A Cyberdeck for the Masses

Most people should be able to build and personalize this 'deck to their liking.

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I've built a fair number of "cyberdeck" style systems, going back before I knew there was even a name for such things -- I called them "DIY laptops" for a few years! -- simply because the form factor seemed aesthetically pleasing to me. Along the way, I've built enough to have reduced my build methodology to a formula. This build is more of an "Instructable" style guide that will demonstrate how to build a basic cyberdeck according to the formula (which, honestly, is fairly simple), exploring options for alternative parts, customizations, etc, as well as explaining why certain parts of the formula exist, making recommendations along the way (which are also explained out in proper form).

See the Project Description for a fair idea of what's going on here, if it's not already pretty clear. I'm not going to provide a specific set of instructions, components, or files, in those set sections. Instead, one should use the Build Logs, which, together, form a sort of guidebook to putting together one's own cyberdeck, with each single Log acting as a chapter.

First, I'll lay out my formula, with a bit of a brief discussion on it and a few historical examples of my own. Then, I'll provide several individual Logs that each examining a portion of the formula in turn -- both exploring variations and how they might affect one's build; as well as making recommendations regarding hardware to avoid or to actively seek out. Another three Logs will provide a brief overview, respectively, of installing, configuring, and using Linux Mint, which I highly recommend as a beginner-friendly Linux distro, and which anyone familiar with using any version of Windows from Windows 95 through Windows 7 (but most especially WIndows XP, Vista, and Win7) will find extremely easy to switch to. Finally, I'll provide a series of Build Logs that walk you through a cyberdeck build that I did, recently, with this writeup in mind (and because my current, big-name machines are giving me absolute HECK right now!), to provide a real-world example of how it all goes together.

You don't need fancy tools, you don't need a brain the size of a planet (sorry, Marvin), you don't need tons of money... ordinary people with ordinary lives can do this.

I am a nerd on a fixed income, and I'm mostly self-taught -- I'm endlessly curious, so I'm endlessly tinkering -- but believe me, I destroy far more than I will ever fix! My only power tool is a drill made from scavenged bits and bobs and a 6-volt lantern battery (and I love it).

If you can turn a screwdriver, and you can put together a LEGO set, you can build a computer. Come on, I'll show you how :)

[Table of Contents will go here, as links, when all the Build Logs are up. Until then, please continue to hold, as someone will be with you shortly, and Pardon Our Dust...]

  • Thank you, Dr Ian Malcolm...

    Starhawk2 days ago 0 comments

    Just a quick note... as it is with dinosaur breeding, so it is with drama. "LIfe, uh... finds a way." ;)

    As of late I've had a LOT of drama finding its way into my life in various ways. Some I recognized, a few I was, once the dust settled, mildly impressed by. A goodly number were of the sort where I didn't know at the time that it was possible for that to happen that way, and of those I'm *still* questioning, weeks and months later, just how the heck it was possible to begin with.

    Life, indeed, finds a way.

    Often many of them, and seemingly all at once...

    Thus the fine layer of dust atop this project. It is not abandoned, nor have I moved to greener pastures -- or seemingly better ideas. I simply haven't had the chance to get back to it since I left it.

    As much as life finds its ways to annoy us, however, to drive us up the wall and back down again, we humans are amazingly resilient to such efforts. This project is important to me, and I *will* finish it, unless enough drama comes my way that I die first. (I don't think life has *that* much of a vendetta on me, lol!)

    So, I promise: as much as, sometimes, I feel like getting a bad mascot costume of a dog and putting it on, with a miniature cowboy hat perched on the head and a mug of something warm and comforting in front of me -- all so I can watch the flames around me, smile, and say "This is fine." knowing that I will have a fresh start waiting for me once they are done --

    I may be one man with one extinguisher, and so it will take me a little while, but I will put out these fires, and one day when you come to visit, this log will be gone and the next one I'd promised will be in its place.

    Life finds a way -- but so do I.

    I may be gone, but I have not forgotten, and I will return. I *will* finish this project. That is a promise and I intend to keep it.

    Until then -- onward! :)

  • "But, What is Internet?" - How to Cyber(deck) and what one is, anyways...

    Starhawk10/15/2021 at 21:47 0 comments, erm, less-obvious reference, all the way from 1994...

    ...if you don't get the more-obvious one, well, you're probably just not old enough! Wait a few years, I'm not explaining it. Especially not here...


    A brief note on terminology. The field of computers, like nearly any other specialist field, has, over time, evolved sort of its own language -- certainly its own vocabulary! PCI Express, modem, form factor, baud rate, kbps, resolution -- some of these terms are old, some are still in use today, but all of them are computer jargon, terms of art used to describe things in the field that would otherwise be hard to explain or refer to.

