Le Bouton (The Knob) PC

May 6, 2005

Click on images to enlarge


This project started last August after I attended QuakeCon in Dallas, Texas.  I guess I got bitten (re-bitten) by the gaming bug.  I played Half-Life when it came out several years ago but I resisted the temptation to continue first-person shooter gaming because of the high cost of being on the cutting edge.  I have been an avid fan of Sid Meier's Civilization series of strategy games but you can't deny the attraction of a good FPS.

I've been a fan of the mini-ITX form factor since its inception and when Kontron announced its AGP slot equipped version then I knew it was time to go "gaming" again.



The most prominent feature of this project is, of course, the knob.  I didn't want to call this computer "The Knob" so I started searching foreign translations of the word.  The French seemed to have the best word for it. 

The knob is actually a separate piece intended to sit mouse-like on your desk at the end of a USB cable.  It is called a Griffin Technology Powermate and is a very nicely made piece of machined aluminum.  Its use as a volume control knob is obvious but it can also be programmed to do just about anything else.  The knob "clicks" when you push it and of course it rotates.

I removed the blue glowy bottom section of the knob, attached it to the case front panel and routed the USB cable into the case.  I think it gives the project a retro seventies stereo component look.



Backside shot of the SilverStone La Scala LC-06.  It measures 320 mm (W) x 115 mm (H) x 260 mm (D) and is all-aluminum.  I have never actually done a case mod before and have been itching to do one.  Of course, it wasn't going to be typical.



The LC-06 is designed as a fanless mini-ITX case.  Fine for low-powered VIA boards but that wasn't going to be this unit's fate.  I cut a hole and installed a 60mm Vantec Stealth exhaust fan. 



I like the style of the feet used in HTPC and audio components.  The LC-06 came with a set but these were kinda cheesy items.  I replaced them with solid spun aluminum units from A-Tech Fabrication.



Close up of these puppies.  I think they are more up to the high standards of the rest of this excellent case.



The knob might be prominent but this is the real focal point of this project.  The Kontron 886LCDm/ITX mainboard.  It is made by the Danish subsidiary of the German company which specializes in industrial control equipment.  In this picture you can see the single memory slot filled with a 1GB stick of Crucial DDR333 memory.



The board supports Pentium M processors and has a full-sized AGP slot AND a full-sized PCI slot.  It has two SATA headers, 5.1 audio and three....pause for effect....three Gigabit Ethernet ports.  I'm running a 2.1GHz Pentium M in this machine which was graciously donated by Newegg.



Close-up of the slots.  Luckily, Kontron used existing standards to place these slots.  The space between the slots is the same distance as any other board.  This allowed me to use off-the-shelf adapters to install the AGP card.



"Solder side" of the board which contains way more than just solder.  It has to in order to pack this much punch into a 6.7" x 6.7" mainboard.



The compact flash slot that caused so much trouble.  It is cool that Kontron included this but I would have preferred to do without.  The slot is installed backwards so it cannot be accessed unless the board is completely removed from the case.  I'm not sure of the purpose of this.  The biggest problem is the additional thickness it brings to the package.  Though this is a mini-ITX form factor board, it will not fit into any stock mini-ITX case.  More on my solution later.  I tossed a 512MB Crucial CF card into it and, since it is bootable, installed Windows 98SE along with a few system utilities.



ATI X800 Pro 256MB AGP video card.  'Nuff said.



I used a 1U server AGP riser card and two AGP extenders to align the card to the case's expansion slot.  I got the idea from the PCI slot extender that comes with the case.  Extenders are used in cases because board makers place the slots in one of two positions on the board.  Kontron actually invented a third position which is OK because an additional AGP extender brings the setup back to standard.



Close-up of the riser/extension assembly.  The end result is a perfect installation of an AGP card into a cases PCI-intended bracket without stressing any components.  I assumed I would get losses by using this arrangement but its impact was minimal based on 3DMark05 scores.  I lost about five points on a system that scores 4593.  Another myth bites the dust.



The SilverStone case has space for one 3.5" hard drive.  I added another 3.5" drive by mounting drive brackets atop the Sony CD burner.  In this picture you can see the optical drive beauty piece installed onto the CD's drive tray.



This is the cases normal drive bracket.  This bracket also serves as a motherboard tray.  The unit is shown upside down in this picture.  I installed the drive upside down in order to create more space between the drive housing and the bottom the the mainboard.



Here is the drive/mainboard bracket installed into the case.  It is the only steel piece in the entire system.



This is a close-up of the mod I made to the tray.  The compact flash card slot on the board's solder side requires that you either raise the board up to make room for it or cut out a square hole for the card to sit down into.  Raising the board only creates another problem with the I/O shield alignment.  I chose to use the Silverstone LC-06 case primarily because the mainboard wasn't mounted directly to the bottom of the case.  I didn't want to cut a hole into the bottom of the case so using the LC-06 let me cut a hole into the bracket instead.  The large square hole was already there so all I had to do was enlarge it in the critical area.



Coming together.  This shot shows the board bracket, I/O shield and case fan installed.



Here the CD/hard drive unit is installed.



OK.  Here is the most amazing (in my book) part of this project.  This is the power supply.  No really.  It is a mini-box.com 200W DC-DC ATX converter.  It is designed to plug directly into the ATX socket of a VIA mini-ITX board but the Kontron layout wouldn't allow that.  Instead, I use the unit in conjunction with an ATX extension cable.  This unit is powered by an external 110W AC-DC power brick.  The whole setup works flawlessly.



Another shot of the PSU with the cable installed.



Here the AGP card is installed.



Final glamour shot.  I have been playing Far Cry, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, all on high detail settings, something I thought I would never do on a mini-ITX based system.  I will be bringing this machine to QuakeCon 05 in August in order to finally scratch that itch.  I want to extend big thanks to all my sponsors for their enthusiastic support of this project.  Send any comments to jeffrey@slipperyskip.com   Thanks for reading.

Bits and Pieces

Kontron 886LCDm/ITX mainboard

Intel 2.1 GHz Pentium M765 from www.newegg.com

SilverStone La Scala LC-06 mini-ITX case

ATI X800 Pro 256MB AGP video card

1GB Corsair DDR333 memory

2 x 400GB Seagate SATA hard drives in a RAID 0 array

Sony full-size optical combo drive

Microsoft Windows XP Professional

Miscellaneous stuff from www.sidewindercomputers.com