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Project Iceberg (v1)

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81. It was small, it was humble, it was black. Since those halcyon days I have had the pleasure (and sometimes misfortune) of working with many varieties of machine, from home computers to industrial mainframes.

Now for some strange reason, that has never been explained to my satisfaction, the majority of those computers were housed in beige cases. We've all seen them, they're bland, clichéd and very, very uncool. There were a few notable exceptions, the Apples, Suns and SGIs of this world, but these supermodel computers came with supermodel prices and were out of reach of mere mortals like myself.

Then one day, out of the blue, I discovered a website that opened my eyes... the Cool Case Gallery was like a revelation. I felt like a man who had for years believed himself to be blind, only to discover that his hat was too big. I browsed the entire gallery over the course of an afternoon, then scoured the web for others of a similar ilk. I wasn't disappointed - I had discovered the subculture of "case modding", and I was hooked... more than anything, I wanted a custom rig of my own.

Taking delivery of a new computer (a top-of-the-line processing powerhouse) prompted me into action. Of course, it came in a beige box... and not just any box, this computer seemed to be housed in the most boring, ugly case ever to blight the face of this planet. It just had to go.

The Definitive "Boring Beige Box"

I was a man with a mission. Like a military commander I made my plans and considered my tactics.

I decided that my custom PC would be housed in a sexy, brushed aluminium case, about as far removed from the boring beige box as possible. I also decided that, being incredibly lazy, I wasn't going to undertake any mods that resembled hard work. I was going to build this computer with off-the-shelf components yet, hopefully, end up with a machine that would hold its own against the other modded boxes out there.

I christened my new project... Iceberg.

Choosing a case took some time. Aluminium cases used to be quite rare (and thus expensive), but demand is now so high that there are several manufacturers offering a wide range of configurations, at reasonable prices. Aluminium has three major advantages over the traditional steel:

the Lian-Li PC-6089 case...

My new case would have to offer good cooling potential, plenty of expansion room, ease of access and be drop-dead gorgeous. Enter the Lian Li PC-6089. The PC-6089 has been extensively reviewed elsewhere on the net, so I won't be reviewing the case here. However, I would like to highlight a few key features:

This case looks terrific!

The Hardware...

Of course, no matter how desirable the case is, it is only a home for the boards and hardware that constitute a computer. The system I put together is as follows:

With the components mounted, I experienced the "beige curse" again. The FDD and optical drives looked really ugly. Beige and silver just don't compliment each other. I hit Google and searched the planet for drives with silver fascias. Unfortunately, with almost no success. Returning again to the Cool Case Gallery (I really should make this my browser's default page), I looked a little more closely at how others had addressed this problem. Many had simply settled for silver paint. Some had performed the so-called "stealth" mod. Others had employed stick-on bezels. Personally, I didn't like any of these solutions - the painted drives never matched the finish of the case and I am too lazy (and inept) to have tried to stealth the drives. I tried the stick on bezels, but they were nasty, looking very tacky in my opinion.

I finally decided on employing black drives. These are relatively easy to obtain and work really well with the aluminium. I bought a black 3½" FDD as a proof of concept. Yes, I liked it, it would work. I will replace the beige optical drives as soon as I can afford to. A black blanking plate for the remaining 5¼" bay is available from Lian Li.

During the course of my "research" in the Cool Case Gallery, I was intrigued by several computers that had smart, backlit LCD displays in them. These can be programmed to display a wide variety of information, from system stats to local weather reports. Naturally, I wanted one. The Canadian company Matrix Orbital are well known and highly respected for their LCD/VFD displays and I quickly found one I wanted, the BVK202A-4BR-BK. This particular display is easy to install and has a neat programmable keyboard with which all kinds of operations can be performed. I use a program called LCDC to control the display. LCDC interfaces with the motherboard monitor and a multitude of plug-ins in order to present a wealth of information on the LCD - from system information to a WinAmp spectrum analyser. I programmed mine to display, amongst others, the date and time, system uptime (great for bragging), LAN activity and, most importantly, temperatures, voltages and fan speeds. As an added bonus, this module has a black fascia and a blue backlight and thus integrates seamlessly with colour scheme I had chosen with the PC-6089.

