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Unlocking my Lenovo laptop battery (zmatt.net)
222 points by deadgrey19 on Feb 5, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

I remember running into a similar issue with my W520. The WiFi card had died and, given that this is a simple mPCIe card, I simply ordered a replacement. Turns out, Lenovo hard-codes the valid PCI IDs in the BIOS (some sources said it was for FCC compliance) and refuses to boot if you plug in an invalid card. In the end, I had to flash the BIOS with a cracked one I found somewhere on the web to get the system running again...

Many (most?) laptop vendors do this including Lenovo, HP, and Dell just as ones that turned up mentions with a quick search. I've been told that it's done because at least in theory they whitelist the cards that they've done emissions certification testing with and that they can't sell equipment that they haven't done that testing on - it may not be true, but it seems a pretty niche thing to try to do hardware lock-in on.

One important factor in this is how large is the whitelist? If the manufacturer offers that model with 3-4 different cards as options, you know they'll all be supported. On the other hand for cheaper laptops (like a ThinkPad Edge I once had to deal with) that are non-customizable the whitelist may only have the one card model it was released with.

For Lenovo models at least you can dig through their technical documentation and get a listing of part numbers that should be compatible.

MSI did that. I tried to sub out a RealTek card with a good athenos. That was a bit frustrating and turned me off from buying from MSI.

MSI in general seems to be all pain. Back during the netbook craze their take shipped a Suse install with missing drivers.

Why are there viagra urls at the bottom?

This used to happen to me when I would run poorly secured sites for personal stuff. Super annoying, taught me to take even personal stuff more seriously.

They'll hack in and then just add affiliate / ad links hidden everywhere from view so they can try to raise the google ranking of some other site (like one that sells viagra). Google has done much better recently fighting this type of reputation spam.

Devil's Advocate: non-genuine batteries have been linked to devices catching fire

Reminds me of buying a new battery for my Macbook a few months ago.

Me : I need a new battery for my Macbook.

Apple : Okay, but be sure to get a battery directly from Apple. Third-party batteries are no good!

Me : Fine, I wanna order an A1280 battery.

Apple : Oh, we don't sell those anymore. You'll have to get one somewhere else.

Oh, yes, I had some funny experiences like this as well. Wanted to have the battery of my 17" MacBook (5.5 years old) replaced, as it started to inflate. (I have to admit, the battery had performed much better and longer than I had expected!) Made an appointment with the AppleStore; was told, that there are no replacement batteries for any MacBooks older than 5 years. As Apple doesn't officially recommend third-party batteries, this means in consequence, that you would be obliged to throw away the machine.

I told one of my customers, who has a lot of MacBooks in his company, about this. So he started to bring all MacBooks older than 4.5 years to Apple to get the batteries replaced. And every single time Apple made some suspicous battery-quality-tests and declared that the batteries were still good and didn't need to get replaced. (The batteries generally had a runtime of less than 30 minutes after 4.5 years).

"No, battery needs no replacement.", the Genius would reply. "I do not ask for a free replacement, you know, I am aware I have to pay 140,- Euro for it. The battery runs only for 20 minutes, I do not think it is good." "Yeah, maybe you have to calibrate it. But the test says, the battery is good." "So, in 6 months I will get no new battery, as the model is legacy?" "Ah, yes, this is true." "So, would you please replace the battery, for 140,- Euro, please, please?" "OK".

This dialog repeated for every single MacBook.

I switched to ThinkPad/Linux shortly after. Battery-wise doesn't seem to be much of a difference ;-)

Following that new "Error 53" debacle, it does seem that Apple's policy regarding repairs is "If it breaks after a year, throw it away".

I think my Macbook was the last model that even had an easily replaceable battery. I think they glue 'em in now.

I had the battery swelling in my 2007 Macbook Pro in 2013, and they happily replaced the battery for me. So in 2013 I had a 2007 Macbook Pro with a brand new battery =)

Also, at the time it had some ridiculously low cycle count due to a bug in the batteries firmware.

Guess I'm lucky. I found a replacement battery on ebay that's been fine. Looked exactly like the genuine Apple batter (aluminum jacket). I'm posting on it right now.

