Sunday, June 17, 2007

Custom Lian Lia Computer Case Modding


When I was still in undergrad at the University of Colorado at Boulder I used to do a lot of computer hardware modding. Modding is short for modifying, and that's basically what it entails. The idea is to outclass other computer enthusiasts by having the fastest running, coolest looking, most unique - one of a kind machine. It generally costs a bit extra to create a custom PC, but it makes a statement about the skill level of the user. For people like me the cost is well worth the end product because it can actually be used while it's being displayed unlike many other forms of pure art. Who really wants another gray box Dell PC? With the rising popularity of the sleek Apple designs and more advanced customization options, PC is seemingly on the rise. However, I am willing to bet that as more "sleek" Apple designs hit the market, fewer and fewer users will feel compelled to create their own design, especially with the continuing fast hardware turnover rates.

The inspiration for this design was the surfing company Quiksilver. I've always been a surfing fan and having been raised in Colorado, Quiksilver was the most prominent "surfing" brand I had access to. Now that I'm out in Northern California brands like Channel Islands have taken the spotlight, but I'm still a fan of Quik.

So I started out with a generic Lian Li four bay aluminum case and then added brushed aluminum faceplates to keep everything consistent. I then ordered two spring loaded chrome luggage handles (like those used on some musical instrument/amp cases) and mounted them on the top of the case. The idea was to make the case as aesthetically pleasing while also keeping it functional for easy transport. The final "first step" was to remove the two internal drive bays and paint them. At the time I had a red Asus motherboard so I painted each bay red to match it and create a solid background of color which users would see through the window.
Red is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love. So it was a good fit for the "guts" of my computer even though it was meant to have a sort of surfing/water theme.



This is a wide angle view of my dorm room at CU; you can see all of the computer stuff scattered about and the case is in the beginning stages of construction with the handles mounted and the drive bay holder painted red.



In this shot you can see the chimney fan with mounted cold cathode light. If you look closely you can see some of the Gorilla Glue drying up at the top of the case. I had cut the handle holes a bit too large and wanted to reinforce them to keep from breaking.



Above, you will see the freshly painted drive bays. I used some sort of special auto paint that allowed the reflective qualities of the aluminum to shine through while still giving a bold look.

I had a few different ideas for what the case was going to look like and many of the idea actually came from a previous case I had made using cheaper parts. I got the idea for integrating printed circuit board (PCB) as an external design element because most people haven't ever seen it up close and I was aware that it came in many different colors. So I started calling all over the country to different producers that might have red PCB. I called HP, ATI, NVIDIA, and even IBM (which has a plant just outside of Boulder). After two weeks of trying I was starting to think nobody would send me a sample. Thankfully, Boulder has an excellent recycling program put on by Eco-Cycle and they do a lot of work with computers! I called them up and was able to convince them to sell me some of the gold plated, fluorescent green boards that they had just received from a local producer. Normally they don't give this stuff away, and the gold is actually worth a lot when it's melted down, so that's why I had to pay. PCB can also have carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemicals on it, so be careful if you ever open your computer or try to do a mod like this. I used to work at Celestica doing PCB construction and inspection when I was in high school and we would use alcohol to purify the boards.

It seemed like everything was falling into place. I had the PCB, the Plexiglas window had been installed and I had a vision for how I wanted to tie it all together. I decided to exercise my soldering skills and do some custom electronics work on the case. One thing about computer case modding is that it usually involves placing neon or cold cathode lights inside of the case itself to make the computer look even more radical and alive. This is cool... to a point, and then it just becomes annoying when trying to watch a movie in the dark without distraction. In order to keep the best of both worlds I decided to wire each of the lights on my case to an external switch. In total I produced four of these switches and mounted two on the back and two on the front. Three of them were used to control large ambiance lights inside, including the chimney fan up top, but the fourth had a special purpose.

My vision was to carve the Quiksilver company logo out of PCB and then mount LED's behind the design. In order to get the propper effect I had to cut the same shape out of Plexiglass and then glue the two together with a piece of aluminum in between. In this way, the final design appears to glow out from the edges but does not have uneven dots where each of the LEDs are placed. I also coated the electronics work for the LED's with fish tank caulk to keep them from shorting out on the internal wiring.

Here you can see the 13 LED's I mounted behind the PCB Quiksilver logo as well as the window and brackets. I did the wiring in such a way as to allow the case door to be easily detachable by using a simple molex plug at the end of the LED wire.

The final few steps were to wire in all of the drives and then coat the wires with red plastic sleeving to bring it all together. I was really happy with how it all turned out and enjoyed the case for about a year before switching over to the small form factor (SFF) Shuttle design... which I also modded. The tall case design of the Lian Li Quiksilver case just took up too much room and when I started planning for my move to Califonia I knew I would need to get rid of it or let it waste away in some hidden closet for years, forgotten, eventually becoming worthless as computer hardware standards changed.

Instead of keeping the case or selling it outright, I decided to auction it off though Ebay's Giving Works program and donate the money to breast cancer research. I've always thought that for all of the enjoyment breasts provide, it's important not to forget the seriousness of their cancer. What better cause to donate to... In the end I shipped the case off to some guy in Australia, who was really nice and offered to donate even more to the fund itself after completing the purchase.

Here is the semi-final design, broken down for software install and driver testing. You can see the tiny green display on the front of the machine which was used to display frames per second (FPS) on games, connection speed, and processor speed.


This is a good shot of the backside of the computer. I went all out and included a generic Quiksilver sticker to tie the whole theme together. The power supply was upgraded to 450 Watts in order to support the advanced processor and graphics chip as well as all of the lights I had installed.


Here is the final design in a lit room with all of the internal red lights set to on. You may notice the green LED's behind the Quiksilver logo don't disburse quite as evenly as I would have liked, but it came out pretty well. Maybe next time I will use Plexiglas that is more opaque?



This is an interesting shot because it mixes the blue background lights and the red heat sink fan light to create a sort of "heart" appearance. Unfortunately, the top drive was swapped out and didn't have the brushed aluminum cover during this shot. Also, the neon green control drive you see in this picture was later replaced with a fully brushed aluminum drive component.



After all of this hard work had been completed and the case was at it's top visual level I actually got to show it to Quiksilver's CEO and Chairman, Rob McKnight! He was visiting CU to do a business talk in one of the undergrad classes being held called Profiles in American Business. He was really impressed with the artistic elements and appreciated the Quiksilver reference. It was such an honor to speak with Rob and share my passion for the brand, and I even got to share it with his daughter, Roxy. Some of you Quik fans out there might now be realizing that the brand "Roxy" is actually named after Robert's daughter.

Great case, good times, awesome project, and a fun adventure that ultimately helped to solve and cure breast cancer. Rock!

posted by Court @ 6:56 PM |

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