How-To: Make an Xbox 360 laptop (part 2)

We're building an Xbox 360 laptop -- exciting, right? In part 1 of this series we covered removing ports from the Xbox 360, and rewiring both the DVD and hard drive. Now today in part 2 we'll get to the meat and potatoes of the case design, heat sink modification, the start of the case construction and the hacking of the LCD monitor and power supplies. Ready to rumble?

Files used

Here's the file we used to design this Xbox 360 laptop. You can examine it and see how a lot of the parts went together, and even use it to cut your own templates and designs, either by paper and hand or using a CNC machine. Check out Will O'Brien's articles for more information on "roll your own" CNC devices (part 1, part 2, and part 3 here).

Download the art (Adobe Illustrator)

Case Design Concept

As with most of Ben's projects, we've got a case designed using Adobe Illustrator. The main theme is to make something as thin as possible. Thus, the first thing we need to look at are the thickest parts of the unit, because of course the unit can only be as thin as its thickest piece.

As with the original model XBox 360 Laptop, the DVD drive has been set beside the motherboard, rather than over it as in the stock 360 form. This leaves the CPU's heat sink as the tallest part of the unit (not shown). For now we're going to assume that we can rebuild it to be no taller than the DVD drive, allowing us to move on with the case design.

This drawing shows the target look (bottom, obviously) and above that an exploded view of the two halves. The top half is only 1-inch thick and will contain the LCD monitor. There are two ways to look at these kind of hacks -- you can either make it easier on yourself and not slim down parts (such as the monitor), and end up with a bigger/thicker unit, or you can spend more time compacting components and likewise have a smaller end product. You can use the same drawings and plans, just plan to make the side walls a little taller if need be.

Here's a top down view of the main component layout in the bottom half (where all the action is).

  • The DVD drive and motherboard should be obvious. Note the (2) Xs on the motherboard, these indicate the location of the heat sink clamps found on the bottom of the board. We've drawn all this up for you so you can take our files and use them as you please.

  • To the upper left is the hard drive. You can see the SATA data/power cable indicated on the right side of it. There should be plenty of room to run cables in this case, and still stay out of the air path.

  • Over on the right is the USB port we removed in part 1, now tilted to offer side ports.

  • In the middle you can see a faint rectangular outline - this indicates the relative position of the keyboard, which we'll get to later.

  • At the top and slightly to the right is a long black rectangle - this indicates where a bank of fans will be to blow air out of the system.

  • To the top right is the power port, which has been desoldered and extended to the back of the case in this example.

This is the broken down view showing only the side walls. You can find this in the main art file. Note the notches on the inner left side - these allow the side mounts of the DVD drive to slide in.

For the laptop we built, we routed the walls using a material called Sintra (also goes by Komatex). This is a PVC plastic that you could think of as very high density Styrofoam. It routs well, is strong, and it easy to machine later. A drawback is it usually only comes as thick as 0.75-inches, so to make a 1.5-inch case we had to cut 2 pieces and double them up.

Here's the bottom plate, which I cut from 0.080-inch thick aluminum. This gives the unit a good solid base for us to build upon, even if the rest of it is plastic. It also keeps the unit from bending due to its weight and size. (Still not as heavy as a water-cooled version though.) Again you can cut this by hand (well, rather a metal sheer, drill press and corner cutters) or rout using a CNC machine. As before you can find this art in the main file.

Here's the base aluminum piece routed. Sand both sides well with a medium grit paper, this will allow paint and glues to stick better. This is kind of obvious, but don't sand it anywhere near open electronics as you might get small bits of conductive particles flying through the air.

Here you can see we've attached the plastic walls to the aluminum base. Don't scream, but in our example we used copious amounts of super glue, then reinforced with a bead of JB Weld. It was a helluva lot easier than the all aluminum welded case we did back in 2006.

The workability of the Sintra/Komatex plastic comes in handy here. We can use new, sharp X-Acto knives to slice open any holes we might need, as indicated in the photo above.

Next we have the bottom half lip. This is attached on top of the walls and provides the support for the keyboard and control plates. You can find the template for it in the main art file.

