Add a Versatile Compact Flash Boot Drive to an Inexpensive Laptop

Using the Everex gBook as a base, easily swap large CF cards for multiple OS booting and quasi-SSD storage

No doubt about it; Everex’s gBook computer is a hacker’s dream PC. While we weren’t too fond of the company’s entry into the ultra-portable market, the gBook sings a different tune: On top of being a fairly well-equipped, full-size VIA-based budget laptop, the gBook also sports some impressive “hidden” features when the hood is lifted and the tires kicked. And while they may not be immediately apparent, in the hands of a seasoned tinkerer the gBook’s extras can allow for some inspired modding.

Among these appealing extras are an internal unused USB port (a great internal 5V power source), an unused bay for holding an additional internal speaker, another large unused bay (presumably reserved for an internal modem) and on top of that, easy internal access to all ports and connections.

But, best of all, the gBook has a list price of $399.99, and Newegg.com has been known to sell the gBook for $349.99. So what we have here is a full-size laptop, affordable to all, and easily hacked.

So what are we going to do with it?

Well, for starters, let’s add some more SDRAM to this beast. Then we’ll yank out the optical disc drive (and potentially the hard drive as well) and replace them with a more versatile Compact Flash (CF) boot device installed inside the now vacant optical drive bay. The CF boot device of choice is none other than a spare CF reader/writer of the same type you would generally use to offload images from your digital camera. We’re going install this reader/writer inside the optical disc drive bay and use it to boot our gNote using a variety of different operating systems.

What will this project give you? First of all, you can sample the speed/silence benefits derived from using a solid-state boot device. Granted, this CF disk hack is not a true solid-state drive (SSD). But you will eliminate the noise, heat, and power consumption nuisances typically associated with using an optical drive, and with CF cards commonly available online in sizes up to an amazing 32GB ($169, newegg.com), you may want to also ditch the gBook’s puny 60GB HD for even more power and noise savings.

Secondly, in addition to some great boot flexibility (just swap CF cards for unlimited boot options), there is also a significant increase in battery life. From approximately 55 minutes worth of life with the stock gBook to nearly 2 hours using a CF interface in lieu of a hard disk and optical drive (power savings vary on usage, but an increase of 55 minutes was the largest in our informal testing). Hey, you can only squeeze so much juice from this turnip.

Finally, let’s not forget those two salvaged drives.

Both of these excised power hungry devices can be repurposed inside USB external enclosures. You can then access either the 60Gb SATA drive or the CD-R optical drive via a USB port; preferably, when your gNote (formerly a gBook) is tethered to its AC adapter on your desk. And while the gBook is a prime candidate to serve as the foundation for our CF boot project here, there’s no reason it can’t be implemented on pretty much any old laptop you may have lying around. So let’s get started.

Cost: $82.36
Time: 9 hours
Difficulty: Moderate

Parts

  • SanDisk CF Type I/II ImageMate USB 2.0 Reader/Writer Model SDDR-92-A15 (Amazon.com #B00064V6R6; $18.90)
  • (2) Kingston Technologies 1Gb PC2-5300 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM notebook memory (Amazon.com #B000PCX780; $31.73)
  • A high-quality CF card (512MB size recommended for BartPE; 1GB or higher for gOS/other OSs)

Free Software:

Optional Extras:

  • Macally B-S250U USB 2.0 2.5-inch SATA hard drive enclosure (Amazon.com #B000NE8FJQ; $25.98)
  • Additional CF cards with alternate operating systems

Drivers for gBook (if needed):

Now that we’ve got everything together, let’s get started!

Notes:

Before we begin this project, here are some sage observations and precautions that were earned “the hard way” during development.

