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CharredPC's Acer Extensa 5620 Hot Rod Project


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#1
CharredPC

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[edited 10/29/09: The sum total of this thread has finally been boiled down into a guide, posted here. Enjoy!]

In the past, every year or two I've completely upgraded or (rebuilt from scratch) my desktop computer. It was something to do just for myself; my one way of being frivolous for no other reason than for my own nerd enjoyment. In the past few years, though, I've switched completely to using my laptop, making the project unnecessary. While this saved money, it deprived me of my geeky splurges.

With the recent stress and disappointment of (not) moving out of state going on (long story), I again wanted a nice selfish project, even though there was no budget for it. First I looked into selling my laptop and buying a netbook... the Samsung NC10 runs OSX quite well, and the battery life is nice. But they run $300 - $400. And have pretty miserable specs. Actually, any low-end laptop would have specs comparable or less than my current one, plus likely not be nearly so OSX compatible. A trade-in was a poor option.

On the other hand... what about hot-rodding (think "pimping out") my little Acer Extensa 5620-6830? It's been a sturdy, reliable notebook, capable of running retail OSX. One of the reasons I got this model (besides running OSX so nice) is it could be upgraded. If I could sell some of the stuff I have sitting around, maybe I could trick this thing out to the point that it's almost a whole new machine- and more powerful than ten little netbooks!

First things first, the RAM and hard drive. My laptop came with two 512MB sticks (1GB total) of PC2-4200 (533Mhz). Some time ago I found a 1GB module to replace one of the sticks, but that wasn't much of an improvement. I decided to replace them with two 2GB modules (4GB total) of PC2-6400. While my GM965 chipset can only run it at 667Mhz instead of its rated 800, it's the same price ($45) as the slower stuff, and the timings are a little tighter. Plus, it might be more useful down the road.

The original 4200rpm 200GB hard drive has always been a weak point in this laptop. With a scant 2MB buffer and only using SATA1, it definitely needed replacing. The 7200rpm 320GB SATA2 drive with a 16MB buffer for just $70 was a perfect replacement. When both those items arrived from Newegg, I popped them in, and began making money to recoup costs.

Since we're (at some point) moving to an apartment, I knew I couldn't take my 32cm FTA satellite dish and motor setup. So it got sold for $70. The Hisense HDTV receiver wouldn't be much good in the sticks either; it went for $25. Three spare MP3 car transmitters went for $6 each, and my old 1GB DDR2 ram stick went for $8. Now out of the red, time to continue the upgrading...

Next I bought a tiny USB bluetooth adapter from DealExtreme for less than $3. My Acer has bluetooth capability, but no module; luckily, I discovered than the four-pin plug for the module is nothing but another USB port. With the speaker connector off a dead Pismo in my parts collection, the bluetooth adapter would become a seemless internal module as though I had the ability all along. The best part is, as I've previously tested, OSX sees and uses it automatically.

My original Wifi card, an Intel, was long since replace by an OSX-compatible Atheros. However, it is only 802.11g. If this Acer is truly to be pimped, everything must be better. Ebay had just what I was looking for- an actual Macbook Pro Wireless-N mini-PCIe Broadcom Airport Extreme card for $20 shipped! This inspired me to make my little budget Best Buy machine as Macbook-like as I could. That means matching specs to an actual machine. Let's see...

Okay, here's a nice one. Obviously I can't change my videocard, but let's see about the rest. Same hard drive; same optical superdrive; same amount of ram. Time to change out the cpu! Because I'm smart (or lucky, but let's go with smart, ok?) I got a laptop with a Socket P cpu. That and the fact that Acer includes every single cpu code in their BIOS means I can toss out my aging 667Mhz bus 1.5Ghz T5250 2mb cache cpu, and slap in an 800Mhz bus 2.6Ghz T9500 6mb cache beast! Rawr! ;)

That's talking bigger bucks though. How to pay for it? Time to raid the parts room again! What have we got? Nothing valuable enough for that kind of a purchase... Hey, it's that old broken 1440x900 17" LCD from my son's HP. I thought I threw that away. Wait, let me see those Macbook specs again- I got an idea!

I hunted on Craigslist for a local laptop with a broken screen. There, a Compaq C700 for $150 OBO! I offered $100, and was accepted. The system was pretty nice otherwise- Intel Dual core, 2GB ram, 250GB hd, DVD burner, etc. Even the battery was good. Too bad it runs Vista :-p Now for some magic!