For this example I've cut the lip out of 0.125-inch thick acrylic and super glued and JB Welded it to the top of the lower half walls. It contains screw holes which we'll use to attach the inner plates later on. For this example these pieces have been painted green with Krylon "spray paint for plastic". Costs a bit more but allegedly it's better.

Next we have the top half of the case. It is assembled very much like the bottom half, only sort of in reverse.

  • Start with the main top plate, made from 0.080-inch thick aluminum. As with the other aluminum, sand it well to receive paint and glue.

  • Behind this attach the top half walls. These are similar to the walls on the bottom half but have a total depth of 1-inch. (In this example, two layers of 0.5-inch thick Sintra material)

  • At this point paint the top half of the case the color you desire.

  • Finally, attach the top lip to the front of the aluminum. This creates and opening inside the case when the lid is closed for the keyboard and control plates on the bottom half of the units (the top and bottom lips match up).

The top half of the case, with side walls, aluminum plate and outer lip.

Modifying the CPU heatsink

Alright now that we have the case built we can modify the heatsinks. As mentioned before the stock GPU heatsink isn't a big deal but the GPU is a different story. To make it fit in our case (that is, be no taller than the DVD drive) we need to reduce its height by modifying it. The following is how we did it -- which is sure to be controversial, so Iweinvite you to invent your own methods or use off-the-shelf parts if possible. (Discuss!)

The main item holding the heatsinks in place is an X-shaped piece of metal on the bottom of the board.

  • Pry up 2 corners on the same side by inserting a thin flat headed screwdriver into the gap outside the screwhole and bending up.

  • Once 2 of the corners are plied off the mechanical retention is loosened and you can lift the other 2 corners off by hand.

  • Unless you wish to put your own thermal paste on it you do not need to remove the GPU heatsink.

You'll notice the heat sink doesn't lift right off, you need to twist it a bit to remove the seal of the OEM thermal paste. Remove all of the steel fins from the heatsink. This will leave only the copper base and the heatpipe, which we will build upon.

To recreate the heatsink we're using 1/2-inch copper pipe coupling, as seen above. These are available at your local hardware store in the plumbing asile, and are usually about 30 cents each.

Side view of how we reworked the CPU heatsink. Flame away.

  • Using a Dremel cutoff wheel, slice about 20 of these couplings in half length to create "half moon" shapes.

  • Solder or JB weld (depending on your skill, ours sucked, so we JB-welded) the pipe pieces in 2 rows (one row on either side of the heat pipe) to the base of the copper heatsink.

Here we can see the reworked CPU heatsink on the motherboard, slightly ahead of the section on how to reattach it. Regardless, this shows the "doubled-up" GPU. Bending the heat pipe lower made the end stick out further, so as shown above this has been attached to a spare Xbox 360 GPU that was laying around. Most of the heat from the CPU travels through the pipe, so with this we give it even more metal to sink into. Since there was room some additional copper pipes have been attached to the CPU heatsink as well.

Reattcahing the heatsink

Attaching the CPU heatsink back to the board isn't a big deal but there are a few things we can do to make the best of things.

Arctic Silver, with the No Mess Applicator!

Here's some Arctic Silver thermal compound. Putting a bit of this between the CPU die and heatsink will provide a good thermal connection. Be sure to carefully clean the old thermal paste off the die first, which we've found is best done with 90% Isopropel alcohol, cotton swabs and toothpicks to remove the little bits.

Copper pipe thread sealing tape

Notice that when you place the heatsink back onto the board it's not completely tight fitting, even if you put the X brackets back on. This is because the posts are slightly smaller than the holes in the motherboard, allowing some flutter. A good trick is to get some copper pipe sealing tape (also available at your friendly neighborhood hardware store) and wrap a few inches around each post.

Place the heatsink back onto the board and the new thin layers around each post will keep them from shuffling about. We can now place the X bracket back on and be done with the heatsink hack.

