Saturday, July 10, 2010

Linkworld "Imposter" Case

I'm building up yet another computer so I recently bought this case from (Linkworld model 431-0 C.2222) for a little less than $40. It is also available in silver, by the way.

The Cons
Well, some would argue the case design itself if the con, as in "con job" since it's obviously made to remind us of a certain fruit-themed professional computer. But setting that aside for the moment and just talking about the case itself, this thing is a VERY cheaply made case. It is made of rather thin sheets of metal, though the rolls and indentations do lend it a little bit of strength I wouldn't set anything heavy on it. The "handles" are just loops of plastic, and many of the reviews I'd read online about this case noted that the case arrived either with plastic already broken (the shipping box has almost not padding, I'm surprised mine survived UPS shipping) or that as soon as you had some weight in the case and picked it up by the handles they cracked off.

I'd also read comments that this case was, at one time, sold as JUST a case for around $10. That's honestly about what it's worth, but mine was the aforementioned higher price and came with a case fan and a Power Supply Unit installed. I wish I'd found this case for the cheaper price, because I'm going to just throw the PSU away because it's an obvious POS. It is the single lightest weight PSU I've ever held, which makes me seriously doubt it can handle the 500W rating printed on the side. It's frankly the sort of PSU that is a fried motherboard waiting to happen. The case fan is very standard, with no markings to help me know who made it. If you were going for a pimped out case with LEDs you'd be tossing this fan anyway. I'll probably leave it in the case until it inevitably starts screaming or just stops turning.

It's a fairly tight case, so expect things to be crammed together and also expect you'll cut a knuckle or two on the sharp metal edges trying to fit components inside. It's not the most compact case I've been inside of, but it's not spacious by any stretch of the imagination.

No front panel Firewire, even though there is a spot for one and the front-panel circuit board is drilled out for a port and header. They obviously decided the few pennies it would cost to add them was just too big an investment in this case, which is truly built to a very thin penny.

The Pros
The front (plastic) panel has a ton of holes in it, so I'd think this case will have very good ventilation. Heat is a real computer killer, and it seems like no matter how many fans I stick in my current system it's never enough. I plan to have a virtual hurricane blowing through this case. It also has two nice doors for optical drives that flip down when the CD/DVD tray pushes them open, which always looks nicer and cleaner than the actual faceplate of the drive - and also means you can install drives with mismatched colors or brands since they'll be hidden from view instead of sticking out the front of the computer all the time.

The plastic "handles" on the bottom hold the case up off the floor. I've noticed with most towers, sitting on carpet under desks the front case fan - almost always located at the bottom front - tends to quickly get clogged up with dust bunnies and pet hair - or whatever else is blowing around on your carpet. I'm hopeful that having the case up on stilts will reduce that problem. A case with handles is also considered a "pro" for those who like to drag them to LAN parties or use them to DJ (see below for "Improvement" to make the handles something you can actually hang on to).

I suppose "it's cheap" is also in its favor. If you want your computer to look like the bastard child of that certain other computer the design may be in a "pro" in your book as well. It does have a nice floppy drive face integrated into the front panel, which nicely hides the ugly standard floppy faceplate - though it would be nice if they also gave a blank out plate since the era of floppy drives is pretty much over. The 3.5" bay below the floppy drive looks like it has a blank out plate in it, but it's actually a flip-down door. So if you install a media reader or fan controls or whatever in that bay you can hide them behind a little door which give a cleaner look.

It does have a "vent tunnel" for the CPU cooler to the side panel. That's nice for pulling in (presumably) colder air from outside the case which is why I put it under "pros." Though, since the CPU can be located literally anywhere on the motherboard, those vent tunnels rarely seem to line up where they'll do any good, so it may also be a "con" depending on what mobo you stick in the case.

It's pretty much standard these days, but I have seen cases that omit them, so I'll also mention the two USB ports up front and jacks for headphones and a microphone.

With a little work this case can be beefed up a bit. I'm not talking about full on "case modding" here, just simple stuff you can do in an afternoon with a screwdriver and a power drill.

1. Handles you CAN hold on to!
I'm sure the main reasons people have had the plastic handles crack off are because of how they are attached to the case, not the quality of the plastic itself.

The rear "handles" are each attached with two small screws on each side of the case (A) and the front handles are actually part of a single plastic "shroud" around the entire front panel and attach with four very, very tiny screws on the top and four on the bottom (B). First thing I noticed upon lifting up this case - empty - was the handles could MOVE! Movement can lead to cracking, cracking can lead to suffering, and suffering. . .wait, I wasn't gong to do the Yoda quote.

I replaced the eight screws on the back (A) with stove bolts secured with nuts from the back side. You need very short bolts (I had to cut mine down) because on the bottom they'll intrude upon the motherboard mounting plate and on the top the PSU. I also needed to drill out the holes a little larger to do this, but now there is absolutely NO slop in the top back handle, where it had an obvious gap before between it and the case top.

