Low End PC

The Power of Kawaii

How a Dot-Bomb Casualty Won My Heart

- 2001.10.30

In the subculture of Japanese animation (a.k.a. anime) and its fans, there is much made of a quality known as kawaii. Kawaii (pronounced like Hawaii but with a K instead of an H) literally means "small and cute," and is an attribute of a large percentage of the heroines in Japanese animation. To give a domestic example, the Powerpuff Girls are most definitely kawaii.

Can a computer be kawaii? Yes! I have proof.

A couple of months ago, I got an excited call from my friend Chad Page. He was at a booth run by a local computer dealer at the Santa Barbara Computer Fair.

"This is amazing. This guy has Celeron 466 computers he got from a dot-com that went under. They've got a really nice motherboard, an ASUS. He's selling them with RAM for $50, without RAM for $30. This includes the CPU but not the power supply. I'll grab you one if you want."

"Sure, go ahead and grab one of the stripped ones. I'll pay you back."

"Okay. You won't regret it. These are nice machines. And they're small and light. It'll be great for LAN parties and LUG meetings."

What did Chad mean by a LAN party? A LAN party is a gathering of gamers who bring their prime gaming computers to a single location, hook them all up on a network, and play multiplayer games. It's sort of the geek equivalent of the poker party. The game isn't Five Card Stud or Texas Hold 'Em; it's usually either Quake III or Unreal Tournament or some other first-person shooter. And LAN parties have a secondary purpose: showing off your buff, customized PC. The rise in popularity of wildly expensive all-aluminum PC cases is, I believe, directly traceable to the LAN party phenomenon. They're not only strong and sleek but also light. I have one PC at home in an Inwin Q500 full tower case, and believe me, that bad boy is heavy. I have never put it on a scale, but I suspect the case alone weighs about 25 pounds. Not a good candidate for taking to a LAN party.

The lack of power supply proved daunting, as was the problem of distance. I live about 120 miles south of Santa Barbara, in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. So I was forced to communicate via email and telephone and get verbal and written descriptions of what kind of power supply I needed. "It's a Micro-ATX case, it needs a Micro-ATX power supply." So I looked up a few websites and saw a multiplicity of variations of mATX power supplies. The mATX motherboard format is a standard, but the case and power supply form factor is not. So I wound up buying two different power supplies from one company, and determined that I would eat the 15% restocking charge on the one that didn't fit. Surprise surprise! Both were wrong.

About 20 minutes after I placed the order on the power supplies, I got a call from Chad. "This isn't a mATX power supply in here. It's one of those oddball power supplies that eMachines use."

My heart sank. I was going to get stuck with restocking charges on both power supplies. And the eMachines stock power supply, while easy to find replacements for, was also known for being flaky.

However, my salvation came at PC Power and Cooling, a company long known for their high-quality power supplies. They are pricey power supplies, sure, but as I found out, they are definitely worth it. I found out on their site that the power supply in question is not an "oddball" supply - it is a standard type called an SFX-L-type power supply. The clickable link is a mechanical diagram, actual size, of the power supply. Unlike most power supplies, the fan is on the underside of the power supply. The SFX-L spec, like early ATX power supplies, calls for the fan to blow air into the case. But as it turns out, PC Power and Cooling's replacement SFX-L power supply exhausts air out of the case, which has proven to be a better strategy for control of heat buildup in a computer case.

In my computer, the fan sits almost exactly over the CPU and CPU fan. A power supply that blows air into the case would be disruptive of airflow in the case. But with a fan that exhausts air out of the case, it actually works in concert with the CPU fan to mitigate the heat generated by the CPU. And that is a Very Good Thing™. From the faster 486 chips on, you really do need a way of helping the CPU get rid of heat. And with the early Pentiums on out, it's literally mandatory to not only have a heat sink on the chip, but a beefy one with a fan.

When I got back from Santa Barbara after picking up the machine and got around to opening the case, I noticed the chip fan was really cheap. It had "Ball Bearing" emblazoned on it. Never, ever use a chip fan that doesn't have those words printed on it! The alternative to ball bearings is sleeve bearings, which wear out quickly and get flaky. If you are running anything close to a modern chip in your computer, the failure of this fan can mean your CPU frying about 5 minutes after the failure. In spite of this, the fan had a very small heat sink underneath it, and had plastic, rather than metal, clips to hold the fan on. And when I tried to take it off, it broke. My decision was made for me - time to get a good chip fan.

