[06.12.10] Military Laptop Rebuild

Details Image & Link
I received a 90's militarized laptop with equivalently ancient components as a gift from an older sibling. I really liked how rugged it was, but it was terribly slow. Even with Linux running from a flash drive, the laptop crawled. I wanted to upgrade the laptop from the inside out to create a true netbook competitor. And I wasn't going to settle with 2 hours of battery life either.

This is the unmodified laptop on day one of the build. The rubber "bumpers" on the laptop truly define the Ultra-Rugged category, for this laptop looks more like a suit case than an actual laptop. On further notice, the laptop has water tight side "doors" which protect inner circuitry from shorting when in wet locations. Behind these doors, such peripherals as CD drives, pcmcia cards, floppy drives and oodles of old school I/O ports inhabit the chassis of the laptop.The robust aluminum shell and large sized screws (in comparison to those used on traditional laptops), makes this an ideal platform for building a indestructible mobile companion. The screw-lock bays make this platform even more convenient for expansion and flexibility in design, making this Dolch laptop an ideal modding laptop.
What I found even more surprising is that this laptop is still produced today, just under a different brand name. So far, I have seen four ultra rugged laptops with just about the exact same design labeled under "Promark," "Dolch," "Kontron" and "Getac" brands. Currently, Getac is the only remaining brand/company which still produced this laptop:
Getac A790 Website link (us.Getac.com)
I am not exactly 100% sure about the circle of buyouts here, or who originally designed or produced this laptop, but I am led to believe that Getac originally designed and produced this laptop. According to Getac's history page, they made their first ruggedized military laptop in 1993, the same year the Intel Pentium launched. Being a Taiwanese company, Getac did not have an American branch until 1995 and in order to sell its products in Europe and the Americas, it needed a company with more "clout" to sell its products, so it allowed their laptops to be rebranded. Getac's laptops were then sold under different brand names, such as the Dolch NotePAC line and under Promark. In this way, Getac acted as an ODM for Dolch and Promark.
Promark and Dolch continued to rebrand Getac notebooks for several years, then Promark either restructured or was acquired sometime in the 1990s. Dolch was later acquired by Kontron in 2005. Dolch continued to rebrand Getac's products, just under a new name - Kontron.
Since Kontron was mainly interested in Dolch for its experience in test equipment and the military/defense market, Kontron sold off the Dolch NotePAC brand name in 2007 to Azonix. Just as Dolch did in the past, Azonix continued to sell rebranded Getac notebooks with the Dolch NotePAC brand name (as well as the Azonix logo of course). However, I do not think Azonix sells the NotePAC any longer, as their website no longer has any references of the NotePAC line.
Getac, on the other hand, has successfully established their brand name over the past decade, and have become known for their super durable laptops.


I actually found original Dolch NotePAC pdfs by digging around a bit online:
Dolch NotePAC pdf from 2003
Dolch A770

Historical information about Getac's
Kontron laptop in the news (linuxfordevices.com)
Kontron on notebookcheck (notebookcheck.com)
Kontron acquires Dolch
Azonix acquires Dolch NotePAC brand
Promark now redistributing Getac laptops
Kontron now redistributing Getac laptops
Definition of a Dolch
High quality Dolch logo
Index of other Dolch NotePACs
Getac A770 Review
Getac A790 Review
Azonix pdf of NotePAC
Praise for Dolch NotePAC
1990's article on introduction of ruggedized notebooks
Analysis of Ultrarugged computer market
Ulrarugged notebook becomes a category
More Getac A790
Getac Mitac info

After that bit of analysis, the model number on the bottom of the laptop seems to make a lot more sense:
A320T, a fore runner to Getac's current A790

Surprisingly enough, Getac still has all the A320T information on their current website!
I give them a lot of respect for that, as many companies just abandon their legacy products and discard all information associated with the product. Getac has everything available for the A320T, including all drivers and even the owners manual.
They did not even skimp on the owners manual either! there are full fledged pictures and diagrams of the actual laptop, not vague outlines traditionally used my manufactures. Thank you Getac.
Here is the owners manual:
Getac download link
Sure enough, the specs of this laptop matched the manual:
  • 500MHz Intel Pentium III
  • 64mb ram (I upgraded to 196mb of course)
  • 12.1in 16bit color TFT SVGA resolution (800x600) + touchscreen
  • Dustproof rubber keyboard
  • operation from 0C to +45C
  • Removable shock proof damped 2.5”IDE HDD
  • Dimensions:
    • 310mm (31 cm)     W 
    • 68mm  (6.8 cm)     H 
    • 255mm (25.5 cm)   D
  • Weight:
    • 11.24 lbs (5.1kg)

