Building a PC for the kitchen

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…

The final appliance
The results look something like this:


The kitchen PC takes a bow

Not bad, I think, all things considered. But perhaps you’re shooting milk out of your nose in violent hysterics. The important thing, for me, is that my wife didn’t object to having this puppy in the corner of the kitchen, and I was able to reclaim my laptop computer.

Shortly thereafter, the laptop died a horrible death, but that is another story.

The kitchen PC concept, at least initially, has proven successful. We plan to add some things to expand its uses, like a higher res monitor with speakers and perhaps a DVD-ROM drive so it can play kiddie games. And we may yet find some reason—aesthetic, social, or practical—why this won’t work, but so far, so good. Just wait ’til grandma tries to jam a piece of toast in the back.

Comments closed
    • scsmith
    • 11 years ago

    I would have thought a good option would have been a touch screen overlay for the monitor, and an on-screen keyboard (e.g. My-T-Soft, as a quick Google search found), or perhaps an industrial keyboard with in-built mouse/trackball (e.g. iKey – DP-860 Industrial Desktop Keyboard – Google again).

    You can also get open-frame touch-screen monitors that could be built into a cupboard door, some even with through-glass capability, or fully sealed units on a swivel base similar to the ones shops use at POS.

    Dell now do some very nice small case/footprint PCs that wives like the look of ๐Ÿ™‚

    I must admit, that kitchen PCs are a line that could take off, especially if they were pre-integrated with a suitable software set, e.g. simple email client, IP phone (Skype?), messenger (MSN/Yahoo!/etc., e.g. Trillian), recipe finder, IPTV, DVD player, and web browser.

    • Maximillian
    • 12 years ago

    I am a messy cook, getting stuff ll over my hands. I have therefore invested in a washable keyboard. However, the mouse still is an issue. Does anyone have any ideas on what can be used that isn’t going to get destroyed by having food all over it?

    • Delphis
    • 16 years ago

    One question, how does the wireless network work with the cordless phone(s) (at least one that’s in the picture) and any microwave oven(s) that are around?

    I’m looking into having a wireless access point and have been eyeing my 2.4ghz cordless phones and microwave oven with suspicion :>

    • ssokol
    • 16 years ago

    Word of warning: I kept a very nice Vaio notebook in the kitchen until recently, when it was relocated to the dustbin. It turns out that very expensive, very small computers are not the fans of Corona that their owners are….

    • Pete
    • 16 years ago

    Looks great. The only thing I’d suggest would be a smaller keyboard, if yours takes up too much countertop. (Have you renamed the “Show Desktop” button yet? Wakka wakka wakka.) Maybe something like these:

    ยง[<http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=23-134-019&depa=0<]ยง ยง[<http://microcenter.com/single_product_results.phtml?product_id=0130194<]ยง Note that neither are wireless, and the second seems to have slighlty smaller than normal keys (I saw it in a local MC).

      • JavaDog
      • 16 years ago

      Might I reccomend Gryations option fo a keyboard. 100FT RF-Range, some of the BEST channel-selecting/non-interference electronics I have ever seen. Perfect for this type of application.

    • BiffStroganoffsky
    • 16 years ago

    Hmm, I’m thinking the monitor could use a wall mount to get it off the counter. A better one would mount under the cabinet(s) and swivel out off the way.

    • anand
    • 16 years ago

    Nice setup. Only thing I’d change is putting one of those membrane covers on the keyboard to keep bits and food and dirty fingers from messing it up.

    • RyanVM
    • 16 years ago

    Very purdy, Damage :).

    And there’s a hidden registry key with XP SP2 that allows for a user to log in via RDC without logging out the current user. I’m sure it’s googleable.

    As for the mouse lag, I guess to each his own. I love the MX700 personally and don’t notice any lag. It might be worth looking into the surface as a potential culprit.

    • zgirl
    • 16 years ago

    Oh and I forgot. Damage when you see an agent your supposed to RUN!!!!!!

    • Deth
    • 16 years ago

    b[

      • T_Dawg
      • 16 years ago

      Yes, being able to click on a link that says y[<"midget agents of electronic death"<]y is one of life's little joys.

    • Dposcorp
    • 16 years ago

    Nice job Damage.
    I have been thinking about this exact same problem.
    My wife wants to use a computer, but only now and then.

    I do not want to chance her touching my uber-systems, so I was thinking of either a used laptop with wifi or a shuttle system with wifi.

