The Epic Build
Up on the bench today we have a special DIY workshop tutorial in building your own LAN party case on a budget. We take an ordinary cheap flight case and mount a full PC inside so you can truck it to and from the party with ease.
First things first, a list of ingredients and tools you'll be needing.
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-G33M-DS2R
CPU: Intel Core2Duo E8200 2.66GHz
RAM: Kingston 1066MHz PC8500 4x1GB modules
Graphics Card: GIGABYTE GV-NX96T512 NVIDIA 9600GT 512MB GDDR3
HDD: Seagate Barracuda 500GB SATA-II
DVD Drive: ASUS DVD-ROM SATA
PSU: Thermaltake TR2 QFan 400W
Fans: 2x120mm Blue LED
Fan grills: Standard plastic with dust filter
Motherboard tray: IKEA Kitchen Cutting Board
Stickies: 1m of Industrial strength Velcro
Edging: Plastic file edge document clip
Tightners: Assorted Philips and flat head screwdrivers
Driller/slicer: Dremel style Multi tool + heavy duty cutting discs
Grippers: Needle nose pliers
Smoothers: Assorted files
Quencher: Tea with milk; no sugar, I'm sweet enough ;)
Why choose these specs?
If you don't like it...
Now, I'm expecting to get a lot of grief for the choice of components going into this 'gaming' rig, but hear me out. Each component is well thought out and is ideally suited to building a rig in a flight case.
The motherboard is a GIGABYTE mATX GA-G33M-DS2R and while this means I cannot SLI it up, it also means that it fits in the case! A newer chipset like the G33 is perfect; supplying onboard sound and LAN and keeping it budget at the same time. We're not going to break the bank on something that will be shoe horned into a cheap-ass case from a DIY store.
The graphics is again GIGABYTE, but a new series 9600 GT NVIDIA card and these have been getting awesome reviews. I think it's perfect bang-for-buck for a system like this and it runs everything out there at time of writing, including Crysis (well, maybe not on full, but it's playable on mid-range settings). I also like the Zalman fan unit they mount as stock on this card; it helps to keep the temperatures down and moves a lot of air around inside the case.
The RAM was a tough choice, but in the end we went for Kingston HyperX DDR2 PC2-8500 modules because these babies can clock right up to 1066MHz with no problems. It's important to balance the system right in order to get a decent performance; there is no point skimping on any one of the four essentials which are the motherboard, graphics, RAM and CPU.
Focusing on the CPU; I might get some flak for this, but I stand by it. I picked up the lower spec new Core 2 Duo 45nm Wolfdale. Why? - Well, it's cheap, it's available and it overclocks like a monster! The 3GHz model isn't that much more expensive, I realise that. But it just wasn't necessary. If you balance the system as a whole then it shouldn't have a problem with a slightly lower spec CPU. Not to mention, the thermal output of the lower spec is better, so it won't cook the inside of the case.
The big question was how to power this rig and we wanted a PSU that was adequate for what we had, but at the same time had a nice big fan that was seriously hush hush.
Thermaltake popped us an offering of their new TR2 QFan Series at 400 watts. This thing is perfect. There's a HUGE fan on top, 400 watts of clean juice and an 80+ power efficiency rating.
The first one is just for show
Now, the first thing to do when undertaking any major project like this is to be prepared to call your first attempt a 'prototype'. It sounds way cooler than saying you mucked up the first one, plus it looks like you planned it that way all along.
So here is my first attempt... err...prototype, demonstrating some of the ideas put into practice and then quickly scrapped because I realised it was over engineered.
First, we see the cheap-ass case from the local hardware store, looking pretty until Andrew gets his hands on it:-
Templating the IKEA motherboard tray was a good idea, it meant the holes lined up.........but could have been easily achieved by putting the motherboard on top and simply penning through the holes of the GIGABYTE motherboard... <slams palm into forehead>
Templating the fan holes; again, a good idea, but a slightly over engineered approach.
I'm still haunted in my sleep as to my decision not to place the PSU where I had templated it in this picture...
Here we see the IKEA motherboard tray sliced and prepared for mating.
Later I counter-sunk the holes at the back to allow use of nuts and bolts to hold the motherboard on. This was over engineering.
Next, I attempted to make a PCI bracket out of some book shelf railing in order to keep the GIGABYTE graphics card in place. This was a good idea in theory, but it sucked big time in reality...
Poor choice on hole placement for the power and reset switch; they would have gotten in the way of our DVD-ROM and PSU. Oops.
Here we get messy and start slicing away at the case; pre-drilling holes in the fan mounts to make life a little easier.
