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Building a PC for the kitchen


You're kidding, right?
— 12:00 AM on April 7, 2004

MY RECENT PURCHASE of a laptop computer created a dilemma almost immediately. I bought it to use primarily for business, so I could have a means of keeping in touch when traveling and, thanks to a wireless router, the ability to work at various places in or around the house.

The laptop was a big hit well before business travel began, because there's nothing quite like computing from the couch or the kitchen counter. I could work on it and keep one watchful eye on the kids, or just have a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, so could my wife, and it wasn't long before she'd virtually taken possession of the laptop. It became a fixture on our kitchen counter, where either one of us could check mail, surf the web, pay bills, or the like. She'd even use the computer to send instant messages into the belly of Damage Labs, communicating vital info without cracking open the door and letting the kids spill downstairs into the testing area carrying static charges like midget agents of electronic death.

Trouble is, we both wanted to use the laptop at the same time. After a long day of making smart remarks in news posts, there's nothing like stretching out on the couch to make smart remarks in more news posts. But she'd want to pay the bills or some such irresponsible nonsense, and we'd be deadlocked. I was afraid she'd start getting the shakes as my next business trip approached.

So I decided: my laptop had to be reclaimed, and the Kitchen PC concept was born.

The plan was simple: create a PC to replace the laptop on the kitchen counter, and the laptop could be mine again. The execution, however, was a little more complicated. Laptop PCs are very good citizens in nearly any room, and the desktop PCs I normally build are not: they're too loud, too ugly, have too many cables, and leave much too large a footprint. If I did this wrong, I could look forward to both the scorn of my family and ridicule from my friends, with a side of embarrassment whenever anyone visited. Or, more likely, it just wouldn't work. The Kitchen PC would fail, and my laptop would never be mine again.

So I had to come up with a quiet PC with minimal noise, minimal footprint, and minimal mess. And it had to look good, too.

The recipe for success?
I drew on my extensive knowledge of stuff I have laying around, stuff we've reviewed, and stuff on the shelves at the local Best Buy to come up with an ingredients list for this little project PC. Let me outline the basic components for you.

  • A small form-factor box — This choice was the key to the whole experiment. We've reviewed lots of small form factor systems, but nothing beats the Zen XPC for quiet operation or a small footprint. The Zen is practically silent during normal operation, and it jumps frequently and willingly into power-save mode as I have it configured. What's more, its motherboard includes integrated Radeon 9100 IGP graphics, so I didn't have to sacrifice an AGP card to get it going. The Radeon 9100 IGP is reasonably decent as integrated graphics solutions go, so the kitchen system might be able to serve as overflow the next time we have a LAN party in Damage Labs.

  • A wireless-G PCI card — I picked a D-Link AirPlus G wireless network card to populate the Zen's one PCI slot because it had one undeniable virtue: it was really stinkin' cheap. This card has an antenna that sticks out the back of the PC, and it seems to work reasonably well. I could have gone with Shuttle's USB-based internal XPC wireless NIC, but it would have cost a little more and limited me to 11Mbps, so I settled on the D-Link with 802.11g instead.

  • A wireless keyboard and mouse — To keep clutter low and style high, I snagged a Logitech Cordless MX Duo on the cheap. This setup lets me keep the wires out of sight, but otherwise, I'm a little disappointed with it. I love my MX500 mouse, the corded version of the MX700 included in the Duo. I've heard folks say the MX700 is plenty fast and responsive, even for gaming, but that's not been my experience. Perhaps it's the wireless NIC and cordless phone living in close proximity, but there's easily detectable lag in this MX700's operation. It's totally workable for a kitchen appliance, but I definitely prefer my corded MX500.

  • A flat-panel monitor — We already had a Samsung 150s monitor on the premises, so I reallocated it to the kitchen, where its flat panel-ness is especially helpful. Its silver trim happens to match the Zen and the Cordless Duo, making the whole package fairly easy on the eyes.

  • CPU, RAM, and storage — Oh yeah. There's a processor and some RAM in there! I used a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 and 512MB of Corsair XMS3000 memory clocked up to 400MHz. The hard drive is—gasp!—an IBM DeathStar GXP 20GB. For reasons that will become clear, the GXP drives' tendency to keel over didn't bother me much.

  • Remote Desktop Connection — The whole point of a kitchen PC is to give the user a terminal, quick and dirty. To make that happen, we use Windows' Remote Desktop Connection to control our main PCs. That way, we can accomplish virtually anything on the kitchen system without installing any applications or storing any local data on its drive (hence my willingness to use the DeathStar drive.) We simply log in to our desktop PCs and work via Remote Desktop.

    Those of you who haven't tried Windows Terminal Services or Remote Desktop Connection are really missing out. It's much faster than other graphical remote control programs like VNC or PCAnywhere, because it hooks into the Windows GDI. You'll need WinXP Pro or a Windows Server OS on the host machine, but virtually any modern OS can act as a client one way or another.

  • A refrigerator? — You water cooling freaks can stop hyperventilating. The fridge here serves to cool our milk, eggs, and cheese. I've included it in my list because it also covers up all the unsightly wires and cables running in the back of the Zen XPC. I dropped the Zen's external power brick down behind the fridge, along with the power strip that the Zen and the monitor both plug into. Excess cabling, like the cord running from the XPC to the monitor, hangs down between the fridge and the counter, concealed from view.
Assemble all of these ingredients in the right proportions, and you get...