I carefully dismantled my Acer's lid, and removed the screen. Balancing the busted 17" on it, I hooked everything up and began prying on that (faulty) part- you know, the one that warns "DO NOT TOUCH." Now if that BIOS is just as happy with different screens and resolutions as it is with various cpu microcodes, then... Bingo! (see picture)

No, it doesn't look like much thanks to the 90% dead LCD, but it's a successful proof of concept: my Acer runs other brand (and even size) internal displays, and handles higher resolutions just fine! This opens up a new upgrade option. I found a nice new 15.4" 1920 x 1200 glossy LCD at a killer price, only $40 thanks to bad marketing. I of course made sure that it used the same standard 30-pin connector as my two here. Then I used the 1280 x 800 max Acer LCD in the Compaq. It listed and sold within 48 hours, for triple my investment- $300. Back in business!

Hrm. After getting that new screen, I'm still a little short for the T9500 cpu. Time to sell some more stuff: namely, the old 200GB hard drive for $35 and an 802.11b router for $5. That makes up for the LCD.
I found a good deal on an engineering sample T9500, so went ahead and purchased the cpu for $210. Incidentally, when buying engineering samples of T9500's, ONLY get the Q9WW, NEVER the Q4GG. Both are cheaper than OEM, but the latter is an earlier version that has alternate stepping, runs hotter, and uses more power than retail. The Q9WW steps C0, just like a SLAQH or a SLAYX new OEM.

That just leaves the battery. After over a year, my Acer's pathetic 4400mAh original holds a roughly 5 minute charge. Supposedly a 5200mAh replacement will cost about $52. I should more than be able to pay for that by selling
my Twinhan satellite card for $25, two sticks of 512MB DDR2 for $5, another car MP3 transmitter for $6, the Atheros 802.11g wifi card for $15 and the replaced T5250 cpu for $20. It'll probably be another week or two until everything is in my hands and complete, but I'll go ahead and count my chickens- I mean, gloat- now anyway...

Without investing a dime out of my bill money, I've taken this-

Acer Extensa 5620 stock specs:
1.5Ghz 667Mhz FSB 2MB 65nm CPU
1GB (2 x 512MB) 533Mhz DDR2 RAM
200GB 4200rpm 2MB buffer SATA1 HD
802.11b/g mini-PCIe wireless
1280 x 800 WXGA LCD
4400mAh battery

...and turned it into this-

Acer Extensa 5620 Hot Rod specs:
2.6Ghz 800Mhz FSB 6MB 45nm CPU
4GB (2 x 2GB) 667Mhz DDR2 RAM
320GB 7200rpm 16MB buffer SATA2 HD
802.11b/g/n mini-PCIe wireless
1900 x 1200 WUXGA LCD
Internal Bluetooth
5200mAh battery

Not too shabby, huh? < Billy Mays >But wait, there's more!< /Billy Mays > As a side benefit, the integrated Intel X3100 GPU will run a bit quicker, thanks to the faster RAM. The different LCD may very well cure the occasional scrambled screen I get when cold booting into OSX. The increased ram amount and 45nm cpu should help the new battery last even longer, while the 6MB cache and 7200rpm drive keep my VMWare XP as smooth as if running native. And yes, the full 4GB of RAM will actually be used, since OSX doesn't have the Windows limitation ;)

I'll post more as this adventure finishes up, and do some pictures by request. Total cost (had I actually spent paycheck money) is $440. All prices listed included shipping. As far as the videocard- before you say it, I'm not a gamer. The X3100 is perfectly fine for me. More than fine, in fact, as it makes for an easy native OSX retail install. You can say it's the weakest link in the chain, but I think I prefer it to having a "better" videocard that requires two kext's, three patches, and putting up with artifacts or having no QE... right?

Attached Files



#2
apple apple

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Hey, nice job! Don't see too many people upgrading their laptops.

#3
CharredPC

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Quick mini-update (or, thinking out loud): As I sit around and wait for parts, I'm starting to second-guess myself. There's precious little information available on it, but from what I can gather WUXGA and WXGA+ LCD's do in fact have the same 30-pin connector... but some laptop's LCD cables do not utilize all the pins to make them work. My cable doesn't have a complete set of pins, so will the new WUXGA screen I purchased work? I hope so. The 17" 1440x900 did, but it was in fact just a WXGA+.

