Well, the annual gift-giving season has drawn to a close and now we are left with retailers trying to get rid of all that extra stuff that thy have left over in their inventories. Of course as a hardware geek, I’m always on the look out for another great hack. While at my CVS I came across a Sylvania netbook device for under $100. Even better, I got mine as an open box for only $30 making it an awesome find. Read further to discover what this little beastie’s hiding under its hood.
The device touts itself as a “Wireless mobile internet device” and from the box, the stats are a little on the slim side. It runs Windows CE, has several USB ports, an SD card slot and a mic and headphone jack. The manager warned me to not expect a fast performing machine and that since it was an open box, CVS would not be able to take a return especially at the price I was being given. I told him that I plan on modding the device and would not need to return it. He told me that although these devices were popular, many people were downright irate when they brought them back because of the device’s supposed horrible operability. I was still on the fence and told him that there’s a good chance I could do something with it and he sold it to me for $30 just to get rid of it and avoid having to ship it back to corporate.
The box is small and light and shows the device as well as some specs on the back. I could see where the uninformed may be led to believe that this was a full blown laptop or netbook PC and purchase this instead thinking they got a bargain. But, since I was out for hardware and not necessarily for a netbook, I knew immediately what I was getting into. Let’s take a deeper look.
This image really doesn’t do much justice. This thing is SMALL.
Here’s another pic of it sitting on my work computer. It’s roughly 1/3rd the weight, 1/3rd the height and 1/3rd the length of my lenovo T500. Aside from the smallness of the device, I was impressed at how sturdy the device was. It’s plastic but the consruction itself was solid.
The keyboard is very small on this device however after typing on it for a while (this article was written on the netbook, minus image adds and minor editing) it quickly became comfortable, although don’t make any plans on speedtyping any time soon.
On the left side of the device, you will find the mic and speaker jacks as well as the SD card slot for expansion storage. The audio is powered by a VIA VT1613 audio codec.
The back of the device has a wired Ethernet jack, a USB port and the 9VDC power port. Nothing too special here although I would have preferred an Ethernet jack with status LEDs. (first mod, maybe?)
The right side has two more USB ports designated by icons as for a mouse and keyboard however my keydrive worked in all three ports without a hitch.
Keeping in mind that the device runs Windows CE, I fired up the stock software. It booted quickly in under 5sec to this screen. I was able to configure it to my network and it ran quickly however I did notice that it had a problem with getting a DHCP address. I statically set it up and everything worked out of the box via corded connectivity. There is an update (will post an update soon) that fixes this and many other issues. Since this article is primarily intended to focus on the hardware, I won’t go into the OS details here.
Now let’s crack the case open and take a look at what’s inside.
On the bottom of the device, there are 11 visible screw holes. The 12th is hidden under the white “Windows CE” tag and will also need to be removed.
Once you remove the two screws in front of the bulge (foreground of last photo), you can remove the battery cover exposing the small battery pack. I have no idea if this is an LiIon pack or NiMH or just plain NiCD. Disconnect the two leads and remove the battery. Remove all remaining screws.
At the top of the keyboard, there are four tabs that hold the keyboard down. Push them in gently and then gently disconnect the keyboard ribbon cable from the mainboard.
Once the keyboard is removed, you will see two smaller openings with ribbons. Disconnect the left one as it goes to the trackpad. Tilt the screen all the way back and you will feel it lock into position. (No, you didn’t break it.) At this point, you can carefully remove the silver bezel from the black base. Now that the bezel’s gone, disconnect the right ribbon cable from the front of the mainboard. This is the LEDs for power and keyboard indicators as well as the left and right buttons for the trackpad. Also next to the right ribbon cable, there is a single screw. Remove it as well as the four screws holding down the hinges to the monitor and this will free up the mainboard. Do not attept to disconnect the two ribbons going into the display housing. The right ribbon is the USB WiFi module which is hand soldered and the other is the ribbon which carries the video signal and is glued to the mainboard.
Now that the beastie’s guts are on display, let’s take a look.
The entire device is powered by a VIA WM8505 SOC with a 2GB flash chip and 128MB RAM. Those extra pins have got to be used for something fun…
As mentioned earlier, a VT1613 Audio codec provides sound.
An IC IP101A chip provides us the 10/100 networking.
The feared epoxy blob, in this case appears to be the keyboard controller.
What do we have here? An unpopulated header with two wires that run straight from the SOC to the header. Perhaps this is a 3.3v serial port?
This is the touchpad from the bottom. It is a Cypress CY8C214 and ironically enough is also the controller Apple uses in their Ipods. Now that we’ve disassembled the base unit, it’s time to take a look at what’s under the display bezel. You can get at the screws holding the display bezel together by removing the four black rubber stops at the corners and the screws that lie beneath them. Once removed, the bezel is easily separated by the use of a spudger or small common screwdriver. Once revealed, you can see the display, the display controller board and power switch, the two tiny speakers and the wifi card in the top right hand corner.
Now, I’ve seen all kinds of weirdness when it comes to the internals of laptops however this one had me floored. The wifi card was not a “card” but more like a USB dongle that had the connector ripped off and replaced by a long cable to the mainboard. The downside is that this is a very cheap move on the part of the manufacturer but the upside is that you can pretty much replace this USB dongle with one of your liking later on. It appears that the stock card is a Ralink RT2070L chip and should be well supported in Linux.
So after spending a couple of days working on it, I was able to locate a firmware update for the Windows CE device. This update fixes the DHCP issue that previously required me to set a static IP for wifi and for ethernet connectivity. There were some noticeable speed improvements to the device. I have been able to get Debian Linux to boot off an SD card on the device and also have managed to get the onboard Ethernet to work. I have also been able to get the device to start a blackbox X session and installed Iceweasel however the speed for page loads and views is very slow so performance will need to be tuned. Once I have it tuned properly and performance is decent, I’ll post the updated image to the site so you can download and enjoy.
All in all, I think this is an excellent find at the $30 I paid for it. It is comprable to the Dockstars I have but even at $100 retail it’s got a lot of potential to make it worth the cash. Just be sure to download and install the Windows CE update as soon as you get it. This will help you avoid a lot of headache later on trying to get the thing to talk to your LAN. As soon as I have more resources, I’ll post a followup article with links for downloading the updates as well as the linux images.
Just in case you missed it, let’s go over the details:
- Display: HL 070 TN92 – Unknown Manufacturer – 800×480 May be TFT?
- Battery: Unknown Metal, 1800mAh 8.4v
- Charger: 9VDC, 1500mA positive tip.
- System Processor: WonderMedia WM8505+ (linux identifies as an ARM936EJ-S rev 5), unknown speed. Research points anywhere from 200MHz to 600MHz.
- System RAM: 128MB SDRAM, unknown manufacturer. Chip number: NY64X161043
- System Flash: 2GB cumulative (WinCE partitions 500MB for system and 1.5G for storage) – Samsung K9GAG08U0
- SD expansion port
- Audio: VIA1613 codec
- Ethernet: 10/100 provided by ICIP101A
- Stock OS: Windows CE 6.0
If you’ve done any mods to your netbook, post a comment! There’s a lot of “reviews” but no real modifications yet to speak of. Hopefully this cheap starter will open up some good ideas.