How-To: Make a Wii laptop, part 1

Last week we showed Ben Heckendorn's Wii laptop to the world (as I speak of myself in the third person). In today's How-To, part 1 of 3, we'll describe how this mod was accomplished, starting with the disassembly of the unit, initial computer drawings, and "reworking" of the heat sink.

A week from now, part 2 will cover the rebuilding of the Wii internals as well as the design of the case. Finally, part 3 will cover cutting and building the case and installing everything into it. Let's take a look!

Alright let's crack open a Wii! To do this we'll need a regular small Phillips screwdriver and a special 3-prong "Nintendo" screwdriver.

You can find these on eBay for a few bucks by doing a search for "Nintendo Screwdriver" Also useful for opening the case will be an ever-trusty X-Acto knife.

Opening the case

Let's start with the large base of the unit. Use the X-Acto knife to lift up the pads indicated, and remove the screws beneath. Note that some pads don't have any screws beneath them.

In case you're just modding your Wii and intend to put it back together someday, it's a good idea to make small marks near the screw holes as to which type was in it. As you'll soon notice the Wii uses many standard Phillips screws as well.

Now onto the top of the unit... In the black plastic area you'll find 3 more screws, as indicated. Get 'em outta there.

You can now remove the black plastic and the white doors. Beneath those you'll find 2 more screws, as shown. Note that one of these help hold on the front plate.

Now onto the base of the unit. Lift up the pads indicated and remove the screws.

Next, unscrew the battery tab as shown. This will also reveal another screw - remove it to allow the front plate to come off. Don't worry, the battery just retains some system settings such as time (like a PC) so all your Miis will be safe. We didn't have any VC games but we'd assume they'd be OK too. (If they DO get erased, just download a PC emulator / the ROMS and call it "fair use".)

Final case-removing steps:

  1. Pull off the face plate and unplug the small wire that's on it.

  2. Lift off the side of the unit that says "Nintendo". This will reveal the guts.

  3. Lift off the RF shielding and place aside.

The unit will now look like the following:

Yes that's right, we called them "Dual Sized Disc Grabbers" Very descriptive if you ask me. We'll take a look at more parts as we get deeper inside. (A Journey To The Center Of The Wii, if you will.)

Let's pull off the disc drive now, shall we? It is being held down by the 4 screws indicated below. The screws attach into the case but on the disc drive side are setting in rubber "bumpers" This gives the entire drive unit a bit of "bounce" to help avoid skipping. You know, for when the errant Wii-mote smacks into the wall and knocks a painting of Dogs Playing Poker onto the console.

With those screws remove we can now lift up the drive from the side opposite the GameCube ports. We lift it here because the ribbon cables are on the other side.

Here is the drive tilted over. It is being held in place by 2 cables, a thin one for I'm assuming data, and a thicker power cable. Carefully unplug these at the drive side to finish the removal.

With the drive removed the Wii now looks like the following:

At this point we'll begin the boring task of getting down to the motherboard. One must ask, "How many screws does it take to get to the center of a Nintendo Wii?" Answer: a LOT. Seriously, we've taken apart a lot of stuff in our day and this has to be a record. We guess that's why the console is so solid, it's well constructed.

At least now everything is normal Phillips screws. We suppose if you get past their security screws they just think, well, "Screw it". (Yes, ha ha, we'll be here all week, try the veal.) Remove every Phillips screw you can find, in this general order:

  1. WiFi antennas (green bits of PCB's on the right).

  2. Black plastic around heat sink.

  3. RF shielding from drive area.

  4. Black plastic under RF shielding.

You'll notice that the screws holding on the heatsink are attached to the base of the case. We'll get to these in a moment, but first, an overview of what's what and who's who on the motherboard:

Now we start getting hardcore. Remove the 4 screws from around the heatsink and you'll be able to lift it off the chips, like so:

It uses a rubbery thermal material, kind of like the PS2 or N64, that is re-usable. Set the heatsink aside and upright so dust can't settle on the thermal pads. Also be careful of the little carbon discs on the pegs, they can break if they fall off.

Drawing the main parts into the computer

We've gotten far enough along that we can start drawing the main parts into the computer to get some early ideas about the main shape, size and design. Using our favorite tool, a dial caliper, we measure all the dimensions of the motherboard. It's accurate to 0.001-inches but sometimes certain things round off to fractional inch values. So if a piece is 7.26-inches, we just say 7 1/4-inches and call it a day. This isn't rocket science, you know. (In case you were confused.)

We also use the inside measuring part of the dial caliper to figure out the shape and area of the screws holding the heatsink. Even if we don't use a certain part, or it ends up not mattering, it's best to get as much info as you can, up to the moment you become obsessive-compulsive, which is a good time to stop.

Another thing we love to do (as mentioned in the How-to make a robot hand article) is to put actual items in our scanner and get data that way. Circuit boards, being basically flat, are great for this. Also most scans come in as actual size so it's fairly accurrate. This, along with manual measuring, gets you a good representation of the part.

Here is the motherboard as scanned into Adobe Illustrator. We've created boxes to represent the shapes, including the subtractive shapes such as the fan gap (right side) and the 45 degree notches on the corners. (The boxes are drawn with white strokes so you can sort of see them.) Again, we probably don't need all this detail, but too much is better than not enough, unless you're talking about zits.

Here is the object-only version in Adobe Illustrator. As you can see, we have painstakingly drawn in every screw hole (and people wonder why we drink). We'll also need to create a side-view, but we'll do that in part 2, at which time we'll also make this entire file available for your scrutinizing examination.