IMO it'd be better to just alert the user, and give them the option to carry on at their peril. I do see your point, though.

Yeah, a lot of people say that, but they also say if something goes wrong they'll sue. At least in the U.S. Sue happy here. Everyone wants that payout.

I strongly doubt it's the same people in both cases.

Compared to competitors, Lenovo batteries must be made of gold. I bought a third-party battery for ~$20. As I remember it, Lenovo wanted $75+ (their website indicates $180[1], but I'm not sure if this is the same model battery anymore.) The third-party here was Sony (or, so the battery claimed, at least, though having read enough articles like this I'm not entirely sure anymore). At any rate, the battery worked fine.

This, thankfully, was back in the day when the OEM crapware only loudly complained about me using a "non-genuine battery". Thankfully, the crapware runs only in Windows, and for the most part, I used Linux.

Haven't we seen enough hoverboards go up in flame to know even first-party stuff can sometimes be suspect? (and they're not the only example through the times of flaming batteries.)

[1]: http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/itemdetails/43R2499/460/2D575BF...

Two simple 2300 mA Ni-MH cells from a decent Chinese brand like Pisen already cost $7.50. And you're putting an 8-cell battery on an expensive notebook, then use it on your lap?

Usually using poor quality cells. Replace with genuine panasonic 18650's with overload protection and you're fine.

So, you buy the cheap battery, the genuine cells, then you disassemble the cheap battery, reassemble it using the superior cells and then you also hack the firmware of either the battery or your laptop so it can still be charged.

Even just looking at the parts cost, are you sure you would still save money compared to going with the original battery? And of course you have to add your own time to this (if you actually like doing this, then it'll be cheap I guess) and the value of the warranty that you certainly will have voided at that point.

I totally understand that this might be a fun project to do and it will certainly be a nice achievement when you're through, but can this really be rationalised with cost of the original part?

You're making the significant assumption that the original part is either still available, or was ever available for individual sale (often, batteries that aren't considered user-replaceable are never sold directly.)

Apple systems are generally better off in this regard as vendors like iFixit can make official batteries available for older systems, but for other vendors, no such luck. For example: I can't find any source for an official Lenovo battery for my first-gen X1 Carbon. It's also long since out of warranty.

There is still the time consideration, but assuming you have time available to do the work, why not?

You can scavenge the electronics you need from your genuines old dead battery No need to buy a new one.

Genuine batteries, too.

Buy from a quality manufacturer?

Awesome post(s). Looking forward to part three.

Yeah, regardless of whether this is a good idea or not, it's an absolutely fascinating read. I love this kind of low-level reverse engineering.

It's a striking reminder that, although the systems we use day-to-day may be intimidatingly complex, they are hackable. Moreover, even someone with a comparatively basic understanding of reverse engineering (e.g. me) can see how it works. Very exciting.

Before or after his laptop catches fire?


Another reason to never buy Lenovo. Meanwhile Dell recycles bad parts and Apple glues batteries in is there an oem worth buying?

I am a fan of Fujitsu. Have been using a T902 for about 3 years - works great. Prior to that, had a T4000 (I think) that lasted me about 5-6 years in spite of a case-ruining drop (that I subsequently fixed). I will likely replace my T902 with a T904.

These are hybrid Windows Tablet PCs built for enterprise users so I tend to buy them refurbished from Fujitsu (on eBay or directly). IME, they are very upgradable, very high quality, and with unmatched customer support.

I bought a preloved 7yo Toshiba from the local pawn shop for $AU50. It came with a 3 month warranty but is still alive 7 months later. Specs are adequate for my university studies.

Replacement 3 hour battery for $AU15 + shipping on ebay. I didn't check what a "genuine" one costs or if they're even still made but I suspect it would be more than I'd paid for the machine.

Panasonic? But their laptops are expensive.

More and more i get the feel that humanity need to relearn to pay for quality.

Yeah, but double or triple the price of systems with similar specs from other manufacturers? Ouch.

I'd appreciate it if there was a better spectrum of choices.

