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The flash and the furious: 11 of the internet’s greatest custom computers

There are few things in this world more entertaining than stripping a device of its guts, just to put it back together again. Building something from scratch also comes pretty close. Fun turns to dread (or in some cases, panicked laughter) when the power button’s flick fails to lurch it into life. Failing miserably is, thankfully largely part of the experience.

Andy Walker: Gearburn editor
Joining the Memeburn team on April Fool’s 2014, Andy completed his B.A. Honours degree in English Literature at Rhodes University a year earlier. As a lifelong writer... More

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These PC customisers and builders have definitely not failed by any means. From adorning their machines with glowing LEDs and glass panels, to cooling them with aircraft-sized turbines and water-pulsing pipes, building custom computing devices to take over little corners of geek bedrooms has become a culture that shan’t ever fold, even if the industry is threatened by new, more practical devices. It’s about pride, passion and performance above mere practicality, and this is where the ingenious builds below come into their own.

1. The wall-mounted work of art

If Pablo Picasso was into custom computing, he’d likely build something as flashy as this. The ultimate enthusiast’s (or show-off’s) trophy looks chic mounted to a wall, but must’ve been an utter chore to design and build. But the results are telling — it’s a visual and electronic delight.

Flaunting veins of rouge cooling tubes and no less than four SSDs, four HDDs and a glowing SoundBlaster audio card, the build is possibly as expensive as it is spectacular. Have a look at the extensive build process here.

2. The “Oil-Rig”

This is cooling and imagination taken to the extreme. Not only is this case brimmed with paraffin oil submersive coolant, but that handmade cooling turbine sitting atop the case is packed with 11 fans and nearly as many radiators. It’s a ridiclous monstrosity that cost, according to the mad Lebanese scientist responsible, over US$5000 and over a year to build, but it’s (probably) unlike any computer that exists.

Harbouring a respectable Intel i7, 12GB RAM and two Radeon HD5850 graphics cards in CrossFire, this machine probably puts out bags of heat. Luckily, that aircraft-inspired cooler keeps the paraffin cool, and if things get a little too hot indoors, a hose can be fitted on top of the cooler to suck fresh air in.

3. The silicon Atom aquarium

Looking at this build, one could easily mistake it for a digital photo frame disguised as an aquarium computer. But it’s not. That’s a real, live computer in there.

As sleek and swanky as it looks, this build only sports a low-energy Intel Atom CPU, which makes the submersive oil-cooled solution confusing and a bit excessive. But aesthetically, the blue LEDs swirling and surrounding the bubbling motherboard fans makes this machine a pleasure on the eye.

4. The PS360Wii megaconsole

Well here’s one way to end the console war. Shoving a PlayStation 3, an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii into one hand-made wooden box seems like a bad idea, but Ben Heck, DIY-techie extrordinaire, has it covered. All three systems live in everlasting harmony and are controlled through a homemade front interface of buttons and wires. Pressing the respective button powers on a specific console, while the PS3 receives a more rudimentary top-loading disc mounted system.

5. The video renderer’s nirvana

This is not a consumer’s personal rig, but more an elaborate benchmarking experiment sponsored by Samsung. Sporting 24 256GB Samsung SSDs running in RAID 0 (the fastest drive configuration possible), two Intel Xeon server-grade CPUs (with more processing threads than a yarn warehouse) and two massive 1 000W power supplies, this machine is slathered in excessive.

It’s also excessively fast. How fast? Try a write speed of over 2GB/s.

Hilariously, it’s also running Windows Vista.

6. The Xbox laptop (ironically, with better cooling than the original)

More genius from Ben Heck sees the DIY guru craft his very own Xbox 360 laptop and ironically, the modified, much thinner system has better cooling than the bog-standard, poorly designed original casing.

Measuring in at around a third of the Xbox 360’s height while sporting its own screen, the Xbox 360 laptop is a nifty little carry on for an in-flight entertainment solution.

7. The Raspberry Pi 33-man assault team

Computing clusters are nothing new. Essentially, the 33 Raspberry Pi present and counted for in this build, which are relatively weak when addressed individually. But amalgamate their powers and the cluster becomes a very capable computing unit.

Each Pi is overclocked to 1GHz and are controlled by a switch that allows each unit to tackle a different part of the processing problem. Effectively, you have 33 processing threads, loads of heat and a lot of power being eaten. Did I mention that it’s a looker too?

8. Photo frame netbook remix

Back when netbooks were set to take over the planet (circa-2008), the ASUS’ Eee PC was the low cost, low weight, take-me-anywhere king. But times have drastically changed and netbooks have fallen out of favour thanks to their touchscreen, keyboardless tablet cousins.

This mod sees an Eee PC mounted in a soapbox, turning the forgotten netbook into a fully fledged interactive photo frame. Although there’s currently no way to flick through the photographs manually, it flips along through slideshows by itself with relative ease.

9. Mac Pro trashcan edition

Die-hard Apple fans (or fans of die-hard irony?) don’t come more determined than this. Apple’s recent Mac Pro took everyone by surprise with its revolutionary space-age tubular shape. Humourously, a modder has decided to build his own Mac Pro in a trashcan.

It may sound like an insult to Cupertino, but it’s pure, unadulterated genius. The bin mimicks the shape of the Pro perfectly, and a slathering of red paint embalms the build with a bit of character too. The hardware may not be in the same league as a Mac Pro (the build features an Intel i3 instead of the Mac Pro’s Intel Xeon hexacore, after all) but it’s definitely slick, even if it is in a trashcan.

macprotrashcan

10. Honda Civic radiator-cooled system, with discoball

What’s the most extreme cooling solution one could realistically cram onto a computer? This particular modder’s friend jibed that he couldn’t fit a car radiator to a computer. As it turns out, the challenge was duly accepted and emphatically conquered. A wonderful side effect of the build is the lower component temperatures. The system runs a full 40-deg Celsius lower than before. He also fitted a discoball to one of the case’s optical drive bays, because yes.

11. “Silence of the L3p D3sk”

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning at least one desk computer, and Peter Brands’ example is perhaps the best. The practice of building computers in tables is perhaps more tedious than mechanically effective, but it’s more about the visual “wow” factor than actual usability.

Brands’ system’s internals also matches the swanky aesthetics, packed with two SSDs, 32GB RAM and an Intel i7 all front and centre. The lime green watercooling tubing also forms a marvellous contrast against the dark room. As you can see from his extensive building blueprints, a build like this takes more time to plan than to actually construct.