Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

How-To: Make a Wii laptop, part 2

Benjamin Heckendorn
January 31, 2007

Sponsored Links

Hello and welcome back! Last week, in part 1 of this amazing saga, we took apart the Wii, modified the heat sink and desoldered large parts off the board.

Today, in part 2, we'll reattach some vital components, mount the disc drive back onto the motherboard and create a case design on the computer. This will prepare everything for part 3, where we'll make the casing and install everything into it. Move out!

Alright, when we last left our hero (the Wii?), the unit was stripped down to the motherboard and the heat sink had been modified. Granted the original heat sink wasn't that tall, but the plan was to keep the main body of the unit under 1.25 inches. Setting goals like that (instead of just shotgunning it and coming up with a case that looks like the Winchester Mystery House) is what allows a person to create a professional "manufactured-looking" project.

Today we're going to rework several things on the motherboard so the unit can once again function, starting with the front panel buttons.

Rewiring the front panel buttons

The Wii has 4 buttons on the front of the unit: power, reset, sync and eject disc. These buttons use a very common thing called a tact switch. These are used for the panel switches on just about every piece of electronics you can find -- from laserdisc players to VCRs and even televisions. Even the Gameboy Advance / DS uses them for the shoulder buttons.

The tact switches on the Wii are surface mount and thus kind of hard to remove, so we're just going to wire around them. These particular tact switches have three leads. By testing with a multimeter and pressing the button we can tell that when pressed the switch connects both outer terminals to the center one. We also find that the outer terminals are connected to each other. Thus we only need two wires per switch, one connected to the center terminal and the other to an outer terminal.

Using a fine-tipped low wattage (15 watt) soldering iron, carefully attach some thin wire to the tact switches. Here's a good method, for any kind of fine soldering work:
  1. Put a small bit of new solder on the switch lead. This melts what's already there and gets it ready for a new attachment.
  2. Strip a bit of plastic off the end of the wire (we always use our teeth, don't tell anyone) and coat it with a bit of solder.
  3. Touch the wire to the switch and heat it up. Since they're both "pre-soldered" it'll melt and connect them easily. Doing it quickly is good because even with a low power iron you can still mess up surface mount parts if you linger.

Above is a close-up of the wires attached to the power and reset switches. Again, since the outer terminals are the same you can connect a wire to either one.

Here we see the unit with all 4 switches with extension wires (total of 8 wires) These have been laid out and pulled to the edge of the board where we plan to put the buttons on the finished unit. Small bits of electrical tape and hot glue hold them in place.

Extending the audio / video connections

Next let's add some extension wires to the audio / video port. We'll also get the sensor bar voltage from this spot. We need a total of 6 things from this spot: left audio, right audio, composite video, A/V ground, sensor bar positive and sensor bar negative.

Almost everything under the sun has had its pinouts mapped by someone or another... a quick search for "Wii av pinouts" reveals just that. Here's the link we used.

Using some long ribbon cable and the pin out, attach the 6 wires to the A/V connection. Note that the 2 outermost wires connect to the sensor bar. You can also test the plug you desoldered with a multimeter to see which pins go to what.

It's also helpful to label the opposite ends of the wires for later use. We often wrap a bit of Scotch tape around them and write down the signal type with a felt-tip marker.

WiFi module

The WiFi module has 2 wires coming off of it to form the antenna. They're of decent length, but it's a good idea to attach a plug so we can detach them with ease during our work and also extend the wires while we're at it. The module does indeed have little plugs on it already, but these are hard to work with and are also under the module when it's attached to the motherboard so they're not easy to get to.

