sticker proclaimed its processor to be a Core i3, the spec sheet elaborated it is a Core i3-4012Y that I expect to be capable but not super speedy. 4GB of RAM should be sufficient for most purposes, and storage is a SATA hybrid hard drive with 500GB of spinning magnetic platter storage backed by 8GB of NAND Flash memory cache. I don’t recall any prior experience with these hybrid drives and looking forward to seeing one in action. The charge port LED changed from orange to white indicating full charge by the time I was ready to turn it on.

HP Split X2 (13-r010dx): Charge and Split

I came home from Sparklecon 2020 with several laptops that had been awaiting reuse at NUCC. I took on the research project to determine the best way to put them to work. My primary goal was to turn them into robot brains, but I will need to keep my mind and eyes open for the best use. All three machines had depleted batteries, so I had no idea of their current condition.

I started with the bulkiest machine of the bunch, primarily because I could start charging its batteries with a Targus universal laptop AC adapter I already had on hand along with the H2 tip that seemed to fit charging jack dimensions. When I plugged it in, I saw an orange LED illuminate on the laptop and we were in business. The other two laptops appear to take Targus type I tip, currently on order via the “Tips from Targus” program and I’ll examine them after the adapter arrives and I could power them.

While I waited for some power to be put back into this flat battery, I wiped down the machine with a disinfectant wipe and examined the machine as I did so. I was surprised at the sparse text at the bottom of the machine. I would have expected to find a model number, FCC ID, the usual identifiers, but I only found a few cryptic alphanumeric designations. Fiddling with the various controls I found, I pushed a slider and the machine came apart in my hands. I panicked for a second before realizing this was supposed to happen.

HP Split X2 13-r010dx tablet

This machine is a tablet/laptop convertible, and the screen could detach from its base. The bottom of the screen, previously blocked by the keyboard base, is where all the product identification information were. Now I can get started researching this device.

Dell Latitude E6230: Working Too Well To Be Dismembered, NUCC to the Rescue

The previous few blog posts about my refurbished Dell Latitude E6230 was written several months ago and had sat waiting for a long-term verdict. After several months of use I’m now comfortable proclaiming it to be a very nice little laptop. Small, lightweight, good battery life, and decently high performance when I need it. (At the cost of battery life when doing so, naturally.)

The heart of this machine is a third generation Intel Core i5, which covers the majority of computing needs I’ve had while away from my desk. From the basics like 64-bit software capability to its ability to speed itself up to tackle bigger workloads. When working away from a wall plug and running on battery, the E6230 slows only minimally. Unlike my much newer Inspiron 7577 which slows drastically while on battery to the extent that it occasionally felt slower than the E6230. I can run my 7577 for perhaps two to four hours on battery, never far from a reminder of its limited on-battery performance. Whereas I can run the E6230 for around four to six hours on battery, without feeling constrained by reduced performance.

The E6230 has several other features I felt would be good for a robot brain. Top of the list is an Ethernet port for reliable communication in crowded RF environments. Several “SuperSpeed” USB 3 ports are useful for interfacing with hardware. And when I want more screen real estate than the built-in screen can offer, I have my choice of VGA or HDMI video output.

That built-in screen, with its minimal 1366×768 resolution, is about the only thing standing between this machine and greatness. Originally I did not care, because I had planned to tear the case apart and embed just the motherboard in a robot. But this laptop is working too darned well to be subjected to that fate! For the near future I plan to continue using the E6230 as a small laptop for computing on-the-go, and kept my eyes open for other old laptops as robot brain candidates.

An opportunity arose at Sparklecon 2020, when I mentioned this project idea to NUCC. They had a cabinet of laptops retired for one reason or another. I was asked: “What do you need?” and I said the ideal candidate would be a laptop with a broken screen and/or damaged keyboard, and have at least a Core i3 processor.

We didn’t find my ideal candidate, but I did get to bring home three machines for investigation. Each representing a single criteria: one with a busted screen, one with a busted keyboard, and one with a Core i3 processor.

Close enough! And now it’s time for me to get to work on a research project: determine what condition these machines are in, and how they can be best put to use.

Sparklecon 2020 Day 2: Arduino VGAX

Unlike the first day of Sparklecon 2020, I had no obligations on the second day so I was a lot more relaxed and took advantage of the opportunity to chat and socialize with others. I brought Sawppy back for day two and the cute little rover made more friends. I hope that even if they don’t decide to build their own rover, Sawppy’s new friends might pass along information to someone who would.

I also brought some stuff to tinker at the facilities made available by NUCC. Give me a table, a power strip, and WiFi and I can get a lot of work done. And having projects in progress is always a great icebreaker for fellow hardware hackers to come up and ask what I’m doing.

Last night I was surprised to learn that one of the lighting panels at NUCC is actually the backlight of an old computer LCD monitor. The LCD is gone, leaving the brilliant white background illuminating part of the room. That motivated me to dust off the giant 30-inch monitor I had with a bizarre failure mode making it useless as a computer monitor. I wasn’t quite willing to modify it destructively just yet, but I did want to explore the idea of using the monitor as a lighting panel. Preserving the LCD layer, I can illuminate things selectively without overly worrying about the pixel accuracy problems that made it useless as a monitor.

