Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


"Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative," Walter Pater wrote in 1873. Pater almost certainly wasn't writing about PC cases, but the spirit of his message holds true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No matter what look you prefer, there are countless ways to turn your PC into something more aesthetically pleasing than a default beige box.

With computers, there's something hard to resist about running sexy equipment using elegant hardware. For some, looks are as important (or more important) than performance. After all, overclocking brings with it cooling and equipment-lifespan issues. So why not concentrate on your PC's appearance? With a little time and creativity, you can turn any PC into a machine as stunning as it is powerful. The following are some ideas for prettying up your PC.

Case Window
Cost: $15 to $50
Usefulness: A prerequisite for many other not-so-useful mods
Installation: Prefab: easy. DIY: tricky.
Cool Factor: A portal to your other visual goodies

When it comes to PCs, beauty isn't just skin deep. Many mods can embellish your computer's innards, but what good are they unless you can see through the case? A side-panel window, usually made of Plexiglas or other durable plastic, can do the trick. Coupled with internal lights or other glowing gadgetry, a panel can be a window to a world of dizzying techno-lust. Be ready for some maintenance, though; if ignored too long, it will be a window to the dust that invariably collects inside the PC.

For industrious DIYers, installing a window means cutting a hole in the case's side with a jigsaw or rotary cutting tool, filling the gap with a sheet of clear plastic, and sealing it to the case with rubber molding. You may be able to purchase a new side panel already fitted with a window. These take just a minute to install and won't put your fingers and case at risk under an unforgiving blade. It might take some shopping around to find a side panel perfect for your case, but Frozencpu.com sells a $15 side panel that fits several standard cases, and Directron.com has a $29 panel that fits several others.

Internal Lights
Cost: $20 and up
Usefulness: Sets the mood
Installation: Doing it right takes time
Cool Factor: Evokes gasps at LAN parties

A view into a dark PC isn't terribly interesting, so adding a light inside the case is the next step. The standard for PC lights is cold cathode, a type of fluorescent light that's brighter and more compact than neon. Cold cathode comes in several colors and is powered by the PC's power supply. Ultraviolet bulbs are also available; when placed near UV-reactive parts (fans, cables, and other available UV-reactive components), the components give off an eerie, yet cool, glow.

A cold-cathode bulb (a thin glass tube, like the fluorescent lighting that's commonly found in offices) costs about $8, but to get started you'll need a kit that includes a power inverter and wiring. Hookup is straightforward, but mounting the light in a crowded case can be challenging.

Funky Fans
Cost: $5 to $20
Usefulness: Practical and pretty
Installation: Not difficult
Cool Factor: Cool, literally

Keeping your PC cool is an absolute necessity, so fans are required. But you can make those fans part of your art. Fans are available in a variety of out-of-this-world hues and styles. You can opt for sleek, industrial aluminum spinners; fans lit with cold cathode; or ones with LEDs mounted on the frame. These fabulous fans aren't any trickier to install than vanilla models, but they are a bit more expensive.

Round Cables
Cost: $6 to $10
Usefulness: Lower your PC's temp
Installation: Time-consuming if you make your own
Cool Factor: Mmmm . . . round

Long, flat cables for IDE devices and the like have been winding around the inner workings of PCs since time immemorial. Round cables are the modder's alternative and are becoming almost mainstream because, in addition to looking great, they improve airflow. You can make round cables yourself by carefully splicing apart, then bundling, ribbon cables. You can also buy ready-made round cables (typically $6 to $10 each) in a rainbow of colors, including metallic and glow-in-the-dark.

Cable Sleeves
Cost: $1 to $2 per foot
Usefulness: Tidies the place up 
Installation: Moderately frustrating
Cool Factor: Over the top

To add a little color to your PC's innards and make it look tidier, try cable sleeves. These are tiny, flexible hoses you can wrap around the wires that snake around the computer, such as power supply cables.

Cable sleeves are inexpensive but aren't particularly easy to install. You'll have to remove the Molex plugs from the end of the power supply cable, feed the wire through the sleeve, and then reattach the Molex connector. For more detailed instructions, go to Virtual-Hideout.net (http://tinyurl.com/8saf).

Front-Panel Display
Cost: $35 to $175
Usefulness: Information easy
Installation: If you can install a floppy drive . . . 
Cool Factor: Spiffy!

How about filling an empty drive bay with an LCD or VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) on which you can view system temps and voltages, network activity stats, SETI@home progress, or information about networked games?

The display hooks to a PC's serial or USB port and is driven by software that customizes the screen's output. Popular display manufacturers include Matrix Orbital (www.matrixorbital.com), Scott Edwards Electronics (www.seetron.com), and Crystalfontz (www.crystalfontz.com). Software choices to drive the displays are available for Windows and Linux from LCDC (http://www.lcdc.cc), LCDMax (http://www.lcdmax.de), and others. Depending on the information you display, this case mod could be useful as well as pretty.

Custom Paint Job
Cost: Very cheap to very expensive
Usefulness: Completely impractical
Installation: Tricky and time-consuming
Cool Factor: Amateurish to striking 

Paint can provide a low-tech, high-style way to customize your case. It's also one of the few ways to give your PC a truly unique look. At the relatively simple, cheap end of the spectrum, you can give your PC a new color and sheen armed with a few cans of spray paint. To do the job right, you need to take the case apart, thoroughly clean it to remove oils and other contaminants, and apply a primer coat (to keep the top coat from peeling) before spraying the top color. DIYers can look to www.tinyurl.com/9917 for more details.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the pro paint job done with automotive paint. Falcon Northwest offers such painting with its Mach V Exotix (www.falcon-nw.com/exotix.asp) paint jobs. A single color of metallic, pearlescent, or color-shifting paints can add $400 to a new PC's cost. A custom airbrush job can cost up to $1,000. The Exotix paint is only available on new Falcon systems, or you can have it added to existing Falcon PCs in the proper case type.