    I have bought a used Nforce 2 shuttle system and 15″ LCD, and am just waiting for the parts to arrive.
    I may still end up getting her a laptop if I find one priced right.

    On a side note, I am going to use 802.11A for the wireless network.
    I picked up used, 2 APs, 2 PCI cards, and a PCMCIA card for a $100 shipped.
    All Intel branded stuff. That seemed like a great deal, but I just hope they work thru as well as the B/G stuff.

    • indeego
    • 16 years ago

    We built another room. computer g{<><}g eating

    • tapout1511
    • 16 years ago

    The base station for that Cordless Duo is supposed to be possitioned 12-18″ away from other electronics, including monitors and PCs. That alone is probably most of the problem with the lag. It probably also loses communication regularly and has to be “Connect” ed.

      • emkubed
      • 16 years ago

      I thought the same, with the phone, mouse and wireless NIC. Too much too close.

        • Damage
        • 16 years ago

        Gee, so did I, so I mentioned it in the article. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Seriously, I get zero disconnects with the mouse, and moving the base around doesn’t seem to help. It’s not horrible, but it ain’t wired, and I don’t like it.

          • emkubed
          • 16 years ago

          Is yours a first or second revision MX700, I wonder.

    • JavaDog
    • 16 years ago

    And here I was hoping for a Mini-ITX Toaster-Mod!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Still, it’s nice.

    • nonegatives
    • 16 years ago

    “A computer in every room, and a mouse on every desk!”

    I would have mounted it under the cabinet and hung the LCD, but I don’t have a lot of counter space.

    • Nelis
    • 16 years ago

    PS. Upgrade your monitor a a tv lcd/monitor combo. They run about 500 bucks for a 17″ and that is what I’m using. Then you can watch tv while your on the computer as well. Picture in Picture too.. Or movies etc..

    • Nelis
    • 16 years ago

    Remote Desktop Connection sucks.. The main reason is because Microsoft prohibits the usage of a multiple users at one time because of licensing or something . Hence, if you connect to another PC that is on and logged in, it will log that user off and take over the PC. This is why I prefer PCAnyWhere. You can share the desktop with the user, or lock the user out if you prefer.

    If there is a way to have multiple users logged in at one time through Remote Desktop, I have not seen it yet.

      • zgirl
      • 16 years ago

      Which OS are you using. XP can only have one user at a time. Users can stay logged in with all the apps open, but only one user can connect.

      Remote Desktop is a scaled down version of M$ terminal services. If your using 2000 or 2003 server you can have more then one user on at the same time. For more you have to have purchase terminal server licenses. Works great.

      And don’t even get me started on what a buggy POS I think PCAnywhere is. Remote Desktop was a god send when it came out.

      • arb_npx
      • 16 years ago

      what about VNC? I haven’t used it personally, but it keeps the user logged on when running.

      • kyboshed
      • 16 years ago

      Apprently, Service Pack 2 will rectify that situation.

      • LauFu
      • 16 years ago

      *shakes his head.

      PC Anywhere is a bloated pig and VNC is FAR less efficient. And anyone who has actually had to try and “share a desktop” knows what a miserable experience it is in practice.

      The beauty of RDP is that you can VPN to your home, fire up a session and it’s still fast. (Unless you’re painting a ton of full screen images.)

      I play video over an RDP connection on 100BT and it’s watchable w/ audio. So it logs someone off. That someone is usually ME.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 16 years ago

      Reason being, as you said, licensing…you’d have some “genius” out there with as many people logged onto one computer as possible with a bunch of thin clients. 10 people sharing even 1.5 or 2GB of RAM is NOT that much memory. If that’s what you want, go set up a terminal services server.

    • Logan[TeamX]
    • 16 years ago

    Oh man, I am LOVIN that setup Damage!

    Too cool, too cool. I’ve wanted to do something similar at home for the living room for some time, but never got around to it.

    After seeing a SFFPC making it in the kitchen, it might be time to do some building yet again.

    • Metasheep
    • 16 years ago

    The mouse problem might be because of the counter’s surface. Have you tried your MX500 on it?

      • urinsane
      • 16 years ago

      good question

    • Convert
    • 16 years ago

    haha, good humor.

    That is one beefy setup for browsing. Keep it useable for a good long while.

    • ludi
    • 16 years ago

    “Shortly thereafter, the laptop died a horrible death, but that is another story.”