The next decision was the hardest: what hardware platform to use? I brought two flavors of Arduino Nano, two flavors of Teensy, and a Raspberry Pi. There were solutions for ESP32 as well, but I didn’t bring my dev board. I decided to start at the bottom of the ladder and started searching for Arduino libraries that generate VGA signals.

I found VGAX, which can pump out a very low resolution VGA signal of 160 x 80 pixels. The color capability is also constrained, limited to a few solid colors that reminded me of old PC CGA graphics. Perhaps they share similar root causes!

To connect my Arduino Nano to my monitor, I needed to sacrifice a VGA cable and cut it in half to expose its wires. Fortunately NUCC had a literal bucketful of them and I put one to use on this project. An electrical testing meter helped me find the right wires to use, and we were in business.

Arduino VGAX breadboard

The results were impressive in that a humble 8-bit microcontroller could produce color VGA signals. But they were not very useful in the fact that this particular library is not capable of generating full screen video, only part of the screen was filled. I thought I might have done something wrong, but the FAQ covered “How do I center the picture” so this was completely expected.

I would prefer to use the whole screen in my project, so my search for signal generation must continue elsewhere. But seeing VGAX up and running started gears turning in Emily’s brain. She had a few project ideas that might involved VGA. Today’s work gave a few more data points on technical feasibility, so some of those ideas might get dusted off in the near future. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ll continue my VGA exploration with a Teensy microcontroller.

SparkleCon Day 2

A great part of SparkCon is its atmosphere. It is basically a block party held by 23b Shop and friends in the same business park. Located in Fullerton, CA, the venue’s neighborhood is a mix of residential, retail, and commercial properties. As a practical matter, this meant good eats like Don Carlos Mexican Restaurant and Monkey Business Cafe were in easy walking distance.

Originally my Day 2 was going to start bright and (too) early for me at 9AM with the KISS Tindies presentation, but the relaxed easygoing nature of the event meant a schedule change was possible and we did it at noon instead. I loved talking to all my fellow people who thought my circuit sculptures were more interesting than a certain football game taking place around the same time.

Roger presenting at Sparklecon - Drew Fustini
Photo by Drew Fustini

Roger presenting at Sparklecon
Photo by Jaren Havell

It was another great opportunity to practice public speaking. I think it went well and some people let me know afterwards that they enjoyed the talk. Success!

The table and couches of NUCC once again hosted various hacks. Emily’s little green-tinted CRT attracted immediate attention.

Emily green tinted LED on NUCC table at Sparklecon

It wasn’t long before it hosted a Matrix waterfall of characters.

Emily wants to host a version of Adafruit Hallowing’s default eyeball program on her tiny round CRT. To see how it would look, Emily and Jaren took a video of the Hallowing eyeball and played it back on a Raspberry Pi.

While this was underway, I was unwinding by playing with my copper wires. Yesterday I made a crude taco truck, today I tried to make an abstract steam locomotive out of a single wire. There was no planning involved, so it was no surprise I ran out of wire before I could finish.

Single wire steam engine

Elsewhere on the table were electronic noisemakers to play with. To the left is a “Dronie” assembled by @hackabax this weekend, next to another of his noisemaker devices whose name I forgot. Inside the metal case in the right is one of Emily’s earlier projects, a simple sequencer powered by a pair of 555 timers.

Noisemakers Unite.jpg

One casualty of the pouring rain were the robot competitions, but the Hebocon boxes were still set out for people to play with. Maybe we won’t have robots this time, but we can still have other interesting contraptions.

Hebocon boxes at Sparklecon

Sometimes “interesting” veered into “unsettling”…

Barbie head baseball flag thing

It was a great weekend, rain or no rain. I had the opportunity to present one of my projects and saw it was well-received. I got to see people I’ve met before at other events, and met some new people too. And it was a great way to learn about spaces I’ve only heard about before. Chances are good I’ll be back at 23b Shop and/or NUCC before next Sparklecon rolls around.

SparkleCon Day 1

I have arrived at SparkleCon! I had thought this event was just at the hackerspace 23b Shop, but it is actually spread across several venues in the same business park. The original plan also included activity in the parking lot between these venues, but a powerful storm ruined those plans. Given this was in Southern California the locals are not very well equipped to handle any amount rain, never mind the amount that came pouring from the sky today. So people packed into the indoor venues where it was warm and dry. STAGESTheatre is where some talks were held, like Helen Leigh‘s talk From Music Tech Make to Manufacture demonstrating her Mini Mu.

Sparklecon Day 1 mini mu

The doors of Plasmatorium was also open and primary source of music. And finally the National Upcycling Computer Collective which had this festive sign displayed.

Sparklecon Day 1 sign

One corner of NUCC was set up with a pair of couches and a table, which grew into KISS Tindie headquarters. The original plan was to set up an inflatable couch and table someplace in the outdoor region, but the rain cancelled those plans and we took over this space instead.

Sparklecon Day 1 NUCC CouchThe table started the day empty, and there was a time when it was populated by scattered stickers, but towards the evening it became an electronics workshop. Here we can see multiple simultaneous projects underway.

Sparklecon Day 1 Workbench

I had a few taco, fries, and octopus kits to give out. While talking about tacos and KISS Tindie sculptures, it was suggested that I use my newfound circuit sculpture skills to build a taco truck. So I did!

Sparklecon Day 1 taco truck