The computer had been delivered with a set of Creative Inspire 5.1 (5100) speakers. Once I had transplanted the hardware from its original case into the PC-6089 the smart black speakers complemented the system perfectly and promised a thrilling 5.1 surround sound for games and movies. However, once I'd played 2 or 3 MP3's, I realised that their sound quality was hideous. Music lacked bass, emotion and vitality. Worse still, increasing the volume to Guns 'n' Roses levels and the sound broke down completely, with massive distortion. They were binned immediately and I connected up my trusty Cambridge Soundworks PCWorks FourPointSurround set. I have had these speakers for years, they sound great and can generate a lot of loudness before they start to degenerate. So, I'll stick with these until I can find a 5.1 speaker set (in black or silver) that sounds as good or, hopefully, better (the Klipsch ProMedia DD 5.1 system looks promising...)

The final components of this new system were the all important input devices, the keyboard and mouse. A cordless keyboard and optical mouse set were supplied with the computer. Unfortunately I had two complaints: I don't like cordless peripherals, I have used them in the past and was alarmed at the frequency with which I had to change the batteries, dismayed at the unpredictability of the devices when the batteries began to decay and horrified that the batteries always seemed to die just when I was at my busiest and invariably when the stores were closed. Complaint number two? In-line with the ugly PC case, the keyboard and mouse were, inevitably, beige. Were they binned? Of course...

A little more shopping (by this time my flexible friend was starting to lose its flexibility) and I acquired a Logitech Elite Keyboard and a Logitech Wheel Mouse Optical. I also added a Ratpadz GS mouse-mat ("gaming surface").

The keyboard is terrific and the multimedia control keys are a gift from God. No longer do I have to Alt-Tab through dozens of windows to locate the controls of my media player; I can stop, start, pause, next track, previous track, mute... I can even control the volume... all from a cluster of dedicated keys. What's more, the controls map to various applications, so they work equally well with Windows Media Player as they do with PowerDVD. The keyboard is, however, a dust magnet - you have been warned!

The mouse is accurate and responsive. It's also optical - at last, no more periodic cleaning of a mechanical mouse, the most tedious computer maintenance task of all.

The astute reader will have noticed that I haven't made any mention of a monitor for my rig yet... I didn't buy a monitor with the new PC as I already had a pair of very capable and very expensive 21" Iiyama Vision Master Pro 502s. These CRTs are brilliant for graphical work, watching DVD's and gaming. Their high resolution means that reading even very small text is always comfortable.

My plan, therefore, was to use these excellent monitors with my new rig. The beige wasn't so much of a problem here as the monitors were, of course, external to the PC-6089. Even so, when I set them up alongside my (now gorgeous) PC, they looked dated. They also dwarfed the computer, taking attention away from it (and I hadn't built this machine to have it ignored).

Additionally, the graphics card has only one VGA port, whereas the Matrox Millenium G450 I had used in my previous machine had two and thus could drive both displays simultaneously. However, while the Radeon 9700 Pro has only one VGA port, it also has a DVI output. The card would drive a DVI and a VGA monitor simultaneously.

This presented me with something of a dilemma. I didn't have a DVI-capable monitor. I could just use one of my Iiyamas on the 9700's VGA line, but I had grown used to working across two monitors and I didn't want to lose the obvious benefits of such a configuration.

I had a couple of options: I could buy a PCI graphics card for my second display (so both would connect via VGA) or I could by a digital CRT or TFT monitor (which would be my primary display on DVI and one of the Iiyamas would then connect to the VGA port on the same card). Neither option was really appealing, I didn't want mix-and-match monitors, I wanted a matching pair. Nor did I want to tie up a valuable PCI slot with a second graphics card.

What I really wanted was to add a pair of large, sexy TFTs to my setup. TFTs would free up some valuable desk space and compliment the style of my system. They have their drawbacks though, not least of which is cost - especially for the larger panels (although becoming more affordable by the day). More worrying, they have slow refresh speeds and high latency - so, apparently, do not cope well with fast action games and DVDs.