The wires coming off the WiFi unit are black and gray, we'll need to keep track of this. To connect a plug to the WiFi module:

  1. Carefully strip some plastic off the ends of the WiFi wires (that phrase is amazingly oxymoronic). You'll notice inside there's an outer shell of wire (ground) and an inner wire encased in plastic (signal).
  2. Put a bit of solder on the inner wire, then twist the outer wire strands together and put some solder on the end to keep them together.
  3. Connect these wires to a small plug. We used an old computer connector (the black seen thing above) Keep track of how you've wired it. We put the black signal on the side, gray signal on the outside, and the grounds in the middle.
  4. Use minimal amounts of solder so as to not affect the functions of the antenna. (Again, it's not rocket science, we've extended the Xbox 360 WiFi antenna in the same manner.)
  5. Wrap small bits of electric tape around the wire joints to keep them from shorting out to each other or the motherboard.
  6. Plug the WiFi module back onto the board and use a bit of glue to attach the plug to the board as well.

Here's the WiFi module back on the board with the plug attached. Note the thermal material on the module, originally it would dissipate heat onto the RF shielding below the DVD drive. We'll have to replicate this.

  1. Cut a piece of thin aluminum (1/16-inch works fine) to place over the module. Make it as large as possible. As seen above, a notch has been cut in the upper corner to keep an opening for the DVD drive cables.
  2. You can also cannibalize metal from the RF shielding to make this.
  3. Cover the top side of the aluminum with electric tape, to keep it from shorting out against the DVD drive's circuit board.
While the metal plate will stick by its own to the thermal material, we'll wait until we install the DVD drive before we place it down for good (the drive mounting will hold it down)

Heres's what the board should look like thus far, minus the WiFi heat sink. Notice how all the wires have been folded and laid out neatly, this helps us keep everything in line and as compact as possible.


Next let's reinstall the battery connector that we desoldered from the back of the board in part 1.
  1. Reference note: the edges and top of the battery are positive, the bottom is negative (ground).
  2. Find a good blank spot on the board. We put our battery just behind the USB ports, near the heatsink. We used this side of the board because the opposite side at this spot will have the GameCube controller port.
  3. If you're going to rewire the GameCube memory ports (which seems to be a very high priority on people's minds) be sure to do it before putting down the battery. Or you can just solder the memory card connections to the bottom side of the board. This is actually easier because there's less white silkscreen mask on the bottom.
  4. You can solder the negative tab of the battery holder directly to the copper edge of the motherboard since it's ground anyway. This is quite handy for any type of connection (on any electronic device) and can save you the trouble of running extra ground wires.

  5. For the positive connection, connect a long wire between the battery holder and the original battery spot on the bottom of the motherboard.

On the original console the battery was held into the holder by the casing. With just the holder itself the battery won't stay in, so it's best to make a little flap to hold it in.

  1. Place a small piece of plastic over the battery and use electrical tape to make a "hinge" on one side, on the positive terminal edge is best.
  2. On the opposite side glue down a chunk of soft material, such as wood or very dense foam. We can then screw the plastic hinge to this and thus hold down the battery, as shown above.
  3. Covering the battery with electrical tape or hot glue would also work, but might not be very convenient should you ever need to replace it. We can be a bit trigger-happy with hot glue, but in this case even we had to step back and say, "No, there's a better way."
USB ports

While we're in the area let's take a look at the USB connection. We'll attach wires to it in part 3.

As you've probably noticed USB has 4 wires. They are power (5 volts) data -, data + and ground. On the Wii (or any device) it's easy to find which pins are which using a multimeter.
  1. Find the ground pin by seeing which is connected to the main ground of the motherboard. Ground is almost always the outermost edge of any motherboard, the part the shielding is connected to. If for some odd reason it isn't (like on the Commodore 64) then any metal shield will lead you to ground.

  2. The pin opposite this is +5 volts.
  3. The next pin over from +5 is always data -.
  4. Which leaves data + as the final pin.
Use a colored marker to make a quick note of which is which for later.

Mounting the disc drive

The main thing we need to do as part of this rebuild is to mount the disc drive to the motherboard. Originally it attached with a variety of plastic pieces but we're going to do something much simpler.

