DashboardPC - 11-14-2003

This text was submitted to CPU Magazine for an article on my DashboardPC. It was featured on the cover of a special issue of CPU Magazine called 'PC Modder'. It was available Spring 2004 at major bookstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble, CompUSA periodicles section, Airport news stands etc) The text below is the original, unedited submission.

[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]

In the never-ending quest for attention, it was time for another mod.  I had seen a few people use tachometers in their mods before, but mainly as an accessory, and never as the "main attraction" of their projects.  Driving around town one night, something caught my attention as I was driving past (or rather, I was being passed by) some car with an after market body kit and exhaust.  No, it wasn't the loud exhaust or primer colored fiberglass.  What caught my attention was the cool blue glow of custom gauges from this person's car.  Hey, those attract attention!  Who wouldn't be mesmerized by ice blue electroluminescent glowy gauges?
[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]



The Tachometers

The dash assembly was taken from a Honda Civic.  Honda Civics are popular cars to mod and I thought it would be fitting to use the instrument cluster from one to use in my own mod.  I got the dash assembly from my local salvage yard for $50.  It even had an electroluminescent (aka EL aka Indiglo, but that's actually a trademarked name like Kleenex) overlay kit installed from the previous owner of the wrecked car.


Tachometers work by receiving electric pulse signals.  The more pulse signals the tachometer receives, the higher the needle goes.  In a car, pulse signals are sent from the firing of pistons -- the harder the engine works, the faster the pistons; the faster the pistons, the more pulses; the more pulses the higher the needle; the higher the nee... you get the picture.


XOXIDE.COM sells a product called the PCTach.  The tachometer is an off-the-shelf product from Sunpro that xoxide has modified for connection to a computer.  In the picture you can see the red and white wires connected to the 12-volt Molex lead and the black connected to ground.  The pulse is supplied from the serial port's [brown?] wire to the green wire of the tachometer.  Xoxide's PCTach kit comes with its own software that "graphs" CPU activity on the tachometer.


Mounting the Tachometers


Before I began this mod, my intent was to keep the gauge cluster looking as close to "stock" as possible (tachometer, speed, temp, fuel).  After looking into it a bit, I discovered that the tachometer was the only gauge that actually worked off of signal pulses.  The speedometer, temperature and fuel gauges worked completely differently.  Because of this, three tachometers ended up being the most practical approach.

Of course, we couldn't just have standard black and white plastic gauges. We needed cool blue glowing gauges!  The gauges were made to glow with electroluminescent overlays.  The overlays are commonly called "Indiglo Gauge Kits" on the streets even though "Indiglo" is actually Timex's trademarked name for the stuff.  Kits are available for many makes/models of cars and usually cost around $60~$70.  The thin electroluminescent sheets are placed over the stock gauges.  The sheets are powered by a small inverter that accepts 12-volt DC power (the yellow and black Molex leads from your computer power supply... how convenient hehe).

I mentioned earlier that the gauge cluster assembly I got from the salvage yard already had glow sheets installed.  Unfortunately, the inverter to power the glow sheets were missing and I ended up buying a new glow kit from a local car shop.  This was good since I now had two tachometers (one from the salvaged assembly, one from the new kit).  For the center gauge, I decided to keep the speedometer overlay even though I was using a tachometer as the gauge (only you and I would know the difference anyway *wink*).

Taking the tachometers out of their stock casing was as simple as popping the silver bezel off the can.  Once off, the tachometer components screwed easily into the holes that were already on the Honda Civic gauge panels.  

Popping Xoxide's PC Tach out of its can

Tachometer replacing temp and fuel gauges

Tachometer attached to Civic panel

Glow gauge overlay sheet

Assembled gauges ready to mount in housing

Remember the actual gauge cluster assembly housed differently sized gauges (temp, fuel etc..) so I needed to cut the actual gauge cluster assembly housing to fit my new tachometers.   This is the part I like - tearing stuff up!  Sure even though we're just working with plastic, it doesn't hurt to put in a pair of work gloves.  It's also good practice to wear eye protection while doing this.  Wear goggles or look away while you're snipping and snapping.  That last thing you need is an injured eye from flying debris.  With the excess plastic removed, the gauges had plenty of room to fit.  Next came the wiring.

The black box in the center is the inverter for the electroluminescent overlays.


[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]
Each of the three tachometers were separate units each requiring 12 volts of power.  Instead of having three pairs of wires (+12V and ground), I connected the power wires of the three tachometers in parallel.  It's important to know your voltage values when splicing and dicing your computer power supply.  Refer to the diagram for the voltages of your standard 4-wire Molex connector:

+5 volts
ground for 5 volt
ground for 12 volt
+12 volts

The color of the wires is where I needed to pay attention when powering my tachometers.  The tachometer's wires were colored red (+12volts) and black (ground).  Cars run on a 12 volt dc current system.  If you have ever jump-started a car, you have noticed that the jumper cable's +12 volt line (positive) is in fact red, and the ground (negative) is black.  However, in order to supply the proper 12 volts from my computer power supply, I had to make sure to connect the yellow Molex wire to my red tachometer wires.  While I was at it, I also connected the 12 volt power for the glow gauge overlays in parallel with the power for the tachometers.  This made it easy to power the entire gauge cluster assembly (tachometers and lights) with just one Molex connector.
[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]



[Edited out 12/07/2003 Dean] To minimize the wires needed, I powered all three tachometers in parallel with one wire each for +12V (red) and ground (black).  FYI: From your computer power supply, the yellow wire is actually the +12V, red is +5V and the two black wires are ground.  Each tachometer does have its own signal wire (green) for the pulse.  Those green wires needed to be on their own serial plug to make it easier for me to program individual tachometers.  I also connected the 12 volt power for the glow gauge overlays in parallel with the power for the tachometers.  This made it easy to power the entire gauge cluster assembly (tachometers and lights) with just one Molex connector. [Edited out 12/07/2003 Dean]



Controlling the Gauges

Xoxide's tachometer control program was only written to show CPU activity.  I had two other gauges and wanted to use them to graph other activity.  To do this, I needed to write my own gauge control program.

Not a programmer by trade, I took on the project like Mr. Smith going to Washington.  <!--Begin Program hehe> To simulate the "pulses" through the serial (com) port, the program opens the com port just like it opens a file on the hard drive.  By "writing" a bit to the com port with file system syntax, I was able to send a pulse.  Somewhere in there was a bunch of trail and error, a dash of luck and some do/while and sleep loops to send the right number of "pulses" at the right intervals.  Once the tachometer needle positioning function was complete, it could be easily called upon programmatically with something like SetNeedle(n) where "n" was the RPMs you wanted the tachometer to graph.  I then made a very basic user interface for the function that read system RAM and Hard Drive (C:) usage and determined percent used.  My "PCTach2" interface controlled both Xoxide's PCTach program to monitor CPU usage as well as the SetNeedle(n) functions for RAM and Hard Drive usage.  For presentation, I also created a button called "Rev Tachs" that would rev all three tachometers so you could show off :)

The shuttle motherboard I selected only had one on-board serial port.  To get around this I bought two $20 USB-to-Serial adapters. 

[Need pics of USB-to-Serial adapters]



The Monitor Stand

For the monitor stand, I wanted something industrial looking using wire conduit.  The problem with wire conduit was that I needed the material to be rigid enough to hold the weight of a monitor.  Looking around in my local hardware shop, I found flexible copper tubing used for plumbing.  I chose a gauge of tubing that was just the right thickness to be bendable yet hold its shape under the weight of a flat panel monitor.

By threading the copper tubing into the wire conduit, I was able to make my own "gooseneck" material that I could bend and shape.  Shaping the conduit to the form I wanted wasn't as easy as I thought it would be.  Since I chose a thickness of copper tubing that would hold its shape under pressure, it was tricky to bend the conduit to perfect curves and loops.  My first idea was to first shape the copper tube and slide the hollow wire conduit over it, but there was too much friction and the curves I made were too dramatic for the conduit to thread over smoothly.  With the conduit and copper tubing as one piece, the material was hard to handle since the copper tubing wanted to roll around inside the conduit!  I might mention that work gloves were useful for this part of the project since they helped me get a good grip on the material so I could bend it.  The gloves also protected me from cuts around the un-filed ends of the conduit.  Finally, after much bending and pulling I got the shapes I wanted and was ready to mount them on my platform.


Here's a trick you might find useful.  To get a template for making round edges, you trace around something round like a CD, cup, coaster, or in my case, roll of electrical tape.  Place the round object on the corner of your material and trace along the outer edge with a marker and cut around it.  You'll get the same radius on all four corners of your material, giving you nice, symmetrically rounded corners!  I did this for my diamond plate platform and cut the corners with tin snips.  In this case, tin snips were easier and faster than using a dremel or scroll saw (not to mention setup and cleanup time).

