µ-Machine, a tiny media system

This project is a special computer that shows what is possible if a very tiny motherboard is used. The idea was first to use a VIA nano-itx board for this build, but as these boards never ends up at the market, I had to find something else. Luckily, there are motherboards for the industry that are almost like nano-itx. The bad side of that is higher cost and less features as industrial parts relies more on trusted technology instead of at the latest. Said and done, a Aaeon GENE-6310 was bought as the base for this computer. This tiny board has the dimensions of a 3.5" floppy drive and houses a VIA C3 at 1.0 GHz. Additional features are integrated graphics, 10/100 Mbps LAN, four USB-port (1.1 only), IDE-connector for harddisk and SODIMM-slot for memory. 512 MB of PC133 SDRAM went into that slot.

There are not any decent computer without at chassi, so I had to make one too. This one would be special due to the size of the motherboard. The base of the chassi is a set of aluminium profiles taken from a power supply. These profiles makes the sides of the case. The floor is a plain aluminium sheet, 2 mm thick. The sides and top will be CNC-cut black anodized aluminium.

More needed are PSU and harddisk. The first one is a small power unit taken from some scrapped switch equipment. This tiny switched PSU is capable to deliver enough juice for all gadgets this machine will contain. A soldering strip makes it easy to connect all parts together. The harddisk is a laptop drive (2.5" Hitachi Travestar) with a storage capacity of 60 GB. This machine will not have a DVD-drive due to problems to get a NEC ND-6500 to run at the same IDE-channel as the disk. Instead, other fun stuff will be put into the system. If a CD or DVD is needed, USB will be the way to connect it. The cooling of the motherboard was also changed. The original 40 mm fan was too noisy, so it was replaced with a 80 mm Zalman fan originally ment for graphic cards. Together with a Zalman Fanmate II stripped of its case, I was able to cool this one without any noticable noise (the harddisk sounds more than the fan).

As there are no DVD-drive, I got rather lot of room to spare. What to put in there? This will be true pimped out machine so what is more pimp that some TFT's? Said is done - a 6.4" TFT with touch panel will be installed in this machine. First a new floor is needed to mount the TFT at.

The TFT connects directly to the motherboard without any external cables. It uses a TTL interface that is 18 bits wide, giving 256k colors. The resolution of the screen is 640 x 480 pixels.

On top of the TFT goes the touch panel. It is a separate piece of glass that is covered with a sensor surface. It is connected to a small PCB holding a controller that converts the touch sensor signals to a USB-interface. By this way, it is possible to use the touch panel as a regular mouse in Windows.

All parts for the TFT and touch panel have been mounted at the reverse side of the TFT floor. That was the only space free enough for these small boards. A USB sound card was also added to the mix as the integrated one lacks a working headphone output. I also got optical SPDIF as a bonus.

As a said before, this machine will primary act as a media player. So I made some tests with common media files. As a mp3-player, it works perfectly. Listening at Shoutcast stations is no problem. Also DivX works decent by using ffdshow and VLC Media player. Microsoft Media Player takes to much of resources to work smooth at this tiny hardware together with high-quality DivX.

The final setup is shown below. I added a second display, a small blue-on-white graphical LCD running of the parallell port. That small space above the fan needed something to fill it out... That small LCD has a resolution of 128 x 64 pixel and uses a KS0108B controller. The parallell port connection is also internal as it goes directly to a pin header at the motherboard. Industrial devices have its advantages...

Two of the USB-ports have been used by the touch panel and the sound card. The remainig two was relocated to the right side of the machine to leave space for the second LCD. Some special cabeling was needed to fix this. Actually, this machine contains several custom made cables to make things fit inside the case.

All displays lit up - having a second LCD gives the system a nice touch and space to show additional info.

Did I mention the side LED's? As the aluminium profiles came from a scrapped power supply, there was some holes left where the power transistors where mounted. These holes was filled with blue LED's, four on each side. To make the shine in a stable fashion, a small step-up converter was built. The aluminium profiles was polished shiny and by adding these blue LED's added on the pimp-factor by several units.

When everything was in place, something to cover it up with was needed. Sides and top was drawn in AutoCAD so these could be machined at a CNC. At the swedish Elektronikforumet there are entusiast building their own CNC-machines. One of them, Fagge, got the job to make my panels for this projekt. The material of choise is aluminium, black anodized, 2 mm thick. The result is shown below:

Finally, it was time for putting all parts together and finish the machine. The pictures below tells everything:

To make the machine more usable, a stand was needed. The TFT does not work so well when seen from beneath. The material of choise for this was 10 mm clear plexi. The parts of the stand was machined at the same CNC as the aluminium panels.

The final product ended up as the pictures shows below:

System specifications:

* Motherboard: Aaeon GENE-6310
* CPU: VIA C3 @ 1.0 GHz
* Graphics: integrated in chipset (VIA VT8606)
* LAN: 10/100 Mbps
* Harddisk: 2.5" Hitachi Travelstar, 60 GB, 7200 rpm
* Audio: USB-connected, 5.1 via SPDIF (optical)
* Display: 6.4" TFT, 18-bit TTL interface (256 k colors)
* Mouse: 4-wire resistive touch panel with USB-controller
* LCD: 128 x 64 white-on-blue, KS0108B controller
* TV-connection: S-video and composite
* External VGA: Yes
* External USB: 2 x USB 1.1