More interesting links about ultrarugged laptops:

Getac A770/A790 info & specs:
A790 info & specs (ruggednotebooks.nl)
A790 Kontron edition (ruggednotebooks.nl)

Getac A770/790 parts:
getacparts.com

Pictures:
A790 picts (acturion.com)
Picasa Rugged Laptop Photo Album (under Getac A320T)
Kontron edition (linuxfordevices.com)
Getac A770 (newtoughbook.com)
Getac A770/790 (ruggednotebooks.nl)

A770/790 & similar model mods:
Getac A790 Mods & External Docks (ruggednotebooks.com)
Getac A790 accessories (Getac.kiv.ua)
Getac A790 Additional Docks (ankaracelik.com)
Getac A790 Test Videos (youtube)
Steatite rugged systems (steatite-rugged.co.uk)
Getac customization service (us.Getac.com)
Getac tuning blog (Beltronic’s Weblog)
imd-gmbh.de
duratechusa.com

Here is the rear of the laptop, a quick close up shows that the motherboard supports external video (VGA), parallel, serial, and USB 1.1. It definitely has an interesting design as the ports are literally milled out of the case. This is going to be quite a task for mounting any standard format motherboard, since this does not conform to any standard I/O, and half of these ports are no longer incorporated into today's motherboards.
I have to say, laptop disassembly was a breeze! Unlike OEM laptops where screws are often hidden under labels for design purposes or too small for a normal sized screw driver, the screws on this laptop were all up front and visible. later on in the disassembly I noticed there were screws under rubber "plugs" but that is understandable, as this laptop is designed to be weatherproof.

I began by taking apart the laptop by the 9 phillips screws on top.
After removing these 9 black screws, I found 2 screws in the LCD hinge bumpers, one on each side. These screws were under rubber plugs, which I removed with a small flat head screw driver.

Once these screws were removed, I was able to remove the top "lid" of the laptop. This "lid" contained the trackpad, the trackpad buttons, the activity LEDs, the power button and the keyboard.

With the "lid" removed, the central motherboard became visable, along with the plethora of daughterboards. There was a daughterboard for Ethernet, for the modem, for the secondary battery and for the Pcmcia card. This seems a bit odd for the design of a laptop, but this is no ordinary laptop. The components inside the laptop were super scaled.
Do you know how the daughterboards were connected? IDE scale JTAG headers. Not thin ribbon cables or some proprietary cable and connection. The one ribbon cable inside the laptop was for the keyboard. That's it. Simply amazing.
Here's a better shot of the ribbon cable that connects to the keyboard and touch pad. Since I want to keep this laptop as stock as possible (besides inner components), the keyboard and track pad pinout will become crucial for the nostalgic function of this notebook.
However, I noticed that there is a backlight rubberized keyboard available for this model (which is still incorporated in the A790) and I may look around online for it or contact Getac. That would be a sweet addition to this laptop build, that is for sure.
(image from ruggednotebooks.nl)

After removing the top palm rest and LCD hinge assembly,access to the inner components become even easier. As visible in the picture, there is ABSOLUTELY NO crowding inside the laptop, there is t least 1 cm of headroom between each component, something totally foreign to today's notebook designs. 
Since the 500MHz PIII is too slow for most of today's applications on windows, as well as barebone Linux, I removed the motherboard and all attached peripherals. After removing the motherboard, the massive baseplate heat sink becomes easily assessable. To remove the base form the laptop shell requires the removal of a dozen or more screws under rubber pads.

