Usually, when I travel around Kansai, it’s sightseeing that I’m mostly interested in. Every time I try to visit a new place and in most cases I don’t visit the same place more than once. However, there’s one place I tend to visit again and again, although I don’t see any noticeable changes about it. The place is called Den-Den Town.
I don’t go there to buy something specific, just for sightseeing. Most of the time I can’t restrain myself from buying another [useless] piece of computer hardware. My last visit resulted into a new motherboard, RAM and a hard drive. Almost an entire computer :-)

The motherboard is an Atom-based mini-ITX fan-less board made by Foxconn. A small and quiet board is one of those things I’ve been pondering about for months, reading reviews, looking at Ebay price tags and swinging between utility and passion. Usually I focused my attention on VIA’s C3/Eden/C7 boards — they are cheaper, though less productive. The purchasing decision was pretty much spontaneous — I just came across several mini-ITX motherboards. This board happened to be cheaper than the VIA-based competitor, so the decision was made.

A quick look at the specifications revealed that it requires DDR2-800 (aka PC2-6400) type memory and SATA-type hard disks. I didn’t have either, so two other purchases followed: a 2 gigabyte memory module and a 40 gigabyte disk. To make a working computer I needed to add a power supply, a display, a keyboard and a mouse.

Until now all computers that I had to (dis-)assemble were based on Pentium III, so I was a bit surprised to find out that the power supply should have 24 pins instead of 20 pins, and that a new beast, called “P4 connector”, emerged from nowhere. Luckily, the power supply unit that I found in my computer case was the right type. Add my spare keyboard, a nobody’s display I found in my lab and my stylish black-and-yellow mouse that reminds me of Lamborghini Diablo and Need for Speed 3, and the DYI computer is ready. By the way, there’s a real lot of nobody’s hardware, mostly junk produced 10 to 15 years ago, probably abandoned by folks who’d been imprisoned here before myself.

It’s time to turn it on. However, in order to see it run (or fly!) we need an operating system. First, I connected the SATA disk that I bought and an external disk (originally internal, taken from a deceased IBM Inspiron laptop, but turned into an external USB device) and switched the newly assembled computer on. “Switched” doen’t mean “pushed a button”, because the computer didn’t, and still doesn’t, have an on-off button. Instead, I had to use a piece of metal to connect the power-on pins on the board. The motherboard is fanless and thus absolutely quiet, which is why I could judge whether it’s booting only by the sound of the system beep and the old hard disk (the new one is very quiet, too).

It happily beeped and started booting. I hit “Delete” to make sure that both drives were detected, to see if the memory was the promised type and size, and simple to wander a bit through the BIOS. When I tried to adjust system clock the system hung, maybe because I used the numpad, not just up and down keys. Whatever was the reason, it was the only case of unexpected behavior so far. From the second try I successfully changed the time, then changed the first booting device to USB and happily booted into my Kubuntu/Trinity 10.10.

While I was googling and figuring out how to install an OS on the SATA drive (I only had an install CD), another surprise popped up — Atom is a 64 bit, not 32 bit, processor! Well, this meant that I would have to install a 64 bit version of Kubuntu. After some hassle (QEMU refused to load a 64 bit CD image, the image got copied onto a flash drive without the bootloader and refused to boot, GRUB2 refused to boot CD ISO from the hard disk etc.) I installed an OS on the SATA disk and finally booted into the shining new 64-bit version of Kubuntu.

Well, that’s where I am now — I’m writing this post from my barebone computer in my lab. There are two issues left on my agenda. First, I need to get some sort of casing for my new beast, and second, I need to come up with an idea about how to use it. Difficult questions…

I have almost zero experience working with plastic or wood, almost zero tools for such a project, and zero, without the “almost”, experience making computer cases, but if I am to use all the advantages that this computer offers (small size, no noise, portability etc.), then I absolutely need a case for it. I already bought a IDE-to-SATA adapter for my 3.5” IDE disks (I think I have three such disks and one of them holds all my photos) and a set of front panel connectors (power and reset switches, and power and HDD leds — I’ll finally be able to switch the machine without a screwdriver). Now I am choosing between wood and acrylic glass, and thinking about the size and shape of the future case. Anyway, I have a fallback solution: I can always give up and simply put everything in the old large case, where the PSU comes from.

The second question is how to use this machine. Should I turn it into a home file server (on local hard drives and on Dropbox, Ubuntu One etc.) and let it just sit around gathering dust somewhere in a corner? Should I design it as a portable nettop-like computer and carry it with me back and forth? Can it serve as a standalone WiFi access point with a web server (e.g. hosting a MMORG for my lab colleagues :-))? Other ideas?

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Followup posts on this DIY project:

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