As a backup plan, I got the 1900 x 1200 for so cheap, I should be able to resell it and get my money back if needs be. I've also found a higher-resolution WXGA+ screen to purchase, should the WUXGA pinout not match... unfortunately for about triple the cost :unsure:

Of course, I may be stressing and worrying for nothing. Kind of in uncharted waters, since sub-$600 Acer notebooks aren't the most popularly modded things on earth ;) Another good reason to document everything here. Only time will tell!

Also, I've been thinking about the Ethernet issue. I'd really like sleep to work, but as no one can make a better driver than this one, I've always had to choose one feature or the other. I've decided to compromise; I've found an OSX 10.5.2+ compatible USB 2.0 -> Ethernet adapter for under $10. Reports say it works great, no driver needed. I plan to hook this to my ethernet cable, roll it up, and put it in my laptop bag. Plugging it in and connecting (on the rare occassions I don't have a wireless signal) should be just as trouble-free as if the onboard one worked.

#4
bonestonne

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granted the lack of portability, it's a nice project, but that simply looks ridiculous (if you don't mind my saying).

not in a bad way, but having to go through all that to upgrade a laptop is harsh on the budget...upgrading a desktop isn't exactly cheaper, but compatibility isn't so limited.

you also usually have a complete case to work with, i wouldn't want to walk around with something like that because the LCD could be so easily damaged...

the upgrades are impressive, but it's not very portable in that state.

#5
CharredPC

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It's pretty obvious that you didn't actually read through what I wrote. I realize I tend to ramble, but if you're going to comment, at least know what you're commenting on.

As explained, the larger screen was just a test. The new one I ordered is the same size as my original, and will look perfect. I took that picture to show off (as much as I could with a broken LCD) the higher resolution being used.

I wouldn't be talking about battery life (or be bothering to upgrade a laptop) if it wasn't portable.


granted the lack of portability, it's a nice project, but that simply looks ridiculous (if you don't mind my saying).

not in a bad way, but having to go through all that to upgrade a laptop is harsh on the budget...upgrading a desktop isn't exactly cheaper, but compatibility isn't so limited.

you also usually have a complete case to work with, i wouldn't want to walk around with something like that because the LCD could be so easily damaged...

the upgrades are impressive, but it's not very portable in that state.



#6
bonestonne

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well 'scuse me, i still don't see where you said you ordered a new LCD. i was merely going on what i read/saw in the pictures.

i'm not saying anything bad, i hope you realize that. i've done similar things with laptops, i have a Dell latitude that my sister uses, and a Gateway m305CRV which i use from time to time, which have undergone similar mods, just not for OSx86, i just don't really chase around LCDs for laptops because of their pinouts, i don't take those kind of risks.

#7
CharredPC

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well 'scuse me, i still don't see where you said you ordered a new LCD. i was merely going on what i read/saw in the pictures.


Then I apologize for offending you. I didn't realize you were illiterate :thumbsup_anim:

"This opens up a new upgrade option. I found a nice new 15.4" 1920 x 1200 glossy LCD at a killer price, only $40 thanks to bad marketing. I of course made sure that it used the same standard 30-pin connector as my two here."


#8
akira9000

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What USB to Ethernet adapter are you using?

#9
CharredPC

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Setbacks abound! :( Sometimes it doesn't pay to shop on eBay.

The used Macbook Wifi card arrived DOA. Two different notebooks couldn't even detect the hardware as being installed... obviously defective.

The used Engineering Sample T9500 cpu arrived... physically damaged, and also DOA. Chips and cracks in the die itself. Very frustrating.

Am returning both, so will have to wait for the return shipping, refund, new purchase, and that shipping before I can finish my upgrading. Hopefully the LCD, bluetooth, and battery don't carry the same bad luck (I doubt it, all those parts are new).

Addendum: The seller of the cpu has graciously agreed to take it back and give a refund. Haven't heard from the Wifi card vendor yet. I decided that used is not the way to go, even if it saves some money. So I've managed to locate a brand new OEM T9500 for $239 shipped, and a new Airport Extreme 802.11n card for $18 shipped. That $27 savings to go used was not worth the hassle. But you know what they say about hindsight :rolleyes:

#10
apple apple

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Yeah, used parts on ebay can be hit and miss like that sometimes. I think more often than not though my problem is gambling on a part working for a given application, and being wrong.

