Using a Raspberry Pi to Build a Mini DIY Laptop

Raspberrylaptop Board

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the subject of being able to build a laptop and the challenges that mainstream hardware manufacturers would face when creating adequate interchangeable parts in such a small form factor. However, there’s one particular option I left out and it might work for some people. Although you can’t build a super-high-end laptop much like you would a home-built desktop system with all the bells and whistles, you could build a portable computer with barebone essentials using a Raspberry Pi board.

The Easy Way

If you just want to skip all of the frustrations that come with DIY projects, you can simply opt for a purpose-built platform that houses a Raspberry Pi and turns it into a slim, sleek laptop. The fine folks at pi-top offer exactly this, giving you everything you need out of the box to make a system out of the single-board computer.

A word to the wise: This isn’t a future proof system, and it uses the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ board. There’s no guarantee that the new Model 4 B would be compatible with this chassis.

The pi-top is there for enthusiasts who want a modular form factor with a convenient sliding rail to either fit their experiments into a laptop environment or simply build an affordable laptop that fits simple needs.

Alternatively, if you don’t mind separated parts, you can simply get a portable external monitor (what to do if your Raspberry Pi monitor isn’t working), a power bank and a Bluetooth keyboard, connect them to your Pi and you have a perfectly portable computer.

Difficulty: Hard

If you like to up your tinkering game, you probably don’t find slapping a Raspberry Pi onto a pre-manufactured case appealing. You may not end up building a great looking system, but what you want is to build something that’s yours.

Raspberrylaptop Hard

For this, you could take apart a power bank, use a rigid plastic flipping surface, attach an IPS display to it, and center everything around a Raspberry Pi. You can use a Bluetooth keyboard to have the flexibility to detach it from your improvised laptop for convenience.

YouTube channel Creativity Buzz demonstrates how one could build this simple device using as little space as possible in the following video. It goes without saying that you’ll probably void the warranty of half the stuff you put into your device.

Creativity Buzz suggests using an 11 x 17 cm surface for the project, as it provides just the minimal space required for the components that would go into the laptop. Since you’ll be using a power bank as your battery, you’ll need to make some small modifications to fit it to a power switch and at the same time ensures that it delivers power to the main board. You may not need a significant amount of technical skill to build this laptop, but it still requires some experience in tinkering with electronics.

Be sure to use a power bank that can be placed in such a way to show you the battery level on the outside of the box. Creativity Buzz uses a semi-transparent box, which allows components with LED indicators to shine their light through it. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of not knowing how much battery power you have left, as using this method, the power bank isn’t sending signals to the board.

Difficulty: Extreme

If you feel like taking things to a level that would make most people just give up before even trying, you could build a far more functional laptop using both a Raspberry Pi board and an Arduino controller. The two of these can come together to create a miniature platform that may be used for programming other electronic components that center around Arduino in a highly portable environment.

Raspberrylaptop Extreme

Rather than buying a full-scale laptop for this purpose, if you’re looking to work on projects that don’t require the full scale product that a commercially available portable computer brings, this may actually be a great DIY project for you.

Demonstrated in the following video by well-known DIY channel Build It, you can build a laptop essentially out of cardboard and plastic. If you have a 3D printer, making the case might actually be easier. However, Build It underwent the entire project without one, making the creation of this laptop more tedious.

As with the previous project, you require a portable power source and a 7-inch screen (the video demonstration uses a screen specifically compatible with Raspberry Pi boards). This is where the similarities end, as Build It decided to use a much more sophisticated setup.

Instead of disassembling a power bank, this DIY project uses Li-Ion 18650 batteries (the same kind found in larger electronic cigarettes and flash lights). If you want to do the same, make sure that you use INR type batteries and not the finicky ICR types. The former has more stable chemistry and has a high discharge tolerance, which is useful when powering computer equipment. The latter requires expensive protective circuitry that could act as another point of failure for the batteries.

Alternatively, you could use IMR batteries, but they’re not quite as stable as INR.

The Arduino controller in Build It’s setup is also used for the laptop, providing a platform via a power bank controller that reads the battery pack’s charge and forwards the signal to a small OLED screen, showing the user the battery’s charge in both absolute terms and a percentage.

At the same time, that same controller’s I/O pins are exposed to the side of the laptop, allowing the user to easily attach headers from other projects to the controller. But most importantly of all, the project also features a track-pad that acts similarly to that found on a conventional laptop, which provides easy mouse cursor manipulation.

All of this is made possible by having an extra controller (Arduino) attached to the Raspberry Pi system. Given this laptop’s complexity, it might be quite frustrating to build even for people who are accustomed to making their own high-difficulty DIY projects. If you’re new to working with electronics, this might make you want to pull your hairs out of their roots.

Be Realistic!

As you can probably see by now, the possibilities that microcontroller and microprocessor-based single board computers like Raspberry Pi and Arduino provide are pretty much endless. If you really want to build a system centered around a Raspberry, the only limitations to what you can do depend on the materials available to you and your confidence in your own abilities to produce the system. Before you enter a project like this, you’re going to have to be realistic about both your expectations and what you can accomplish.

This will help avoid frustration along the way and provide an experience that is more rewarding and ultimately more fruitful. Remember that conventional laptops are still far more capable and convenient in many ways than any system you can build with a Raspberry Pi. However, if the pride of building something from scratch is what you’re after — and you aren’t looking to do any movie production with your device — then this kind of project might be right up your alley!

Miguel Leiva-Gomez
Miguel Leiva-Gomez

Miguel has been a business growth and technology expert for more than a decade and has written software for even longer. From his little castle in Romania, he presents cold and analytical perspectives to things that affect the tech world.

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