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N.A.Q.
(Never asked questions.)

How do I turn my old laptop into a digital picture frame?

With patience.

This is a bit of a project.  It encompasses some programming, some electrical work, and woodworking.  None of it is extremely difficult, but at times it can sure  feel like you've bitten off more than you can chew.

Step One: Select your victim.  For this exercise, I'll be using a Dell Latitude CP M233ST.  The LCD needs to be in good, of not great, shape.  You'll also need a hard drive, CD-Rom, and a USB port*.

Step Two:  Pick your frame.  10x13 or 11x14 is a good match for an 800x600 display.  CONSIDER THIS: There are a kajillion and a half manufacturers of LCD picture frames these days, which means your picture frame needs to be cool... it needs to stand out, it needs to have *YOU* (or the recipient) written all over its design.  The last thing you want to do is spend 3-4 hours building something that looks like it came from Radio Shack.  That said, also take a few things into account: The laptop size (once stripped of most of its plastics, the location of the USB key we're going to use (and how it interacts with the frame), and where you want the frame to sit when it is done.  Also remember, if you're feeling lazy, this project can probably be fit into a shadowbox.

Step Three: Gather your supplies.

  • A CD containing Damn Small Linux (http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/download.html)
  • The USB key you will use to store the pictures. (*If you're even the slightest bit technical, you'll quickly figure out how to work around this, if you'd rather use the internal HDD or a network share.)
  • The matte for the LCD.  You can cut your own (HARD!), special order one from a hobby store like Michael's or AC Moore (Expensive), or track down a Hobby Lobby.... $5... cut to whatever size you need... while you wait.
  • The necessary balsa wood to create the cover for the laptop "guts".  You may also need a picture frame back with the built in stand, if it wasn't included with your frame.
  • Some sort of network adapter to get the laptop on the 'net.  Unless you're going for the modifications mentioned before, this is a temporary accessory.  I use a generic no-name USB that I picked up at geeks.com for $7.
  • A hot glue gun, or other heavy duty method of bonding things to other things.

Let's Roll....

While the laptop is still in one piece,  boot from your DSL Live CD.

At the boot prompt enter: fb800x600 noscsi noagp nomce noddc expert and press enter.
NOTE REGARDING "fb800x600" - Newer laptops may not require this flag. Older laptops do. You should adjust it to the native resolution of the display on the laptop.

Your next input will be for DSL X Setup. Select the second entry "Xfbdev xserver" and press enter. Again, older laptops may not require xfbdev. You can always test and tweak the settings before doing your final install.

The next two questions refer to the mouse you have connected. You should answer YES to at least one of them. (Question 1 is USB, question 2 is PS/2)

Select your keyboard layout. (US is the default.)

Open up ATerminal and partition the hard drive using the command:
          sudo cfdisk /dev/hda

Create two partitions. The first will be at least 128mb, and will be your swap file. The second should be the remaining hard drive space. 

Create the swap file with:   sudo mkswap /dev/hda1

then turn it on: sudo swapon /dev/hda1

Now install DSL:  sudo -u root dsl-hdinstall. 

If you followed the steps above, you will be installing to HDA2.

Answer "NO" to Multi-user logon, otherwise your system won't automatically log in and start presenting pictures.

Answer yes to "Use Journalized ext3 filesystem?" 

If you're installing a bootloader, go with LiLo... GRUB asks too many questions.

Once the install is complete remove the CD and  reboot the system.  If you haven't connected the NIC to the system, now is the time to do so.

Right click on the desktop. Select APPS-->TOOLS-->ENABLE APT

*OPTIONAL When APT is ready, select MYDSL from the desktop. Click NET, and select VNC4X0 for install.  Installing this will give you the ability to use the free VNC viewer to attach to the picture frame (via network), and control it as if you had a keyboard and mouse connected.

Open up ATerminal and : cp .xinitrc .xinitrc.bak

 This creates a backup of the unmodified file.

At the command prompt type in: sudo apt-get install feh unclutter

Now enter: sudo nano .xinitrc

Look for the second line that says "fi". Delete all lines after that (CTRL-K), and replace with:

sudo /usr/local/bin/slideshow.sh &
/usr/local/bin/vnc4x0.sh &>/dev/null &       <--Only enter this line if VNC was installed
fluxbox 2>/dev/null

Exit nano with CTRL-X, and answer YES to write out changes. (If you get a permission error, you didn't launch with SUDO. Now you've got to do it over.)

Now enter: sudo nano /opt/bootlocal.sh

As the last entry (should be line 4), enter: mount /dev/sda1 /mnt/sda1

 This mounts the USB key that the pictures will be stored on.  CTRL-X, followed with YES to write out the new file.

sudo nano /usr/local/bin/slideshow.sh

Enter one per line:

killall feh unclutter
unclutter &
sudo feh -zZFr -D 300 /mnt/sda1

CTRL-X, followed by "y" to write out the file.  (Our flags tell FEH to stretch or shrink the picture, run at full screen, randomly select the picture, and switch it every 300 seconds (5 minutes).