    I'm going to need to use that jargon throughout the rest of this, and where it's not been explained adequately, I'll do my best to provide at least enough information that you can ask your own local Friendly Neighborhood Nerd for more... or consult Wikipedia if you're an information junkie (or an information sadist! Most of those articles are highly technical in nature and not simple to understand... sadly). For those who prefer the dead-tree method -- good for you! Hardcopy should *never* be rendered obsolescent or obsolete (if it's still somewhat around, like a PS/2 keyboard, technically it's obsolescent; obsolete is properly both dead and gone in at least practical entirety) -- last I heard, Barnes & Noble still stocked computer maintenance and repair books, although those tend to be rather comprehensive tomes, several inches thick, and priced like college textbooks. An A+ Certification textbook will be priced similarly, but (ironically) may not be nearly so comprehensive, as newer such books tend to omit entirely, or gloss over, a lot of 'legacy' (obsolescent) hardware such as older-style PCI slots and how they work (aka "Conventional PCI", the white expansion-card slots that predate PCI Express... if your PC is much newer than about 2010, you probably can ignore this) that are still on a few really old systems out there.

    A particularly important bit of jargon is "form factor". Simply put, a form factor is a formal or informal specification ("spec") for a hardware design. Typically a given spec sheet (any written documentation) for a form factor describes its physical layout, its dimensions -- and the acceptable ranges and tolerances, as well as restrictions on both in places where such need apply, for such dimensions -- any features that need to be included (and where and how) or excluded, etc.

    A "cyberdeck" is a specific form factor of portable computer. Historically, it is a de facto spec, having evolved from a number of sources in (believe it or not) the mid-to-late-1980s and early 1990s. The term was created by William Gibson for his breakthrough novel "Neuromancer", but, according to his own accounting in an interview many years later, he was, ironically, rather unfamiliar with computers at the time and thus was careful to leave his narrative descriptions extremely vague! Illustrations in the source rulebooks for the first edition of the tabletop role-playing game "Shadowrun" in 1989 (basically, imagine playing "Dungeons & Dragons", but instead of a fantasy world, it's the "Blade Runner" universe) gave a proper imagining to the design, but it wasn't until people actually started designing and building their own such computers based on those illustrations that a spec emerged. It's essentially design by crowdsource (crowdsourcing is the model Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are built on... however, a more appropriate modern approximation might be a Twitch streamer's chat crowd, if we're a bit optimistic) but given enough time and experimentation by the appropriate people, it can indeed turn out quite nicely... as happened here.

    What emerged is simple, but effective. A large, rectangular base, typically at least as large as a 'standard keyboard' (this is to say, a desktop-style keyboard large enough to have a full number...

    Read more »

  • "Going to the Hardware Store" - Some Talk About Tools

    Starhawk10/08/2021 at 23:42 0 comments

    Here's what you need, for sure. This sounds like a lot more than it is, mostly by way of discussion. You really don't need anything more than what's listed here.

    • A power drill of some sort and drill bits. Corded or cordless doesn't really matter, except that corded is generally (but not always) more powerful and more expensive, and cordless is generally (but not always) more convenient. "Electric screwdrivers" are crap, don't buy them -- they have a clutch in them, but even if you circumvent that so that you can get the full power of the motor (which isn't easy!), it's still like a "Little Tikes" toddler toy ride-in car vs a midsize Toyota. Avoid. As for drill bits, literally the cheapest black metal stuff in the store will do you fine. Don't bother with anything fancier, but do get something with at least a couple dozen sizes.
    • A multimeter. Don't get the awful ones at Walmart or hardware stores if you can avoid it. Go to an electronics place -- no, not Best Buy (ha!) or the Late Great Radio Shack. Honestly, the $15 Sparkfun Multimeter is legendary for a reason, and gets my penultimate recommendation. (I have one from back when they were still yellow!) You can kind of get away with not having a multimeter, for what it's worth, but it's really hard. You'll need a "continuity tester" (basically a flashlight-bulb-and-battery plus clip leads to complete the circuit, if whatever you're clipped to is connected through, it lights up) and some sort of voltmeter that can handle up to about 24vDC and tells you if you've got your polarity mixed up but otherwise doesn't mind (+/- ends swapped). Cheaper and easier by far to just get the multimeter, trust me.
    • A screwdriver or bit-driver set. Best bet here is an electronics bit-driver set. The ones Amazon carries under weird brand names you've never heard of, marketed as "electronics repair screwdriver bit set" type things -- those are your best bet, especially ones with magnetic bits. (Don't go to AliExpress unless you want to be old and gray with a Gandalf beard when it finally arrives!) Mine is branded "ORIA" and is awesome. Also, protip -- the Walmart "Hyper Tough" one in neon puke green is not a magnetic-bit set... annoyingly. I can't recommend it because of that, but if you're absolutely desperate beyond all reproach, it's better than nothing.
    • A big, long-handled Philips and slot-head screwdriver pair. Sometimes things need "persuading"... don't be afraid to apply a little leverage when you have to ;) and have what you need on hand for that. Speaking of which, expect the slot-head model to do double-duty as a miniature prybar... this is an old trick for a reason. Magnetic tips are a plus, here, too, BTW, and you should be willing to pay a little extra for them if you can.
    • A mini hacksaw. Sometimes also called a "compact hand hacksaw" which doesn't make much sense. This is the kind where there's a utility-knife-style grip in line with a standard 10in or 12in hacksaw blade. If what you're looking at is a case of "Honey I Shrunk The Otherwise-Normal Hacksaw", pistol-grip and all, that's the wrong thing. These things are incredible, though -- you don't need a big-boy saw, Dremel, or anything like that if you have one of these, not for this project at least... unless you're doing something absolutely whackadoodle to show off, in which case you probably already have a garage half-full of fancy tools I've never heard of anyways.
    • A utility knife. Sometimes called a box cutter knife. Put away your tactical survival how-red-is-your-neck Signature Jeff Foxworthy Edition hog-splittin' sawtooth switchblade thing, you want just a basic yellow Stanley "it's sharper than a butter knife" type here, the kind literally everyone uses to open cardboard everything. Don't pay more than you have to, even Walmart's cheapest bargain-bin model is good enough. Anything fancier just gets in the way. Protip: keep spare blades on hand. They're cheap, and if you snap one late in the evening...
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  • "But Why?": Build vs Buy, an Introduction to the Concept

