projects header image - PCB and some wires

CompaqPi (AKA, The Hipster Laptop)

projects header image - PCB and some wires

Published on and last modified on .

I have an old Compaq laptop loaded with Windows 3.1. It’s got a built-in floppy drive and some ports I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t have an internal network card. Connecting an external network card requires a convoluted daisy-chain of dongles. The laptop is fun to play around with for a few minutes but is virtually useless these days. I’ve held onto it for a few years, hoping I’d think of some way to repurpose it.

A working Compaq LTE Elite 4/50CX laptop, prior to being disassembled
picture of the unaltered laptop

Eventually, I decided to turn it into… a laptop! But wait, isn’t it already a laptop? Yes, it is. I’m going to turn it into a better laptop by swapping out it’s innards with modern components. These days, something as small and as inexpensive as a Raspberry Pi is more powerful than the laptop’s original CPU. A Raspberry Pi also lets me use modern I/O ports. I am replacing the screen with a modern, HD LCD. I’m throwing out the 64MB magnetic disk drive with proprietary connectors, opting instead to use 128-256GB of flash memory. With most of the original parts removed, the laptop is feels pretty flimsy and insubstantial. To add back some weight, I am swapping out its rubber-dome keyboard for a custom mechanical keyboard. Once completed, this old Compaq will be a fully-functional, modern laptop.

Parts List

Here are some of the parts I’m planning to use. This list will probably change as I progress with this project.

  1. 1 Raspberry Pi 3 - Model B
  2. 1 10.1 inch LCD display
  3. A lot of Cherry MX brown key switches
  4. Keycaps, possibly custom, matching the color of the laptop

The Keyboard

The custom keyboard is going to be the most time-intensive part of this project. It necessitates the creation of a custom keyboard layout and a corresponding PCB, the manufacturing of which I’ll need to outsource. I usually use OSH Park for my PCB needs, but if any readers know of a board-house with better rates, I’d appreciate your suggestions. I’ll also need to get a custom chassis (probably metal, possibly acrylic) milled. Then, there’s the matter of sourcing all of the parts and putting everything together.

The Layout

In researching keyboard layout design, I stumbled upon keyboard-layout-editor.com. It’s a free site with an easy to use GUI that lets users design layouts. It saves the layouts as JSON files which it stores as GitHub gists. Based on the space available in the laptop, I came up with a layout that will not necessitate cutting holes in the laptop’s outer casing.

The Board

The keyboard's PCB layout
keyboard's PCB layout


There are a couple of CAD programs made specifically for designing PCBs. In the past, I’ve used Eagle Cad (now just Eagle). That was a while ago, though. The license I had was for Windows and, these days, I primarily use Mac. Rather than buying another license, I decided to use KiCad. KiCad is an open-source program suite with functionality similar to Eagle. After getting used to the interface and finding some addon packages for keyboard parts, designing the PCB was pretty straightforward.

The Chassis

keyboard-layout-editor.com is kind enough to provide renderings of chassis parts based on layouts created by users. Hopefully, these graphics will be easily convertible into CAD files. I’m working on finding a good place to mill the chassis’ parts. I’ll update this section as work on the chassis progresses.