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Building a PC remote starter from scratch


Can we make a good idea better?
— 4:43 PM on July 6, 2017

Most gerbils are aware that Silverstone makes high-end PC enclosures, most of them with elegant styling and aluminum construction. The company's cases don't get as full-boat weird as competitor Lian Li's, but someone in upper management clearly lets the engineers go a little crazy with some of the accessories in the product catalog. One of the somewhat off-the-wall categories Silverstone gets into is its three-model line of PC remote controls. The original models, the SST-ES01-PCI and SST-ES01-PCIe, were released in 2016. These cards plugged into PCI or PCIe slots and toggled the power and reset buttons of the host PC with an RF remote control from up to 66 feet (20 meters) away. A second model, the ES02-USB, was released this year. The new model performs the same functions as the old one, but it's powered by a USB header.

That black remote looks like it would be easy to lose.

All three of these devices work according to simple principles. The power and reset buttons on a PC are connected to switches that close an open circuit when pressed. Every gerbil that has built a PC has had to squint at microscopic screen-printing on a motherboard while fussing with those fiddly little cables and their usually-non-standard layouts. Silverstone's PC remotes work by closing the same circuit via electronically-actuated switches. The most impatient gerbils have probably rubbed screwdriver tips or other metal objects against pairs of pins in a front panel header block while testing a motherboard to do pretty much the same thing. Silverstone's machines listen for an RF signal and short wires together to simulate a button press.

Let's detour for a moment and talk about three scenarios where a remote starter like this might be useful. My wife and I spent a couple days in the hospital waiting on a new addition to our family recently. Little Baby Manion isn't too mobile right now, but eventually, bouncing baby Brooke will be crawling around and poking things to see what happens. A PC with a remote power switch could have the front panel buttons disconnected entirely for immunity from small children's investigative fingers. Cat owners might use the remote for a similar reason.

Remote desktop, SSH, and FTP are wonderful tools for accessing computer resources when you are not seated in front of the machine with the desired resources. Accessing those goodies becomes more difficult if the machine crashes or a power outage causes an unplanned shutdown. A wireless remote-operated power button could allow a frustrated user to power-cycle the machine and regain access to the resources.

A device like this can let me be lazy, too. My family room shares a wall with my garage, so I store my HTPC out there. I added HDMI and USB keystone jacks to wall plates on either side of the wall that separates the garage from the family room so that I don't have to listen to or look at the HTPC. The system works well, but every once in a while I have to run out to the garage and grab a step stool so that I can tap the power button when the machine won't wake from sleep. Users with more remote HTPC placement might have bigger hoops to jump through.

My first impression after reading about Silverstone's devices for the first time was that the remote controls were a wonderful idea, but they got me thinking about ways to improve them with my hacker "skills." First, the remote switch would be more useful if it didn't require a dedicated remote control. Most people have a smartphone with them these days, and it's not as likely to get lost as a tiny, single-purpose fob. Second, the devices don't appear to be able to press and hold the power button, as is sometimes required in the event of a system crash. Perhaps a gerbil with some first-hand experience with Silverstone's devices can chime in on this matter. In any case, I thought I could do better with a custom-built remote starter, so I set out to see whether I could translate my proposed improvements into an actual device.