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Building a RISC OS laptop out of Lego

Published: 10th Nov 2007, 01:19:10 | Permalink | Printable

Lego-of-my-leg, you must be pulling it, surely?

A laptop indeed made of legoFirst came the Lego-built desktop cases. Now we have a laptop, of sorts, made from the ever popular little plastic bricks. Peter Howkins has managed to pack an aging A7000 into what resembles a portable case, complete with a 10" LCD screen.

Boasting an impressive 4MB of RAM, RISC OS 3.60 and an ARM7500 processor with integrated video and audio electronics, the laptop also includes a 2GB 2.5" hard disc, an EtherH network card and a PS2 keyboard. The display can stretch to 640x480.

Peter admits his design isn't overly portable at the moment - no battery and you can't detach it from the PSU - but it's early days. He has produced a website detailing his work for fellow Lego and RISC OS enthusiasts.

Peter said: "I'd been scouting around for a suitably small and flat monitor with which to build a laptop design. Luckily I found a suitable one at a computer fair and then another of the same type off eBay when I broke the first.

"The laptop is not that practical, uses rubbish 10-year-old hardware, has no battery, and at the moment you can't detach the PSU from the back for carrying it.

"But it's still a work in progress and I might be tempted to rebuild it once I can find some more sensible hardware."

• Meanwhile, Drobe contributor Paul Stewart has set himself the mission of building his own RISC OS laptop out of more conventional materials.


Peter's Lego A7000 laptop More DIY laptop cases

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Lucky that the processor does not need cooling. As portable I do prefer the one in a small metal suitcase which was a real portable one since it did contain a battery. Saw it in German at a GAG meeting a few years ago and it was based on a SA RPC.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 10/11/07 4:23PM
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This is a good project as a kind of test bed to see what are the stumbling blocks in compacting authentic RISC OS hardware into a laptop size.

Best of luck to both of them. It'll be interesting to see what Paul can come up with. Go for it!

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 10/11/07 7:51PM
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Cool project and one that gets you thinking a bit. If you could connect the guts on a A9home to the screen, keyboard and battery then build a prototype case out of lego then you could get someone to fabricate a custom case out of aluminium to replace the lego in a production model.

Obviously this would take a bit of time but it might be better than trying to source a third party case that may only be in production for a limited period of time or only be available in large orders.

 is a RISC OS Userstevek on 10/11/07 8:10PM
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By swapping the HHD for a CF card and an IDE to CF adaptor (available on Ebay for less than a fiver), you can have a small solid state drive. Not only does this get around the physical size problem, but does not generate heat too. It also should make room for the RAM slot.

But as cool as this lego laptop looks, I would have to agree with 'hzn', about using a breifcase, but I really would like to make a Lego Midi Tower - Peter's just looks too good with the Acorn logo the side with a light up background.

Now an A9Home Laptop is something worth a go. While Advantage 6 have made the box and the 'stuffed in a monitor' versions, we've yet to see a real Laptop config. Note :- for anyone wanting to try this, don't forget your warranty will be invalid (unless you stuff the whole A9 box in there too).

 is a RISC OS UserCrazyRisc on 11/11/07 9:05PM
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If we could find a sutable laptop as a donner machine that had enough info available about it's screen inputs I reckon it wouldn't be silly to shoehorn an A9 circuit board in it.

Keep the hdd in normal location (or CF instead). Keep Li-Ion battery as they usually have the charging circuit built into the battery. I am sure the A9 circuit would fit easilly into the space where the motherboard was and just use some cable to connect up the USB and 10/100 ports on laptop case.

Ok it would need some thinking about to actually find a way to monitor the battery level as Li-ions don't like being run flat.

 is a RISC OS Usermrmac on 12/11/07 11:53AM
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mrmac: finding a suitable donor laptop may be next to impossible. The motherboards in laptops are often very odd shapes even the diminutive A9 motherboard is wider than the A4 motherboard from 15 years ago. Then add in the needs for long availability, small batches and open specification and you'll be lucky to find an interested company willing to provide it.

If it were an easy task to make a laptop I'm sure one of the following projects would have succeeded already. Acorn Stork, Acorn Artisan, IMS Peanut, Riscstation laptop.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 12/11/07 12:53PM
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I didn't mean for a professional laptop.

I was more thinking for a DIY option where you wouldn't mind finding a S/H laptop.... There are a few laptops out there that have a lot of technical documents available so with a little searching it would be possible to find one with the spec of the panel input.