First we need to saw down a bit of plastic at the bottom of the drive, as shown above. Using a Dremel cutoff wheel, grind the plastic down so it's level with the circuit board.

Ok, let's move onto the frame, as shown above. (FYI, the yellow circle indicates the bit of plastic we just ground down.)

  1. Find a thin piece of plastic (0.063 inch thick works well) and cut it into a 5.5 x 5.5iinch square. It should be as large as the disc drive, including the mounting tabs out the back.
  2. Cut an opening in the plastic to fit around the circuit board on the bottom of the disc drive. By fitting the frame around the circuit board (rather than under it) we can make the unit a little thinner. Or you can just put the frame under everything, it'll still be fine. (Just not as thin.)

  3. Cut a large notch at the end of the frame (bottom of photo) so it can fit around the heat sink.
  4. Drill four holes in the frame to match the four mounting holes in the disk drive. These are the ones with the rubber "shock spacers" that we looked at in part 1. Two of them are in the tabs at the back of the drive.
  5. Use size 4 screws and nuts to mount the disc drive to the frame. Note the the front mounting holes are under where the disc will sit, thus you must use shorter screws so they don't get in the way.

Attach to the disc drive via the main four screw holes that originally held the drive in place (red circles). These holes are the ones with rubber inserts that are meant to cushion the drive a bit. The bit of plastic we sawed off is shown in the yellow circle.

This drawing shows how to attach the screws/nuts between the frame and the disc drive. Note how the front screws are shorter as they need to be below the disc itself, yet not stick out too far under the frame.

Now we need a way to attach the frame to the motherboard. There's quite a few spare screw holes around the edges of the motherboard so we can thread screws through these for the mounting. But we'll need something in the frame for them to grab onto - the thin plastic of the frame alone isn't quite enough.

Attach additional pieces of plastic, lined up to holes on the motherboard, to the bottom of the frame. Make sure you've picked holes that won't be in the way of anything important such as cables. Once you have at least four thick pieces of plastic attached to the frame and lining up to holes on the motherboard (and the disc drive sits nicely over it) drill a small hole into each thick piece of plastic for the screw to go into.

As you can see above the frame has become part of the disc drive assembly. We can now attach it to the motherboard using some small screws. We used half inch long size 3 screws and nuts.

Put the screw though the hole in the motherboard and loosely thread a nut onto it. Then lower the disc drive assembly down and screw into the hole. The extra bit of plastic gives the screw more "meat" to dig into, and the nut will allow you to lock off the height once you've adjusted all four sides.

Using a dial caliper (or a plain Jane tape measure) check the total depth of the assembly. On mine it was just under an inch. Find the average measurement of depth near each screw and then adjust them all to make the height of the disc drive as even as possible. Use the nuts to "lock down" the screws when you have it the way you'd like.

Here's the whole thing with the drive frame attached along with the ribbon cables. Make sure you've got everything underneath the drive ready to go before you take the time to attach and level the drive.

Attaching a GameCube controller port

Let's stick a GameCube port back on shall we? This can we can have better controls for some of the Virtual Console games.

Using a Dremel tool, cut one of the GameCube ports off the end of the port cluster you desoldered in part 1.

Although each controller port has 7 pins (not including the main tabs on the chassis which are ground) you only need 4 of them to make the GameCube controller work. Attach 4 wires to the front-most controller port (player 1) as shown above and snake them to where you'd like the controller port to be.

In this case we've put the port right behind the disc drive. It will stick out a ways and will be outside the case when everything's put together. We've also put the power port back on for the time being so we can test the unit.

A diagram showing the wiring required between the motherboard and a GameCube controller port.

The Wii is now back into one piece (more or less).

With all the wires attached and the drive remounted it's time to test out the Wii. We can do this easily by connecting the A/V wires off the Wii to the detached A/V port and use the original cables / sensor bar.

