Extreme Makeover, Old Laptop Edition: Crap-top to digital photo frame

Earlier this year, I embarked on a project to convert an old Dell laptop of mine into a digital photo frame.  This particular laptop was one that had been used by my youngest sister in college.  A Dell Latitude CPI, it:

  • had a slow 300 MHz Pentium II processor, 
  • it was incredibly heavy and, as an added bonus, 
  • at some point my sister had managed (by mistake) to burn a hole in plastic shell with a candle.

But the 13″ TFT backlit LCD worked just fine, so I was excited about turning this otherwise crappy  laptop (aka a craptop!)  into a photo frame.

So I turned one of these:

 The laptop started out looking like something like

…into one of these:

Digital photo frame - final

Here’s how I did it…

First, the supplies I used (all the prices are approximate):

  • “Shadow box” photo frame (2″ deep to hold the LCD + laptop) — $20
  • Foamcore board (1/4″ thickness, this was used to mount the LCD inside the frame) — $10
  • Matte (sized to the frame on the outside and sized to the LCD on the inside) — $10
  • Duct tape (quack quack!) — $5
  • Styrofoam blocks (used as spacers inside the frame) — $5

And there were some tools involved, mostly standard stuff:

  • Misc screwdrivers – to, you know, remove and replace screws?
  • Chisel – some of my wooden frame had to be chiseled out to make room
  • X-acto Knife – used this to cut the foamcore LCD mount to the right size
  • Ruler – to measure stuff
  • Scissors – to cut stuff

Here were the steps involved:

1) Prep work

First, I experimented a bunch with:

  • taking the laptop apart (Dell publishes their service manuals publicly so this was straightforward)
  • the software stack on the laptop — more on this later, but I was trying to find just the right configuration

This laptop was old enough that it didn’t have any wi-fi.  And all the old PCMCIA wi-fi cards I could find were old enough that they didn’t support the latest Wi-Fi standards (namely, WPA2 for Wi-Fi security).  So I bought a cheap Linksys PCMCIA WiFi card on eBay to get WiFi.

The IDE hard drive that came with the system was loud (sounded like coffee grinder!) so I bought a CF to IDE adapter (also on eBay!) and as cheap a CF card as I could find. Here’s a photograph of the totally silent “hard drive” I’m using:

 2.5" IDE hard drive to CF card adapter

I also researched other people’s digital photo frame projects. This popular science article was helpful. And Brent Evans’ blog posting on his Geektonic blog and his flickr photostream (complete with annotations explaining steps he had gone through) were incredibly helpful.  Two other sites I found amongst my notes:



2) Take apart the laptop

Most importantly, I removed the bezel, plastic back, and other hardware from the LCD.  But this also included removing the keyboard/touchpad and some other miscellaneous parts.

I decided to leave the keyboard/touchpad off the unit. Sitting upright in a frame, they aren’t things you’ll want to use and keeping them would have made for thicker frame innards. The laptop parts that didn’t make the cut:

Laptop parts that didn't make it into the frame

Including the laptop cover with the candle-burned hole in it! 🙂

The old laptop cover that a candle had burned a hole in

3) Cut the foamcore to fit the frame and LCD

Cutting the outside of the foamcore to fit the frame was easy — I just measured the frame opening and cut the foamcore to a rectangle of the same size. Cutting it to fit the LCD involved tracing an outline of the LCD and it’s associated and then going at that outline with an x-acto knife. All the while, I made sure that everything was going to line up with the matte inside the frame.

4) Mount the LCD inside the foamcore

Dropped the LCD, face down on a table, into the foamcore so the LCD was flush with the surface of the foamcore and then put duct tape around the back, on the interface of the foamcore and the LCD. Here’s the LCD mounted inside the foamcore:

Foamcore+LCD inside the shadow box frame

5) Cut styrofoam blocks to use as spacers

The laptop needed to be an inch or two above the bottom of the frame box so I cut a styrofoam block. In hindsight, something other than styrofoam would have worked better.  The styrofoam I used leaves behind a white “dust” that I was constantly having to clean off the glass and the matte of the frame (reminds me of an article I read many years ago on Philip Greenspun’s site about a Boston framing shop that bought a surplus clean room from National Semiconductors to do all of their framing inside of… they would have hated killed themselves over this styrofoam!)

You can see the foam block in this photograph:

What the frame looks like when you open it up.

6) Modified the frame for power cord, laptop WiFi, venting

I needed an opening for the power cord to come out from (used scissors to cut myself one).  And I needed a bit of extra space in the shadow box to fit the Wi-Fi card on one side and the power connector on the other side (used a chisel to cut the necessary sections out of the wooden frame).

