Monday, December 17, 2012

A Great Little Board

A Change of Heart

When I first ordered the Intel NUC, my purpose was to see if this form factor had promise for the future.  I also figured that this small board would be useful to test projects and perhaps even wind up as a little media center somewhere.  In truth, I did not expect to seriously consider this board for the iMac G4 project. After working with this board for a while, I have to admit, its pretty fantastic.  For one, the size is remarkable, especially when it is removed from the case. This makes even ECX boards look big.  Secondly, its dead simple, it uses EFI bios, requires only RAM, a half height WiFi mSATA, and a full size mSATA SSD.  The mSATA in particular makes the system even smaller.  There is no need for even a 2.5" drive and nearly all wires are eliminated in this fashion.
As opposed to the other boards, this board only contains a Core i3 processor and there is a paucity of USB ports (only 3), mSATAs (one half height, one full height), an HDMI connector, and either a Ethernet + extra HDMI or Thunderbolt. (Depending on which of the 2 models you choose).

A Look Inside
 Despite these negatives there are other advantages this board has.  The availability of 2 RAM slots for a max of 16GB.  Thunderbolt while (at this point) is expensive and has few compatible devices does leave open impressive possibilities including hubs, a second display, and even a pci express graphics card.  The size also leaves most of the base available as it fits between the native PSU right under the fan and allows you to keep the optical drive (though a USB connection would be needed as there are no regular SATA hookups).

The Software/A Mountain Lion Hackintosh

The only method I use is tonymac's retail Mountain Lion Unibeast/Multibeast install method.  While the other boards took a very long time to get right, this could not have been easier.  I did know in advance to change the graphics to 128MB and of course AHCI instead of IDE (for the SATA controller).  Except for these small changes, there is almost no way to go wrong.  I used the Easy Beast Install with the Mac Mini 6,1 definition.  Now the reason for this is that there isn't much to the board, while other motherboards are loaded with other chipsets for gigabit Ethernet, SATA controllers, Touchscreen controllers, other I/O controllers, and business related QM chipset features, this board is really only about the basics.  But, with hackintoshes, less is more.  Having to clear your CMOS after you mistakenly enable some feature is no fun.  Neither is having to reinstall the OS because you decide to try to get native audio to work one last try.  This makes it very time consuming when it comes time to upgrade your OS.
One note,  I have read HDMI audio does require a work around, but this obviously does not apply to this mod.  Without any other audio cable out, a USB audio card will be needed.  But, so far airplay seems to work flawlessly, and can make for a wireless alternative.  So, in short, if a modestly powerful Ivy Bridge Hackintosh is your goal for this mod, I would recommend these boards above the others.  Being the easiest to find and the most affordable also doesn't hurt.
About This Mac
 Some Technical Issues to Solve:

1) Ports: 3 USBs is simply not enough and for basic function more is needed.  Thunderbolt hubs are absurdly overpriced right now, but either a Thunderbolt to SATA and/or USB or a regular USB Hub will be needed.  One USB is needed for the 5V "backlight power on" signal.

2) Fan:  there is a directional fan, but due to the faraday cage, I would still like to add the case fan in some manner.  This may involve replacing the existing fan and situating it directly underneath the iMac's case fan, splicing the fan wire to power it.  Or, running both, using the PSU to drive the fan (though a manual control knob may then make sense).

3) Power switch: This is hard soldered to the board.  A bypass will need to be wired up and I am fairly sure this can be done in an easy to reverse way.

4) Audio: A USB audio solution is needed.  This is not a difficult thing to find, but I am considering an airplay or Bluetooth based solution.

5) Bluetooth: I have been unable to find a Wifi/Bluetooth combo half height card that will work so far, so I will have to go with a Bluetooth dongle.

6) The Optical Drive: Using this solution means using USB to SATA to connect to a drive, but it will still need to be powered.  May require 12V to 5V downconverter.

7) Power: Worst case Scenario would involve connecting AC to the small power brick that comes with the NUC, but this seems like a waste.  Unfortunately as this board needs 19V, either an upconverter or downconverter will be needed to go from either 12V or 24V.

Concluding Thoughts

Although I'm not certain, I am actually leaning towards this board,  If this was an i5, putting it on par with my previous system (with more RAM and better graphics) this would be a slamdunk.  Each EPIC or ECX board requires different connectors, drivers etc. As Intel is likely to continually upgrade this form factor, getting this right may "future proof" future designs.  I am likely to build this out and see what the final project looks like and how it functions.
I will certainly post detailed instructions and may do a video guide if there is enough interest.  Thanks again for reading!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The hardware part of this mod has already been completed, for the most part.  The next step is software and finding a build that will run Mountain Lion without much compromise, is the goal.  Out of the 4 boards I am working with, I have had tremendous success with one, partial success with another, hit a dead end with a 3rd, and the 4th is somewhat of a backburner side project (upgrading my previous sandy bridge mod to core i7 Quad and Mountain Lion).