The copper tubing visible in the picture is designed to move heat away from the processor to the bottom aluminum plate of the laptop, allowing for heat to dissipate to the laptop's surroundings. I will most likely reutilize this design or design an entirely new base which matches the screw holes in the case. It will probably be made out of a convoluted copper plate, coated to prevent oxidation, or a larger aluminum base with a similar copper heat pipe design.
The next step was to reassemble the parts of the laptop that I wanted to keep stock. I wanted to keep the base (for the time being), the overall shell, side doors, palmrest, keyboard, and LCD assembly original for the entirety of the project in order to integrate that nostalgic feel of age old computing. Keeping the laptop shell intact also helps prevent the loss of screws.
Next up is the removal of the LCD panel. The panel used in this laptop was a 12.1in 800x600 4:3 aspect LCD. Honestly, 800x600 is far too little real estate for anyone to be productive on a computer, so I decided to remove the old panel and find a higher resolution panel instead.
Conveniently enough, the LCD case can easily hold a larger LCD without a problem. Thank goodness.
The A790, which shares the same laptop shell has a 14.1in 4:3 aspect XGA LCD (1024x768). To maximize viewing area of the laptop screen, and keep within the size constraints of the laptop case, I will have to go with a 14.1in 4:3 aspect LCD. However, the 14.1in XGA resolution is just not suitable for this laptop. Sorry, but I need more real estate.
1280x1024 would seem to be an appropriate resolution for this laptop, but that resolution is a 5:4 aspect, thus even if I found a 14.1in 1280x1024 LCD panel, it would not fit into the laptop LCD case.
Instead, I need to hunt down a 14.1in 4:3 aspect LCD panel with a higher than 1024x768 resolution. Looking at the resolution chart borrowed from wikimedia, 1400x1050 seems to be the next practical resolution LCD for this build, as it retains the 4:3 aspect ratio, and several 14in laptops have used 1400x1050 LCD's
However, it is going to be hard to find a new or good condition 14.1in 1400x1050 LCD panel now a days with the wide adoption of widescreen LCD panels. 1400x1050 would be ideal. However,1280x800, 1366x766 or 1600x900 is more likely the panel resolution I will come across

Unfortunately, finding a 14.1 LCD today has proven to be very challenging. The 14.1 laptop format died in about 2004, so the closest screen size that could fit would be 13.3, which is widescreen. However, 13.3in LCD's are not that much of an improvement in resolution over 800x600.
Out of shear luck, I ran into this article on makezine about a how one ebay seller makes custom digital display driver boards for old laptop LCD panels:
Semi universal Digital Display Board
within the same week, I came across (2) ~14.1 in 1400x1050 LCD's in the ewaste bins at my college. If I can drive either display through one of these digital display boards, I would be a very happy mobile commuter.
Here's the datasheet for the LCD I found.
LG Datasheet
It turns out that the people on ebay were able to make a custom digital display board for the LCD display. Pretty sweet.
It even worked on first try.

Unfortunately, I was not able to determine the appropriate maximum dimensions of the LCD panel space in the Dolch laptop lid, as the laptop was at home and I found the LCD at college. Thus, I got the LCD up and running and the LCD was just a few mm shy of actually fitting the LCD lid. Uggh. so close. I tested the Hitachi LCD I had as well. Unfortunately it did not fit either.
It turned out that the LCD wasn't truly a 14.1 in LCD, but rather a 14.25in LCD, which made it too large for the LCD shell.
The only other option is to make a new lid, as that is the only way for the LCD to actually fit into the laptop shell. However, that would mean I would have to forgo the LCD latch. Since I want to keep the original outer design as stock, I am going to have to find another LCD to use for the build.

It seems like the 16:10 and 16:9 LCD's are the only options left from panel manufacturers. Thus, 1280x800 and 1366x766 are the only resolutions available for use. I personally hate the 16:9 aspect ratio, and find 16:10 and 4:3 more useful. Thus, I am planning on using the 1280x800 panel over the 1366x766 panel because of the aspect ratio.
(Image borrowed from 16-9.net)

Regardless of the panel I use, I am most likely going to have to design a new laptop screen bezel. The last one was designed for a 12.1in touchscreen, so I would have to cut a sizable amount of material out of the old bezel for the new monitor to fit. Also the glass touchscreen will not fully cover the new LCD screen, so that would have to be replaced as well. Thus, I have decided to just design a new LCD bezel in cad. I am going to try and make the new bezel look like a Dolch stock design, thus incorporating the Dolch logo as well. I am going to keep the outer LCD shell intact.
(image borrowed from bigkey.com)