I opted for a Cooler Master, a recognizable (at least to geeks) brand with a ball bearing fan and a solid, though also low-profile, aluminum heat sink. Another plus: The fan came with pre-applied film of heat compound - not too much, not too little. The people who built my machine didn't use any. Considering these facts, it was a little surprising the little computer didn't fry its chip before I got to it.

One of the amazing things about this little computer is the way the power supply is mounted. There really isn't much clearance between the power supply and the motherboard, so the ingenious folks who designed the case mounted the power supply in a swing-away bracket. When you unscrew the power supply from the chassis, you can swing it out of your way to adjust whatever you need to, then you click the bracket back into position and screw it back in. The bracket hugs the power supply so tightly that it will stay inside the bracket without being screwed into it. A masterpiece of engineering. Too bad I have zero information about who made this case and what model it is, because I could see going out and buying one in the future for another project. Usually mini cases like these require removing the power supply completely before you can access, let alone install, the motherboard.

One bummer: When this case was stripped of drives, someone must have broken off the "U" bracket that holds the 3.5" drives like the floppy and the hard drive. I wasn't planning on using that bracket to hold the hard drive. It originally had one type of removable drive carrier in one of the two 5.25" (CD-ROM sized) bays, and I replaced that unidentified one with one I had on hand and was already using on another one of my machines. In the other 5.25" bay, I placed a DVD-ROM that was originally going to go into the mega-tower machine. I also had the hard drive, a Maxtor DiamondMax 15 GB, sitting around in a drive carrier ready to go.

There would be no floppy drive in this machine. But now that Intel has announced its intention to do away with "the legacy floppy drive" in future motherboard designs, and since I have had over two years experience with a floppyless computer, my Mac G3 Yosemite 350 MHz, it was nothing I shed tears over. Neither Linux nor Windows 2000, the two operating systems I intended to use in the machine, require boot floppies. Like most PCs built since 1996/97 or so, it was CD-ROM bootable. Suddenly this ragged dot-bomb refugee started to be not only cute, but sorta, kinda cutting-edge. :-)

The motherboard is a nice one, considering what chipset it's based on. On our sister site, Low End Mac, there is a section called "Road Apples." This is about Macs that were technically disappointing for one reason or another - to say the least.

The Intel 810i chipset was designed for cheap PCs. Really cheap PCs. Low End PC enthusiasts will encounter these more and more as computers built around the chipset enter the used market. It uses the RAM on the motherboard not only in its usual way, but as video RAM for the built-in video subsystem. Chad coined a great term for it: Vampire Video. Vampire Video not only sucks up RAM you could use elsewhere, but it also yields video performance that, frankly, sucks. Or bites, if that's what you prefer. Either way, it bogs computers that use the onboard video down far enough to where the "Road Apple" badge applies. We need a similar term for lousy PCs. Suggestions are welcomed.

However, once you put a stake through Vampire Video's heart by adding a PCI video card in the first PCI slot, the 810i chipset suddenly goes from "Road Apple" to "Road Warrior." The motherboard in my little computer is an ASUS MEW-RM mATX motherboard. It's typical ASUS, which means it's a thing of beauty. It is solidly designed, with no compromises in quality. And it uses the 810i chipset as well as it could. The CPU bus runs at 66 MHz, which is the standard speed for Celerons (up to the more recent Coppermine variants which have 100 MHz front-side bus requirements). However, the memory bus runs at 100 MHz, giving the whole arrangement a little more speed and power.

I spent a little less than $50 on an ATI Xpert128 PCI video card. It's not as fast or as good on 3D graphics as the ATI Radeon series, but I'm not a gamer. I opted for the card because it includes ATI's uniquely good hardware acceleration for DVD. The Rage128 chip is not only a video chip, but also a coprocessor for the MPEG-2 compression used in DVD. Unfortunately, ATI has not been forthcoming about details about this feature of the Rage128 for the benefit of Linux developers and is similarly tightlipped about its heir, the Radeon. They're great about giving details about the video aspects of their chips, but lousy about this.

Under a Redmond operating system, however, the DVD acceleration is awesome. I have done A/B tests between DVD play on my Rage128-equipped Macintosh G3 Yosemite 350 MHz and my mega-tower, which sports a Celeron 433 MHz. You'd think the Mac with its far more efficient CPU and its famous graphics capability would smoke the Cel 433. Nope. I blame the Apple DVD Player - it doesn't seem to exploit the Rage128 hardware acceleration like ATI's own software for Windows does. It's their own rewrite of Cinemaster, an early competitor of WinDVD and PowerDVD which faded away, except for ATI's implementation. Cinemaster isn't great as a software-only solution, and it rightly died out in the software DVD player market. But paired with ATI's hardware power, it rocks.