It seems like economies of scale have steamrolled quality. If one company can sell 1000x the volume to people who don't know better, then even those who do know better will often find the high-volume choice more practical due to cost and industry support just being too good to ignore.

Yeah i find myself reminded of an anecdote about a young lady that wanted to treat herself after landing her first job out of college.

So she went to market somewhere in Asia, fund a stall selling handbags, and started to haggling by pointing out the various ways the bags where fake.

Eventually she settled on a bag. She knew it was fake, she knew it would not last as long as the real thing, but she hoped it would at least hold until she climbed the corporate ladder enough that she could replace it with the real thing.

It's interesting how a non-genuine battery for this laptop is even sold. If the laptop refuses to charge it out of the box then nobody will buy it, since it does not work. Why sell it if everyone will just try it and return it immediately?

Physically the same model batteries have been used on several generations of the ThinkPads. The actual change was from the 55+/55++ battery generation to the 70+/70++ battery generation with the 2012 laptops.

Per a Lenovo staff member in their forums [1], "The machine will boot (with a warning message displayed by BIOS and by Power Manager), and it will even discharge the unauthenticated battery. The issue is that the machine will not charge the unauthenticated battery. With many of the new systems supporting RapidCharge where you can get to 80% charge in 30 minutes, it is just too dangerous to try to charge someone's aftermarket ebay battery."

[1] https://forums.lenovo.com/t5/ThinkPad-P-and-W-Series-Mobile/...

" With many of the new systems supporting RapidCharge where you can get to 80% charge in 30 minutes, it is just too dangerous to try to charge someone's aftermarket eBay battery."

I have to agree with that. Search "hoverboard fire". That's what it looks like without all the usual safety devices. Most of the safety devices are in the battery pack.[1] The track record for cheap off-brand battery packs is not good. There are supposed to be seven safety devices,[2] most of which are in the battery pack. A laptop battery without those is a bomb.

Overcharging a lithum-ion battery will cause it to go into thermal runaway and catch fire. The sensors and logic for detecting when to stop charging are mostly in the battery pack. I don't blame Lenovo for being unwilling to charge strange battery packs.

Underwriters Laboratories is, as of this week, offering safety testing and certification for hoverboards.[4] Any previous UL sticker on a hoverboard is fake. UL insists that the battery and charger must be tested and certified together. There's no standard for charger/battery interaction for hoverboards yet. This matters; it's not standardized which side is responsible for which parts of the protection.

[1] http://industrial.panasonic.com/cdbs/www-data/pdf/ACA4000/AC... [2] http://www.electrochem.org/dl/interface/sum/sum12/sum12_p037... [3] http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/lithium_ion_safet... [4] https://ul.com/newsroom/featured/uls-involvement-in-hoverboa...

Seems like they could just disable RapidCharge on unauthenticated batteries but perhaps that's asking too much.

Why do that when you can just sell a whole new laptop?

The whole pile of turtles is about shipping new units...

Maybe older BIOSes lacked the "genuine battery advantage" checks?

There are two checks in the current process, so it's likely this bootleg battery used to work until the second authentication check was added.

Is it legal for a company to do something like this? I could understand a message on boot-up saying "This is not a Lenovo certified battery and we are not responsible for damages caused by it."

I don't know, any one here familiar with the laws pertaining to this?

I'm not sure, but I doubt that there are laws against not charging unauthorized batteries. I am fairly sure that they could be held liable for any damages caused by fires, etc caused by trying to charge a poorly-made battery, and that you cannot release that liability with any kind of boot-up message or contract.

They might still be liable for the damages if they knew it would cause said damages, but did nothing to prevent it.

Very interesting! Slicing through the layers of firmware like I've never seen before

TIL: Tiny USB logic analyzers are a thing. It seems the company mentioned in this post (CWAV USBee) has gone out of business. Are there other good quality USB logic analyzers?

The hardware is based on a Cypress FX2 chip and there are lots of cheap clones which can be bought from Chinese sellers for £10. See http://sigrok.org/wiki/Fx2lafw

Exactly what I needed to know, and answers my question about Linux too. Thanks.

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