And then I felt like some venting was called for so I punched some very crude holes around the heat sink/vent area of the laptop motherboard.

The frame was chiseled out for the power supply connector and the WiFi card:

Here's where I chiseled out a part of the frame to fit the power supply connector

And here's where I chiseled out a part of the frame to accomodate the PCMCIA WiFi adapter


And as far as the hardware goes, that was pretty much everything I did!  I was reasonably happy with the hardware in the end. Some improvements that I’d like to make eventually:

  • The power on/off button is inside the frame… I’d like to cut a hole in the back large enough to stick my finger inside and push the power button.  When I have to reboot the thing with that, opening the back up and then closing it up again is a pain.
  • It’d be cool to  install a small webcam in the matte of the frame.  That way when I’m out of town, I could easily video chat with my daughter.  Installing a webcam probably wouldn’t be too hard. An idea I heard from Zack (at SnapStream) was having a “mirror mode” for the frame so people would see themselves in the frame when they looked at it.  Also something cool that I could do with a webcam.
  • If you look at the WiFi card above, you’ll notice that I removed unmounted the built-in speakers from the frame of the laptop… Would have been nice if I could have mounted them flush with the sides of the frame.  Then again, I’ve never used music with my digital photo frames.  This would be more useful for some of the non-photo frame things, like the video chat described above, that I might do with this thing.

Now onto the software side.  I reinstalled Windows XP on this particular laptop from scratch. Here’s a photograph of the thing booting into Windows:

Look at me, I'm running Windows!

A list of things that I did once I had Windows XP running to make it more “photo frame friendly”:

  • Installed LogMeIn — allows me to operate my frame remotely over the network (means I don’t need a keyboard/mouse directly attached to the frame)
  • Install Google Photo Screensaver (I ended up NOT using this… more on this below)
  • Install Windows XP PowerToy – TweakUI (I turned on autologon so the frame would go straight to the user desktop and start doing its thing)
  • Change power settings so the screen doesn’t turn off and the hard drive doesn’t turn off.
  • Turn off simple file sharing in Windows XP and share out, password protected, the hard drive (so without having to use LogMeIn I can access the frame’s hard drive)
  • Expand pagefile size — I only have 64 MB of physical RAM so I expanded the pagefile size for more virtual memory
  • Change Windows settings from “double click” for launching things to a “single click”
  • Turn off visual effects (under System -> Advanced -> Performance)
  • Disable and stop certain services (PC Tools)

The main software, the “screensaver” that would show photographs… I initially hoped I’d be able to use the Google Photo Screensaver.  I publish almost all of my personal photographs to Picasa Web as “unlisted” albums (meaning they aren’t publicly accessible unless I send someone the link).  The cool idea behind using Google’s Photo Screensaver is that it can automatically downloads photographs from a Picasa Web account… including “unlisted” albums.  You give it your Picasa Web username and password and it does the rest.

The problems with Google’s Photo Screensaver: 

1) It seems to NOT download new photographs while the screensaver is running: Since my “computer” (aka digital photo frame) is going to be in screensaver mode all the time, it needs to download new photographs WHILE the slideshow is running.  Not in between runs of the screensaver.

2) And then even if you get your PC out of “screensaver” mode every so often, it’s not clear WHEN Google Photo Screensaver goes and downloads new stuff.  Or what stuff it will download.  You can’t configure what it downloads or when it downloads that stuff.

3) When I figured out that the Picasaweb automatic download thing wouldn’t work, I thought maybe I’ll write my own Picasa Web downloader and then just use Google Photo Screensaver’s ability to show photographs in a particular directory.  Well, it turns out that GPS doesn’t recurse subdirectories with its “play photographs directory _____” feature.

So the solution I ended up going with was Windows XP’s built-in “My Pictures Slideshow” — a pretty barebones thing that was included in the original version of Windows XP in 2001.  It cycles through the photographs in your My Pictures directory, including the photographs in subdirectories.  It’s not as good as it could be… if you add new photographs, you have to take your PC out of screensaver mode before it’ll refresh its list of photographs.  So updating it involves:

1. Copying new photographs to the My Pictures folder over the wireless network

2. Using LogMeIn to “press any key” to turn off the screensaver… this causes the screensaver to refresh.

Kind of a pain, but all-in-all, I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.  Maybe I’ll do another post on the potential that I think this thing has to be a new and useful type of device inside the home.  Meanwhile, here are the rest of the photographs of my laptop converted to a digital photo frame:

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