#11
CharredPC

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Budget update:

The defective cpu and wifi card are on their way back to the vendors. Since I'm choosing to buy new instead of used this time around, I need to raise a difference of almost $30. Luckily, someone offered me a defective 2.26Ghz P4 Dell GX270, with defective 17" monitor, keyboard, and defective PS2 mouse ;) Yes, I did say lucky.

After a BIOS update, IDE cable swap, CMOS reset, and a reinstall of XP, the tower was ready. The CRT had a weak cable, but some reseating solved it. The mouse (as old mice do) needed a complete cleaning. Not the most amazing setup, but enough. Listed it for $30; it's being picked up tonight.

The hard part is waiting for the refunds to come through before making my next purchases. I really don't have the spare cash to jump the gun, but I'm eager to bring this project together!

#12
akira9000

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What USB to Ethernet adapter are you using?



#13
CharredPC

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Sorry, didn't want to say until I snagged the very cheap one I had a minimum bid on ;)

It's a Datel Wii LAN Adapter. I nabbed mine for $7.25 shipped from eBay. It's been reported to be plug-n-play under OSX 10.5.x, thanks to it using a compatible chipset. I'll do a full report on it once I have it in my hands.

On a side note, I'm managing to raise the money for a new battery and some accessories thanks to a great local deal; selling my huge, loud, power-sucking home theater pc to a friend for $300, and bought an in-the-box AOpen MP945-D for just $50 to replace it. Even after spending $94 for a new 500GB drive to replace the MiniPC's 60GB, I'll still be up about $150! Trying to resist the urge to upgrade that as well...

#14
CharredPC

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New 5200mAh battery is ordered for $51.75 shipped. New Airport Extreme BCM94321 802.11n wifi card (with extra antennas) ordered for $17.95 shipped. Still waiting for the new LCD to arrive, I hate waiting for ground shipping! Oh well, that's what I get for being cheap. Hopefully I will order the new CPU Monday, once I get the refund for the dead one.

On an unrelated side note, upgrade-fever has definitely gotten a hold of me. The little AOpen MiniPC Duo I got is getting tweaked up a bit as well. I ordered a new WD Scorpio 500GB WD5000BEVT drive for $86 shipped to replace the little 60GB. I'm seeking out the perfect cpu and RAM deals... will end up with a Core Duo and 2GB of memory to replace the Celeron-M and 1GB it currently has, for under $30 total. Also thinking of dropping $25 on a USB ATSC tuner, which I would put inside the tiny case, and mount a coax plug on the back via the external wifi antenna hole.

#15
CharredPC

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Just bought my brand new T9500 for $229 shipped. It was a good enough deal that I posted about it here, if you want to read up or do the same. Everything's now ordered, just waiting for the parts to arrive for assembly ;)

#16
bonestonne

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Also thinking of dropping $25 on a USB ATSC tuner, which I would put inside the tiny case, and mount a coax plug on the back via the external wifi antenna hole.


have fun fitting a 10mm circle in an 8mm hole.

in essence, it's Coax vs Mini Coax, and the adapters are few and far between, and not exactly cheap..setting that up internally would be a mess even DIY.

#17
CharredPC

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have fun fitting a 10mm circle in an 8mm hole.

in essence, it's Coax vs Mini Coax, and the adapters are few and far between, and not exactly cheap..setting that up internally would be a mess even DIY.


Actually, it's not going to be difficult at all. I'm going to do it the right way; drilling the hole out larger, mounting a standard coaxial female connector plug, and directly soldering the other end to the USB tuner's PCB. I'd also remove the module's USB connector entirely, replacing it with a straight-connected four-pin mini plug to go into the motherboard's internal USB header. When I'm done, I'll have a nearly drop-in part that anyone who wants to widen their rear wifi hole by 2mm could easily install :)

#18
bonestonne

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i've worked with electronics for the past 4 years. basically speaking (because i've attempted mods like this before), if you can make it happen, i'd like to see it.

consumer based electronics are made on cheap PCB, when the contacts are made, they can't easily be changed. once they heat up, you run the risk of taking the actual gold/copper leads off the PCB, and there's no way of getting them back on.

if you're going to go a route like that, then i'd say just remember that I/O panels are very flimsy, and mounting a coax cable would have to be touched the least number of times. constantly moving it around could cause damage. you may want to go for just a female type barrel connector that you can screw into (usually secured with a nut), and a small coax patch cable to the USB tuner. to get internal USB connectivity, i'd suggest doing a mod with stray USB ends and the adapter for the motherboard headers. hacking up the USB tuner makes it much more susceptible to electrical interference inside the computer. half the reason why the USB ones exist is because they can be placed away from the computer. it's also made so laptops can have some better use.

go about it however you want, but consumer electronics like USB tv tuners, USB wifi adapters...they aren't going to be modded easily. good luck with that, and i expected that answer...who would try to find a 8mm to 10mm coax adapter when they can just hack it all apart?