Lets start with Success: THE EPI-QM77


This is the EPIC board, it is slightly larger than the ECX board, but fits easily within the dome.  As always this is a purchased retail copy of Mountain Lion using the brilliant tonymac's Unibeast/Multibeast install method (Thank you again tonymac).  Changing the SATA from IDE to AHCI was the only change I had to make in the bios, otherwise it installed natively.  Interestingly, I had trouble getting the USB to function from a USB 3.0 port, but when I plugged it into the apple keyboard's USB via the USB 3.0 it worked fine.

An Ivy Bridge "MacBook Pro" in an iMac G4 shell
I am still tweaking the multibeast settings somewhat, but will report them with final recommendations shortly.  As you can see, this build eschews the optical drive for the native PSU.  Although this is cleaner as there is no power brick, I have mixed feelings about loosing the aesthetics of the drive.  Its getting harder to justify what is really a cosmetic feature at this point.  I am still trying to devise a use for this and to somehow incorporate a usb powered motor to open and close the door revealing a hot plug or extra ports.

I will have to see what might be needed from a cooling perspective, but I may need to upgrade to a larger heatsink, but can not be sure until the computer is fully assembled.

This is likely the build I will keep as this board has everything I need, Core i7 Quad Ivy Bridge with HD4000 graphics, Enough USB 3.0 slots and 2 SATA 6.0 ports.  Even a quality 7.1 Realtek Audio Chip is included.


The "Looks Promising" Board: THE INTEL DC3217BY

Rear ports

On tonymac's forums I have seen successful hackintosh builds using the sister model which has ethernet and two monitor support.  This is the "higher end" model because of the inclusion of a thunderbolt port.  With the help of mikeboss' tip to set the graphics to 128mb, this board was able to post.  I did not go further as a mSATA is required and I did not have one large enough until now.  I have installed this Crucial 128GB mSATA, as well as a broadcom half height wifi card.  As this board is nearly identical, I suspect I will have similar success.  The question will be the thunderbolt, which I am hopeful will work natively.

With RAM, Wifi, and mSATA installed
I doubt this board will end up in this build permanently, but its an important proof of concept.  I believe that this tiny form factor has potential and Intel is currently pushing it for hobbyists.  Hopefully they will continue to improve and expand this line.  However, this first generation is underpowered with a core i3 vs the other boards.  Also it has few ports.  While the thunderbolt is intriguing and the idea of having all the ports in the back connect to one thunderbolt internally (ethernet, extra display, usb's etc) similar to apple's cinema display, thunderbolt accessories are currently way overpriced.  This board, as its the most compact, is the most versatile and is likely to have many uses in other projects.  That said, nothing is certain, and I will see this through.


NOT AT ALL: The Gene HM-76

I had high hopes for this ECX board, but I am currently having issues with the DVI display.  I am unsure if this is a failure of the board or its ability to communicate with my DVI/TMDS mod.  There are a few things I still want to try. 



As Lion ran so well on it, I doubt Mountain Lion will be a problem, but I will test this as well as the core i7 processor.


A New QM-77 Ivy Bridge Board:

Quanmax will be releasing the Ivy Bridge KEEX-7100 and 7101 which contain embedded Core i5 and Core i7 mobile processors respectively.  ALthough I have a fondness for Quanmax and its KEEX boards have served me well, this board is not yet available and this is somewhat late in the game.  As I frequently change processors and tinker, I try to avoid embedded systems if possible (no other option with Intel NUC, but price is actually reasonable for a processor included system), but it remains a viable alternative.  

The Old Mac Mini:

I have been looking at ebay and the white polycarbonate Core 2 Duo systems are falling in price.  While the new boards are too big, the older style will work, but price to performance has been a limitation.  Although underpowered, there is a huge advantage in a native OS X machine and the final iterations (2.5+ Ghz) are still capable machines.  I will have to see if I can obtain one at a reasonable price.

Thanks for reading, will keep updating as I go.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ivy Bridge Upgrades via Small Form Factor Boards

The Current SFF (Small Form Factor) Market and Trends:

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had suspended work on my iMac G4 20" upgrade until Small Form Factor Ivy Bridge Boards become available.  I have become somewhat of a small form factor enthusiast as a result of these projects and am excited by the accessibility of what previously were industrial only form factors as well as new specifically targeted enthusiast boards such as the Raspberry Pi, Android Compatible ARM boards, and Intel's NUC line.  I am pleased to report that I am in possession of one SFF Ivy Bridge Board and have another two ordered and en route.

As the size and power consumption of powerful processors and boards continue to decrease these mods will only continue to get easier, more diverse, more powerful, and less expensive.  The one "nuisance" of the recent computing era (at least for these projects) has been an unbalanced focus on shrinking things primarily by thickness.  The ultrabook and tablet markets have caused a "flattening" of components without as significant a change in the other dimensions.  Take the Mac Mini for example, the overall volume decreased as a result of a dramatic reduction in height, but this was in spite of an actual increase in the footprint (length x width).
Old on top, New on bottom
Courtesy of CNET

SFF Computing and iMac G4 Mods

A Tight Squeeze
As far as the iMac G4 mod (and many other mods/projects) are concerned this can actually complicate things.  For those not familiar with my approach to the iMac G4 is Mobos smaller = better.

