Mini-motherboard gives rise to bizarre PC designs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2003, 12:00am

When it comes to buying a new computer, both drones and directors usually take the path of least resistance. That means they buy some generic beige bundle, endowed with about as much personality as a delete key.

But if you possess enough dexterity and willpower, you can set yourself apart from the masses by designing and building your own computer.

Whatever the experts say, however, custom configuration is tough unless you are the type who can assemble flat-pack furniture without employing the services of a Swedish carpenter.

If you do have what it takes, custom configuration can allow you to go wild and build gadgets the United States military would be proud of, assuming you have the right parts.

The crackpot inventor's key component of choice is a technology from Taiwan's VIA Technologies called Mini-ITX.

This miniature motherboard standard is just 17cm by 17cm - tiny compared with the ATX-sized motherboards fitted in most computers.

Because Mini-ITX motherboards are baby size, they can be stuffed into just about any object you care to mention - even a missile as in the case of the KiSA 444 Surface to Surface PC. Gutting a US Air Force surplus bomb tail assembly, aviation security worker Chris Adams fitted it with a pacifistic payload - a Mini-ITX motherboard running Redhat 8, a user-friendly Linux operating system.

What inspired Mr Adams was not psychotropic drugs but a computing magazine's avant-garde section called Mod.

'I just had to find something innovative enough to land me on their pages,' he said.

After buying the MK-81 tail assembly at a military surplus store, he discovered that the chief challenge was getting the wiring right. The inside diameter of the case is just eight inches, 'so everything is small, or a very tight fit, and I have really big hands', Mr Adams said.

As a result, when he tried to route a video-cable extension from the motherboard to the exterior of the case, he accidentally 'attached it to metal' and blew his power supply. Presumably this is the sort of mistake that a real-life missile mechanic would make only once. Regardless, the final result is one of the strangest computers you are likely to see.

Stiff competition to the KiSA 444 Surface to Surface PC comes from another Mini-ITX contraption named Toastor, the warped spelling a nod to the weird, underground language of the Web.

The visionary responsible, security analyst Joe Klingler, made Toastor by stuffing a Mini-ITX motherboard into the crumb tray of a 1200-watt 1960 General Electric toaster.

Running at 800 megahertz, the PC also boasts the following features: 512 megabytes of random-access memory, a 120 gigabyte hard drive, an 8x8x32x8 DVD/CDRW drive, three cooling fans, two USB ports, and an Ethernet and sound card attached to the main board. It runs on Windows XP.

Explaining what inspired him to make the Toastor, Mr Klingler said that he had wanted a small, quiet bread-and-butter computer he could use to surf the Net,play DVDs and MP3 files, and occasionally use for gaming.

'I also wanted it to be small enough to fit in a bag so that I could take it to friends' houses or to work,' he said.

'I wanted to build something unique. I thought I would go to the antique stores and find something cool to rebuild as a computer.'

Other mad machines based on Mini-ITX include the Pictureframe PC. Built by one of those people who feel that any event - no matter how banal - needs to be well-documented on film, it continuously scrolls photographs. Then there is the ITXhelmet (a motorcyclist's), the LunchBoxPC, various cigar box contraptions, the (miniature) Log Cabin PC and 'Devilcat', a home-made mobile robot.

The possibilities are limitless. So next time you contemplate buying a mass-produced computer with no more style than the box it emerged from, remember you can build your own model in as daft and daring a design as your fancy dictates.

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