The edges of the diamond plate were a little sharp and just filing them didn't seem to do the trick.  To give the plate a more finished look, I used door edge molding from an auto supply shop to line the outer edge of the diamond plate.  A box of 25 feet of door edge molding should cost you less than $10 and you can use it to line other things like window cut outs or exhaust holes.

To mount the monitor, I bought a flat panel wall mount kit from a local computer store.  The kit consists of a base that you secure to the wall (in my case, to the conduit) and a mount that attaches to your monitor and the base.  To secure the base, I used flexible hose clamping to wrap around the conduit.  You can see this hose clamping used for everything including home plumbing to car radiators to even holding up signs on street lamps.  Find the clamping at your local hardware store in the plumbing section.


The Computer Case

The computer case was made out of 1/4" inch thick smoked acrylic.  Just like in a car where the gauge cluster is tilted up towards the driver, I wanted the case to focus on displaying the gauges to the user who would either be sitting or standing in front of the computer.  Along with a stealth black looking case, I had to add the obligatory stealth CD-ROM drive bay as well.  The stealth CD-ROM would be controlled via remote control, but more on that later.

To design the shape of the case, I first made a cardboard mock-up.  The computer components were taken from a Shuttle Small Form Factor computer (Pentium 4 XPC Series).  To make my mock-up, I laid out the computer components exactly how they would be positioned in the completed computer.  On this and my previous mods, I always use an old hard drive for my mock-ups and not the actual hard drive I use in my completed mod.  Sure hard drives are durable, but I don't want to take any chances.  I've been known to accidentally step on motherboards during the modding process hehe.  Unlike shipping tape (the clear stuff), electrical tape or masking tape is a good type of tape to use when making mock-ups because it can be stuck and re-stuck to so you can position and re-position your mock-up panels at the right angles and height.  With my mock-up made, I took a trip to my local plastics shop to have my case made.  For a reasonable price, my local plastics shop created a beautiful replica of my cardboard mock-up.  What?  You didn't think I had a fully stocked plastics shop in my garage for do-it-yourself plastics bending did you?  Heck I don't even have a garage :) Most of my modding takes place in my living room; the entire room (along with the kitchen) becomes the "modding zone". 

Modding zone madness before/after




Making it Modular

For lack of a better term, I wanted to make the computer "modular" so it could be put together and taken apart for shipping.  Even with 1/4" thick acrylic, leaving the tachometers and computer parts inside the case would have guaranteed disaster during shipping.  Not only might the weight of the computer components stress the acrylic to cracking, but if something came loose during shipping the banging around would surely have caused damage.  I made both the gauges and computer itself easily assembled and removed from the case. Each part was individually bubble-wrapped for shipping.


- -

I used a 12"x11" piece of pegboard as the base for the modular computer component.  If you haven't already figured it out by now, I love my local hardware store.  I used "plumber's tape" (also known has hanger tape, lead tape etc..) to hold down parts and make mounts for my components.  You can see the lead tape I've shaped to hold my hard drive in place in the picture.  You can also see the bendable metal used to hold the power supply in place as well.  The motherboard and CD-ROM drive were also held in place the same way.  I left one Molex connector hanging out the back of the computer component to power the tachometer gauge assembly when put inside the case.  Yeah yeah, I bet you saw the ugly, non-rounded IDE cable I used for the hard drive.  That was later replaced with a rounded cable. Picky picky!

- -

Getting the tachometer gauge cluster to stand up at the correct angle was a big task.  I needed the legs that the assembly stood on to be flexible so it could be squeezed into the case, but also strong enough so it would push the gauges up against the smoked acrylic so it could be read from the outside.  I used the same "plumbers tape" material used to hold down the computer components to the pegboard.  Two layers of the metal tape was enough to give it the right flexibility and strength.  Getting the bends to be straight and smooth was nearly impossible and I eventually gave up, rationalizing that the metal legs wouldn't be seen once the case was assembled anyway.  Three cheers for laziness!  Okay, well maybe not laziness, but by this point, I just really wanted to get the computer assembled for a test run.

