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'Modders' Can't Leave Macs Alone

Leander Kahney Email 11.01.02
John McDonnell turned his Mac into a 1940s Philco radio. He mounted an Apple logo on the front of the radio (lower-left) and carefully cut a slot for the machine's floppy drive in the side (top-right). He connected the computer's speaker jacks to the radio's original speaker and even connected the radio's original on/off switch to the computer.

Ever since the first PC rolled off an assembly line decades ago, computer owners have put their own stamp on their machines. In fact, the urge to tinker with hardware has turned into a thriving subculture called computer "modding."

However, modifying Apple hardware is nowhere near as common as it is in the Windows PC world.

The obvious explanation is that PC boxes are generally ugly and utilitarian.

Since the launch of the iMac in 1998, Apple's boxes have all been high design. In contrast, with the exception of Alienware, few PC manufacturers make distinctive computers.

In fact, Apple's cases are sometimes used by PC modders. Kyle Bennett put a PC motherboard inside a PowerMac G4 enclosure, which he painted maroon and black. In honor of the color scheme, he called it the Rotten Apple.

Windows PC mods can often be original and beautifully executed. Obviously influenced by Apple's Cube, Dennis Vieren made a gorgeous glowing cube out of aluminum and acrylic.

Although Mac customization is less common, some imaginative mods have been cooked up.

John McDonnell, for example, shoehorned a Macintosh Quadra into a 1940s Philco radio.

McDonnell, a 34-year-old history teacher from Fontana, California, paid close attention to detail: He mounted an Apple logo on the front of the radio and carefully cut a slot for the machine's floppy drive in the side. He connected the computer's speaker jacks to the radio's original speaker. It provides "nice, rich sound," he said.

To turn the computer on, McDonnell wired up the radio's original on/off switch. Turn the knob and the machine starts up with the distinctive Mac startup chime.

McDonnell used a Macintosh Quadra 605 and a Philco Baby Grand Tombstone Radio.

"The radio sat around my garage for years," McDonnell said. "I considered a number of case options, including a disco ball, a Habitrail and an old toolbox before I remembered the radio. What I ended up with is a fully functional, Internet-ready Macintosh that would blend nicely with the decor of almost any Depression-era American home."

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Nicey icey: Kent Salas had never done any modding before he embarked on one of the most ambitious Macintosh mods to date, and it wasn't even his computer.

A friend loaned Salas a PowerMac G4, a machine worth thousands of dollars. He dismantled the computer, cut it up and stripped the paint from its casing.

He was so unsure of what he was doing, he labeled every component, including all the screws, to make sure he could figure out how to put it back together again.

"I always end up with extra screws and parts left over," he said on his website.

The result is Blue Ice, a stunning, transparent G4 tower that lights up with fluorescent blue neon and has a nifty LCD screen mounted in the front panel.

"I hit the power switch and boom, half my room glows electric, icy blue," Salas writes on his site.

The project cost Salas, a 38-year-old webmaster from Southern California, about $300 and took a month to complete. "Not too bad considering I had to buy a drill and other minor tools," he said.

Salas bought the 5-inch LCD panel on eBay for $100. He cut a hole in the front of the G4's case and drilled a couple of holes to fasten the LCD.

He added a 12-volt power supply and simply hooked the screen's RCA jacks to an extra video card that he plugged into one of the machine's PCI slots.

Thanks to the extra video card, the LCD screen can mirror the machine's desktop. Its resolution of 640 by 480 pixels is perfect for displaying music visualizations like iTunes, video clips or system-monitoring utilities.

Salas also added a translucent power supply cover, a five-port internal USB hub, and various fluorescent blue lamps and LEDs. To make the G4's case transparent, he stripped the paint from the side panels with alcohol.

The hardest part was making the keyboard glow. It took Salas three days to dismantle the fiendishly complex keyboard and add glowing sheets of neon light, which cost close to $200. "This was a real pain in the ass, if you know what I mean," he wrote.

"One reason I do this is to help some people, who have a Mac modder buried deep inside them, let loose and create some totally new and interesting Mac mods," he explained. "Just planting seeds of inspiration hopefully, and maybe give Apple a slight hint of what I would like to see in new hardware designs."

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Web pad Paradiso: For a long time Jeff Paradiso wanted a Macintosh-based Web pad. But since Apple doesn't make them, he made his own.

Paradiso, a graphic designer from Boston, took a touch-screen iBook (an after-market modification from Troll Touch), disassembled it, cut a screen-sized hole in its lid, and flipped the screen around so that it faces outwards instead of towards the keyboard. Paradiso changed the desktop icons to large buttons and uses the operating system's built-in, on-screen keyboard to get around.

It's a bit clunky, he admits, but great for Web surfing from the couch or wandering around Boston looking for open Wi-Fi access points.

"It is a lot easier than holding a laptop," Paradiso said. "One unexpected use is watching movies that I ripped from DVD."

However, the on-screen keyboard is awkward to use and there's no handwriting recognition. Even if Paradiso loads OS X for the built-in handwriting recognition, Inkwell software, it works only with Wacom's tablets.

"I loved the idea of a touch screen device," he said. "Unfortunately, Apple discontinued the Newton. Ever since, I've wanted a Mac tablet."

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