    Starhawk10/08/2021 at 20:42 0 comments

    Maybe you're standing in front of your daughter's computer... maybe it's your own, and they're just watching. Maybe it's your son. Maybe you're a single parent, or maybe your son or daughter has two Mommies, or two Daddies... or maybe you're Mommy or Daddy in a more traditional relationship. I don't judge. In this moment, that's not the focus anyways. You're staring at a computer. The screen is blue and it's frowning at you. Your child looks up at you and they're just as confused as you are.

    "What's wrong with it? Why won't it work...?"

    You don't have a clue how to answer them. You don't even know where to begin. You look down at the thing. You're angry, frustrated, sad. You alternately want to break down crying and throw the machine across the room. Neither option seems terribly useful... and ultimately, you have the same question that your son or daughter does:

    Why won't the #&@$$%!!!! thing just turn on and work?!

    Several hours -- maybe days -- and an expensive trip to the computer repair shop later, the news is even worse. You need a new system, the old one is beyond repair. You look at your family nervously. A new computer is several hundred dollars... that's not a small amount of money! How are you going to afford that?

    But: hit the pause button for a moment. What if you had another option? What if, given a weekend dedicated to it, you could build your own machine? Screw Best Buy and their horrible prices and pounding pounding techno music, screw the desperation in a plastic grocery bag that is Walmart, screw the nerds that wouldn't fix your own machine -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em! You can do it yourself.

    I know it seems unlikely. I know it makes you feel like Homer Simpson in a physics class when you look inside a Dell box... a stranger in a strange land. You've never taken apart a laptop. You wouldn't even know where to begin. Heck, putting together a desk from Staples is a bit scary for you, sometimes!

    Let me tell you a secret: computers are designed that way. Computers are designed to impress us, to make us feel powerful when we use them, just like driving an expensive sports car does... but just like looking under the hood of a modern Toyota can make your head spin, so can looking under the hood of an HP Pavilion desktop!

    I'm a friendly neighborhood nerd. I'm the guy that Granny calls to program her VCR, and that you, if you live near me, call when your cable box and TV don't want to talk to each other, and Larry the Cable Guy says he might be able to come next Tuesday if it's not raining. I'm the guy you call when you get that frowny Blue Screen of Death (and the one who told you to call it that) and you're trying to figure out if it's worth it to haul the thing down to Jeff for a couple hundred bucks of repair bills or whether it just needs someone to give it the electronic equivalent of "take two aspirin and get over it already", spank its parallel port for being moody, and send it on its way.

    Modern computers look a lot more complicated than they really are. PCs go together like a LEGO set -- if you can plug a DVD player or Roku box into a TV, if you can plug a USB hub into a laptop, and if you know how to turn a screwdriver, you can put together your own portable PC. I'll show you how to build one in a style us computer dorks call a "cyberdeck", and tell you everything you need to know to customize it to your own personal wants, needs, and desires.

    The only power tool you'll need for the typical build will be a drill of some sort -- and the super-cheap ones will do fine. Everything else you need to do can be done with ordinary hand-tools. This stuff is nowhere near as intimidating as it looks at first glance. I promise!

    The next section will discuss what tools and such you do, in fact, need -- and what ones you don't need that you might think you do -- and what to get, and why.

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