Now, here is where I had an attack of the stupid. I used a pneumatic rotary tool to essentially cut a straight line......Bad Idea. The holes look like crap and they took forever to do. I should have used a rotary cutting disc the first time around.
After attempting to fit the GIGABYTE motherboard to the IKEA tray, I realised that with Zalman fans you have a huge bracket on the back to hold it in place. Time for another slightly bigger hole, methinks.
Here we have the GIGABYTE motherboard seated and bolted into the case; the IKEA motherboard tray is bolted through the case with four large bolts to stop it going anywhere.
Finally, we see a halfway completed design, but the power supply will initially prove problematic because of size constraints.
The Second Coming
There is a very good reason why I started again from scratch and wrote the initial design off as a prototype. That was due to my home coming to England. That's right, I returned to blighty from Taiwan and there was just no room to take the LAN case with me.
I have to say, though, I wasn't particularly teared up to leave the case behind; it was half way messed up already. This time I started fresh from home where I had access to better tools and DIY stores where I could actually describe what I needed in English and not my cripplingly limited Mandarin Chinese.
First thing was to wire up the buttons. I found some nice industrial looking ones in Taiwan and brought them home with me. Here you see them quickly connected up to 2-pin headers, ready for the GIGABYTE motherboard.
The IKEA motherboard tray this time was drilled out using the pen-through-hole method, saving a good chunk of time and effort. And this time the HS/F mounting bracket hole was done at the same time too.
Unfortunately the company that makes these cases decided it would be a right jolly to glue the foam to the top of the case, making it look as ugly as sin when ripped out.
Right tools for the wrong job
Here we have THE right tool for the job. All I will say is that disc cutters are the best thing you could ever own. Everyone needs a Dremel in their tool box; end of discussion.
Here I've holed up spaces for the power and reset switches and on the adjoining face I have a slot for a dual USB port liberated from a rear PCI bracket assembly.
Here is the slot for the ASUS DVD-ROM; looks rough, doesn't it? - Well, it is, but that is solved thanks to my ingenious use of every day household objects like document binding clips!
Holes in the bottom to secure the IKEA motherboard tray. I used thinner bolts this time, because that's all I had in my drawer of bolts that fitted.
Fan holes on top; notice that there's only three compared to the four in the initial prototype? - Well, good, because I decided I liked three better!
Now begins the transfer of bits from my awesome GIGABYTE 3D Aurora case.
So many fiddly bits
The fans are on and so are the grills. They do a great job of hiding the ugly holes cut in the lid, making them practical and aesthetically pleasing!
No fan over the third fan hole and for a good reason. The Thermaltake PSU now sits on top of the ASUS DVD-ROM, leaving about 5mm clearance between the hole and its own huge fan.
Motherboard's in; instead of using nuts and bolts to secure the GIGABYTE to the IKEA tray, I decided that it's just better to use some narrower holes in the plastic and let the screws make their own thread. This works well IF you don't over tighten the screws and strip the thread they made.
To mount the Seagate hard drive, I created an L bracket out of a leftover plastic binder clip and used velcro to secure the other side of the drive. It works like a charm.
The GIGABYTE motherboard and Seagate HDD is in place.
The ASUS DVD-ROM slots in nice and tight with the cool edging and is held down to the inside of the case using some velcro on the underside of the unit.
Yet another hole; this time an exhaust vent for the Thermaltake PSU as well as providing access to the plug socket at the back. It's rough looking now, but that will totally look better with some edging in place.
The Final Countdown
Bolting on the USB bracket is a breeze and everything is hooked up inside.
Now we have come to a slight problem in the design. With all the components installed, how are we going to keep the GIGABYTE graphics card from moving around too much? - The prototype bracket worked well, but was a real bother to make again.
The answer was a simple one; using a long bolt and some nuts to essentially create a pin that pushed up against the lid when closed. The lid with enough flex held the card firmly in place.
Finally, the system was ready to roll. The fruits of my long labours finally ripen and are ready for the picking.
The fan above the CPU pulls in cool dust-free air to keep the criticals like the Kingston RAM nice and chilled while the fan above the HDD sucks it out, keeping airflow tight.
You will notice I used a 3.5" drive-bay fan controller velcro'd to the lid. This was a last minute decision to allow manual control of the fan speeds to keep the system cool as well as providing me with a cable that actually reached my fan headers.
With the case closed up and ugly lid hidden away, we see that this unit doesn't look half bad from the outside! - With no more weight than the components inside, this unit is easy enough to carry around to and from LAN parties. And I'm about to do just that...