Mad Modding: Project X61sxga+

I continue to be amazed by the diversity and talent of our customers, and their passion for our products.  Guest blogging today is Erik , a successful small graphic design business owner, semi-pro jet ski racer, ThinkPad enthusiast and customizer.  You can often find Erik lending a hand to other customers in the Lenovo and ThinkPad forums. Take it away, Erik...


Almost everything I’ve owned has been modified in some way shortly after purchase.  My car would shake at stoplights because of its high-lift cams.  My race-prepped stand-up Jet Ski would get 2 MPG during competition (if I were lucky) thanks to squeezing out over 150 horsepower from an 800cc engine.  And, most of my electronics saw the business end of a screwdriver within the first week purely out of a desire to see what made them tick—ThinkPads included. A few of my ThinkPads over the years had crossed the modification line, yet always seemed to remain close to how they came from the factory.  This project took things far beyond that point.  This time I tossed all logic aside and crammed a 12.1" SXGA+ tablet display panel inside an X61s notebook. Earlier this year I purchased an X61 Tablet with an SXGA+ panel thinking it would fit my needs in an ultraportable.  Having used Wacom tablets for the last 16+ years, I thought the pen input of a Tablet PC would be right up my alley.  Sadly, I liked the display but rarely used it in tablet mode.  It was time to find an alternative—something small, something light, and something with a display worthy of design and photo use while mobile.  Problem was, no one made exactly what I wanted. After some heavy research, I decided to attempt fitting an X61T display inside an X61s.  This seemed like the perfect combination of size and features.  I spent a few hours comparing the whitepapers of the tablet and notebook displays, checking physical dimensions, LVDS cable pin-outs, voltage requirements, and other details.  Logic said that it could work but a lot of time and risk would be involved.  Not only would I have to hack up the tablet display to fit but I’d also have to fabricate my own LVDS cable jumper harness since the signal pin orders were different on each panel.  The new LCD’s warranty would be shot and I could have fried my X61s if something wasn’t connected properly.  A grip of cash would have been thrown away if this project didn’t work.

Having finally decided to take the risk, I sourced out the necessary parts and placed a handful of orders for an X61s, SXGA+ display, LCD cable connectors, wire, tape, and a few extra parts for the X61s itself to make improvements while I was at it.  A modified BIOS was sent to me by a fellow forum member, leaving me only to fabricate a jumper harness to test everything out.  Countless hours of soldering and four harnesses later, I finally saw a clean, reliable signal on my display.  Everything was coming together.

The next hurdle was in actually putting everything together.  The tablet display needed both its digitizer and writing surface removed along with nine mounting tabs cut off of its stainless steel and plastic frame.  The magnesium LCD cover and wireless antennas on the ThinkPad had to be modified to provide proper clearance.  This left exactly enough room to assemble everything without any unnecessary pressure on the display.  I then had to tape the LCD directly to the hinges since threaded mounts were nonexistent on the modified panel.  The last step was to fit the inverter and Bluetooth module inside the cover before snapping the bezel in place.  Everything went together without any bulges, gaps, or other issues.  I'd almost go as far to say that it fit perfectly.

After assembling the rest of the system and giving it a two-hour break-in to confirm that everything worked and remained stable, I finished working on the rest of my improvements.  These included removing and blocking off the modem, modifying and installing TrackPoint buttons from my leftover X300 keyboard, and installing a “soft touch” palm rest from the Japanese-market-only 15th Anniversary ThinkPad X61s.  The last trick was in modifying the keyboard to accept the new striped TrackPoint mouse buttons from my spare X300 keyboard.  While I was at it, I installed 4GB of memory and a 64GB Samsung SSD from the X300/X301, then installed Windows Server 2008 Enterprise 64-bit to round everything out. In the end I was left with a small, fast, and lightweight ultraportable with an amazing display panel - an overall combination that meets my unique requirements—minus the warranty, of course. ;)