I have a feeling there was once a laptop that had a VGA in so the LCD could be used with an external device. Somthing like this would only leave finding enough space for A9 circuit board.


 is a RISC OS Usermrmac on 12/11/07 12:59PM
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Also meant to say previous acorn laptops had to have a circuit board built to fit the case they chose.

This time we already have somthing that is suitablly small and available to buy and are only looking for a suitable sized space to put it in.

By the way I meant to say on my first comment. I love the lego laptop and think it is suchj a good project. Well done :)

 is a RISC OS Usermrmac on 12/11/07 1:02PM
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Well talking of laptops.... I just bought an ASUS EEEPC yesterday. Wow!!!! If only RiscOS could run on a celeron it could be on this.

And guess what. None of the reviews have said, hey it isn't windows. All have said "if you really need that windows bloat, you can still load it".

Just a pity RiscOS is ARM only....

Cheers Bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 15/11/07 1:22PM
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Well lets see.....

There was Netbook and netbook pro, HP Jornada 720 & 728, NEC 900C, Sigmarion 3 and good pile of other arm based HPC's and mini laptops that all would have made super risc os mobile computers. All of which would have made a suitable base for a laptop and all of the above have loads better battery life than any laptop.

Even now with enough work the 900C might still be a good candidate as it has flashrom and can have it's OS and bootloader flashed easilly and there are plenty available second hand.

Though I suppose with the eeepc being so portable (and well priced - I am going to get one when I have the money) that a version of VRPC for the eeepc's flavour of linux might be a very intresting proposition for all us remaining risc os users. VRPC would be great on a stable linux machine esspecially with the boot times and price of this machine.


 is a RISC OS Usermrmac on 15/11/07 1:32PM
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Well I had a Psion Revo (nice) Series & (okay) Moved to a Sharp (cant remember) with MIPS. Then an NEC780 (the best keyboard ever), then a Jornada 710 (like a 721 but without the modem.

The big problem with all the machines was file transfer. The Jornada was great and after it was binned came softmaker (I was asked to be a beta tester for that but didn't have the time) but it was too late for the HPC's THe focus moved from clamshell to PDA. Now the PDA focus has shifted to SmartPhonesand there is a gap for light sub-notebookes like the netbook and jornada. The big advantage now is the adoption of linux/openoffice for MS/MSoffice compatability. Having a proper PDF reader (one that can read science papers flawlessly) and a fast firefox/thunderbird for web/mail (although I'll try and get gemini on it for that).

I think that it was true that HPC's were ahead of their time, but now there is a gap in the market, people are more mobile, and require a quick wifi web/mail device that can handle office files and pDF's...the tie for the clamshell has come.

In my case I have an IBM thinkpad dualbooting with PCLinuxOS/windows with Aston shell. However, my new job (the first tmie I've had to commute more than 15 minutes door to door means I'll be on a train for 50 minutes in the morning. Lugging a 3 kilo laptop plus 1 kilo bag plus 1 kilo power supply would be a pain in the back. :-) The eeepc has a charger like a mobile phone charger and the clamshell weighs 890g.

No contest. :-)

PS expansys, clove and RM have sold out their first batches, I think it was 3000 machines in the first day.

Cheers Bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 15/11/07 4:27PM
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Just to make it RiscOS orientated. You can get VRPC for MacOSX. Well OSX is nearly running on the EEE [link] [link]

WOW!!! Bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 15/11/07 4:48PM
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My Sigmarion 3 is superb for all the tasks I need when out and about; As you say softmaker gives it full DOC and Excel compatability... I have Gemini Pim's (full suite just like outlooks PIM's), The latest development is redgear which will allow me to run the latest version of opera for WM devices with no mods or hacking (and opera is supposed to fly on Sig3 - redgear also allows any other WM apps to run). I have Qmail which can handle all mail inc Gmail and yahoo secure mail. Picsel browser (which I think came from an ex-acorn based company) + lots of other usefull apps. I can get 4.5hrs out the battery on wi-fi - it runs a 400Mhz Xscale (which I can clock to 530Mhz with no issues), It has an Ati Imageon 2d chip so I can watch very high quality video on it's TFT screen.

I was just trying to make the point that there have been plenty of suitable laptop-esk HPC's with arm processors and nothing came of them even with a much bigger market than there is now (with the exception of RON but not sure how far that got before it was canned - shame as they still sell netbook pro machines now and they are very nice indeed - And I seem to remember ROL saying it was nearly working).

This is a chance for a cheap ulta-portable RISC OS machine though. Up until now when VA's responce to running on linux was there are too many diffrent versions to make it worth while. The eeePC though isn't just a std laptop - It's cheap and Asus are gearing up to produce them in the millions. So we now have an ultraprotable laptop that is cheap, will sell to millions of people and for development will mean it is a standerdised hardware and software platform for VRPC to be produced for....

