Friday, June 27, 2008

Killing time (or, "A Brief History of Killing Machine")

This was a project that I started a few months ago while at work. I noticed that when we were resetting the toilet displays at the Home Depot that we were throwing out a lot of melamine board (it's like cardboard but 3/4 of an inch thick and not corrugated). This seemed like a colossal waste to me, as we had to cut it up to throw it away. I asked my supervisor if it would be okay to take some of the old stuff so that we wouldn't have to get rid of it, and he told me yes (then later he told me that he was surprised that Home Depot let me get out of the store with it - the stupid asshole let me waste my time and energy for something that could have cost me my job). I needed a new television stand, and decided to use the board for that project. I carefully measured out the components that I was going to keep connected, drew up some plans (while considering how it was going to be constructed, given my limited tools and space), and then cut the material accordingly. The one stickler for the project: I had to integrate Killing Machine into the stand.

What's Killing Machine, you may ask? Killing Machine is the system name of the computer my roommate Nick dug out of the trash on a street corner a few years back. It's an old Gateway PC that the previous owner didn't like, or thought was broken. Judging by some of the bios configuration, I think that it's fair to say that they got it from an office or school that was cleaning out their old PCs. In the span of a week we got Killing Machine, two slightly damaged monitors and a computer stand - all from three different trash piles! But I digress...

It really wasn't much to look at:

Plus, when you consider the case is only about 5" wide from outside to outside, there isn't room enough inside for a full-size PCI card of any kind:

The many problems with this case included that it was loud, unshielded from dust, had no room to work in, and that it was just plain ugly.

Oh yeah, it didn't work either but between the three of us we managed to fix it in about twenty minutes so that it did. We discovered that it had a legal copy of Windows XP on it (yay!), a 1.8 GHz processor, and a 50GB hard drive. There wasn't a CDROM drive, but I had a spare from my parents' old Gateway that was just going to waste (incidentally, it also scratched up disks, so we never put original CDs in it). I spent the next five hours purging the previous owner's data from the computer without harming any of the sweet, sweet Windows XP. When that was satisfied, we had a secondary PC with a monitor that had a lot of burn-in and that literally drowned out the conversation in the living room with all of its white noise.

What did we use this piece of junk for, one might ask? Ostensibly it served as a network backup for some of our school files, and also as a computer for guests to use when they visited. A little later down the line though, I felt it would be best utilized as a media PC. There were just a few problems, not in the least was that we couldn't put a video card in it that had an S-video port, simply because the case was too broken. That project just sort of sat on the shelf until one day when I purchased a new DVD R +-RW drive, or whatever the hell they're called. It was time to build a new case.

I had one material available to me at the time, and it wasn't money. Instead, I used my Fisher-Price Construx (tm) to assemble a case with the idea that I could make it modular, so that when new pieces were added you could just connect them to the tabletop computer. While this was all well and good in theory, when it came to building it I found that they new nVidia card that I had purchased added quite a lot more bulk than I had anticipated. Even though I expanded the IDE cables, the replacements were still too short to make it the way I wanted to, and the result was a weirdly-shaped tabletop "thing" that very quickly got in everyone's way, because of the cables that had to be connected to the television. I wish that I could show you some clear photos of this disaster, but alas like the sasquatch they must remain blurry, almost mythic images, forever captured on my crappy old cell phone's digital camera, with no way to get them off (thanks Verizon, for all of your fine services).

It became more apparent as time went on that to make it a decent media PC I would have to get it closer to the television. Construx (tm) is not exactly the most airtight of building materials, and so to put it on the floor with dust and cats running around was a challenge. One day, I just pulled the thing apart and made it into a more traditional tower shape, which I had the good sense to photograph:

I discovered that in an open case with the fans blowing outward, the Construx (tm) "knots" (the little blue pieces) actually acted like a filter - when I finally pulled the case apart, there was almost no dust build-up inside. One thing that I liked about this case was the little power light I rigged up into a glow-in-the-dark hemisphere and covered with a clear piece of antennae-like plastic. This was a neat effect, and I was thinking about exploring other uses of on-board lights, but never got around to it.

This configuration was still less-than ideal - if you wanted to add anything, you had to almost take the entire tower apart to do it. The motherboard wasn't exactly secure, either, and sometimes the graphics card would come unseated (though this was a rarity for all of the abuse levied on it). The biggest problem was that damn power switch. It was very hard to push, and when you did hit it sometimes the cables in the back would come undone (I had to pull the heat-shrink off in order to get it out of the first case), meaning that if one wanted to do a hard reset it sometimes couldn't be done without having to pull the case apart to fix the wires. This case also wasn't good for our living room's footprint at the time - the old TV stand had round edges that the tower didn't sit behind very well. It was altogether not something that I particularly liked.