  • Not all CF reader/writers are created equal. In fact, we had to discard one SanDisk Model SDDR-92-A15 for failing to reliably read/write CF disks. CF disks can also vary according to capacity, manufacturer, and rate of transfer speed.
  • CF cards are generally not designed for the stressed of frequent read/write activity that will result from using them as a boot volume. It’s probably a good idea to keep backups of anything vital stored to a CF card being used as a boot volume
  • Don’t fret if your BartPE CF disk doesn’t boot properly the first time. You may have to reboot the disk a couple of times before everything works properly. In fact, we’ve been using our gNote for a couple of weeks and we still have to occasionally reboot 1-3 times for our BartPE CF disk to load correctly.
  • If you follow the BartPE creation/installation instructions correctly, you will have a bootable CF disk containing a 150Mb ISO image. Yes, the CF disk will boot from the ISO, if you follow the BartPE instructions found here: “Installing BartPE to USB Flash Disk”

There are three potential “gotchas” that could happen when trying to follow these installation instructions:

* **I don't have a "sr1sp" folder**: Just make a folder named "sr1sp" inside your BartPE PEBuilder3 folder. 
* **There is no "sr1sp.exe"**: That's right; the correct file name should be the name of the 300+Mb Microsoft Server 2003 Service Pack 1 file that you downloaded (see above). Just change the sr1sp.exe name to the EXE file that you downloaded and keep the remainder of the BartPE instructions the same. 
* **My "expand" doesn't work**: Use 7-Zip instead (see above FREE SOFTWARE). Just locate the ramdisk.sy_ file with 7-Zip and "expand" it to your desktop. Then move the final ramdisk.sys file to the BartPE Builder sr1sp folder. 

You can also find other references to this installation here:

* ["Installing Windows XP from USB" on Roderick van Domburg's Blog](http://www.vandomburg.net/installing-windows-xp-from-usb/)
* [Tom's Hardware "Windows in Your Pocket"](http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/windows-pocket/,1113.html)
* You can find out more about BartPE from this [FAQ](http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder/faq/). 
* And if you absolutely must have Windows XP installed on your CF disk, then consult this ASUS Eee PC forum post: ["Installing XP Pro onto a SDHC Card" on Eeeuser.com Forum](http://forum.eeeuser.com/viewtopic.php?id=1433)

Phew, with that out of the way, let’s continue to the step-by-step:

Steps:

For more photos of the assembly process, launch the gallery here

Load ’em Up

You will need a working PC to prepare your boot CF disk(s). Download and install the HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool V. 2.1.8, PEBuilder, Microsoft Server 2003 Service Pack 1, and 7-Zip (see the “free software” links on page one). Follow the online instructions for building BartPE.

If, on the other hand, you wish to create a DOS boot CF disk, then use the HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool for making the boot disk. You will also need a set of DOS command files for building this boot disk. These files are available from the same link cited for the HP USB tool.

Disassemble the gBook

Remove the battery, first, The remaining disassembly is a straightforward process, except for these two trouble spots:

Remove the “Warranty Void if Tampered Stickers” sticker for accessing the final screw on the underside of the gBook.

The keyboard is held down by a black plastic trim piece. This piece also holds the speaker grille and the power button. Notice that this plastic piece wraps underneath the LCD and serves as a hinge point for the top case. There are three detent slots that must be carefully “popped” loose prior to removing this plastic trim piece. Then you can lift the keyboard and access all of the remaining screws.

SDRAM It

Remove the installed 512Mb SDRAM module and install two 1Gb modules. When your gNote boots you should see: 1983M System RAM; 640Kb System Memory and 2029568Kb Extended Memory.

Pop and Drop

Removing the Optical Disc Drive

Remove the CD-R optical disc drive. This bay will hold the CF reader/writer.

Carefully, slide the CD-R optical drive out of the gBook’s lower case. And for a true flash-only storage solution, you can also pop the 60Gb hard drive loose and remove it, although if a little extra battery life isn’t that important, leave the drive installed for additional storage.

You can optionally install both of these removed drives inside USB external enclosures. If you elect to try the Macally USB B-S250U enclosure, beware that will need to have two free USB ports: one for a data connection and another for a power connection.

