Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


When a computer enthusiast thinks of PC modding, he probably has visions of custom-painted cases with clear side panels offering views of monstrous heatsinks. But there's more to a computer than the case, of course. You can also trick out your keyboard and mouse.

Now, modding your keyboard and mouse may not sound particularly exhilarating but don't write it off just yet. If you're planning to customize your PC's case or have already done so, do you really want plain vanilla input devices attached to it? No, sir, you want a keyboard and mouse that match the look of your case. Also, a keyboard or mouse mod can be the perfect project for a first-time hardware hacker. You can afford to goof it up because compared to the PC itself, a keyboard or mouse is relatively cheap and easy to replace.

When Lighting Strikes

Hardware tweakers love to play with lighting. The keyboard and mouse are perfect places to experiment with LEDs, flexible glow tubing, and other illuminating gadgetry.

If you use an optical mouse, you've probably noticed the red glow emanating from its underbelly. That glow comes from a light-emitting diode. Its purpose is to illuminate the desktop so the mouse's tiny camera can see the surface. As you move the mouse, logic in the mouse compares the current and previous images to determine the mouse's speed and direction. You can metamorphose your mouse by changing its LED color. You can use just about any color LED, including blue or infrared, as long as it emits enough light within the detectable range of the camera.

Miguel Fernandez, founder of ExtremeMHz.com (www.extrememhz.com), swapped his mouse's red LEDs for blue ones and liked the results so much that he wrote a how-to guide (available at www.extrememhz.com/mouseled1.shtml). "I wouldn't say it's tricky, but you will need some basic soldering skills in order to de-solder the existing LED and solder back the new one," says Fernandez. "The time it takes to perform this mod may vary depending on the mouse and your soldering skills. I would say about 15 minutes or so."

The replacement LED will probably need to be brighter than the factory-installed one. Light output is measured in MCD (millicandela), a unit of luminous intensity where a higher number indicates a brighter light. For the mouse mod, Fernandez recommends using an LED greater than 2,400 MCD but not in excess of 6,000 MCD. The CMOS sensors used in optical mice are most sensitive to light with a wavelength of about 700nm, which corresponds to a red LED. Blue LEDs are at the other end of the color spectrum, with an approximate wavelength of 400nm. To compensate for the lack of sensor sensitivity, the intensity of light needs to be increased.

Performing the mod doesn't take much more than an LED, a soldering iron, and patience. Just open the mouse, remove the old LED, solder on the new one, and then put the mouse back together. Be sure that the new LED is oriented correctly with the anode (longer pin) side connected to the positive connection point of the mouse.

Now that that's done, wouldn't it be nice to have keyboard lights that match? Most keyboards have three LEDs that illuminate when CAPS LOCK, NUM LOCK, and SCROLL LOCK are activated. You can replace these easily without any brightness or color constraints. You could even choose three different colored LEDs.

To do this, open the keyboard casing and find the circuit board that holds the three corresponding LEDs. De-solder each of these LEDs by heating the connection points with a soldering gun and using a "solder sucker" tool to remove the solder. Insert the new LEDs, making sure to attach the positive and negative pins to the correct points, and then solder the leads to the circuit board. Reassemble the whole enchilada, and you're done. If you've never touched the SCROLL LOCK button in all your years of computing, now you have a reason.

Another keyboard lighting mod to consider is backlighting. By putting a light source inside the keyboard, the board will take on an eerie, colorful glow. This glow could also make it easier to type in the dark (as does the backlighting on Apple's Powerbook notebooks), but unless the keys are translucent, it might not help much.

What kind of light source will fit in the cramped confines of a keyboard? Electroluminescent fiber, also known as EL cable, is a thin, flexible strand that glows brightly. It is available from PcMods.com ( www.pcmods.com), PC Case Gear ( www.pccasegear.com), and other distributors.

To install this mod, open the keyboard casing, remove the keys, and then route the EL cable underneath them. Take care to avoid obstructing the keys' range of motion. The trickiest part could be supplying power to the fiber. For that, you'll need a power inverter, which probably won't fit inside the keyboard. That means adding an external power box and a power cable running to the keyboard. You won't need to build the inverter yourself. Many distributors sell EL cable kits that include a power supply. Detailed installation guides are online at Virtual-Underground.com (www.virtual-underground.com/articles/keyboard/keyboard.php) and TinyURL.com ( tinyurl .com/dye6).

Keyboard Hacking

Hacking a keyboard--and we mean that literally--can save precious inches in a tight workspace. A Trevor Blackwell Web page ( tlb.org/keyboardchop.html) shows how one user lopped off the numeric keypad from his Microsoft Natural Keyboard to conserve desk space.

On the other hand, some people want their keyboard to do more, not less. You might want to outfit your keyboard with an LCD display, Ethernet hub, or biometric fingerprint sensor. An Xtreme Mods Web page ( www.xtrememods.com/articles.php?id=8) shows how one intrepid hacker added a USB hub, Smart Media reader, and touch pad to his keyboard.

Even if adding every device but the kitchen sink to your keyboard seems far-fetched, you'll probably agree with this statement: Beige is dull. Whatever color yours is, you can probably think of a more exciting color or combination of colors. Although painting the keys themselves can be tricky, painting the body of the keyboard (the frame that surrounds the keys) is a straightforward job. Take the keyboard apart, use sandpaper to sand the case, then spray on standard spray paint. Experts say that the trick is to apply several layers of clear coat after applying the paint to prevent the color from rubbing off after extended use.

When painting the keys themselves, take care to keep them in order. Many keyboards have keys that fit only in one position or in one particular row. After you repaint them, you'll have covered the keycaps. To make the keycaps legible again, use an inkjet or laser printer to create your own keycaps on water slide decals such as SuperCal decals ( www.supercaldecals.com). As a bonus, your new keycaps can have any font you choose. A guide to doing this is on Micro Format's Web site (www.paper-paper.com/xtreme-keyboard.html).

More Mouse Mods

Mods can be utilitarian or silly, but some aren't so easy to define. Erlend Thorsen installed a small fan in his mouse and drilled ventilation holes on top, thus creating a mouse that keeps his hand cool during intense gaming sessions. Thorsen's fan is powered with +5V from the PS/2 port, but he points out that you can also get power from a serial or USB connection. After installing the fan, he added external LEDs to the top of the mouse and a switch to toggle the lights and fan. A detailed description of the project is at Overclockers.com (www.overclockers.com/tips967).

You've probably seen PC cases with clear panels that let you see their inner workings. But have you ever seen a mouse with clear panels? A Dremel tool, some transparent plastic, and your favorite super glue are all it takes to make a dramatic accompaniment to--or perhaps an ironic statement about--see-through PC cases. One either enterprising or seriously disturbed modder even encases Lego people in his mice so that they appear to be cryogenically frozen, visible though a clear window ( www.metku.net/cryo).

After you have a unique mouse, you'll certainly want an attention-grabbing mouse pad to put it on. Jani Ponkko used a plastic sheet outfitted with LEDs to create a mouse pad with edges that shine in the dark. He also found that by etching a logo or image in the plastic with a Dremel tool, the image would catch the light and glow, too ( www.metku.net/index.html?sect=view&n=1&path=mods/glowpad/index _eng ).

These modification ideas are just the starting points. The only limit is your imagination. So, the next time you hanker to mod your PC, remember to let your input devices in on the fun.

Reprinted with permission from Computer Power User magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz