Over the next few weeks I will be blogging intensely about my summer technology project involving creating digital picture frames from obsolete laptops. The series is entitled “Doing it Better”, and the articles will serve as tutorials, progress updates on my work, and also the foundation of my KickStarter project. You are encouraged to contribute any amount if my project is something you find interesting and promising for the future! It will help me fund purchasing hardware and establishing the infrastructure that I need to manufacture these incredible homemade frames.
Innovating in a saturated market, dominated by fundamentally flawed products
With a hint of environmentally friendly recycling and hardcore DIY geekiness
I recently had an epiphany; Instead of buying digital photo frames that are 60% frame and 5% computer, why not build some, DIY style, that are 90% computer and 100% frame? Some years ago, I received a 7-inch Action brand digital photo frame (essentially this: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/A1x4sTBrX7S.pdf) as a birthday gift, probably my 14th or so birthday. I tend to ride the novelty wave for a good while after receiving a new electronic device, but let’s just say that in this case, I was immediately underwhelmed by its underperformance. First of all, the specs are as follows:
- 480 x 276 resolution at 76.29 DPI
- SD card and USB connectivity
- Ugly black plastic photo frame
- Relatively bulky power adapter
- 32 MB of built-in storage, enough to store 10 JPEGs from modern cameras
- 7 buttons behind the frame, to navigate awkward and inefficient menus
- Custom linux-based firmware, non-customizable and non-upgradeable
- Some single core, couple hundred MHz ARM chip, and a few MB of RAM.
My main issue with this product is that you pay some amount, let’s say $50, and get a decorative frame that works, but whose screen is of such terrible quality that it is not even worthy of amateur photos, much less images from my Canon 60D. Furthermore, one must learn to blindly use the buttons to navigate the menus in proprietary software, to perform tasks (such as copy files to internal memory ONE BY ONE) that should not even have to be done by the user at all. Plus, the hardware is so low-budget and proprietary that nothing more can be done on it then what it was made for. For a geek, that is a bummer!
Way back when I religiously followed Engadget.com and Gizmodo.com (technology news blogs), I stumbled upon an article giving the readers suggestions on how to put obsolete laptops to good use. The tutorial that struck me most concerned stripping a laptop of its LCD screen panel and motherboard plus components, and clumsily mounting these behind a conventional photo frame. Being that I had no such old laptops at the time (I’m an avid desktop guy), the information seemed intriguing yet useless to me. The advantage of using a laptop in this scenario is simplicity; laptops are meant to be portable, and as such are self-contained, very thin, have built-in WIFI, quiet fans, and only require a single cable for power.
Fast-forward a few years to the present minus a few months, and my youth group friends’ mom, whom I had offered computer help in the past (obviously knowing that I’m a geek and tinkerer), just casually gives me 3 old Pentium 4 era laptops with power adapters! After sitting on them for a while and letting them collect metaphorical dust because they were useless to me, I decided to give some away. Having a relatively large heart, I decided to give the best one (a Core 2 Duo HP) to a missionary family for whom I had offered in-house computer help throughout the years. Obviously it was much appreciated, and was used much more than it would ever have in my hands. Now left with only 2, I gave the worst one (a Pentium 4 with 512MB and surprisingly, a DVD drive) to my sister (hehe), so she could type and watch DVDs in her room.
Now there remains only one laptop in my possession, which is responsible for sparking a flash of genius and the crux of this project. This Toshiba 15 incher (this one here: http://www.cnet.com/products/toshiba-satellite-a70-75/specs/) was in the worst condition: the power button had been ripped out, the case was cracked, and panels were missing all over the place. Nevertheless, the system booted just fine and the screen was in pristine condition. I also had a deceased 17” HP given to me by a former church member, with a confirmed working LCD screen with superior 1440 x 900 resolution. The specs of the Toshiba are as follows:
- Toshiba A70
- 15.4” 1366 x 768 LCD
- Pentium 4 HT 3.06 GHz
- 512 MB DDR1 RAM
- 80 GB IDE HDD
- ATI Radeon 9000 IGP
By this point you should be reading my thoughts like a book! I decided, being unworthy of any other normal use, that this machine would undergo dissection and be transformed into what I now call Prototype A of my laptop digital picture frame concept.