I am going to buy one, so are you. If VRPC was available for it I would buy that and I am sure there are a lot of others on here who would get the asus just to run VRPC if it was available.

What's the alternative? either a cheap heavy windows or Mac laptop (I have an Ibm X21) or for somthing in the eeePC's format options are limited to a very expensive sony picturebook or one of the other rare expensive mini PC's.

I think we have an opertunity here to get a super little machine for RISC OS that could likely boot and get into the RISC OS desktop quicker than XP can boot. Is it not very very tempting....

Virtual Acorn are you eavesdropping? How about it?

Anyhow, still really impressed with the 7000 based laptop project so I'll leave the comments to get back on toppic.


 is a RISC OS Usermrmac on 15/11/07 4:55PM
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I see that the Netbook / Netbook Pro computers that RON was targetting are now discontinued products but Psion Teklogix do have some interesting XScale based hardware. [link]

Now that RISC OS is 32bit then main challenge would be developing drivers for the graphics, keyboard, USB and WiFi. This would be both a lot of work or an interesting challenge.

The cost / benefit between developing a unique RISC OS system with a custom built case vs porting RISC OS to existing hardware is open to debate. I guess the big question is how much demand would their be?

 is a RISC OS Userstevek on 15/11/07 7:22PM
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In reply to stevek:

Developing drivers for an existing system, in my opinion is probably the best way of getting a portable RISC OS system. However, as you have said, the question is demand and would demand justify the cost of doing the work?

I would have thought that given the availability of various boards with full documentation available, RISC OS Ltd should take that chance and get their RO6 up and running on something other than the VRPC, A9home and RISC PCs. However, I believe their argument (I may of course be wrong here) is: they are not a hardware developer. How simply making available a version of RISC OS for a widely available ARM based board can be classed as a hardware development is beyond me tho. I would class it as software and well within their scope as the commercial OS develope.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 15/11/07 8:04PM
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In reply to sa100:

Your suggestion seems like a no brainer to me. Given all the work that ROL have done removing hardware dependencies etc this should be much easier now that it was for RISCStation with the Evolution (based on the CATS StrongARM eval board I think).

The other possibility is that a someone does that using the source code from ROOL. All the code isn't available yet but it is only a matter of time. If ROL aren't quick someone else might steal the market from them!

I really do wonder sometimes what ROL's strategy is.

 is a RISC OS Userstevek on 15/11/07 11:40PM
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stevek: You make it sound as if ROL have a strategy. Alas, it doesn't appear so. If they do, our ignorance of this fact is no doubt caused by their buttock-clenchingly poor PR.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 19/11/07 12:38PM
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In reply to rjek:

"button-clinchingly poor PR" is not something that is unique to RISC OS Limted.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 19/11/07 12:44PM
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Bringing this back on topic. I think Peter has done well to get as far as he has with his A7000 based lego laptop. From the front of the case it does indeed look like a laptop. If Peter can sort out those cables and the power(a battery is a must), it would truly be the first RISC OS portable since the Acorn A4.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 19/11/07 12:55PM
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Coming soon to RISC OS 6 / Select 4i3 - Square, round and clenched button options.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 19/11/07 12:55PM
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"Meanwhile, Drobe contributor Paul Stewart has set himself the mission of building his own RISC OS laptop out of more conventional materials."

I would like to point out that I have only ever asked about suitable material for building a laptop case. I don't believe I have stated anywhere that I intend to build a RISC OS powered laptop.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 19/11/07 12:59PM
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LOL at druck

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 19/11/07 1:00PM
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In reply to druck:

I only recommend RISC OS Ltd do the clenched button options if they are animated!

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 19/11/07 1:02PM
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So long as they don't wobble.

 is a RISC OS Userchrisj on 19/11/07 1:16PM
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sa110: Batteries might be a bit of a problem, there's not really enough space to fit them in. The idea solution would be to use something like an A9, lower power requirements, smaller motherboard (I could probably also make the case less thick) and better hardware. Unfortunately the ideal solution is quite an expensive one.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 19/11/07 2:43PM
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On the subject of hardware, I'm rather amused that I picked up an internet radio based on the Reciva platform the other day. It's based on the same Simtec evaluation board as the A9Home, though has a bit less hardware (less RAM, more flash, no video, USB wireless not ethernet). Going at your local PC World for 40 quid. (Well they were, the price has now gone up again). They're choice of platform is not entirely surprising since the CTO of Reciva is one Phil Blundell of ARMLinux fame. Still, interesting to see what pricepoint an A9 system would be if it had the volume...

 is a RISC OS Usercaliston2 on 19/11/07 6:37PM
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Paul S - ">> Thanks to everyone for your suggestions. I am currently half way >> through my proto-type case and trying to squeeze everything in! >> > I might add, by the way, I have not yet indicated what it is I am > squeezing into my case. > "

What are you squeezing in then and why are you posting about "DIY laptop cases" in an Acorn newsgroup if it's not RISC OS hardware?