To sum up, the original iMac was convection cooled were physical contact via heat pipes carried heat to the top of the dome where a fan blew out. Thus the very poorly ventilated case was designed to be cooled with room temperature air coming in through slits at the bottom of the dome and hot air being blown out through the top of the dome.  Any air cooled motherboard/cpu (by far the hottest and most important component) benefits from being as close to the top as possible because it decreases the distance the heated air has to travel before it reaches the case fan and ventilation and decreases the heat of the overall dome and the heat the components above the mono/cpu are subjected to.  Also, probably most important, placement at the bottom of the dome will unavoidably result in poor, obstructed ventilation.  Any other component, especially wiring, will have to go above the CPU and mobo.  As the dome tapers to the fan at its apex and the faraday (metal inside) cage makes most of the periphery of the dome difficult to use for components.  If all you want is a motherboard and cpu, it can be done with a large heatsink to the top of the dome and a low thermal output processor, but no other components could be added and wiring would still be difficult.

Using a small form factor board allowed me to use a Core i processor at the top of the dome and allowed the rest of the dome to be used for a pico PSU, a full 5.25" optical drive, and a 2.5" solid state HDD.  As the widest point base still barely fits a mini itx (and port blocking is a problem), so options have been limited.  I am fairly certain the the mac mini will eventually shrink in all directions and that it will be suitable for a G4 mod.  In addition, I am hopeful, new form factors of computing will emerge and we will see other alternatives to the ultrathin rectangles that dominate today.  But for now, this is what I am working with:

Current Ivy Bridge SFF Options:

I will be reviewing each of the options based on features, cost to performance ratio, size and workability with the iMac G4 mod, and "hackintoshability".  Therefore, expect this post to be a work in progress with periodic updates.  Again, I am focusing on high performance x86 architecture, but this is by no means a slight to alternatives such as low-power Nano/Pico x86 boards or increasingly popular ARM devices, this is simply a matter of personal preference.

Choice 0: Quanmaxx KEEX-6100 ECX board

KEEX-6100 with large heatsink

I am listing this as "Choice 0" because it is based on Sandy Bridge Architecture, but it has been overwhelming successful particularly as a hackintosh running OSX Lion.  It is available from Quanmaxx's USA store and is even available in a wide temperature variant.  Here it is seen with an extra large heatsink I adapted when I upgraded this to a Core-i7 Quad.

Choice 1: Avalue's EPI-QM-77

Front View
Though this EPIC board is slightly larger, this board is"thinner" as a result of more room for ports on the edges, thus no need for the stacked ports seen on the ECX boards.  It remains a small form factor that easily fits the iMac G4 chassis.  It is available from Global American and I have it in my possession and just started working with it.

Back View
In terms of size, here are pictures of this board in the middle with a Core i Mini-itx on its left and the Quanmaxx (with regular heatsink) on the right.  The first picture shows overall dimensions,while the second shows thickness/height.

From Left to Right: Mini itx, EPIC, ECX

From Left to Right: Mini itx, EPIC, ECX

Choice 2: Aaeon's GENE-HM76 ECX

Also available as a more expensive QM77 (has extra corporate features, most apple mobile Ivy bridge processors are HM77 (very similar to HM76).
Courtesy of Aaeon
This is a true ECX board and identical in size to the Quanmaxx ECX.  I have purchased this board from NextWarehouse and it is en route.

Choice 3: Intel NUC: DC321BY QS77

Courtesy of Newegg

Although it only contains a Core i3, this is the one I am most excited about.  This is because of reasons outlined in my previous post.  This is the smallest Core i board that intel believes is possible.  This board is targeted at the mainstream and this model includes thunderbolt connectivity.  This comes with a "chassis" and is likely to see upgraded models at regular intervals in the future.  It is widely available from vendors including Newegg.  It has been ordered and I will continue to update as I learn more.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The "Next Unit of Computing" - A Small Form Factor for Mainstream Users?

Courtesy of PC World
Pictured above is an all in one kit which contains a new Intel sponsored form factor called the NUC or "Next Unit of Computing" which if rumors are to be believed will go on sale this fall.  This little box features an Ivy Bridge Core i3 Processor, including HD 4000 graphics.

At 4" x 4" (102 x 102mm), the motherboard contained within is even slightly smaller than the smaller side of ECX boards (105 x 146mm - yes the 3.5" board is not actually 3.5", but it is the same size as 3.5" drives, which are not 3.5" but have 3.5" platters inside them).  These boards are smaller than the semi-mainstream nano itx boards (120 x 120mm) and even give the ultra-tiny PicoITX (100 x 72mm) a run for its money.