- -



[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]
All the computer parts were ready for testing.  I first tested booting the computer alone without the gauge cluster connected -- all was well.  Next step was to connect the gauge cluster to the serial ports of my computer.  As I mentioned earlier, one serial port was already built into the motherboard, while the other two serial ports were added via a USB-to-Serial adapter.  On the first try, all three gauges lit up beautifully with tachometers revvin'!  This just might have been the first time in modder history that a case mod powered up (yes, working) on the first try :)
[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]


[Edited out 12/07/2003 Dean]With the computer assembled, the test run took off without a hitch.  I snapped a couple of pictures with flash to light up the insides of the smoked acrylic.  Under normal lighting, the only thing seen is the cool blue glow of the gauges :) [Edited out 12/07/2003 Dean]


Remote Controlled Operation

- - -

[Edited 12/07/2003 Dean]
Why mess with computer power buttons and cdrom eject buttons when you can have them remote controlled?!?  For a mere $25, you can add this feature to any case mod as I have done.  The remote control kit (Just Cooler RC-168 Computer Remote) is made by Just Cooler and comes with a keychain remote, receiver with connections for power and reset, power/reset cables and an ATX power adapter cable to supply power to the receiver.  Doing a web search (google of course) for the remote, you can find reviews of this thing as early as February 2001.  This product has certainly been around for a while -- I picked mine up at a local Fry's Electronics, they have stacks of them at the one here in Austin.   The literature on the box says it has a reception of 6 to 10 meters, plenty of range for your standard use.  You can do away with the need for the ATX power adapter cable if you just splice the appropriate wires from your own power supply. Just match up the right cables... measure twice, cut once!  The remote has two buttons on it; one for power, the other for reset.  All this remote control does for you is short the pins on your motherboard for power and reset.  Simple and Sweet.  In this mod we will use the remote's reset button to control the eject operation of the CD-ROM drive.
[Edited 12/07/2003 Dean]

  - -

First thing is to take apart your CD-ROM drive.  Use a paperclip to press manual eject hole in the cdrom drive (a small hole in the front bezel somewhere).  Carefully pull out the tray just enough so you can remove the small bezel attached to the tray.  Next remove the main bezel by pulling while pressing in the plastic snap-in tabs.  You'll then be able to see the eject button.  Not all CD-ROM drives are the same, since some have a play/next button too.  Be sure to note which button is the eject button.


Next you'll need to remove the outer drive casing.  Again, not all drives are the same, so you may have to use your own judgment on how to open the drive case.  See the warranty void sticker?  Ignore that :) We know we're voiding the warranty.  Oh, and just in case you blow something up, do this at your own risk.

- -

The CD-ROM drive opens when the button is pressed. The CD-ROM eject button on the drive just completes a circuit to trigger the eject function.  Since the Just Cooler Remote Control System does that to trigger the reset switch on your motherboard, we can just solder the two leads underneath the button to have the reset function eject our CD-ROM drive instead.  Be sure to solder the right connections.  There are four solder points for the button, and from what I can tell, the two larger solder points are just to keep the button on the circuit board.  The two solder points you want to solder are the smaller ones, near the front.  Take a close look at your own CD-ROM drive to see what particular points to solder.  Use the reset cable supplied with the remote kit (blue/white is the standard reset color) and strip off the ends that would normally be connected to the motherboard.  Solder these wires to the eject button leads.  Once the two points are soldered, I use a dab of hot glue to help keep the wires from accidentally getting pulled off.

Next comes the connection to the motherboard.  Before doing anything with your motherboard/power supply make sure your power supply is unplugged.    Plug the other end of the wire coming from the CD-ROM drive you just soldered to the remote receiver's "reset" lead.  The receiver's "power" lead connects to your motherboard's case power switch jumper.  Connect the receiver's "dc-in" to your power supply either via the supplied ATX power coupler or you can splice the cables onto your existing ATX power connection.  Double check all your wiring before plugging in your power supply.  Once you're satisfied you've connected everything properly, plug it in and click your remote's power button to turn on your PC.  When the PC is on and supplying power to your CD-ROM drive, the remote's reset button will control the ejecting and closing of your CD drive.


[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]

I was pleased with the results of DashboardPC.  The smoked acrylic gave it the stealth look I was going for, and the blue electroluminescent gauges gave it just the right amount of illumination.  I've been asked why I chose the tentacle-like conduit material for the monitor stand, and I really have no answer.  It's art, man, leave it be! hehe.  One thing to remember when making your mod is to put yourself first.  If you're happy with your work, it doesn't matter what other people think; you've already met your goal.

[Added 12/07/2003 Dean]