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
...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
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?