The only information I know comes from these articles:

Engadget's Story on the NUC

PC World's Story on the NUC

The Top of the NUC
(Courtesy of PC World)
But, if this is to believed, this would be a huge boon for hobbyists, modders, and small form factor enthusiasts.  To summarize, Intel undertook a project to determine the smallest possible form factor that would be needed to support a full Ivy Bridge CPU + Expansion and came up with NUC.  I had actually  read about this in an article several months back, but moved on when I read that intel sees this being used in digital signage and kiosks.  I thought that this was just a slightly different form factor for industrial/embedded applications that I've talked about many times on this blog (ECX, EPIC, etc).  I do not know if this was intel's goal from the beginning or if the popularity of other small form factors such as the Raspberry Pi, VIA's pico itx boards or Zotac's Zbox caused a change of heart, but it appears this product is headed for the mainstream.

The Bottom of the NUC
(Courtesy of PC World)

What makes the NUC board so special?

Now functionally, as of right now, there is likely little difference between the end result of using one of the industrial boards I have previously mentioned or VIA's/Zotac's offerings, and this board, but there are some key differences that make this board 'special'?


What mainstream means is availability to consumers via retail outlets.  This may not seem like a huge concern, but take from someone who has desperately tried to get the latest small form factor boards from industrial/embedded companies.  The first question they ask me is how many employee's my company has followed by asking if the number of board I'll need is in the 10 - 100 board range or the over 100 range.  Being able to obtain 1 board with retail support is a huge bonus.  While this is overpriced at $400, at least that includes the entire kit including the case.  I would also expect this price tag to fall in future iterations.


While the Raspberry Pi is great for Arduino Fans and other ARM processors are Android ready, Intel and the x86 architecture remains the most versatile chip available.  Capable of running almost any operating system and it seems to be in intel's best interest to keep its hardware as operating system agnostic as possible.

This board is designed to have the most powerful architecture on it.  Although available in more powerful varieties, most small form factor boards are power-sipping, ATOM or FUSION based.  Not so here.  Yes, it is only i3 to start, but i5/i7 variants are supposedly in the works. 


At first glance the few USB ports and HDMI may seem paltry, but the one word that makes all the difference is THUNDERBOLT.  The next generation interface will allow for devices to be daisy chained as if they were part of the board itself.  Think of this as attaching daughter boards, if you want more usb ports, more display interfaces, more storage, no problem.  But, its even more, the PCI express speeds allow for connection to graphics cards is the need arises.  This allows you to build a board in any orientation and with whatever components you choose around a 4" square core.


Despite the fact that it works, ECX/EPIC Boards are not intended for consumer computing and contain features that are somewhat wasted.  From security features to direct LVDS connections to dual gigabit ethernet to the ability to support a SIM card.  These proprietary features are usually left unused and in some cases even have to be disabled to make the boards more compatible.

All in all, I hope this board is a sign of things to come.  This is obviously a niche product, but most OEM computer products are niche at this point, from LED enshrined gaming cases to water cooling components.  The point is I believe that there is a market for people who want to incorporate powerful systems into small products and locations.  The smaller it is, the more extensive the options are.  But, I have to admit, I think the NUC would look fantastic in the base of an iMac G4.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Classic Merit Megatouch meets Classic Apple

The Merit Megatouch Bar/Table Top Game Machine

The Merit Megatouch Maxx (Saphire)
Megatouch Force
Maybe its nostalgia, maybe its a truly great piece of software/hardware, but I have always loved these machines.  I remember vividly playing photohunt at a local dive bar at a time when touchscreen technology seemed quite futuristic.  With less processor power than an iphone and resistive touchscreen technology that connected via serial cable, its amazing that I still see these machines being used frequently in bars and taverns.
Merit Ion Megatouch
(Courtesy of Jester's Amusements)

While I don't really know much about the various product lines that Merit offered, I do know that the most common machines I saw were the CRT Merit Maxx (with its jewel themed updates) and the newer Megatouch Force.

I'm putting together a game room and a Merit Megatouch was something I hoped to incorporate right from the start.  At first I looked at the modern LCD versions (such as the Aurora or Ion Lines).  In my opinion, the prices were astoundingly high for the level of hardware.  When I looked at older machines in various conditions, I again saw very high prices and a ver slow depreciation.  This didn't bother me so much, as it gave me an excuse to DIY it and truly make it my own.  Unfortunately, I found out that Merit does not license its software.  Thus, the reason for the high prices is really the software as well as excellent customer support from Merit.

Choosing parts is also somewhat of a pain as Merit is very protective of its software (as is its right).  Buying individual parts requires making sure your hardware and physical security key matches up with the Merit supplied hard drives.  The best bet is to obtain a working machine with defective screen and/or in physical disrepair, but functional inside (easier said than done).

So here is the motherboard:

Megatouch XL with Maxx Diamond conversion
Its technically and old Megatouch XL that was upgraded to the Megatouch Maxx
I again want to point out (both for my own protection and to state a fact).  This is a native Merit board, HDD, I/O card, and security key (the object with the battery and tag in the lower left corner of the motherboard).  The AT power source is new and replaces a defective one.  This is in NO WAY a hacked board and there is absolutely NO use of cracked or stolen/pirated or otherwise altered software.  Instead this is a genuine Merit Megatouch with some working parts (motherboard, I/O, HDD) and some non-working/damaged parts (powersource, touchscreen, CRT, enclosure) that I am replacing with available alternatives.