The Xbox 360 needs more fans (and not just in Japan)

The XBox 360 in stock form uses a fairly passive technique (at least in my opinion). It sits in the back of the 360's case and pulls air through the GPU and CPU heatsinks using a plastic tunnel of sorts. Since we've changed the heatsinks it's a good idea for us to create a more active cooling solutions.

Here we can see the front 3 fans, each 30 x 30mm square and 10mm thick. They are Digi-Key part #259-1396-ND. 2 of them push air directly through the CPU heatsink, while a 3rd pulls it through the GPU sink. It would have been nice to have the GPU fan in front like the CPU but there isn't quite enough room once the Ring of Light is installed. These fans are all 12 volt DC and are wired to the main 12 volt input near the power plug, thus they turn on and off with the Xbox. More on this wiring in Part 3.

This will bring fresh, room temperature air though the heat sinks, but we're also going to want to purge the now-heated air from the case itself. We'll do that with some rear fans, like in the stock Xbox 360.

We can use slightly larger (and thus cheaper and more effective) fans for the rear of the case simply because we'll have more vertical height this time around (the full 1.5-inches, allowing 35mm fans to fit easily). For the rear three fans this example uses Digi-Key part #259-1392-ND. Find a hole drilling bit that closely matches the size of the circular opening of the fan. Drill the first hole in the space reserved for the fans (check the art files for details).

A view of the installed fans, from inside the case. Their positive and negative leads will be tied together and attached to the original stock fan connection.

View of the the fans from the outside. It'll be a bit, hm, "ambient" with the sound of air flow, but can't be much worse than those Hitachi DVD drives, right?

LCD hacking

Alright now let's move onto the hacking of the LCD. This isn't for the faint of heart, so you've been warned. But take your time and keep your work area fairly clean (to avoid screen damage) and you should be ok.

The Westinghouse LCD monitor in its true form. A decent enough monitor.

Shown above is the Westinghouse monitor in normal, pre-BenHeck form. We choose this because it's the same model we used last time, thus we knew what to expect. If we had to guess, most monitors of this general shape and size will be similar inside (no guarantees, though). Despite the myriad brands, most of them have the glass from Sharp and drive video using a "Genesis" chip. (No, not the one from Sega.) Let's take this sucker apart!

The first part is easy, just find and remove all the screws you can from the back. Some are hidden under plastic hinge covers, just pop those off. Occasionally a really sneaky manufacturer will put screws under stickers. Can you believe that? To add insult to injury these stickers usually say something like "Stop!" or "Warranty void if you break this seal!" Ridiculous. Of COURSE we're going to void the warranty, don't you know why we buy anything at all?

Hey remember those cheapo models they used to have back in the 80s? (Not talking about Kathy Ireland here.) They were called "Snap Tight" or something like that -- model kits you'd just snap together. This (and many) monitors are like this. Much of the case has just been snapped together.

OK we're in. Remember most LCD monitors are very similar. They'll have a metal RF cage that contains the electronics, probably an external headphone jack (if applicable) and below this another metal assembly holding the LCD.

  • Now, plunk your first 35mm fan down over this hole, then set the next fan beside it. This will allow us to gauge where to drill the next hole, and so forth. We also also measure the distances with a dial caliper or accurate tape.

  • Once the 3 main air holes are drilled, use a 1/8th-inch bit to drill out the 2 mounting holes in each fan. This will allow a proper, non-hot-glue-related way to secure the fans to the case.

  • To unsnap it, insert a flat head screwdriver inside the side slits and twist. It's best to do it near an end and not the middle, so you can get some leverage once you're in there.

  • Sometimes you have to press fairly hard, and it'll usually marr the case a bit when you twist. The idea is: if you get it open, it's meant to create evidence should you try and return this bad boy to the store. Again, the nerve!

  • Unsnap both sides, then you should be able to pull the entire back of the case off.

Inside the cage. Here's where it might vary a bit between the models, but we'll stick with describing this one for now.

  • On the left you have your AC/DC power supply (insert cheesy 70's song reference here), which is connected to the cold cathode bulb inverter circuit -- this lights up the screen. Many screens will have the inverter board and power supply separate, but the inverter is almost always separate from the driver board.

