My wife used to keep her aging laptop on the kitchen table. Whenever she wanted to check her emails, find some recipe or buy something online she would turn it on and wait for Windows to load. Sleep wasn’t an option as the battery was dead and unplugging it would have erased the RAM. The power cable was in the way. The whole experience was even more cumbersome because our 1 year son needed frequent attention and any internet-related tasks were being interrupted a lot, then eventually forgotten. It was clear that even with a laptop at hand, things weren’t easy. Besides, the space occupied by that laptop on the kitchen table was significant (the countertop area is too precious for that). And we have a wetwall in our kitchen that’s a bit oversized and from the first day we moved in (about a year ago) I knew something had to be done about that. So I wondered if I could fit a computer in there. And I did. Here’s the story.
Step 1: Wife's Requirements.
We all have to pay attention to our wives, right? So she needed a PC with Internet access for recipes, e-mail, music and photo sharing. Maybe a few chat sessions but she’s too busy anyway for that. As our kitchen is so small we had to order custom-made furniture and it turned out very pretty (and expensive) so a new requirement kicked in: to be able to integrate perfectly without being obvious. The input devices would have been a problem. Keyboards get dirty in a kitchen. They actually don’t belong there at all. So the only viable option was a touchscreen. She was reluctantly OK with that, she never used one before.
Step 2: Space Available.
This is the wet wall I was talking about. In there are the water pipes, gauges, the PVC kitchen drain pipe and some other apparently useless pipe that comes from the lower floors and goes nowhere. There are two small access doors for reading the gauges. The entire structure is made of gypsum board on metal profiles. I wanted to integrate the PC and monitor in there so that nothing computer-related get noticed or stand in our way. The base of the wetwall was covered with a piece of furniture that’s part of our kitchen. It was ment to hide the access doors (without blocking them) and made the ugly wetwall look like a part of the whole kitchen concept. There’s a door on that piece of furniture and inside there’s about 20 cm space I could also use. The main problem is that this furniture piece needs to be taken apart a few time a year for boiler maintenance. So everything needed to take that into account.
Step 3: Hardware
- Mainboard: Intel D945GSEJT Half-Height ITX (Intel Atom N270 1.6Ghz, GMA950)
- HDD: 2,5” WD Scorpio Black 120 Gb
- RAM: 2Gb SODIMM Kingston 533 Mhz
- PC Case: Half-height ITX case available here: http://www.cartft.com/catalog/il/1081
- 60W external power supply (12V out)
- 17” used DELL Monitor with DVI connector
- 17” Touchscreen USB Kit (from E-bay, single-touch, resistive)
- Generic PC Microphone
- Wireless adapter
This PC obviously was not going to be a performer. But the main goals here are Internet surfing and low power consumption. Best feature is the fact that the entire PC case is about 3cm thick. As I have full access to the PC case, future upgrades (meaning a more powerful mini-PC) are always possible.
I chose Windows 7 as the operating system. I know, a bit much for such a small processor. But it felt pretty snappy actually. The integrated GMA945 provided basic AERO support. The 2Gb RAM are enough for light tasks.
I needed to fine some way to improve the touch experience on Windows7. Namely I had to enlarge buttons, scrollbars, Icons… and I did but then I realized this Windows desktop is not very friendly for my wife. I wanted some way of having the same user experience as a Windows 7 Phone user gets. And so I discovered Omnimo. It’s a Rainstaller theme and mimics Windows 7 Phone desktop quite well. Best of all, it’s completely customizable. And free. This Kitchen PC was designed with Windows 8 in mind. I really hope that the touchscreen will provide a pleasant experience with the much anticipated OS.
There are still lots of settings to be made (namely wider scrollbars, bigger buttons, larger fonts, custom size icons and so on) but there is time for that. We’ll be monitoring our needs and add or remove features accordingly.
Step 4: Display Setup
The 17” DELL monitor is a used one (my hobby budget is not a priority, as you can imagine). I had to make it ready for mounting inside the wetwall and fit the USB touchscreen kit over the monitor’s screen. I had to use my dremel and remove the plastic front bezel and part of the monitor’s wedges. Then I had to fit an aluminium frame around it, for easy mounting inside the wetwall and on to the gypsum board. The monitor’s control buttons were relocated on the backside.
The touchscreen was centered over the display active area and secured with scotch tape (yes, it’s enough, laptops are full of that). Cables were connected and secured with zip-locks. I opted for a portrait-mode setup because of the space available. The monitor setup was the most painful part for me. The final mounting solution I used required so many “sleep over it” nights that at some point I was ready to give up. I won’t bore you with details, let’s just say you have to think your movements well in advance. Otherwise you risk damaging the monitor, the touchscreen or worse - the wetwall. That is kitchen damage. And that will set any wife on fire. ï
Step 5: Wiring and Installation
This was the messy part. I had to install a power socket for the monitor and the PC on that wetwall. A bit unsafe, I know. But I think I did a good job in preventing any sort of hazards. The power cable is insulated, and I used electrical sleeving on top of that. Water hazard is no problem now. Then I cut out the space for the monitor on the wetwall. The cutout was reinforced on the inside of the gypsum board with a metal frame. The monitor fit in snugly with all the cables inside the wetwall. The cables were routed on the left side of the wetwall and connected to the PC case I mounted on the outside of the wetwall. This gives me easy access to everything computer-related (future upgrades, USB ports, etc.) Then the furniture piece went over the whole setup. The front door allows easy access to the start/reset buttons and USB ports. The result is pretty unobtrusive, to say the least ï
Step 6: Final Touches
I made an aluminium frame over the monitor to hide the installation screws. This was attached with high-strenght double-sided tape to the monitor’s rim as I need to have access to those screws should anything go wrong. The three small holes were drilled for the microphone input but I noticed that the cheap mic I used had very low input. One has to speak very close to it to be heard. Well, that’s what low budget means, isn’t it? Anyway, the frame came out pretty good. It’s very slim and the aluminum I used fits well in our kitchen.
Step 7: Wife Acceptancy Factor
Ten out of ten. The wife smiled. She loves it and is showing it off to all our guests. Everybody wants one. How much was it? I get a lot of questions about that. I never run the numbers on this project but I believe everything I used in making this kitchen PC would go up to about 400 Euro. A lot of money but remember the parts were slowly gathered in about two years.
Right now the PC runs silently (in fact we can't hear it at all). It goes to sleep every 15 minutes but a light tap on the display wakes it up. The Omnimo skin is displaying recipe feeds, news and family's calendar. Also one can see the weather forecast, Calculator, Google Maps and a link to my wife's Live mail. Input is done via the onscreen keyboard bundled with Windows 7 and I can actually say it's really easy to write text like that. I even type a bit faster on it.