Now I don't play games that often. When I do, it's more likely to be Microsoft Flight Simulator than Quake III. However, I do enjoy movies and I have an extensive collection of DVDs that I have always watched via my PC as I don't have a seperate DVD player. However, the wide range of connectivity options offered by my Iiyamas meant that I could just hook a regular DVD player up to one of them if I opted for TFTs and if the TFTs were no good for movies.

LG L1810B Flatron TFT Monitor...

So... I took the plunge and, causing panic in the offices of Barclaycard, I bought two award-winning LG L1810B Flatrons. I chose the L1810B because, to quote PC Magazine, "[they are] one of the best LCDs ever for playing games or watching movies".

There were many other factors in the LG's favour. With a smart silver bezel and black stand they look terrific, and compliment the PC-6089 very nicely. They have a very sleek, very slim bezel. The PSU is built into the monitor, whereas many TFTs run off a seperate "brick" power supply, adding to the clutter that already exists round the back of the average PC. The L1810Bs also have a USB hub in their stands (1 upstream, 2 downstream).

Significantly, each monitor has both a D-SUB and DVI input with automatic source detection. This meant that I could drive both monitors from the 9700 Pro, with my primary display on DVI and secondary on VGA. Perfect!

So what are they like? They are good, they are damn good. Now you have to appreciate that I have no apparatus for testing monitors, so my comments are subjective. However, I write having used these displays in the real world, with real applications and not in the controlled environment of a lab.

Running at their native resolution of 1280x1024, the display is bright, clear, well focused and with no obvious imperfections. Colour saturation is very good and, despite PC Magazine's comments, reds seem to be very vibrant to my eyes. I was amazed by the viewing angles of the panels too, when four friends gathered around the Iceberg they were all able to enjoy a "Cold Feet" DVD without any discomfort (although, naturally, brightness falls off considerably unless you are viewing "head-on"). The panels also cope well in a wide variety of lighting conditions, I've used them during the day (in direct sunlight), at night with all room lighting off and everything in between. They have excellent anti-glare properties.

I was slightly disappointed with the text rendering though, most fonts seemed to be more "jaggy" than they had appeared on the larger Iiyamas. I had resigned myself to it and was just starting to get used to it when I discovered the "ClearType" options in Windows XP. Enabling ClearType transformed the rendition of text. The jaggies disappeared completely, fonts were suddenly clear and easily readable as small as 8pt although, as PC Magazine observed, "reading fonts smaller than six points is almost impossible". I very rarely use text smaller than 8pt (bearing in mind that I'm running at a resolution of 1280x1024) and tend to use 10pt for day-to-day use, so this "problem" isn't really an issue for me. Your mileage may vary.

So, for day-to-day computing the L1810Bs are great, no complaints. But, I'm sure you are dying to know how they performed with DVDs and games...

As I have already explained, games aren't really my thing, so my catalogue is small. I tested the L1810B with two of the fastest games I have, Forsaken and Rollcage. Neither of these games posed any problems at all for the LG. Screen updating/refresh was spot on, no artifacts, no blurring, absolutely nothing to detract from the enjoyment of the game. The colours in Rollcage were rendered perfectly, the panel easily conveying the special atmosphere of this "world".

On to DVD playback... I tried a couple of discs to put the panel through its paces. M:I-2, Matrix, Tomb Raider and Ronin all have scenes with fast action, vibrant colours, moody colours and darkness. Again, the LCDs coped admirably and all four movies were perfectly watchable, with no distracting flaws. However, I did notice that blacks look a little "muddy" on occassion, but it wasn't enough to spoil the experience.

The biggest compliment I can pay to the LGs is this: I won't be firing up the Iiyamas for either DVDs or games. I am perfectly happy with these TFTs.

Note: Many potential buyers of TFTs are put off because of the risk of the dreaded "dead-pixel" [PDF]. I am delighted to report that the combined total of dead pixels on my pair of TFTs is exactly zero, nada, nil... TFT manufacturing is either improving considerably (very likely) or I am extremely lucky (previous experience would indicate otherwise).

