T43 IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad Upgrade – Part 2

In this second, and last, part of my Thinkpad T43 upgrade adventure, we’ll be looking at the Mainboard/HDD, mistakes and further possible improvements I could make.

T43 prep
Preparation

I’ll also give you some software tips and further links to guides and information about the SATA mod.

 

HDD

My first HDD was, I think…it’s been a while, a 60GB IDE drive. I later replaced it with a faster spinning version and slightly higher capacity and also put another IDE HDD into the ultrabay adapter. This worked fine for a while, but then came the advent of SSDs and after experiencing the glorious access times I knew I wanted to have one in my T43 as well. But alas, back then the mod I would eventually perform on the T43 wasn’t available yet, so I had to resort to other measures.

I first purchased a small 1,8″ SATA SSD and a (actually two, the first one didn’t fit) IDE to SATA adapter from China. It actually worked and I was able to install Windows XP on the small 16GB SSD. It wasn’t much, but it worked.

The speed however wasn’t that fantastic as the system would hang frequently and as XP isn’t the most optimal OS for SSDs, I was worried about the life expectancy of the small disk. The SATA>IDE>SATA chain clearly wasn’t optimal. A while later I wanted to try Windows 7 on the system, but it was not working very well with the small SSD (wouldn’t install), so I got a SATA adapter for the ultrabay and tried installing a regular SATA HDD as well as an SSD. I don’t really know what the cause was, but I had problems installing Windows 7. It would install, but not boot and even after I managed to get it working, I had serious driver issues and at least once the whole installation just died. So I had enough, gave up on the T43 and got a (great) W500 as my main laptop.

But actually didn’t want to give up on the T43, so I purchased a true IDE SSD (don’t ask about the price per gigabyte) and installed Windows 7 on it. It worked much better and Windows 7 didn’t have any issues with drivers and such, but there still was the problem of low performance and the system still occasionally froze for a couple of seconds. IDE SSDs and/or the converter chip clearly weren’t up to the task. That’s when I remembered the following modification:

T43 IDE to SATA

T43 removed ide port
The aftermath of removing the IDE port. I kept the plastic standoffs to keep the SATA port at the right height.

First a little bit of background: When developing the T43, it seems IBM wanted to implement the then-new SATA standard for the harddisk, but SATA disks were both scarce and expensive in early 2005 and although work on the laptop had progressed far, they chose to go back to IDE. But the whole SATA logic was already done and implemented, so they put an SATA to IDE converter chip by Marvell on the mainboard and put a regular IDE connector at the end.

This worked fine back then. But these days IDE drive’s availability has reduced and their capacity hasn’t increased much either. Also they’re pretty expensive nowadays. If you actually disable the onboard converter chip, remove the IDE port from the mainboard and solder new wires for the SATA data lines to a new SATA connector, you can actually re-enable the original SATA functionality and connect any modern SATA drive. It’s limited to SATA-1 speeds, but still much faster and responsive than the ultrabay adapter.

Getting the HDD access LED to work took also a little bit of effort, and I had to solder a wire on the underside of the mainboard.

Restoring the HDD access LED functionality
Restoring the HDD access LED functionality

Lacking the proper tools to desolder the Marvell chip, I carefully cut the traces connecting to the SATA lines. You need to be careful here and not cut too deep or wide in order to keep the neighbouring and underlying traces intact. Next I removed the old IDE port, keeping the two large structural pins on either side intact to mount the SATA connector later.

Test fitting the SATA connector
Test fitting the SATA connector

For the SATA connector I used a HP AT368 connector, which doesn’t fit perfectly, but with some minor alterations you’ll be able to remove the SATA disk without opening the laptop again. You could also solder to some regular SATA wires and connectors and hold them in place with a bunch of hot glue.

Power (+5V) and GND come from the old IDE connector and the four data lines (A and B +/-) from the soldering pads near the Marvell converter chip. Connecting these was the most difficult part. While it’s really simple to solder onto the SATA connector, the Marvell chip and the solder points next to it are tiny. And I mean TINY! I’m modding consoles in my free time and I’m generally not afraid of day-to-day soldering work, but this was something else.

IMG_20160214_172020300
The finished soldering on the SATA connector

I used 30 AWG (about 0.01in or 0.254mm in diameter) wire, which I usually use for really finicky soldering jobs, but it was barely thin enough. If I ever do this mod again, and I might, I’ll try to get something thinner and more flexible.

Tiny...
Tiny…
Really really tiny!
Really really tiny! The tape is about 15mm wide

Putting everything back together required some minor modification of the plastic HDD cover/casing inside the T43, but that should be avoidable next time.