You can also try convincing a local automobile body shop to take the job. One shop we asked said it would paint a case and monitor any color we wanted. Estimate: $100 to $125 for the case alone.

Case Badge
Cost: Cheap
Usefulness: Utterly useless
Installation: Easy as pie
Cool factor: Slightly cool

Most cases have a 1-inch square "badge," which is often the manufacturer's logo. A modder, however, wouldn't leave a "Dell" or "Intel Inside" badge on her case's front any more than a hot rodder would leave a "I Got It At Springfield Toyota" license plate frame on his new car. A new case badge is an easy way to personalize your PC without breaking the budget. Badges are available from PCdecals.com, Thinkgeek.com, and PC Case Gear (pccasegear.com), usually for less than $3 each. If a plain badge is too vanilla, illuminate it with a light kit, which usually includes a LED mounted to a 1-inch square of white plastic, a 4-pin power supply cable, and self-adhesive paper. Simply connect the LED's power cable to a hard drive power connector and drill an installation hole where you want the badge to go. A backlight will shine though a clear badge or provide eerie edge backlighting to an opaque one. Get kits from such sellers as Directron.com ($9) and Crazy PC ($12; crazypc.com).

Lian Li Aquarium Side Panel
Cost: about $100
Usefulness: May calm frayed nerves
Installation: 20 minutes
Cool Factor: The best wet fun you'll find 

A particularly unusual and flashy case add-on is the Aquarium Side Panel, which only fits Lian Li (lian-li.com) mid-tower cases. The panel replaces a case's usual side panel with a 1-inch thick aquarium. Just fill it with water, add the included pebbles and plastic fish, and attach it to the case. The kit also includes a cold-cathode light and air pump (for bubbles) to complete the submarine effect. The aquatic landscape doesn't block the view of the PC's innards, so there's a pleasing, yet disconcerting, combination of fish and sensitive electronics.

And More... This is just the tip of the iceberg--there's no end to the creative lengths modders will go to. You can add glowing electro-luminescent tape to accentuate curves and angles, colored thumbscrews, miniature neon lights, LEDs, and more. In short, your case can have more lights than the Vegas strip or the understated coolness of a jazz club.

Sidebar: Shuji Nakamura: The Man Who Invented The Blue Laser

You may not know the name, but you probably know his work. Nakamura invented blue, green, and white LEDs, as well as the blue laser. He has been called the Thomas Edison of Japan, and his work with LEDs is expected by many to revolutionize lighting as much as Edison's incandescent bulb did. For now, his efforts enhance the spectrum available to PC case modders.

Q: How did you come to create blue, green, and white LEDs?

Nakamura: In my previous company, which I entered in 1979, the company's products were phosphors for CRT color tubes and fluorescent lamps. They didn't have any experience in semiconductors at all. I started research to make infrared and red LEDs using gallium phosphide, gallium arsenide, and gallium aluminum arsenide. I tried to catch up with the big companies, but sales of those products were bad because we were a small company. So I made the decision to start new LED research. I started the blue LED research using gallium nitrides--all of the people who were working on blue LEDs were using zinc selenide. I invented the first blue LED at the end of 1993 as a product, and later green and white. The first product of the blue laser diode was released in 1999.

Q: How did you end up at the University of California, Santa Barbara?

Nakamura: In 1999, I got a job offer from UCLA, so I started thinking about moving to the USA. I met several American professors and asked where the best place for my research would be. Santa Barbara and San Diego were the best places in terms of living, but UCSB was number one in terms of compound-semiconductor research.

Q: Will white LEDs replace standard incandescent and fluorescent lighting?

Nakamura: Yes, I think so because white LED is now almost compatible with fluorescent lamps in terms of power conversion efficiency, but the lifetime of LED is almost forever. Now we are very close to replacing all conventional lighting with white LEDs.

Q: What would you like to invent next?

Nakamura: The next generation of high-efficiency, solid-state lighting using a novel structure to increase the efficiency further. Also, ultraviolet LEDs with a much shorter wavelength. But I am too busy getting used to living and working in the U.S. currently.

Q: What tricks will we see from LEDs in the future?

Nakamura: The color purity of the LEDs is much better than that of current CRT TV. So, using blue, green, and red LEDs, the most beautiful displays for [the] PC could be made soon.

Q: What's the next hurdle in LED-color technology?

Nakamura: The lifetime of conventional red LEDs is too short. Many customers ask for red LEDs using gallium nitrides, which would last much longer.

Q: The Blu-ray DVD burner, which is based on your blue laser, is now available in Japan. How do you think the blue laser will change storage?

Nakamura: The Blu-ray DVDs, which have an optical storage density of 27GB, will appear in the market this spring using the blue laser diodes invented by me. Near future, the storage density would be increased to 50GB or 100GB by increasing the output power of the blue laser diodes.

Sidebar: Sites That Can Help

If you're gung ho to start hacking your PC's looks, the following sites specialize in gear that can help.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz