Other sites:

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Valid CSS!


I was bored one day, so I started thinking... well, I'm not sure that's an accurate statement since I'm convinced that I don't really think. It's something that very nearly approximates thinking. Anyway, I was "thinking" one day - which is always dangerous - and I thought to myself "self, we need to build a tiny computer that doesn't really look like a computer". "Dude, you're such a nerd", I replied.

One rainy weekend and some online hobby shop purchases later, here she is. Her name is LaFinca, because that's what it says on the huge red label. It's a wooden cigar box with a VIA EPIA mini itx motherboard, C3 500MHz CPU, 512MB of PC133, 30GB Samsung HDD, and Panasonic slot-load DVD/CD-RW.

The build was pretty easy, but I will never do this with a cigar box again. I was surprised how hard the wood was, and that made it difficult for me to work with. I have a huge arsenal of metal working tools, but almost nothing for woodworking.

Trial fit: The first order of business was to trial fit the mainboard into the box. Well, it didn't fit. Not even close. It was about 1/2" too big in one dimension. Once I cut the hole in the back of the box for the I/O, it was much closer but still not quite there. I had to cut the back so that the entire board would actually stick out a little bit (that's why there are 2 little slits at the bottom on either side of the hole in the back).

DVD drive: The next large piece I had to make fit was the DVD drive, which was the perfect height to tuck into the top lid. Most of one side of the lid was cut away to expose the face of the DVD drive (on the left side of the box, as you look at the front). Of course, nothing goes smoothly and I ended up breaking a chunk of the wood off the lid in the process. Nothing some good wood glue wasn't able to fix. The DVD drive is absolutely awesome. It's made for a laptop so it's extremely thin, and the best part is that it's a slot loading drive, rather than having a tray that pops out to stick the disc into. Very nice. Of course, I needed an adapter to go from the connector on the back of the drive to a standard IDE cable and power connector. I bought many of my parts (including the DVD drive and adapter) from they seemed to have a good selection of mini PC goodies.

Hard drive: Next, I tackled the hard drive. The 2.5" hard drive sat neatly above the unused PCI slot on the motherboard, and I used half of a modified 2.5" to 3.5" mounting adapter to keep it in place (to modify the bracket, I cut and bent a little tab to help support the drive and also drilled a couple of holes). The bracket attaches to the inside wall of the cigar box on one side, and to the hard drive itself on the other.

Power supply madness: The power supply was an issue because there was absolutely no room for a traditional PC power supply (even a miniature one) inside the cigar box. My only option was a tiny DC-to-DC supply, so I opted for one made to snap directly onto the ATX connector of the motherboard. I had thought that by using a slim-line memory chip that the power supply board would just barely hang over it, thus saving valuable space. Well, I was disappointed to see that the little supply was made to attach with it's board pointing in the OPPOSITE direction, out past the edge of the motherboard. That pretty much sucked because there was no room for anything to go past the edge of the board in that direction. So I had to use an ATX extender cable and ended up tucking the dc-to-dc power supply board off to the side, insulated with some thick rubber (to avoid shorting against the motherboard components). Of course, I also needed an AC to DC converter that would feed 12 volts DC into the little DC-to-DC power supply. The power supply came with a female 2.1mm barrel connector attached, so I bought a generic, configurable AC adapter to plug into it.

Cabling nightmare: The lid closed and everything fit perfectly... until I went and installed the IDE ribbon cables. I didn't have short ones, so that made it even worse. After about an hour of fiddling and folding and cursing and head-scratching, I got everything folded and routed so that the lid would close easily.

How do I turn this thing on? So, at this point I had what should have been a complete, running machine. All I needed was a way to turn it on. I "jumpstarted" the box by jumpering the appropriate pins on the motherboard momentarily so I could install software and make sure it wasn't going to overheat (my only real concern with the whole project). The header on the mainboard for the switches and LEDs is 2x8, with several of the pins being unused. I decided to do without a reset switch so that I could use a 2x5 header connector from an old USB expansion cable I had hanging around. I ran the 6 appropriate wires from the USB cable into a small hobby circuit board that had some generic traces on it, and then mounted a couple of LEDs and a tiny tactile switch to the board. I fumbled through some soldering with a HUGE Weller soldering gun because I couldn't find my small soldering iron that I wanted to use. Of course, when I was nearly done with the soldering I came across the small iron... so the last 2 connections I made were a breeze. So, now I had a real switch and working hard disk and power LEDs. I removed everything from the cigar box so that I could work on mounting the little hobby board with the switch and LEDs exposed. Of course, I ended up misjudging the hole for the switch, so that made things kind of ugly. That left me with a hole in the side of the box that I still need to fill. I'll do it someday.

O/S and Accessories: I found a miniature keyboard from some random place online, and also picked up a cheap infrared mouse and a USB 802.11g wireless network adapter. My plan from the beginning was for this to be a Linux box, but then I decided it should be a dual boot between Win2k and Linux simply because the machine will mainly be used by guests that want to check their e-mail or surf the web or whatever... and they should have the choice of running whichever operating system they are most comfortable with. Currently the box is only running Windows 2000 because the Mandrake Linux 10.1 installation kept locking up. I'm going to try a different distribution, probably either ubuntu or yellowdog.

So, I guess that's pretty much the whole story. Everything works just like it should, and there are no overheating problems whatsoever. I ran it for a couple of hours with the CPU usage at 100%, and it was fine. I'm not sure what I would have done if it overheated... there's absolutely no room for a case fan or CPU fan inside the box.