Computer Case Modding

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2206, 2004-02-06, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 24-25) and their website.

Computers have come a long way. They initially appeared in the form of calculating devices dreamed up by pioneering engineers and mathematicians. Then they took shape as hulking behemoths in the basements of well-moneyed corporations and universities, in the age of "big iron". With the advent of microprocessors, computers moved upstairs, appearing on desktops in cubicles and laboratories. As they became more affordable and useful to nonspecialists, these ubiquitous machines have migrated from office to home, and are now appearing in living rooms, becoming increasingly integrated with entertainment systems.

Throughout this inevitable yet remarkable transition from tinkerer's workshop to suburban den, computer components have been formed largely by their function. It is only quite recently that these modern computing machines have displayed splashes of color and personal expression. The latest flat-panel monitors are beginning to resemble works of art, even when they are not powered up and displaying famous paintings reproduced digitally in graphics files. Ergonomic keyboards are now offered in black, while others are backlit in shades of blue. Computer mice have gone wireless, and glow red. Even the humble mousepad can sport the images of Impressionist painters. With only one exception, PC and Mac components are looking better all the time.

What part of the personal computer system is still stuck in the dark ages? The computer itself, which has progressed little from its original form as a boring box, as dull as dishwater, and often the same color. Aluminum cases have been an improvement, but those are still rare. The average "CPU box" is just that — a rectangular, beige-colored electronic crate, that easily and thankfully blends into the background of the drab fabric of a cubicle wall, or the dusty carpet of the typical home office.

But the situation is slowly improving, as hardware vendors belatedly wake up to the fact that personal computers should be somewhat… personable, at least in appearance. While yawn-inducing off-white is still the most common color, consumers are now getting more appealing choices, thanks largely to the colorful Macs offered by Apple years ago, and also to the efforts of "case modders", computer enthusiasts who modify their computer cases in quite creative ways.

The Mod Squad

Case modding takes many forms, and is limited only by one's inventiveness, free time, and pocketbook. A case mod may be as simple as replacing one of the side panels of a PC with an off-the-shelf panel featuring an integrated, clear acrylic window, so the guts of the machine are constantly on display. Another simple modification is to replace the main system fan with an illuminated fan that displays various colors as it spins. These mods require little time or money, or, one might argue, much imagination. The truly impressive case mods involve a top-to-bottom transformation of the computer, with the entire case being thrown out in favor of something far more unique.

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of what is possible in case modding, is to consider some of the more clever and even astounding examples of hardware hacking. For instance, a student in Colorado combined computing and caffeine, literally, by melding a working computer with an equally functional coffee machine. It took three months, $1500, and probably plenty of output sampling. A manager in Germany crafted a metallic case mod that looks like an engine block pulled from a brand-new BMW, complete with analog dials and a huge fan in front. His project also involved three months of effort, at twice the cost of the equally sophisticated coffee computer.

Some impressive projects can be done in relatively little time, such as a computer in Canada built into a beer keg, which was finished off in 30 hours (the case mod, not the keg). At the other end of the spectrum, some mod projects are built entirely from scratch, and consume countless evenings, weekends, and possibly the occasional marriage. An artist in Arkansas created what looks like a stainless steel toaster oven on steroids. His masterpiece required at least 100 hours of work over a two-year period. As one can imagine, there are case mods that have been in process for ages, with no sign of completion. Such is to be expected in the world of computers.

On the Case

If you have an interest in learning more about the world of case modding, there are innumerable resources, especially on the Internet. Most useful are the more popular websites devoted to case modding, especially those whose content comes primarily from users, and not hardware vendors. Promising sites include TwistedMods.com, Furioustech.com, MODTHEBOX.COM, linear, GideonTech.com, Overclocker Cafe, and HiTechMods.com.

To various extents, these websites host user-written articles, discussion forums, product reviews, interviews, photo galleries, and opportunities for avid case modders to show off the results of their hard work. In addition, many of the sites offer step-by-step guides, explaining how the authors did their modifications, what materials they used, and where they were obtained. If and when you try to do the same modification, it would be extremely valuable to see the individual steps needed to produce the final product. At each stage, you could compare your results with theirs, in order to verify your progress or detect any differences, intentional or otherwise.

Newsgroups, however, are not a good source of information. There appears to be only one dedicated Internet newsgroup for case modding, alt.comp.case-mods. Unlike software development and computer languages, which can be effectively discussed primarily in text, case modding is best discussed on dedicated websites, which can host images of completed case mods. In addition, that particular newsgroup, like so many other unmoderated groups, is littered with the usual spam.

Modding in Moderation

As with any process involving electricity, conductive metal, and human flesh, there are dangers to beware should you decide to try case modding. The websites mentioned above include cautionary tales of close calls with lethal voltages, and inadvertently fried processors and memory modules. Just as your opening the case can void some hardware vendors' warranties, modifying the case itself or getting rid of it entirely, disposes of the warranty just as easily. At that point, you have assumed complete responsibility for making your "customized" system work, and fixing or replacing it if it doesn't.

There are other potential pitfalls to case modding, including possible damage to chips and memory modules from overheating, if the new system configuration is such that there is now inadequate air flow to dissipate the heat that builds up inside these cases. One favorite modification is to add one or more additional fans, to improve air flow. Bear in mind that this can also make your system noisier. But this unfortunate side effect can be tempered by replacing the original fans with higher quality and typically quieter ones.

If you do get interested in case modding, you may find it an enjoyable and challenging way to express your creativity, and to help the evolution of computers from beige and boring, to illuminated and imaginative. It also may give you new ideas when you find yourself staring thoughtfully at your unused fish aquarium.

Copyright © 2003 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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