  • Driver board, seen on the right. This is where it all happens. Inputs on the bottom, decoder chip in the middle, connection to the LCD on top. To the upper left on this board is the audio amplifier, usually indicated by 2-4 large capacitors, a through-hole large DIP style IC and a headset.

  • Unscrew these boards from the LCD glass. You may also need to remove the screws on the VGA / DVI inputs to get the board free of the metal plate.

  • Above we see a close-up of the connections on the driver board. Note that a small piece of metal was between the amplifier and the motherboard. This came loose when we removed the board, so you'll want to reattach it with a small size 4 screw and nut. This allows heat to sink off the amp and into the board.

  • Other connections in this area of the board are noted. We'll come back to those later, but one thing to mention right now is that if you don't have the headphone assembly plugged in the sound won't get to the speakers. This is because it tries to pass through the headphones first and then to the speakers. This is typical of most devices with both a speaker and headphone jack.

Here's the monitor with the boards removed. As shown in the little box, bend down the plastic tabs to release the glass and frame from the plastic front. Again, most LCD screens are assembled the same way.

Ok, it's free of the plastic frame. To remove the glass from the metal frame, remove the four screws from the corners as shown in the insert box. Carefully lift the remaining glass and aluminum portion from the main frame.

The resulting LCD glass should look like the above. This should fit into our test case, but if it's a bit too tight you can actually hack it further. Please note that this point you can damage the glass, so take care if you decide to go this far.

At the top of bottom of the LCD you'll see little metal tabs. Bend these out using a small screwdriver.

  • Carefully pull back on the outer metal frame whilst pushing in on the LCD glass. (See arrows.)

  • This will reveal the main black plastic frame and the edges of the LCD glass. Take care not to let the glass tilt out of the frame. The edges of the glass are what we need to worry about - should they crack or get damaged the signals won't work on the glass and it'll be dead. Again, only hack this far if you absolutely have to.

  • Side note: these tips are handy if you're making one of those DIY LCD projector things.

The hacked LCD monitor sitting in the top haf of the case.

Hacking up the LCD electronics

Ok, here's another tricky part of this project. We're going to split the inverter from the power supply, kind of like one of those Siamese twin surgeries you might see on TLC (the medical procedure and motorcycle channel as we call it). The idea is: the inverter is thin enough to fit inside the top half of the case, along with the LCD, but the AC/DC power supply is fairly thick and we're going to want to graft that onto the Xbox 360's power supply.

Click here for a larger version of this.

Use an X-Acto knife to make a scoring groove down the middle of the board. You'll need to weave between some circuitry near the plug, check the larger version of this image for a better look.

The split board.

Close-up of the connections on the inverter half

  • There are 3 things that need to be reconnected between these two boards: 5 volts, 12 volts and ground.

  • The 5 volt and 12 volt signals are indicated by a pair of green things that look like resistors - they are actually fuses. We'll need to desolder them in order to split the boards, but leave them attached to one board or the other. This is where we'll attach our power wiring later on.

  • Ground is the copper plane on the edge of the power supply half.

Here's the parts side of the inverter. We've attached 3 power wires to it, +5 volts, ground and +12 volts. Each of these is connected to two pins of the cable going to the main driver board. The remaining two wires (green and yellow) are most likely signals to turn the inverter / light tube on and off.

Shown above is the power supply side of the split circuit board. The upper fuse gives us +12 volts, the lower fuse (which has been bent up and covered with hot glue) is +5 and ground is connected to the outer thick trace of the circuit board.

Solder side of the power supply. Ground is found on the thick trace along the edge of the board.

For the power supply side attach the 3 power wires using 12-14 gauge wires that are at least as long as the cable between the power supply and the 360 - these will be combined with the main power cable.

We'll graft this power supply onto the Xbox 360's power supply a little later on. Let's go back to the LCD driver board...

Desolder the VGA and DVI connectors. It's helpful to use tweezer to tilt the pins back and forth after we've sucked away the solder - if they can all move then the part is ready to be pulled free.