The LCD screen module

We get most of our LCD modules from a place called AEI Components. The sales rep had always told us they had 7 inch widescreen LCD's for a very nice price (only about $40 more than a 3.5" screen which to us is a bargain) but until now we didn't really have a use for one. However since the Wii has a widescreen mode and that size screen would fit nicely we finally broke down and ordered one. This is about the same size as the screen on a portable DVD player.

Monument Valley not included

We believe most of the smaller LCD's from AEI (ever notice about 50% of all sentences these days consist of acronyms?) are intended for use in a car as they all come with cigarette lighter adapters and run off 12 volts. Many of them can run off much less voltage, in fact, the LED backlit 3.5 inch modules can be powered by as little as 3 volts. This particular 7 inch screen uses the more common cold cathode tube which means it contains an inverter that powers the light with a rather high stepped up voltage. Since the Wii has a 12 volt supply we can just use it directly and not have to worry if the screen will run with a lower voltage.

Unfortunately the screen only had composite video in, but at 7 inches you don't notice a huge difference anyway - many of the composite video "features" such as NTSC dot crawl aren't even noticeable. We'll talk about how to wire up the screen in part 3.

Modifying the sensor bar

First of all the "sensor bar" itself doesn't sense Jack or, um... crap (and Jack just left town). As you probably know, it's really just a bunch of infrared LED's, 5 on each side, that the Wii-mote sees as kind of a "landing strip" to tell itself where it is in relation to the TV. These infrared LED's are the same kind used on TV remotes and thus we can't see them with our eyes. They are visible, however, if you look at them through a digital camera.

Normally you can get to within a foot or two of the sensor bar before the pointer stops working. This is because at a close distance the LED lights go outside the field of view of the Wii-mote's sensor. Again, think of it like a pair of landing lights (if for some reason the entire runway wasn't lit up, a la Die Hard 2). You'd see the lights on approach, but as you get closer they end up of either side of you, thus you can't see them anymore. Same deal with the Wiimote, just no Bruce Willis.

With that hair-brained theory out it's time to test to see if we can get the Wii-mote to work a closer range.

  1. Take apart the sensor bar. Like the Wii, it uses the tri-wing screws. Move one of the LED circuit boards closer to the other. The normal spacing is about 7.5 inches, try it at about 4.5.
  2. Put the sensor bar on a "target sized item" for reference, in this case we used the LCD screen we bought for the Wii.
  3. Fire up the Wii and see how well it works. With mine we had the sensor working at a range of 1 foot from screen to Wiimote. Plenty close enough to see all the action, no matter what some people might have thought.
In theory a person could build a "scaling sensor bar" that has both LED clusters on a sliding rig. You could then slide them closer or apart depending on at what distance you were using the Wii-mote. We know some people have done mods to use their Wii with a large screen or projection system, so this kind of ranging info and how it works is a good thing to keep in mind. If you had a screen that's 10 feet across, perhaps have the LED clusters 2-3 feet apart. Just scale it up or down from a standard TV size of say 30-inches.

Note: You can also improve the vertical accuracy of the cursor by placing the sensor bars on both sides of a screen. About a third of the way down from the top (with the unit set to "Sensor Bar Above Screen") will make the cursor line up very closely to the vertical position of the Wii-mote. We thought about doing this for the Wii laptop but it would have made the screen portion too wide. But for people hacking their Sensor Bars or making custom ones, it might be worth playing around with.

New cord for the power supply

Originally we tried to run the Wii off a battery pack that we knew to work with the GameCube. It didn't work (with the Wii) so it can truly be said that it does in fact "have more power" -- or at least take more-- than a GameCube. Not having loads of time to find a battery pack, and considering the possible cost involved, we opted to simply integrate the power supply of the Wii into the main unit of the laptop. Again I'm sure a sufficient 12 volt battery, perhaps even from a laptop, would run it, but we didn't have the time to experiment. Feel free to discover this on your own and "pwn me".