Let's move onto the next largest component, the disk drive. See, we are old school, grew up with C64's, Apple ]['s and Ataris, so anything disk-related we call a disk drive. And soda is pop. Yeah. Anyway, again we use rectangles to define the major shapes, in this case the body and the mounting tabs in the back.

One of the main things to be concerned with and double-check three times is if the center of the disc is truly in the center of the drive. This is important for later on because when we make the inevitable slot in the case for the disc to slide in we want to make sure it'll fit, relative to the position of the disk drive assembly.

Here is the object-only version. We've covered the major parts, including the raised portions on the left. Since these are higher than the main section (as shown in the side-view drawing) we need to be aware of their position and scale.

The side view shows the main section (center gray shape, center black shape), the circuit board(s) at the bottom (lower green shape), and the aforementioned raised portion (get this -- at the top). Again we'll cover the elevation view of the unit more in part 2.

Desoldering things off the motherboard

With the basic shape in the computer it's time to start modding stuff. What do we predict for this board? Pain.

To answer some of your, ahem, comments on the main story, behold the GameCube memory card ports. They are one of the thickest components in the entire system. This, coupled with the fact that they're aren't that essential is pretty much a death sentence in our book. Sorry, they got dropped.

We are not a big proponent of backwards compatibility anyway... think about it -- if your living room doesn't have space enough for a Wii and a Gamecube then you need to move out of your car. [Ben speaks for himself, here! -Ed.]

So the plan here is to desolder most everything off the motherboard. To do this we're using our trusty el-cheapo Radio Shack desoldering iron. Make sure you have a nice new, clean tip since many of these connections are quite small. We usually buy a new tip per desoldering job, better to splurge a whole 2 bucks than pull your hair out (which wouldn't take us very long) working with a crappy tip.

After removing the memory card slot (to the dismay of all 15 GameCube fans) and the GameCube ports we move onto the USB ports. These are a bit trickier since they have large side tabs holding them in place.

The best method is to desolder the 8 data pins normally, then heat up the tabs and pry each corner of the USB port up a little at a time. We can use this same method for the audio / video / sensor bar jacks.

Next we move onto the surface-mounted battery holder. Surface mounting means just that - it's soldered to the surface copper of the board and doesn't use any through-holes. Since this has a whole 2 connections it's easy to heat them up and lift the holder off the board. We'll reinstall this elsewhere in part 2.

Here is the Wii motherboard with all the large items removed. (Take a look at this picture and think to yourself "$500 on eBay".) The SD card slot and Bluetooth bit have been left as-is, but we unplugged the WiFi module (upper right) since we are going to modify that a bit in part 2.

A side view of the Wii motherboard.

Reworking the Heat Sink

Ok one last thing to do in today's article: flatten the heat sink! The Wii-sink is pretty small as-is, but we need it to be a bit shorter. The general idea is if you set the disc drive back onto the Wii motherboard the heat sink shouldn't be higher than it. The drive is the "highest point" on the system, and everything else must be lower than it. Thus we need to flatten the heat sink by about a half inch.

Before we start, slide the carbon discs off the posts and set them aside. Also carefully remove the thermal pads and put them someplace safe, like on the motherboard chips.

Heat sink in stock form. For now.

Using some needle-nose pliers we slowly bend over the fins. We're bending them rather than cutting or milling them down so the total amount of aluminum surface area is the same. The Wii doesn't run very hot, nor does the fan run very fast, so we've got plenty of wiggle room. (The PS3, now, that's probably a lot different,)

Every few fins it's a clever idea to whip out a clamp and compress them down further, leaving just a bit of air space between the tips.

We can use a dial caliper to check out progress - oh good we've knocked it down 0.46-inches, that should be enough! We can then flatten down the other side the same way.

Here is the flattened Wii heatsink. It now looks like a book, doesn't it? Unfortunately we'll have to Dremel or drill some holes near the top edge to gain access to the screw holes, but it's easier to do that now than to have guessed where to slice up fins before we started bending. (Or at least that's what we told ourselves.)

The bottom of the heat sink. Nintendo was kind enough to make etchings so we can see where to place the thermal pads when we put this back on the motherboard. We guess we can forgive them for the Virtual Boy now.

Reattaching the Heat Sink

Let's get the heat sink back on the motherboard...

  1. Get four size 3 screws, washers and nuts from a hardware store. Length needs to be at least 3/8-inch long.

  2. Use a Dremel or other cutting tool to make notches in the fins so you can drop screws into the holes.

  3. Clean the bottom of the heat sink with rubbing alcohol or other agent to ensure a good surface.

  4. Put the carbon discs back onto the 4 posts.

  5. Carefully place the thermal pads back over the square markings.

  6. Place the heat sink back onto the motherboard and press firmly.

  7. Look under the heat sink from the side to make sure the thermal material is making a good bond.

  8. Use the screws to attach the heat sink to the motherboard. Be sure to tighten them evenly. To check, you can use a dial caliper to measure the height of the heat sink from the motherboard. The posts and carbon spacer discs should keep everything level, however.

The motheboard will now look like the photo below. We've placed the disk drive on it so you can see how the heat sink is now shorter. While we will be adding a few mounting pieces between the motherboard and disk drive in part 2, the assembly overall will be quite thin and allow use to make the unit as compact as possible.

Part 1 conclusion

Alright now we have the Wii rebuilt into a slightly smaller form. In the next How-To we'll reattach most of the ports, make a frame to properly secure the disk drive and design the case of the unit. See you next week!