    We’ve got time. Start talkin’!

      • AmishRakeFight
      • 16 years ago

      yeah, no doubt – what happened???

        • Damage
        • 16 years ago

        Thing just croaked in mid-article-writing-session on a plane at 31,000 feet. I am without laptop until HPaq gets the thing picked up, fixed, and returned to me. So far, it’s taken a week to get the arrangements made via their crack tech support organization.

      • dolemitecomputers
      • 16 years ago

      He mentioned it before. I believe it happened while he was on a plane trip. It wouldn’t boot or had a video problem.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 16 years ago

        yeah, but we’re all hoping he DID SOMETHING to it to make it that way, or a horrible accident killed it…we love hardware destruction stories. ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Rakhmaninov3
    • 16 years ago

    Nice job of hiding all the wires. My room is one wired mess.

    • ripfire
    • 16 years ago

    How about installing a modified water-cooling system. Instead of using it for cooling, you can use it to heat incoming water (probably through your drinking water filter) and plug it into your percolator. Voila! Instant Mr.PC-Coffee. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • yokem55
      • 16 years ago

      Perfect use for an SFF prescott. You’d have to make a LOT of coffee/cocoa/tea/etc though to keep it from overheating…

        • ripfire
        • 16 years ago

        Meh, just have it feed into me intravenously. ๐Ÿ˜›

    • LauFu
    • 16 years ago

    Or you could just pick up an All-in-One PC w/ a built-in LCD screen for a few hundreds bucks.

    I have a Gateway Profile 2 that I got for free because I had to do some repair work on it. Perfect setup for browsing, although the keyboard is pretty crappy. (Anyone recommend a decent, smaller footprint keyboard w/ USB hub?) ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • GokieKS
      • 16 years ago

      The Apple Keyboard works beautifully. It’s white though, so might get dirty easily, especially in a kitchen…

      ~KS

        • LauFu
        • 16 years ago

        Which one? Any PC support? Link?

          • Steel
          • 16 years ago

          Any one will work fine without drivers. The “Apple” key works as the “Windows” key and the only key you really lose is the “right-click” key (the one next to the Windows key on the right side of the keyboard).

          • GokieKS
          • 16 years ago

          Just the regular “Apple Keyboard” that Apple ships with all new systems, now that they stopped making the “Apple Pro Keyboard”. As mentioned, by default the Apple key works as the Windows key, which is a bit weird if you’re used to the normal setup of Windows key being between Ctrl and Alt. But that’s easily rectified through the use of a program like KeyTweak (just Google it), which allows you to just switch the Alt and Windows key, and everything works like a charm. Or, if you’re truly hardcore, you can also do it through registry editing, but using a program is just a lot easier.

          ~KS

    • dolemitecomputers
    • 16 years ago

    Nice choice of keyboard and mouse. I have the same and love it. Now you just need an EZ Bake Oven and you have a true kitchen appliance:

    ยง[<http://www.thinkgeek.com/stuff/41/ezbake.shtml<]ยง

    • Evan_Frame
    • 16 years ago

    Don’t forget ยง[<http://www.allrecipies.com<]ยง as a valid reason to have a kitchen PC. Of course you could actually print out the recipe but for some reason I find it more useful to actually build a computer for the job.

      • yokem55
      • 16 years ago

      I’m in exactly the same boat. I do most of the cooking here, and it is very common to find me around dinner time hovering over our lappy on the counter with about ten different recipies open (I never cook a dish with input from only one recipe) on ten different tabs. I’ve had several close calls though with various substances coming close to permanently rendering this overpriced cookbook useless….

    • Nelliesboo
    • 16 years ago

    pretty nice set up

    • HowardDrake
    • 16 years ago

    Cool concept. I actually built a similar box for my mom. Hers was a:
    EPIA-M10000
    Casetronic 2699R case
    Slim-Line DVD drive
    256M 10G drive
    15″ LCD screen
    Gyration KB/Mouse
    WinTV Go card

    She uses it to surf for recipes, get email, and watch Food Network. Hopefully soon, I’ll stuff a PVR250 card into it and she can tape shows too ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Ruiner
      • 16 years ago

      I’m going the Epia route for Ma’ as well, but with the Sereniti 2000 case ($48 bucks at Directron now). It uses regular laptop drives, too.

      She’s broadband deprived, so the pci slot will unfortunately go to a modem ๐Ÿ™

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