But I digress, back to the case... The window in the side panel obviously exposes all of the computer's internals for inspection. Therefore, they have to look as good as possible - after all, there's no point having such a good looking case if the internals are a rat's nest of wire, cheap and nasty components and dull, ugly chassis parts.

For their part, Lian Li have paid as much attention to the interior of the PC-6089 as they have to exterior, so it's polished aluminium, thumbscrews and beautifully machined metal throughout. Therefore, it was my job to make the components and wiring as neat as possible.

Let There be Light...

The biggest (and greatest) boost to the cosmetic appeal of the insides of a computer (and let's face it, a computer's boards are not that great to look at - even for the most committed geek) is to add lighting. A few strategically placed lights can transform even the dullest machinery. However, lighting usually generates heat and heat is anathema as far as your sensitive electronics are concerned. So I added a type of light called a "cold cathode". This is a very thin strip similar to a neon or flourescent bulb and, as the name suggests, it runs cold; generating no discernible heat even when it's been running for a few hours. Cold cathodes are available in several colours and, in-line with the existing colour-scheme of my case, I chose a blue, 12" light. As a result of this, I had to make my first modification to the PC-6089, I drilled a small hole in the back panel to accommodate the switch that controlled the cathode. The cathode was also supplied with a dual output invertor, so I'll be able to add an additional cathode in the future without having to buy another invertor and without tying up an additional molex connector. Sweet!

There are other light sources inside the Iceberg: The Akasa "Nebula" fans have four blue LEDs in each of them, these create amazing patterns across the clear blades of the fans. Furthermore the fans, in conjunction with the PSU, receive more power as the system temperature increases and, under heavy load, these cast enough light to illuminate the interior with the cold cathode turned off.

The PSU also has blue LEDs within it, which illuminate both the interior of the PC and the wall behind it!

The effect of the lighting is fantastic, casting an eerie blue glow throughout the case. It looks great during the day, but really comes into its own at night, with the lights down low.

The Rat's Nest...

The next item to address was the wiring. The Iceberg has two optical drives, an LCD panel, a 3½" floppy and two hard disk drives all with power and data cables. Then there's the fans, lighting and wiring to the front panel. The motherboard has a cluster of wires between itself and the PSU. The graphics card requires an additional power source and, finally, there is the audio link between the DVD player and the sound card. This obscene network of electron highways needed a major makeover.

There are two very cheap and very easy "mods" for cabling that, together, make one hell of a difference:

In many cases these are the only changes you'll need to make. In my case, a design "feature" of the PC-6089 presented me with one small issue: the two intake fans are located between the front bezel and the HDD cage. The ribbon cable from my HDDs, optical drives and FDD very effectively blocked the flow of air from those fans - not a desirable condition. I solved this problem by replacing all those ribbons with rounded cables. Rounded cables come in many colours, even illuminated and UV-reactive versions are available (and they look sweet). I tried blue cables (naturally), then changed my mind and settled on Akasa luminescent ones. The rounded cables are obviously more aerodynamic than flat ribbons, so they improve the airflow and look gorgeous to boot. As a final touch, the power supply cables to the motherboard are sheathed in nylon cable braid (with heatshrink at either end) again improving airflow slightly as well as looking more tidy.


The end result is a quiet system that looks nothing short of stunning and performs superbly.

Under average load, the CPU temperature reads ~50ºC (with the stock cooler), the system temperature reads ~40ºC. There's no doubt that cooling could be improved, but these are healthy temperatures so it's not imperative.

I can't compare my handiwork with those produced by the chaps who lovingly craft their machines by hand, but I have managed to create a custom PC with off-the-shelf components and virtually no effort. The technical knowledge and labour required was minimal (if I can do it...), the rewards beyond measure. I have had so much fun creating this machine that I now recommend modding wholeheartedly. Give it a whirl.

Gotta go now, there's a man in a Barclaycard uniform knocking at my door, he's carrying a baseball bat and doesn't look very happy...

Don't forget to check out the other pages in this section: highlights include Project Iceberg galleries and an article on modding the GUI.

I would like to thank Kustom PCs (Scotland) for supplying the majority of the components used for Project Iceberg. A special thank you goes out to Graeme who was always helpful and courteous when fulfilling my orders.