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.