I also spent $35 on a 256 MB DIMM from Crucial.com. RAM is so cheap right now that companies like Crucial are practically taking a loss on every stick they sell. I opted for a high-performance PC133 CAS level 2 stick and paid a little premium for it. Most PC133 RAM is only CAS level 3. (CAS level is a measure of RAM latency.) Simply put, you get a little performance boost from CAS level 2 over CAS level 3. And I opted for PC133 over the PC100 the board required because I wanted this RAM purchase to be somewhat "future-proof." If I get a machine that needs PC133 RAM, and something happens to this machine, I can swap the stick out of this one and into the new machine.

The computer runs beautifully under Windows 2000 Professional. It responds like a sports car, giving you all the power you need for just about anything. I haven't put it through its paces with a video game yet - again, I'm not really a gamer - but it barely raised a sweat when I ran an OpenGL screen saver, and full-screen 1024 x 768 DVD play also doesn't require much CPU power. It's not just the presence of the hardware acceleration, either. Even with the hardware acceleration, DVD play takes a lot out of a system.

By way of comparison, another friend, Nubs, (yes, that's the name he likes to be called) has a 233 MHz Pentium MMX based system that he put a Rage128-based video card into and a DVD-ROM drive. The machine literally cannot be used for anything else when a DVD is running. The mouse pointer drags painfully along the screen. Exiting ATI DVD Player takes what seems like an eternity. This cute little machine with its split-speed bus can do other things effortlessly while a DVD is playing. Not that you would want to. :-)

However, Linux has proven to be problematic. The Mandrake 8 installer refused to complete the install because it didn't like the lack of a floppy drive. Red Hat 7.1 installed and runs nicely in text mode, but so far I have not been able to get XFree86 to work on this machine. Perhaps newer versions of XFree86 will fix this problem. Or perhaps I need to bring this to the next SFVLUG installfest meeting and see if someone with more Linux mojo than I have can make XFree86 run on this machine.

There is also two other annoyances about this computer. One, there are only 3 PCI slots. Between the video card and the Network Interface Card that came with this machine (A SOHOWare 10/100, the best cheap NIC on the planet!) there is only one slot free for expansion. Shades of my old PC 5150 in the days before large-scale integration of things like floppy and hard drive controllers and ports!

This frustrates because of annoyance two: the onboard sound. It works, and if you are pumping DVD-volume sound through it, you don't notice anything wrong. However, if you are listening to music, particularly quiet classical or jazz, or when the machine is not making sounds outside of alert beeps, you hear the interference from the rest of the circuitry. You hear the soft ping-ping-ping of the UDMA bus being accessed, whether by the hard drive or the DVD drive. You literally hear data going in and out of the NIC - it makes little bursts of white noise. This "audible PC" stuff might initially fascinate a geek like me, but it gets old quick.

Other than that, I love my new little silicon pal. It really is portable. It couldn't weigh more than 10 pounds or so with the hard drive, DVD drive, and power supply inside. And it really is - there is no other word to describe it - kawaii. So kawaii, in fact, that its name on my network is Nuku Nuku, named after the cute but deadly heroine of the anime series "All-Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku Nuku."

I mentioned last article that this machine cost me a grand total of $100. Not quite. My bad math didn't include little things like cables, a set of speakers, the RAM, the Cooler Master, and the ball bearing case fan I installed in the front to suck air into the case for airflow improvement - in cramped quarters like this little PC, you need all the airflow you can get. I also didn't count the stuff I had on hand from other projects, like the DVD-ROM, the hard drive, and the hard drive rack. It works out to something like $130 or $135 from my figures, not counting the stuff already on hand. That's still a great bargain for a great little PC.

However, the geek siren call - "Upgrade! Upgrade!" - is calling to me. I would like to replace the onboard sound with something decent; the Ensoniq PCI audio cards are still around and yield fairly good, if not audiophile-quality sound for about $20 or so. If I wanted to really go whole-hog, I could go out and get the new hot audio card: the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz. It does 5.1 Dolby stereo and has the best signal-to-noise ratio of anything short of a pro recording audio card, and costs something like $70 on the street.

And the fact that DVD play is so good on this machine makes me want to replace the Xpert128 with an All In Wonder 128 so that I can not only play DVDs, but also get analog video in and video out and a TV tuner in the deal. Convergence, baby, convergence!

Like the Rutles said, "All You Need Is Cash." LEPC

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