I kept these things in mind when I started the new case. From first glance, it looks like something IKEA would sell:

On closer inspection, one would see that it is, in fact, homemade furniture at its worst: lopsided, unfinished, boxy, and ugly.

(Before anyone out there feels the need to warn me about the Xbox 360 being in such a confined space, I would just like to state that there is an array of three fans connected in back to cool it, so cool it!)

Anyway, as I've previously stated, I don't have the proper tools to mold the board correctly, and I don't have the money to buy them, so it's going to have to look nearly done for now. The melamine board isn't in great shape either, having been scrap at one point, but oh well. As one can see from the following photo, the edges around the holes in the front aren't exactly even, but I don't have anything that cuts in a straight edge to even them out:

My proudest accomplishment as far as the facade goes is the button. It pushes real springy-like, and is orange at first and then turns green when the PC is on. I was standing in the Home Depot one day in the electrical isle looking at networking cables, when I spotted some buttons and thought to myself, "That one would be perfect for Killing Machine!" It turns out that it was a lighted doorbell button. I wasn't sure if it would work, but I was willing to risk the four dollars at the time to find out. Upon opening the package, I discovered one set of two leads coming out of the back, which worried me (where were the leads for the light?). When I tested it at first, I discovered that Killing Machine always registered it in the "closed" position whenever you tried to connect it. That was bad. I pulled the switch apart and discovered the problem. The light in the doorbell was connected across the contacts internally. I still don't see how this would prevent a doorbell from going off all the time, but I don't know much about doorbells so whatever. I clipped the light out of the switch, and then tested it again. Eureka! It worked, but now there was no light. I drilled a hole in the back of the switch (it was big enough to do that), and inserted the power light into the button (it was a tight fit), so now I have a lighted switch. Just one keeps it simple, and you can't see the hack-job from the outside. I found brushed nickel handles for the drawer part that matched the button, so it at least looks somewhat acceptable.

When you open the drawer, that's where the real mess begins:

I just want to state, for the record, that that power supply is going to go away as soon as I can afford a new one. It's awkward, bulky, and not all that powerful (only about 300W). It isn't that Killing Machine needs a bigger power supply, it's that this one just doesn't fit very well with what I'm trying to do. The drawer hardware that I purchased to mount it was pretty expensive (about $20), but it is pretty heavy duty and won't bend even with almost fifty pounds of weight attached to it (it's rated to 100 lbs, but I'm not going to tempt it). The motherboard is directly attached to the melamine, with long screws and insulated plastic feet. I need to cut a hole in the wood under it at some point for heat dissipation, but I'll probably do that when I get a new power supply.

Because this is a media PC, it has standard audio ports and an S-video port right on the back of the box:

To do this, I purchased some A/V extensions from Radio Shack (at a ridiculous price, but they fit my needs at the time), drilled some holes and then pounded (yes, with a rubber mallet) them in. They won't move now, and are sitting pretty securely. I also added an external network port:

This was pretty simple. I purchased a wall-mounting kit and faceplate, then just got a short Cat-5 cable and stripped the end. I had my roommate Isaac (who is much more familiar with making cables - I didn't want to leave room for error) connect this cable to the back of the female wall-port. Thus, you plug the network cable from the outside, and then plug the extension into the back of the motherboard on the inside. I used a similar trick for the power supply. I used a six-port surge protector faceplate that I mounted from the inside and then bored a large hole in the board on the back of the cabinet to plug an extension cord into. I can plug six devices into the surge protector internally and only have one plug coming out the back.

I put a hinged door in the back of the cabinet for easier access. The real ingenious part, if I may massage my own ego, was the retractable cable pulley. I purchased a retractable pen from a dollar store, removed the pen and tied all of the wires going to the back of the cabinet together. When I open the door in the back or the drawer in the front, the pulley drops the cables to their full length. When I close either door, the cables retract to the top of the case and out of the way of the bottom shelf of the drawer allowing for smooth opening/closing until the pulley wears out (NOTE: there is a problem with this too - the cables now block the output fan, hindering air movement somewhat).

So that's it. That's the history of Killing Machine, now my media PC. I realize that it's not cutting edge or anything, and that it has a lot of engineering problems that I didn't foresee, but I'm surprised at how much I was able to get this to work, and how many problems I was able to solve in the process.

This and the gaming table I built for a New Year's Eve party (more on that later), are the two pieces of furniture I've made. Yes, they do indeed suck, but as soon as I get the tools, the space, and the time I'll start making them better.

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