Booting is slow, the fan is loud, but it works
There is something very rewarding about repurposing old hardware that is otherwise destined for the trash.  This is especially true with "classic" hardware.  While "classic" is obviously in the eye of the beholder and difficult to define, to me it means, "a device that performs its original function in such a manner that it can not or at least has not been significantly improved upon, even if that function is currently considered obsolete."  With the iMac G4, from a mechanical engineering perspective, it "did its job" perfectly.  It allowed for nearly effortless manipulation of an LCD monitor.  Thus, making it easy to have the LCD conform to all potentially desirable viewing heights, angles, and tilt.  New technology may eliminate the need to change viewing angle to make a screen readable (IPS).  It may/will replace the need for LCDs with superior and more customizable viewing technologies (ex holograms, project glass).  But, if your goal is to have an all in one computer with a 15 - 20" LCD screen viewed on a desk, I don't think it has ever gotten better than the iMac G4.  People who love classic cars would likely say the same thing about their passion.  Similarly, Merit has barely changed the formula and, even in the iPad age, can still sell its touch devices for thousands.  This is because these Megatouch Machines "do what they do" perfectly.  They play simple, entertaining touch games that are both nostalgic and timeless.

The 17" ELO 1715L
A 300 watt AT PSU was easy enough to find for a few dollars.  The touch screen was somewhat of a happy coincidence.  The original touch screen was a 3M and I actually found an old touchscreen controller for this device.  However, I also an old 17" 4:3 LCD touch monitor from ELO.  While I was fairly certain the VGA would scale up easily to 17" from the original 15" CRT, I did not know if the touch screen would work or if I could calibrate it for 17".  I had forgotten that this particular touch monitor had both a usb and serial port option for touch control (I was planning on getting a USB to serial adapter), but did not need it.  It seemed to work, but clearly needed calibration.
First run - Touchscreen not Calibrated
The Menu Control connected to Momentary switch
I need to thank "Dark Paladin" and his work with Merit Megatouches.  In his project, which can be found here:

He reveals the 4 important pins including the two grounds at the top left and second from left, as well as the setup pin (top right) and Touchscreen calibration pin (second from right on top).  Using a momentary switch to temporarily ground these switches will send you to the Setup and Touch Calibration Menus respectively.  His design is definitely worth a read to anyone considering a similar project.
Touch Screen Working ... Photo Hunt Time
Some issues such as I/O, Sound, and Quieting the fan still need working out.

But the first thing to consider is the permanent housing.  The motherboard is way too bid for the iMac G4 and too wide for the iMac G5.  However, the other white plastic desktop of the era I feel would make an ideal home.  I am referring to the 17" Flat CRT based eMac.  Elimination of the CRT will give plenty of room for the PSU, Motherboard, I/O and HDD.  Cooling mechanisms and air flow are already present in the chassis.  In addition, my current 4:3 17" LCD should fit perfectly.  Despite this transition, because the CRT in the eMax is actually flat, it should be indistinguishable from the outside.

The I/O hub can be fitted with the momentary switches and the existing on/off button can be used.  The existing front speakers seem perfect for this mod.

Broken eMac = Future Megatouch?
Although it is bulky, there is a classic look to it and it will allow for a single contained unit.  I have picked up the broken eMac seen above.  The front bezel needs repair or replacement, but it otherwise appears to be in good shape.

All in all, I think this will make a very fun project while I await small form factor Ivy Bridge Boards for my new Pro iMac G4 mod.

Please feel free to ask any questions and as always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Future Remains Bright - Ivy on the Horizon

Industrial/Embedded/Single Board Computers

The names above are the categories to which the motherboard form factors discussed below belong to.  These terms seem to be somewhat interchangeable and include many different form factors that are both smaller as well as some that are larger than the ATX standard and its variations.

I am by no means an expert in this field and the information below is based on my still evolving knowledge of these boards.  I apologize ahead of time for any inconsistencies contained in this post.  One thing is clear, however, the line between consumer and industrial is blurring.  The popularity of mobile computing, with its requirement for power efficiency and small yet powerful form factors has driven the miniaturization of consumer hardware as well as software.  On the hardware side, mobile chipsets today are often just as powerful as their desktop counterparts.  Smaller I/O such as mSATA and mini-PCIe are quite common.  On the software side operating systems are becoming more light weight.  In my opinion, Windows 8 will mark the death of the Compact Embedded or (Embedded Compact?) software.  You could argue that Windows RT or even Windows Phone 8 are CE operating systems, but reviewing the specs on "Embedded Boards" over the past 5 years shows a clear trend.  While the recommended OS from 3 - 5 years ago almost always had some Windows CE release next to it, current boards have statements like "all popular operating systems software."