  • Using the techniques discussed in part 1, flatten all the large caps on the driver board. It's ok if they go off the side, there's plenty of room.

  • Note in the middle of the board we've also tilted the power input sideways. This is to keep everything thin enough to fit into the top half of the case.

  • We'll cover the rest of the wiring to this board later on.

Grafting the Power Supplies Together

After our separation surgery it's time to do the opposite and stick two things together. By attaching the LCD's power supply to the 360's we'll keep all the high-voltage AC stuff outside the system and in its own box - a modified version of the 360's power supply brick.

Here is the stock Xbox 360 power supply. It's a good idea to leave this unplugged and unused for several hours before you start messing around inside. Open it up by removing the four screws. It's actually quite easy to crack into, unlike a lot of similar things on the market.

Inside the power supply you'll need to desolder 2 spots to lift the metal sheild off. It should then appear as above. We're interested in the right hand side, where the wall power plugs in.

  • Solder pieces of thick wire (I used 10 gauge) to the spots shown above. These are direct connections to the AC power inputs. The red wire is our earth ground (the middle prong of the AC port) Note the indicator lines -- the wires aren't attached to the AC plug in a left-to-right fasion as they appear.

  • You can double check the solder spots with multimeter. In this case, as seen in the above photo, we've soldered the left prong to the white wire, right prong to the black and as mentioned the middle ground to red.

  • Once you have the wires attached solder the metal shield back onto the power supply. The wires should have enough room to still stick out on the end.

  • Place a few layers of thin plastic (from either the hardware store or cut-up packaging) over the metal shield to prevent short circuits on the LCD's power supply.

  • Desolder the AC port from the LCD's power supply.

  • Place the LCD power supply on the top of the 360 power supply. The plastic will insulate the pieces from each other.

  • Note that in this position the AC power port for the LCD is in the same orientation as the 360's - with the middle ground prong up.

  • Connect the 3 power wires from the 360 to the LCD's power supply. Note that in the photo above that they criss-cross. In the above example the white wire (left prong) is connected to the left side of the fuse - this is the same as the left prong and was done because the original solder through-hole was damaged during desoldering.

  • Wiring the power supplies together in this fashion has the same effect as plugging them both into the same power strip.

  • Get a piece of 1/16-inch thick, 1-inch wide aluminum strip from the hardware store. They usually come 6-8 feet long and you'll only need about two feet, but it's not that expensive.

  • Bend the aluminum around the perimeter of the top half of the power supply case (the half you removed).

  • Use the Dremel cut-off wheel to make gaps for both the AC power port (right square hole) and the power cabling to the XBox (left, circular hole).

In the above photo we can see the 3 power wires (5 volts, 12 volts and ground) coming off the LCD's power supply. Remember to make these long enough to reach the Xbox 360 power plug at the end of the cable.

Tips for bending metal:

  • Mark off where you want each bend to be by placing the metal against the power supply. Because of the way metal bends it's better to mark it a lttle short than right on since metal tends to bend a little outside of where you'd like it to.

  • Attach the strips to a table or workbench with C-clamps and bend against the egde, using a hammer to tighten up the curve.

  • If you have a friend or relative who's any kind of machinist, have them do this for you.

Here's the metal strip at the power plug end. Ok, it's not perfect, but we never claimed to be some sort of metal working geniuses.

  • Secure the metal strip to the top half of the power supply's case. For ours we used small bits of super glue to hold it in place intially, then went in with a layer of JB Weld for the permanent bond.

  • Remove the electronics from the case and spray the whole thing a new color to match the rest of your project (in our case, black). Any old spray paint will work, we used some slightly more expensive "Appliance Enamel". The main goal is to make the aluminum match the rest of the power supply.

  • Finally, reattach the halves of the case together using 1.5-inch long size 4 screws. These will reach through the top portion to the original screw posts below.


Thus far we've slimmed down the Xbox 360 motherboard, started building the case, hacked up the LCD and modified the power supply. In part 3 we're wire everything together, attach the accesories and get this puppy fired up! Stay tuned!