The scary part was of course the testing process, but except for few short fear-filled moments, it worked on the first try, and the intel SSD was available in the bios. Next I cloned over the Windows 7 installation from the IDE SSD with Clonezilla and voilà, I got myself a T43 with native SATA support.

It's alive!
It’s alive! Cloning the Windows installation

 

I didn’t actually expect much of an improvement, but I was wrong. The performance gain over the IDE SSD or IDE>SATA adapter with SATA SSD was very significant. Before I didn’t have hope of getting any more life out of the T43, but even with SATA-1 speeds and a single core CPU, the system feels much more responsive and usable.

The only downside is that I have to mount the SSD upside down and can’t use the disc cage properly, but that’s about it.

Software/Drivers

Mostly everything works right out of the box with Windows 7 or at least after installing the Vista drivers from the Lenovo page.

The intel WiFi card doesn’t appear to be very stable anymore and the new Marvell replacement needed manual driver installation, which didn’t cause any trouble.

The only thing I recommend is not using any of the GPU drivers from Windows 7. While you’ll get a higher WEI score for the 3D Gaming section with the standard drivers, the actual performance is really bad.

What I did was to modify the best available driver for Vista to be compatible with the mobile chipset.

Here’s what you need to do:

Get the 8-12_vista32_dd_ccc_wdm_enu_72275.exe driver, start and extract it, but abort before installation.

Get the Mobility Modder MMDotNETSetup1210.zip and modify the extracted driver. After that, install the driver with the setup.exe from the modified extracted folder.

Your mileage may vary, but I ran World of Warcraft (Classic and WoD) before and after the driver swap, and the performance gain was about 500-2000%, depending on my settings.

I already mentioned RMClock in the last post, but I want to do it again as you can get a much quieter and cooler system with an undervolted CPU. Not to mention less battery use as well.

There’s also the good old “TPFanControl” tool that’s used by many people to make the fan more quiet. I actually use it to make the system cooler, even if it means the fan runs more and/or louder, to avoid flexing as much as possible.

Putting everything back together
Putting everything back together

What’s left

The SATA mod is clearly the most difficult modification I’ve ever done on any system, PC or console and I’m glad I managed to pull it off.

Now there’s not much I can do to improve the system any further. I could get a bigger SSD (faster is irrelevant, as I’m already pushing the limits of the SATA1 connection), spend way too much money on a different brand Mini PCI 300MBps WiFi card or get a bunch of FSB 400 CPUs to find one that’s easily overclockable to something like 2,4GHz while allowing for a LOT of undervolting to keep the system cool. Maybe a new 9 cell battery and a bigger storage drive for the Ultrabay. But all of that pretty much exceeds the value of the whole system, even with all the work I put into it. From a rational standpoint I should just get a T6x and be done with everything.

If I can get my hands on a cheap working T43P (system or mainboard), I might do the SATA mod a second time and enjoy 128MB of VRAM instead of 64MB. Honestly, it’ll just give me a higher score in the Aero rating of Windows 7, but I like to have everything at maximum performance.

Maybe I’ll buy a new Keyboard some day, because mine is already pretty worn out. And if I can find a cheap display cover that’s more or less undamaged, I’ll get that as well.

The final specs of my modified Thinkpad:

CPU: 2,26GHz Pentium M 780
GPU: ATI Radeon X300 64MB (soldered onto the mainboard)
HDD: 80GB intel SATA SSD
RAM: 2x1GB DDR2
Display: 14″ SXGA+ TFT 1400×1050
Ultrabay: SATA HDD for storage
Mini-PCI: 802.11b/g/n 300MBps Marvell
CDC: 56K Modem/Bluetooth Combo
PCMCIA: 2xUSB 2.0 (maybe to be replaced with a CF Card Reader)
EC54: 2xUSB 3.0 (still in the mail)
OS: Windows 7 32Bit (there are no 64Bit CPUs available for the platform)

Was the whole thing worth it? From a financial perspective, absolutely NOT. But I learned a lot in the process and my T43 is still usable, 11 years after release.

 

Do you do any crazy modifications on your retro systems? Let me know in the comments.

Further reading about the T43 SATA mod:

Michael J Moffitt’s guide

Thinkpads.com modification thread

Tomorrow I’ll finally conclude the article series about pixel graphics. Hopefully I’ll get to play some more World of Warcraft soon as well. Until then, I’m going to entertain myself by continuing on my Unity tutorial project.