From the command prompt:

cd /usr/local/bin
sudo chmod 777 slideshow.sh

Now it is time to load up your USB key. The flags we selected with FEH are designed to stretch or shrink the image to fit the screen. However, it's not going to do the best job of displaying pictures it has to manipulate. (After all, it's an old laptop... it can't keep up with the young'uns like it used to.) With this in mind, I highly recommend that you load up your USB key with images that are already sized to the native resolution of your picture frames display. As an example, my LCD displays 800x600, therefore all of my pictures are pre-sized in Photoshop to 800x600. It also helps if you use a program that is good at resizing pictures (Photoshop, GIMP, etc). GIGO applies. (Garbage In, Garbage Out.)

Shut down the system, plug in the USB key, and power the system back on. If all goes as it should, you should see DSL load up, and launch feh, displaying the pictures you saved on the USB key.

Shut her down, and grab the screwdriver.

Remove the battery, and anything else that easily pops out.  Start removing all plastics, EXCEPT the back cover of the LCD.  Depending on your laptop design, this can be a useful item to keep, as it gives you a shield against stray backlighting escaping the frame, it gives you something less destructive to hit glue the matte to, and a better surface for gluing the motherboard down.  (Yes, I just said "glue the motherboard"... I'll say it again in a minute.)

Remove the hinge assembly that mounts the LCD to the motherboard.  We're basically making it a clean shot to fold the laptop backwards, with the motherboard now behind the LCD.  You'll also want to adjust where it is sitting, allowing for the power cord connector and/or USB key location.  Now warm up the glue gun, and plaster that sucker to the back of the LCD cover.  Don't block any holes that are important.  If you plan on continuing to hack this thing, you might want to leave access to the CD-Rom connector, etc available.  It's a fine balance, but you want it on there SECURE!  Let the glue dry for a few minutes.

Wipe down a flat surface, drop your matte on it, and then place your contraption on it, flipping regularly to make sure you have it squared and aligned to the matte opening. (Keep in mind, you can't always trust the laptop manufacturer to make a perfectly square LCD cover.  Verify with your eyes!

Now take the glue gun, and run a bead around the outside of the LCD cover, making sure that equal portions are touching the cover and the matte.  Allow it to dry.

Clean the inside glass of your picture frame.  Do a good job, we won't be able to get to it again.  Place the matte and laptop remains in the frame.  Verify that they are square, and place another bead around the outside of the matte, securing it to the frame.  If the border of your picture frame is wide enough to hide it, you can opt to use double sided tape instead.  (This can give you a little more wiggle room with the back case we're going to build next.)

How, let's build the back cover.

Using a ruler, find out the height your box needs to be to cover the laptop components, without sticking out freakishly from the back of the picture frame.  My project needed to be 2 and a half inches deep, measured from the matte.  Using balsa wood, build a box to cover the back side.  I used sheets of balsa, trimmed to 2.5 inches, and connected for a 3 sided box. The bottom was left open, with nothing more than a quarter inch crossbeam to complete a "box" design.  Using smaller pieces cut from the quarter inch, I reinforced my corner sections.  I them glued the back that came with the frame onto the box.  (If your frame back didn't come with a kick-stand, you might want to attach it now... or if it is big enough, use it as the box back, instead of the frame backing.)  After drying 24 hours, I used a speed bore bit to cut an access hole that will align with the laptop power switch.  Depending on your personal preference, now might be a good time to paint the box you created.  You don't want it to clash too much with the frame.

Now, connect and secure your power cord to the laptop, and test out the rig as it sits.

On this next part, I can't be of much assistance.  It is time to attach the back to the frame, completing the project.  If you plan on using your frame as-is, with little to no hacking, grab the glue gun, the gorilla glue, or some other form of your favorite adhesive and have at it.  If you plan on hacking, or making any modifications that require hardware, you're going to want to create a sturdy, but removable method of securing the back.  On the 4 picture frames I've built, here is what I've done:

  • 2 frames use the tabs that were included with the frame.  They swing in and out of position, so I drilled matching holes in the balsa for the tabs to line up with.  Works well, but my last effort is borderline "permanent" in its strength (and difficulty in removing.)
  • 1 frame uses 8 button magnets (4 on the corners of the frame, with 4 matching corners on the back cover.  Works really well, once I figured out to use Gorilla Glue for the buttons.
  • 1 frame uses 8 smaller (but stronger) button magnets.  This started as strip magnetic mounts, but I haven't been able to get the magnets to stick.  This is my most recent project, and I'm not quite done tweaking it.

"Use your best judgment... you know we trust you."

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