Arguably, the most powerful current Mac is the Mac Pro with retina display.  It contains the i7-3720qm processor for the qm77(or hm77/hm76) chipset.  This small chipset is available on these form factors, as well as SATA 6gb/s and USB 3.0.  Up to 8gb of DDR3 RAM, mini-PCIe, and gigabit ethernet are common as well.  These represent top of the line components and compete with ATX boards in all categories with the exception of graphical capability via PCIex16 busses.  However, Ivy Bridge is somewhat of a turning point for on-CPU graphics and end-user addable discrete mobile graphics will hopefully be available at some point.

I suspect as the consumer/industrial lines continue to blur, more SBC/Industrial board makers will make their expertise and wares more available to the consumer.  I don't believe desktop computing is dying, but as mobile computing drives innovation, I think we will see its components shrink down in size as well.

The ECX / 3.5" Form Factor (105mm x 146mm)

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have become a big fan of this form factor.  The major reason for this is its fit into the iMac G4 base.  While mini itx is obviously more mainstream and widely available, it is not ideally suited to this mod because of its size.  Small "non-industrial" form factors such as Nano itx and Pico itx are not hard to find, but these typically use low power processors.

Quanmax's KEEX-6100

The ECX/3.5" Form Factor developed as an embedded industrial board.  It seems to be somewhat of an offshoot of the stackable PC/104 compatible: EPIC and EBX (5.25") boards.  Sometimes the ECX is classified as a SBC or embedded computer with these other form factors, sometimes it is classified with the EBX as a "disk sized SBC", or sometimes it is in a category by itself.

3.5" boards do not tend to support PC/104 (though some do) and instead were supported by intel as an open standard: Embedded Compact Extended Form Factor.  The intention was a small form factor for use in cars, medical equipment, and information/kiosks.  With such varied uses, a very wide variety of capabilities exist in this form factor.  In general most tend to support LVDS natively and include a small form factor storage such as compact flash.  They also tend to use mobile chipsets, RAM modules, and mini-PCI expansion.  Power is usually by a P4 (2x12V 4 pin connector).  Because they may need to be used in processor intensive tasks, they are available with top of the line mobile processors.

In my experience they tend to be very compatible, malleable, and fairly simple "no proprietary" features boards.  As a result, I have been extremely pleased with their performance in both core 2 duo and core i/sandy bridge variants.

I intend this post to be reminiscent of a previous post "The Future is Bright".  Back then, I took a break from my 20" mod to wait for the release of a Core i Variant of the ECX form factor by Quanmax and the KEEX-6100 did not disappoint.

The largest upgrade I can make to my previous mod would be graphically.  As a separate graphics card is impractical, use of Ivy Bridge's HD4000, would be very ideal.


1) GENE-QM77

First I saw this board released by AAEON (a sub-company of ASUS)
Courtesy of
2) Then AVALUE announced this 3 boards including the ECM QM77 an ivy bridge ECX board

I feel like these will be obtainable in the next coming months with likely other options to follow.  As a result, I have decided to pause on my 20" pro mod until these are available.

The EPIC Form Factor (115mm x 165mm)

The Embedded Platform for Industrial Computing.
Courtesy of
Is a standard created to fit in size between the PC/104 and EBX Industrial Form Factors.  Most seem to support stackable PC/104 and PC/104+ add ons.

In general these seem to be similar, though slightly larger than the ECX.  In general, these tend to support more powerful processors and less low-power systems.  They have some extra I/O options.

I have never worked with these boards, but at only 1cm x 2cm larger than ECX boards, I certainly consider them a viable alternative.


Avalue's EPI-QM77
- Appears to be very similar to the company's ECX-QM77 mentioned above.

Courtesy of

In The Meantime:
As I have the quad core i7 board ready to go, I will either place this in the base of a new iMac G4 20" or give my core i5 a refresh with the upgraded processor and native PSU.

I am also building a game room and working on plans to incorporate a touch screen bar game based on the guts of an old MEGA TOUCH by Merit CRT display.  As to the form factor, I was thinking about using a 17" eMac.  Hopefully, I'll have updates soon.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Updates on 20" iMac G4 "PRO" Mod

The "PRO" iMac G4 Mod

I apologize about using the "PRO" moniker which along with "MINI" has become overused when referring to apple mods or speculation on future apple products.  I use it here simply to differentiate this mod from the very similar iMac G4 Sandy Bridge Mod.  This mod isn't really a "PRO", its really just different.  When I was putting together my previous mod, there were things I wanted to include but didn't because I was concerned it would alter the original appearance and function of the iMac G4.  I made the decision to keep that mod as faithful as possible to the original.  As such, the microphone, LED light, optical drive, and outward appearance were kept intact.  I had wondered how it would have turned out had I gone the other direction and after sometime, I have decided to find out.

I was hoping that Ivy Bridge ECX boards might be available by the time I started this mod, but to date I have seen only one: GENE-QM77 by AAEON which is currently cost prohibitive.  As such, I am proceeding with the same Quanmax KEEX-6100 I used in my previous mod.  This board has surpassed my expectations and as it was easily compatible with 10.7 Lion, I am hopeful 10.8 Mountain Lion will work smoothly as well.  That said, there was room for some improvements.