I then replaced the eight screws on the front handles (B) with much larger (but still black and countersunk) sheet metal screws. If you don't mind them poking up inside the case the length isn't that critical (I used 1/2" long ones) since there's nothing in their way. The original screws are so small they have almost zero bite into the case metal, and one of the top screws on mine was stripped out. You could also drill and bolt these if you like, but if you're going to do that I'd recommend only doing it on the bottom where nobody can see it.

2. Front Case Fan
Since you'll have the front plastic off anyway, that's a good time to install a front case fan (D) since you won't be able to even access the two lower screws unless you take ALL the plastic off the front of the case!

3. No Tools Required
Make it a "no tools required" case! I know some reviewers hated the "Card Clamp" this case has on the back, and I've never seen anything like it before myself. Usually PCI cards are secured to the case with a single screw through their backing plate, or on some cases a plastic lever locks each one down. This case has a single clamp that runs across all the installed cards to lock them down. Well, the case that inspired this one's design has a "no tools" system for locking down PCI cards, so I thought "why not this one too?" It's really easy - just replace the two hex head phillips screws (C) on the clamp with computer case thumb screws! Then also replace the side panel screws with thumb screws. Now you won't need any tools to enter the case or to add/remove a PCI card. Now the clamp isn't some weird lock-down method, it's a convenience feature!

4. Add Firewire
As I mentioned, the front panel ports don't include a Firewire connection, even though there is space for one. If you're good with board-level soldering you could easily add one, as the circuit board is already drilled for the port and header, and the case front has a corresponding knock-out for it, so you wouldn't have to hack the case to add it. I thought about going to the trouble, but I only have one Firewire device left and it also has a USB 2.0 connector so I really don't NEED a front Firewire port - or ANY Firewire ports for that matter. I plant to cover up the knock-out on the front panel with one of the system stickers (those little ones that say what CPU is inside or Graphics Card). That will make for easy hardware reference, but also nicely hide the stickers under the door for the front panel jacks.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sourcing Apple

I've been curious lately as to who REALLY manufactures products for Apple. It's well known that Apple doesn't have it's own factories, but contracts other manufacturers to make its stuff. They're not alone in the electronics business - most brand name computer products are actually manufactured by someone else, or at least the components are.

I'm not really interested in the endless "Apple Tax" arguments about Macs being overpriced compared to Windows systems of similar specifications. What I was interested in was the fact that Apple products consistently rank very highly - alongside Asus, who also manufacture parts for Apple, and Toshiba - in terms of reliability and build quality. If I'm going to build a custom system I want to use solid, well built components. So it is worthwhile to research who met the quality standards of a brand ranked high in reliability, right?

Ok, so I don't know exactly which components some of these companies make for Apple, but an afternoon of online research yielded the following list.

Lian Li
Mac Pro
Other Macs?

Foxconn Electronics / Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd.
Mac Mini
Mac Pro
iPod Nano

Invantec Appliances
Video iPods

Asustek Computer
iPod Shuffle
12.1" /13.5" / 14.1: MacBook

Quanta Computer (who also manufacture the OLPC I believe)
MacBook Pro
some iPods

iPod Touch

Apple LCD displays

Desktops: Seagate or Western Digital
Laptops/Mini: Fujitsu or Seagate

Apple RAM
Usually Micron, may also be Samsung or Hynix.

No idea who actually manufactures Apple branded cards, but the chips are either made by Nvidia or ATi and at least one integrated video chip - the Nvidia 320M - was manufactured exclusively for Apple.

And, if you want the same kind of rock-solid UNIX-based operating system too? How 'bout another UNIX-based OS for FREE! Mac OS X was based on parts of FreeBSD and NetBSD combined into Darwin, which forms the UNIX underpinnings of OS X. You could either install a FreeBSD or NetBSD or you can actually get Darwin for free as well. This doesn't give you Mac OS, though, as a lot of what comprises Mac OS is in a higher-level, proprietary layer used and required by "Mac Native" applications to work, so you can't run Mac native software on Darwin. What you CAN do, though, is run thousands of UNIX and Linux programs, and you can install a GUI desktop environment like Gnome or KDE and "theme" it to look just like Mac OS X, and install AWN Dock which works just like the one in OS X.

If BSD or Darwin are too intimidating, get a Linux distribution since they often have "Live" discs that let you try before you install, and have nice installation wizards when you've found one you like. Whichever UNIX or Linux you choose, you can also use a compatibility layer called "WINE" to run many (but not all) Windows programs - without having to have Windows installed. For many users a BSD or Linux install will meet their needs as well as Windows or Mac OS - especially if most of what you do is surf the web, e-mail, chat, watch videos, use an office software suite there is no reason to be spending money on an operating system or software to do those things. It's only when you need to use professional applications (such as Adobe Creative Suite or Final Cut Pro) that you NEED to have a commercial operating system capable of running them.