One of the main things we did notice about the Wii is that it has a lot of pieces. Power supply, sensor bar, wii-mote, nunchuck, A/V cables... So to consolidate those parts into a few as possible would be the best route to go when making a portable. A friend of mine actually suggested we have a power cord tuck inside the unit and we realized that was a great idea. We spent at least 3 minutes thinking about it and then realized the easiest way would be to use an electric razor cord, since they are usually coiled like a phone cord (remember, back when they had cords?) and can thus stretch if need be and also fold up fairly small.

The razor cord we used didn't have a polarized plug. That is, both prongs were the same width. Since the Wii's power supply in its original form has a polarized plug it's best to use one on the new cord just to be sure. Your average hardware store, such as Ace where we spend much of our time, should have a variety of plugs that you can buy and swap onto the end of the cord. Just make sure you keep track of which wire is which (thick plug connects to the white power on the power supply, thin plug connects to the black one) when you attach the new cord to the power supply.

Here we see the LCD screen laid on the Wii, along with the power supply and the new cord. This gives us a pretty good idea of what the case should look like and also the general shape and dimensions, so let's move on then to, yup, you guessed it...

Designing a Case

With the unit rebuilt and compacted the next step is to come up with a design for the new case. Since we know the sizes of the unit, power supply and screen, we can start doing some concept sketches with the general shapes in mind. This is always a good way to go about it because a person can spend hours screwing around in a computer program or they can hash out 80% of the details on paper in a few minutes and then just translate that into pixels later on.

The initial sketch. This gets us the basic idea that the screen folds up but doesn't cover the entire surface of the unit like most laptops. Well, technically this is a tabletop but we can't use that term without thinking of one of those LCD / VFD games from the early 80s our parents were always too cheap to buy us. Speaking of the 80s, the design of this unit is made to be very similar to the kinds of "proto-laptops" that appeared back then, specifically things like the Atari ST or Mac portables. Those were good times.

Next we sketch the design in wireframe isometrically so we can get an idea of the internal space. We can see the front portion that will hold the main unit, the rear portion for the power supply, and some ideas for the power/eject buttons. By the way, we are fully aware that the math in the corner is a horrid mix of rounded-up decimal and fractions. In its own special way it gives us total height of the unit, 2.25 inches. Basically we added up all the layers, the base plate, main portion (that holds the Wii), top plate and screen.

On the third drawing we hash out some details for the hinge. The basic idea is that it folds back and fits the curve of the rear portion of the unit. As you've seen in the photos the rear portion with the vent holes is the same height as the screen (when closed), the rear portion didn't actually have to be that high, it could have been pretty much lopped off, but it looked better than just having empty space. Plus it gives us a little more room to tuck in the power cord (more on that later).

Computer drawings

As usual we've used Adobe Illustrator to create our drawing. At the end of the article are links to these in a variety of formats so you can download them to study at your leisure and use as you please. We'll discuss the main views of the design below. (You can download the designs at the very bottom, too.)

Top down view of the unit, wireframe. Here we see the disc drive center as well as the four main mounting screws that attach it to the frame. At the back of the motherboard, to the right, we see the original notch in which the fan sat. Near the lower right we have some shapes that represent the controller port.

Some of you have noticed that most of our stuff has a similar look, i.e. straight edges and not a lot of curves. It's not that we couldn't do curves but rather it takes longer to have them routed, plus it's slower so it adds up to more machine time / money. If we ever got around to building our own CNC machine we could do much more complex stuff but again, time is against me. One "feature" of this is that our stuff always has a look that says, "Oh yeah, Ben did that."

Here's the same view as before, but in solid color mode. This gives us a very good idea of what the final unit will look like. In this case the main flat portions will be white plastic, and thick high density foam will be used for the main body cavities.