Preliminary Tests


For some reason, 4GB is listed as the maximum RAM on some parts of the KEEX-6100 documentation and 8GB on other parts.  It turns out that 8GB is the maximum and I have upgraded the RAM accordingly.


The top of the Dual Heatsinks
I had initially planned for a Core i7 Quad Core, but was concerned about temperature and power usage.  The highest wattage Pico PSUs were 150-160watt, but the native PSU supports 190watts.  Unfortunately, with the drive in place the native PSU does not fit.  In addition, the standard socket heatsink and fan were not adequate for the quad core, but a larger heatsink or cooling system could not fit.  As such, I used the dual core - i5 processor.

To use the Core i7 Quad, I simply need more space.  The optical drive will be eliminated.  This will allow for use of the native PSU as well as a more robust cooling solution.  I have described use of the native PSU in a previous post and this carries with it the added benefit of doing away with the power brick of the Pico PSU.  For the cooling, I have decided to fuse a passive Socket G2 heatsink with the larger desktop active heatsink pictured here.  So far, this seems to be a signficant improvement.

The KEEX-6100 with Large Heatsink/Fan


A Touchscreen

There are two accessories that I feel fit well with the iMac G4.  The first of these is a Touchscreen.  Those familiar with my blog may recall my cinema display mod which used a 5-wire resistive touchscreen.  While I loved the touchscreen itself, I did not love the resistive touchscreen.  It had a tremendous glare, took away from the LCDs image, and its responsiveness was less than perfect.  Also, incorporating a touchscreen into Apple's hardware has always been difficult.  Many other manufacturers have "wiggle" room.  These unused centimeters of space allow for a touch controller to fit.  They also allow for the touchscreen itself to fit in front of the display.  Apple tends to pack things in tight, making this much more difficult.

Optical, IR, Resistive, and Capacitive Touchscreens

In selecting the type of touchscreen to use there were two basic options.  The first option was using optical or IR touch which would have required an array and sensors within the bezel.  This would require moving the LCD further back with regard to the bezel.  The second option of resistive or capacitive (also Surface Acoustic Wave) used a glass or plastic panel that sits in front of the display.  As there is no extra room in the iMac G4's LCD housing this would mean either making the LCD itself thinner or having the touch panel sit flush with the bezel.  The decision was somewhat made for me as a result of the 16:10 20.1" dimensions required.  Modding a 19" 16:10 IR caused blind spots in the all too important corners and modding the 16:9 20" optical sensors to 16:10 caused it to barely function at all.  These methods have potential, but will require more experimenting.

I have obtained a 20.1" 16:10 capacitive touch screen from 3M that appears to function markedly better.  The largest negatives are its thickness and weight.  Because of its thickness, it will not fit in front of the LCD glass.  the active touch area falls within the bezel, the size of the touchscreen includes an inactive area that is on the outer portion of the panel.  Thus, it must go inside the bezel, outside the bezel, or the bezel must be modified.

Initially I thought about converting the backlight from CCFLs to brighter LEDs allowing me to shrink the diffuser inside the LCD housing.  The diffuser is a clear plastic piece used to spread the light uniformly.  Unfortunately I was not thrilled with the light distribution in some of my tests.  Again, this is certainly something that is possible and may be revisited in the future.  JeanLuc7 has done amazing work with conversion of CCFL to LEDs in his blog: 53 cent. (It is in German).  However, I decided to look to my older mods for ideas.

The Apple Cinema Display/iMac G4 Touchscreen Mod  used the housing from an apple cinema display.  This was done because at this time I did not know how to use the native inverter and the cinema displays would not fit.  Both the controller and the inverter fit within the Cinema Display's housing.  I then attached the resistive screen to the front of the cinema display and the iMac G4 bezel in front of that.  This was not an elegant solution as the touch panel protruded far in front of the LCD itself.  Even the touch wires were exposed and wrapped around the side.  To internalize everything, I decided to cut the inner part of the ACDs bezel allowing the touch panel to sit flush with the bezel.  This was a dramatic improvement.   See the ACD/iMac G4 Touch Improvements post for details.

Here are pics of a trial of a modded iMac G4 bezel using the same concept:
The Front
The Back
20.1" 16:10 LCD
 The bezel contains a white plastic with a clear plastic over it.  To this plastic tabs attach an "LCD Frame" to which the LCD is held in place by screws that come in from the side.  This causes the LCD to be recessed from the bezel in front of it.  Above you may see that I have cut away the inner (white and clear) plastic part of the frame.  Allowing the touch screen to sit flush with the bezel and thus "fit" within the iMac G4s LCD housing.  The problem is that the nonactive border of the touch panel and the metallic casing of the LCD itself will be exposed.  In the Cinema Display Mod, this was covered by the iMac G4 Bezel.  Here I am thinking of adding some type of thin strips in either the white color of the iMac or a gray/silver color that will go around the inner border sitting on top of the bezel/touch panel interface.  After all, I want this "PRO G4" to look different.  Any ideas would be appreciated.