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 19/11/07 8:15PM
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caliston2: ...not only volume, but also no RISC OS licence costs.

 is a RISC OS Userhubersn on 19/11/07 9:02PM
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caliston2: What makes you think Simtec have anything to do with it? I can't find any images of the the inside of a Reciva that looks even remotely like the Simtec eval board - infact most of them look like the type of designs Simtec would distance themselves from.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 19/11/07 9:44PM
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caliston: Looking at the "module" that goes into Reciva-enabled radios, it consists of a Samsung S3C2310 CPU, which is the model down from the A9's (and around 200MHz), and a single chip of flash and ROM. Other than using the same family of CPU, it does appear to be completely unrelated: it lacks serial, ethernet, audio DACs and ADCs, video, hard disc controller, PS/2, even a power switch. That's why it's 40 quid.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 19/11/07 10:02PM
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In other laptop news, I've managed to move the hard drive to the other side of the case, this has freed up the RAM slot, and I now have a much more usable 20MB of RAM in the machine.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 20/11/07 00:04AM
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This is the sort of project that would generate a bit of interest at RISC OS shows. If a prize was put up for the best project involving a recycled RISC OS computer demonstrated at say Wakefield 2008 (to give people time to build something cool) it might generate a bit of a buzz. I'm sure people would turn up to see the projects in action and if you gave everyone 5 minutes in the theatre to talk about their project it would make the show a lot more interesting.

Very cool project Peter, I am sure you're getting plenty of enjoyment from it too.

 is a RISC OS Userstevek on 20/11/07 06:03AM
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Quote from [link]

QUOTE: The Barracuda module runs Familiar Linux. Familiar Linux is a derivative of Debian Linux. Debian Linux has been ported to several ARM platforms, including bast . The reference platform for bast is the Simtec Electronics EB2410ITX Evaluation Board [SNIP] It seems that Reciva used the 'bast' ARM architecture as a base for their own development.

"Bast is a modern ARM 920 board with a 266MHz Samsung processor. It has integrated IDE, USB, Serial, Parallel, audio, video, flash and two ethernet ports. This system has a good bootloader which is also found on the CATS and RiscStation systems."

(bast, cats, and riscstation are evaluation boards by Simtec Electronics) ENDQUOTE

 is a RISC OS Usercaliston2 on 20/11/07 11:14PM
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caliston2: The "bast" is a Simtec development board, based on the S3C2410 (see [link]) not an "ARM architecture". The only thing it shares with the Reciva module is the model of CPU (as you will be able to tell by looking at the BAST on Simtec's site.) Simtec may have been involved in initial concept or manufacturing, but the design is nothing to do with them.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 20/11/07 11:46PM
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For Paul S,


Short term you would be well placed to use wood in many of its possible forms. It's the prototype modelling material of many model makers. You can get flexible plywood and bendy timber too. Otherwise visit a local radio-control model shop. They have lots of lovely modelling materials, natural and manmade that can be shaped with simple tools. If you're feeling adventurous, you could buy a lot of modelling clay and get busy. This is at least re-useable. Once you have your form set,you could then use it as a mould for a fibreglass casting or similar. Wood is cheap and readily available. Once you have an approximate form that you are happy with, you could try and find a college/company/individual who could then manufacture a next stage model with the many 3D modelling printers that are now available. They can "print" your components and form factors into a more polished product. HTH.



 is a RISC OS Userpjjmcc on 27/11/07 4:23PM
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Paul (again)

just so you can get an idea of 3D printing, try this



 is a RISC OS Userpjjmcc on 27/11/07 4:49PM
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Further updates include,

1) Rebuilt the handle, it is now strong enough to actually carry it :) 2) Hinge strengthening, it is just about strong enough to hold the weight of the screen when open, without bending over backwards with the sound of splitting lego. 3) Software, finally put something on the machine :) 4) Made a MDF for the screen, disappointed to not be able to do 640x480 in 16 bit colour (only 8 bit) [*]

[*] Please send emergency a7000+ motherboard, ktb

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 03/12/07 3:19PM
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