I created the vector-art "Wii" logo manually by drawing over a low-res bitmap of one we found on the internet. Back when we used to work for "the man" as a graphic artist we were endlessly bombarded with people wanting crappy little logos from business cards blown up to billboard sizes. Our theory is that they'd all seen to many movies when they "zoom in and clean up" some pixels in the edge of a photo and can suddenly count somebody's nose hairs, and thus believe people in real life can magically do the same thing as long as they have a computer.

Solid color view of the left end of the unit. This shows us quite clearly the shape and depth of the screen lid (.5 inches) as well as the area where the disc and SD card will insert. The shape of the rear portion of the case (on the left) can also be plainly seen, along with the hinge.

On the back of the screen lid is another small compartment. This has been added because the LCD module has a small circuit board on the back of it. The main part of the LCD, the glass, is less than half and inch thick and thus we can make the main lid this thin as well. To make room for the small but required circuit board, we add a smaller empty portion on top of the lid. This is very much like the back of LCD monitors and televisions, where the main cabinet is fairly thin but there's a bulge in the back where the electronics are. As with an LCD monitor, it's best to make as much of the case as thin as possible and only have it thick where it absolutely has to be.

Solid color view of the right side. Here we see a large plate (the term we use for a thin piece of plastic for some reason) covering part of the end. In this are several slits that allow air into the unit. Notice the break in the plate in the middle of the slits - this is where the halves of the main case will be. Also here we see the standard RCA phono jacks for video and audio, along with holes for the USB ports.

This drawing also shows the lid and the volume control slider that will be put on it. We'll talk more about the slider in part 3 but it's basically like those found on a mixing board. Also we see a copy of the lid objects placed in "open" format, with the center of the hinge kept in place. This allows us to gauge the angle needed on the rear portion of the unit and to get an idea of how everything is fitting together.

The screen portion by itself. It's been drawn to shown how it relates to the top of the unit, represented by some lines at the bottom. This lets us figure out how big the make the hinge pieces, what size screws to use for the hinge (size 6 - an eight-inch diameter shaft) and even more importantly, how the lock nuts and washers will fit onto these screws and if they have enough clearance with regard to everything else. Notice how the nuts and washers appear "behind" the front of the screen -- this indicates that they'll be slightly recessed in the plastic.

Front view of the unit, wireframe. Here we can see the disc drive, motherboard, the height of the unit along with the screen lid and raised portion, the GameCube controller port and the four buttons in their new position.


We have now rebuilt the Wii into a smaller form and attached many wires so we attach other parts later on. The case has also been designed and is ready to be cut with CNC machinery. In part 3 of this series, the exciting conclusion to the most detailed "how-to" we've ever put on the web (excepting, perhaps, our guide to building your own projector), we'll cut the case and assemble it, install the Wii components, wire up the screen and put in a stereo audio amplifier.

Remember, these basic techniques can be applied to all sorts of things you may want to hack or modify, not just the Wii. Gaining knowledge of how things work, along with not being intimidated by them, is a good first step on the road to hacking. Until next time...

Download Wii laptop main layout [AI, DWG, DXF, EMF, PDF]

In this article: features, how-to, wii, wii laptop, WiiLaptop
All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Popular on Engadget

The Apple Watch Series 6 is already discounted at Amazon

The Apple Watch Series 6 is already discounted at Amazon

Amazon's $500 'Prime Bike' is a connected spin bike made by Echelon

Amazon's $500 'Prime Bike' is a connected spin bike made by Echelon

How and where to pre-order an Xbox Series X or S

How and where to pre-order an Xbox Series X or S

Jabra's Elite 85t true wireless earbuds offer adjustable ANC for $229

Jabra's Elite 85t true wireless earbuds offer adjustable ANC for $229

HP's first Intel 11th-gen laptops use recycled ocean-bound plastics

HP's first Intel 11th-gen laptops use recycled ocean-bound plastics


From around the web

Page 1Page 1ear iconeye iconFill 23text filevr