An iSight Camera

In my current setup I use an iMac G4 and iMac G5 (both of which use an ACD controller to work), with a modern generation external mac mini.  The G4 has an optical drive in its base, while the G5 has an iSight which has been converted to USB.  What I've noticed is that having the camera on the G4 would have made so much more sense.  Being able to move the camera  as easily as you move the screen makes a lot of sense.  As I am modifying the panel already, fitting an iSight should be possible.  Several iSights may work, I have seen the 13" MacBooks camera used, but as I have and am familiar with the iSight from the iMac G5 and it appears to fit.  If you look at the modified bezel back picture, you may notice a small part of the gray LCD "Holder" is missing. This has been removed to accommodate the iSight camera.

I believe I'll be able to fit the small touch controller as well as the iSight Camera.  The problem is that the computer is in the base and I will need to wire this to the computer in the base.  While opening up the neck and adding additional wires is possible, it is not ideal, and we do have extra wires.

The Additional Wires

For USB we will need 4 wires.  As we have 2 items 8 total wires will be needed.

There are 2 wires the supply the LED.  One Red and One Green.  While the LED on the LCD is ok, I have been planning on putting an LED light elsewhere regardless.
The 2 LED wires
Although I plan on having a microphone, I will test out the consequence of placing it either on the top or bottom front of the base.  This will allow me to use these 3 wires intended for the microphone.  The Red, Black, Black wires of the microphone are pictured below.
The 3 Mic Wires
The Orange and Purple Wires are not used in this mod.  Although the Yellow is not hooked up in the picture it connects via resistor to the 5V VEDID, and is required to turn the monitor on.  Thus 2 wires are available.
Unused Inverter Wires
2+3+2 = 7.  As a result an extra wire is needed.  When I tried combining the ground or power wires for these two items, I ran into problems, so they must be kept separate.  Thus, an extra wire is needed.

Isolating the hot pink wire
I wanted to leave the LCD power itself alone if I could, so I decided to use the Yellow wire from the inverter.  My thinking was that the yellow wire (very low power) is required to turn on the inverter.  I stole this power from the DVI VEDID pin(5V via a 6.8Kohm resistor) and split it between this wire, the hot/pink (true VEDID wire) and (also via resistor - 1Kohm) the Hot Plug Detect DVI pin.  So I figured I'd move the split into the LCD case itself.  Isolate the hot pink wire and (leaving it connected) strip it with an X-acto knife and add a connection via resistor to the yellow wire that goes to the inverter.  This leaves me the entire yellow wire that traverses the neck to use for my USB hookups.

The Yellow wire being diverted
When hooking up the two USB devices without the monitor being on it works flawlessly.  However, when I turn the monitor on, I run into all sorts of problems from lousy response time to an occasional power drain warning.  Now, while I suspect the power drain comes from a connection grounding out, its the poor connection that bothers me the most.  I am concerned that the power running parallel with these wires in the neck is creating interference and that they may not be properly shielded to perform the task I am intending.

This leaves me with a couple options

1) Adjust which wires do what and try combining different combinations - here is whee I will start.

2) Use only one of the USB devices.  This would depend on how well they would function.  Obviously I'd lean towards the touchscreen.  But, if the touchscreen does not work well or if its weight alters significantly the motion of the neck, I would still like to incorporate the iSight.

3) Add a USB or mini/micro usb hub in the LCD case.  As it is very tight, I am not sure this would fit, but its worth a shot.

4) Replace the existing mic/led wire with a shielded Dual usb cable.  Maybe difficult to thread, but also a possibility.

An Unusual Problem

During this testing I came across an unusual problem that I believe is innate to the ECX board and native PSU itself.  Initially the screen would be black then light up when the computer was turned on.  When the computer would be turned off - there would still be a slight glow from the backlights.  Interestingly this seemed to be modulated by the yellow inverter wire where adding higher levels of resistance between this wire and the 5V dimmed this light, I could not eliminate it.  Disconnecting the 5V to the PSU or the PSU's 24V to the inverter turned off the light.

Native PSU's Blue and White Leads
At first I could not understand this as the 5V rails come from the DVI pin of the ECX board which was off.  I figured that some voltage keeps flowing through this pin, so I took 5V from elsewhere.  I connected this to the 5V from the SATA/MOLEX connector on the board.  However, I still had the same problem.  Then I tried a USB, again the same.  I realized that some voltage was flowing through all the ECX boards 5V rails as long as it was connected to the PSU, even if the board was off.

I believe this is a quirk between the native PSU and the ECX, as the native PSU is "always on" supplying 12V to the ECX.  The ECX requires only a 4pin 12V connector, it then down converts this to 5V.  So it appears there is always some power on the 5V rails. To solve this, I went to the 12V rails which are supplied by the PSU and not modified by the ECX.  Using the small 15watt 12V to 5V downconverter I have previously discussed and hooking the White/Blue of the PSU to the 12V Yellow/Black of the SATA/Molex via the downconverter, I eliminated this problem.

Wanted to mention this to anyone in case you are using my exact setup.

Connection to 12V Rail via Downconverter

So it appears I have some more work to do on this.......But I am going to put this project to the side for now, as I will explain in my next post.  Thanks for reading.