There is still a possibility that a 14.1 in 1400x1050 LCD exists within the dimensions of the Dolch laptop lid, so I will continue searching. If I end up finding an LCD panel that will fit, I would be able to use the stock Getac 14.1in LCD bezel, which would save me a lot of time machining a new bezel from scratch. If I find a suitable LCD, and that is a big IF, I will try contacting Getac for a 14.1in bezel and replacement rubber feet. If not, I will try my hand at ebay and craigslist to get the parts I need.
(Image borrowed from pencomputing.com)

Well, I didn't just want the ~14in LCD to go to waste, so I decided to create another project making the LCD monitor. I am planning to use this as both an external Desktop/Laptop LCD monitor but also as a DSLR monitor. Because the brilliant people at njytouch included a DVI input for the digital logic board, I can easily have this monitor feed an HDMI signal from a DSLR. What is even more amazing is that this LCD is higher resolution than 800x480, which is what almost all the 4-10in external LCD's are for DSLR's. Thus, it will give me a more accurate picture of 720p and 1080p output footage.
Yes, the monitor is significantly bigger than those available for sale, thus it will weigh more, but I think I can get around that if I design a plastic case. I will try to make the case as rugged as possible of course.
This external monitor will be battery powered as well.

Project link here:   VVV
--------

Here's the super amazing news though: This is going to be an AMD E350 build!
Originally I was going to go with a AM2+ build and underclock the 45watt CPU for laptop use. I realized that was quite impractical as I probably could not underclock the CPU a full gigahertz per core through a few multiplier changer in BIOS or voltage mods. In addition, I could not live with Geforce go 6100 integrated graphics, which would struggle with even doom/quake era games.

Here she is, the new motherboard:
It's a Zotac FUSION350-A-E motherboard

Pdf of manual

Of course, this is an ITX motherboard. However, it is not just any ITX board, it has integrated esata and even mini pcie for wifi.
What is really awesome about the AMD Zacate platform is an average TDP of 18watts. That is great because I need to keep the thermal envelope of this system as low as possible, as it will be entirely passive.

Here's a picture of the system running. The external heatsink was connected to aid in visually making sure the board was powered on (motherboard is fanless).
Here are some reviews of this ITX board:
Zotac FUSION350-A-E Product Page
Zotac motherboard Linux compatibility
Anandtech Review
Tomshardware Review

AMD's Zacate platform in general:
Hot Hardware


Unfortunately, not everyone follows Intel's Half height ITX standard, so I may have to make some significant mods to this motherboard for it to fit right.

The picture makes it look like the motherboard would fit fine in the case, however, the case will not close with the keyboard and palm rest, so the motherboard will have to be modified.

Here's the info about the half height ITX standard Intel proposes. Unfortunately, I cannot use Intel's half height ITX platform because Intel refuses to make any desktop based CPU less than 35watts TDP. That is totally unacceptable for this project.
Intel ITX 2.0 standard
However, Intel has several fabulous motherboards available in the half height category. Whats more amazing is they all have built in LVDS support.
THAT IS UNBELIEVABLE
Also, they have a standard DC power jack so making a power supply should not be too big a problem. You may even be able to use a Dell or HP laptop PSU to power it. That is a really innovative idea.

I hope AMD can produce something like this, because even though the Intel boards looks fantastic on paper, they do not have decent integrated graphics. The E350 platform does.
So here's to the next generation of ITX!!!
Intel 1156 half height ITX LVDS (DH61AG)
Intel Atom D2800 ITX LVDS (DN2800MT)
Intel Atom D2700 ITX LVDS (D2700MUD)
Intel Atom D2500 ITX LVDS (D2500CC)
**Intel Atom N270 ITX LVDS (D945GSEJT)


**Intel mentions possibility of LVDS support for Atom N270 board
The two parts of the Zotac ITX motherboard I will have to modify are the audio header and the mini pcie header.
The audio header is actually the tallest component on the ITX board, so I am planning on rotating the audio header 90 degrees.

The mini pcie connector is perpendicular to the board, which causes the mini pcie wifi card to be the next tallest component on the motherboard, just a hair shorter than the audio header. 
I am planning on purchasing 90 degree surface mount mini pcie header from ebay / digikey / mouser, wherever I can find the right one.