#19
CharredPC

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bonestonne, seriously, what is your problem?

I've been in electronics since I worked repairing, modifying, and selling CB radios (that should give you a ballpark timeline). What I'm describing is a piece of cake for me.

I'm well aware of the lousy, disposable PCB they use compared to the 'old days.' That's why I'm careful, and use a fine-tipped iron. The surface traces hold up no problem if you keep the heat momentary, and wait before retouching. I can (and have) even replaced surface-mount resistors. I'll be happy to let you see it once complete. It's not very different from modifying a USB bluetooth module to be internal, and I've done that in my laptop.

If you've ever seen an Aopen Mini PC, you'd know that the hole I'm describing is not a standard I/O flimsy thin backplate. It's plenty sturdy to hold a coaxial plug in place.

I'd much rather solder the correct part in place than link it through multiple pointless adapters. Daisy-chaining is the hackish way to do it, and will result in poor connections / signal loss.

I don't know what I did to piss you off, but whatever it was, I'm sorry. In any case, this is a simple enough mod for me, I don't anticipate any problems from it, and we're now way off topic. This is an Acer Extensa upgrade thread, not ground zero to hash out my ability to mod an MP945-D :D


Getting back to the actual point of this thread:

I received the new LCD, and it was a mixed bag. On the one hand; hooray, it works! Full 1920x1200 resolution :D On the other hand, I ordered a glossy, and have a matte instead. I debated about it, but have decided I really want the glossy, so am returning it. The seller doesn't have the actual item to replace it with, so I'll just purchase another elsewhere. Which brings up an interesting point...

Now that I've gotten to try out a 15.4" WUXGA screen, I can honestly say I will never use 1920x1200. The workspace is incredible, but text simply isn't legible when that tiny. My eyes would give out in a matter of days. In trying out different resolutions, I think 1680x1050 is the perfect balance. It's still a vast improvement over 1280x800 without making me squint. So, perhaps this time around I'll get a WSXGA+ instead of another WUXGA.

The battery showed up, and is again a mixed bag. It is a true 5200mAh battery. However, it won't accept a full charge. Upon arrival, it was about 73% full. It charged up to 84% and refused to continue. Even just that much gave me a battery ETA of nearly two hours, so it's a big improvement over the original. Having run into this problem with aftermarket batteries before, I drained it completely and started a fresh charge. Now it tops out at 53%. So, it will be returned for a replacement.

Despite these setbacks I feel I'm making headway. I now know that the replacement LCD will work; I know that once I get a properly functioning one, the 5200mAh battery will be great; the new cpu and wifi card are on their way; the hard drive, bluetooth, and ram are all working fine. Besides, while I wait on shipping, I have my Mini HTPC project going on :P

#20
CharredPC

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Updates:

The brand new OEM T9500 CPU arrived! I installed it and... it works! Even the BIOS bootup is quicker. Perfect drop-in replacement, and a huge step up over the stock T5250. System bus now running at 800Mhz; clock speed is 1.1Ghz faster; smaller core die; 4MB more cache...

The LCD seller already refunded me for the matte screen. I'm shipping it back today. He's being great about everything, even offered me a proper glossy replacement at his own cost. I'd take him up on it, but that might delay my having a screen for another month, and I don't think I can stand waiting anymore.

The battery seller gave me some 'instructions' to try. After everything they suggested (mostly draining it completely multiple times)- now the battery isn't even being detected in the laptop! Completely defunct. I wish there were a better place to buy a 5200mAh battery for the Extensa 5620 than Hong Kong via eBay. No word on a replacement / refund yet.

I have two more packages to open today, and one more to pick up tomorrow from the post office. Also have to choose a new LCD to order. Have my eye on a few, but for more than double the cost of the last one. At least my big pile of random parts I have for sale will be picked up tonight for $75; that should keep me from spending any bill money on this adventure.





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