Date:30 June 2009
Is it a computer, furniture or an implausible thought experiment made real? Two PM staffers squander lots of time, thought and energy building a bootable, sit-at-able, see-through PC.
Step No 1 – Make sure it looks good on paper
If science is the dispassionate pursuit of objective truth, then it stands to reason that mad science is the completely irrational pursuit of a nutty project that the rest of the world will never completely understand. Popular Mechanics has a reverent journalistic respect for those who practice serious research. But on our own time, we like to dabble in the mad sciences.
Mad computer science, in particular, offers plenty of opportunity to practice our techno-alchemy in PM’s labs. We have, in the past, created a series of “monster” PCs – labour-intensive masterpieces of technological complexity that were as wickedly powerful as they were unreliable and impractical. It takes a special kind of enthusiast to prefer such a machine over a shop-bought PC with a two-year warranty.
I have an excuse. As PM’s senior technology editor, it’s part of my job to daydream outrageous new designs for computers. My colleague, Anthony Verducci, however, is our digital imaging specialist. He is a master computer builder, but he is probably shirking his responsibilities (whatever those are), when he partners with me to help construct each new machine.
Our ideas often start out with a simple premise. About a year ago, I first came to Anthony with a plan to build a computer into the structure of a desk. A quick bit of brainstorming determined that there were essentially two ways to accomplish this:
* Old-school (a classic oak executive’s desk with components hidden behind false backs in the drawers);
* New-school (transparent surfaces with components on display).The old-school approach was classy and defi nitely appealing (we won’t rule it out for the future), but the new-school approach was both less practical and more ostentatious, which made it our natural choice.
So we specced out a totally visible PC. The components – motherboard, graphics card, hard drives, etc – would all be mounted beneath the surface of a transparent desk. Because an optical mouse would have trouble tracking on a clear surface, we imagined an integrated clear trackpad that would turn part of the desktop into a pointing device.
Our first thought was to make the desk out of tempered glass, but we decided that clear acrylic would be far easier to work with. Anthony had worked on previous computer builds with Dennis Leach, owner of Danger Den, a custom case and liquid-cooling company. Leach’s shop has a computer-control laser that can cut and etch sheets of acrylic to create any shape or design imaginable. We e-mailed sketches back and forth to Leach for two months, planning out the placement of components, ventilation ducts and holes for tubes and wires.
Leach disabused us of some of our more fanciful design parameters – we had, for instance, requested that pathways for liquid cooling be routed through the acrylic desktop. A novel idea, if Leach could have pulled it off, but leaks would have been hard to fi x, so he decided the coolant would have to fl ow through Tygon tubing.
While Danger Den was fi ring up its laser cutter, we submitted our touchpad design to Synaptics, a company that makes trackpads in many laptops. We described a clear, USB-interface touchpad with an integrated proximity sensor that would light up the area whenever a hand approached. To our surprise, Synaptics’ concept-prototyping crew said, “No problem.” Within weeks, a working unit arrived at our labs. About a month later, a massive wooden box containing our 1,8 m-wide, wing-shaped acrylic desk was delivered. And more deliveries kept coming, until we were surrounded by a sea of boxes and electronic parts. Now, the real work was about to start.
Step No. 2
There are two important rules to grasp when designing a computer from scratch (and, yes, we’ve learned them the hard way, over a number of builds): First, everything is dependent on everything else. Our desk had to be built to fit its components, so we needed to pick the parts – motherboard, graphics card, etc – before Danger Den could cut the acrylic. That meant no second-guessing just because a cooler part came out. Second, there’s no manual. When something doesn’t fit or doesn’t work, you’re on your own.
Step No. 3
The aesthetic for our desk frame was strictly industrial. We used super-strong extruded aluminium rails with T-slots for fi xing nuts and bolts – lots of bolts. The surfaces of our desk were precut with holes for fasteners, wires and ventilation, allowing us to bolt the acrylic to the frame and components to the acrylic. Fortunately, Danger Den’s Leach is a master of the acrylic arts, and his cuts matched our specs precisely.
Step No. 4
With all the components bolted down, our desk looked great. Then we tried connecting everything – and nothing fitted (we should have paid more attention to Step 2). We had SATA cables that were too short and a power supply pointing the wrong way. Plus, our wacky layout required a custom 38 cm flexible PCI-E cable to connect our graphics card. Progress stopped while we placed a rush order to fi ve online parts shops.
Step No. 5
Once all the wiring was in order, we started on the liquid-cooling system. Anthony painstakingly mounted water blocks to both the CPU and the graphics card, then planned out the fl ow of coolant. We ran tubes from the right side of the desk, where the chips are located, to the left side, where the radiator dissipates heat. At the suggestion of senior automotive editor Mike Allen, we mounted the coolant reservoir in a position that created a decorative waterfall of glycol without compromising the electronics. But the desk still wasn’t gaudy enough for us. We needed lights – lots of lights. So we wired up seven glowing exhaust fans and six blue neon bars, which quickly overloaded our 850-watt power supply. That required an upgrade to a kilowatt beastie from Antec.
Step No. 6
We locked down the clear acrylic top, installed the Synaptics touchpad, set up a 68 cm Dell UltraSharp monitor – and then spent a week futilely trying to install a beta version of Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system. We troubleshot the system until we found the problem: our fancy-pants PCI-E cable. Another rush order to a speciality parts shop fi xed the problem with a new cable. Finally, our lab was filled with the neonblue glow of success. We had willed our digital creation into being.
*The desk surface was constructed by Danger Den of two sandwiched laser-cut layers of clear acrylic bolted to an aluminium frame.
*Nearly 2 litres of glycol runs through 5 metres of Tygon tubing and a radiator, cooling the processors.
*To support our Times Square lighting, we used an Antec TruePower Quattro kilowatt power supply.
*Two 300 GB 10 000 r/min VelociRaptor hard drives handle storage.
*Synaptics engineered us this one-of-a-kind, flush-mounted touchpad with an integrated proximity sensor and light.
*At the heart of our system is XFX’s 790i Ultra SLI motherboard, outfi tted with 4 GB of Kingston HyperX DDR3 RAM and a 3,0-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor.
*This worthless 38 cm custom PCI-E cable did not work . so we replaced it
*We cooled our PaLit GeForce GTX 280 graphics card with Danger Den’s Tieton water block.
*Seven fans circulate air within the desk – and 13 bright-blue neon lights blind the user at the desk.
*Ejecting up from the desk surface is a Sony BDU-X10S Blu-ray drive.