Please note: the optical drive’s interface is not a standard IDE connection.

You will need a special Mini-ITX IDE to slim optical drive adapter for connecting the gBook CD-R to a standard 44-pin IDE USB external enclosure.

Snip and Tuck.

Wiring it Up

The CF reader/writer’s USB cable soldered to a functional USB port.

Remove the USB A “male” plug from the USB cable provided with the SanDisk CF reader/writer. Expose, strip, and tin the four USB wires: red, white, green, and black. Solder these wires to the PCB pins of one of the available USB ports. Although the gBook includes one hidden internal USB port, this port did not provide a solid, consistent, reliable serial connection (it is a reliable source of +5V power, however). The wires should be connected in this order:

* Pin 4 - Red 
* Pin 3 - White 
* Pin 2 - Green 
* Pin 1 - Black 

Boot and Conquer

Plug the CF reader/writer into the USB B male plug of the cable, insert a BartPE CF disk, reconnect the keyboard, trackpad, and LCD cables, install the battery, and try to boot the gBook.

Hide in Plain Sight

Disconnect all cables, remove the battery, and unplug the CF reader/writer. Disassemble the CF reader/writer and install it in the vacant optical disc drive bay. Orient the reader/writer so that CF media can be inserted and removed without having to open up the gBook.

WARNING: Don’t over-tighten your fasteners on the CF reader/writer PCB. This board is fragile and can be broken if too much torque is applied to your mounting screws.

Repeat and Reward

Repeat the boot test in Step 6. If everything tests OK and you’re satisfied with the installation, button up the gBook and revel at the light weight, power sipping virtues of your new gNote.

While the CF media is not hot-swappable, you can build several different disks containing BartPE, DOS (for games, baby), gOS, and your fave flavor of Linux. Or, go one better and try to build a partitioned multi-configuration boot CF disk containing all four bootable OSes. See “Guide for MultiBoot USB-stick with boot.ini Menu” from The CD Forum.

And there you have it—a self-contained, swappable quasi-SSD for booting your gBook in any number of operating systems. Pick a card, any card, and get booting!

CF Reader

This SanDisk CF reader/writer was used in this project. It took two samples of this model to get the final installation working correctly.

Sans Case

The CF reader/writer ready for installation.

Break the Seal

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs; this sticker must be removed to open the gBook case.

Beginning the Disassembly

Unsnap this plastic trim piece prior to removing the keyboard.

Removing the Keyboard

The keyboard is lifted out of the upper case after the black plastic trim (upper portion of photograph) is removed.

Removing Internal PCB Screws

There are several internal screws that must be removed for complete access to the gBook’s main PCB.

Continuing the Dissection

Disconnect all cables prior to separating the upper and lower cases.

Removing the Optical Disc Drive

Remove the CD-R optical disc drive. This bay will hold the CF reader/writer.

Installing the CF Reader

The CF reader/writer is installed inside the now vacant optical disc drive bay. This bay is chosen over the other vacant spots inside the case so that the CF cards an be easily accessed through the optical drive’s opening.

Wiring it Up

The CF reader/writer’s USB cable soldered to a functional USB port.

Free Port

There is one internal “unused” USB port. This port, however, is not a reliable serial connection, but it does serve as an excellent source of +5v power for any added components.

Keep the HD? Your Choice

Optionally remove the gBook’s SATA hard disk drive for more battery life, or keep it connected for storing media files.

Stash the Cable

Snake the USB cable along the underside of the gBook main PCB.

All Closed Up

An installed CF disk inside the new gNote PC.

Check Your BIOS

Your CF reader/writer must show up in the BIOS startup or else you won’t be able to boot from a USB port.

BartPE

BartPE has several Windows XP system controls embedded in its ISO image, and there are even a couple of stock Windows XP utilities available.

DOS

Yes, you can even boot your gNote to DOS for some fun and games.