Here is the website from Molex, who commonly produces the connector, with the spec sheets for mini pcie headers of different heights:
Molex mini pcie website with datasheets
It seems that the Molex datasheets are not working, so here are working links:
Mouser page with working data sheets

To my surprise, there are dozens of different types of mini pcie headers on ebay. I didn't understand why at first, but then I looked through various forums and came across mini pcie mods for netbooks. Apparently several manufacturers produced netbooks with mini pcie hard drives in mind, but did not surface mount the mini pcie headers. Thus the chipsets supported mini pcie, the traces and pads were all there, but the companies limited the notebooks to just 2.5in HDD's. A very neat and simple mod indeed. I plan to do that here.
Now, whether I void the warranty is another story.......

(image from jkkmobile.com)
Link to surface mount mini pcie mod:
jkkmobile.com



Here's an idea of what the laptop will look like with the mainboard, the batteries, power supply board, hard drive, LCD and digital display board:
Yes, thats right, I am mounting the motherboard upside down!
Seems crazy right? It sure isn't! Here's why:
Originally the laptop had a PIII 500MHz CPU facing directly toward the bottom base of the laptop. This allowed for use of the bottom panel as a gigantic passive heat sink. I am planning on using the same methodology for the Zotac ITX board. Thus, making the ITX board as low profile as possible seems to be very practical indeed.

Obviously I am going to need to make some type of adapter to transfer the heat from the board to the base of the laptop. I am planning on incorporating a copper block to transfer heat to the bottom of the case. I am trying to make this copper block as small as possible to keep weight and cost down. I am going to make the copper "block" convoluted as well for greater heat to air transfer.
In addition, I am planning on desoldering the DVI, VGA and DC jack from the digital display board for the military laptop LCD, so I can maximize the volume of the laptop case.
If you haven't noticed, I have chosen NOT to include an optical drive into the build. I just don't see the need for an optical drive any longer. I really don't use an optical drive that often, so I decided to forgo the drive for extra battery space. The only time I really use an optical drive is to install the OS and watch movies. I rarely ever watch movies because I am busy with school work and maintaining the website, so I don't feel the need to include it in the build.I can always use an external optical drive If I feel any optical media needs.

(This picture shows how much space an optical drive would take in the notebook though.)

Besides that, I am also incorporating router-scale antennas into the laptop build. I am implementing a screw mount connector, so you will be able to attach any type of antenna to the laptop you want. So if you are in the middle of bumble land, you can attach a big ol' antenna and still get work done. I just don't think surface adhesive antenna pads will work well on this build because the case is entirely aluminum / magnesium.
I have some antennas from a Linksys WRT54G which i will most likely use.
(image from martybugs.net)
This is a great website describing these antennas and how to improve reception:
martybugs.net

In addition, I believe that a 40-80GB SSD in this laptop will make a world of difference. I am going to try and utilize the stock 2.5in removable HDD bay, however, I seem to have lost the rubber housing for the 2.5in HDD
I am not sure if the HDD tray is the best use of internal space though, as I may go with a 1.8in SSD instead of a 2.5in SSD

(image from getacparts.com)

A major consideration when making a laptop is weight distribution. This may seem insignificant, since todays laptops weigh a fraction of what they did years ago, but in this case it makes a major impact on the overall use of the laptop. If I decide to put the batteries in one corner of the laptop, the laptop will unnaturally lean toward one side when in use. It will feel awkward to carry and difficult to type on, which is not the way I want this laptop to end up.
When manufacturers make a laptop, they usually balance out the weight of the laptop with other components, such as an optical drive and hard drive. Also, they usually keep battery life to a mere 2 hours, so battery weight is usually kept pretty low. I am going to make this laptop last as long as possible, so the battery weight will be a very major design implementation.
I am going to have to spend a lot of time and consideration on the distribution of the battery weight throughout this laptop.
Regardless, I am planning on using A123 LiFePO4 batteries, both cylindrical battery cells and prismatic battery cells.
Specific batteries here:
Cylindrical batteries
Prismatic batteries
(image from www.a123systems.com)

The prismatic cells will most likely be placed behind the laptop screen and or above the motherboard if there is room. I will have to center the prismatic batteries as well, so i will probably have to make some battery shim which would center the battery in the case. I think the cylindrical battery cells would be most practical to implement under the palm rest area of the laptop.

That's not it! There's video too! Click the image at the right for the link to the military laptop build videos.

VIDEOS HERE >>  >>  >>


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