Taking computer design to Level Eleven with Jeffrey Stephenson
By Paul Ridden
May 7, 2010
Seasoned case modder and hater of all things beige, Jeffrey Stephenson has been squeezing fully functional mini-PCs into all sorts of strange and beautiful outer shell designs ever since first crunching a VIA mini-ITX motherboard into a cigar box in 2002. The latest stylish addition to his expanding collection was inspired by the six drive Thermaltake Level 10 gaming monster and includes VIA's latest Pico board which pumps out 1080p video, 160GB of solid state storage, 2GB of memory and a DVD burner.
Jeffrey Stephenson got his first computer in 1983 (a Texas Instruments TI-99 4/A in black with brushed aluminum trim). He first toyed with the idea of creating his own case mod when the invasion of the beige began but the cost of the technology necessary took a good while to reach an affordable level. With the mantra "it doesn't have to be ugly" in mind, and the timely release of the VIA mini-ITX motherboard, he managed to fit all of the necessary components into a cigar box, bringing the Humidor PC to life in 2002 and starting on an epic journey that's resulted in over 20 case mods now dotted throughout his Florida home.
Taking it to the next level
His latest build began in January as VIA announced its new palm-sized motherboard, the EPIA P820-12L Pico ITX which features a 1.2GHz VIA Nano 64-bit x86 processor on an integrated VX855 chipset and Integrated VIA Chrome9 3D/2D AGP graphics capable of 1080p HD playback. Inspired by a monster of a gaming machine the Thermaltake Level 10 and a custom case mod called Edelweiss, the Level Eleven has only just now been completed.
The flattened upright shell of Level Eleven is constructed from birch ply covered in Pennsylvania cherry veneer and contains the Pioneer DVD burner, fan and front-mounted USB ports. Two similarly finished boxes sporting stylish aluminum detailing (thankfully the original design, which looked somewhat like a Japanese flag was abandoned) and vents for airflow contain the Pico board with 2GB DDR2 memory (left) and Intel X25-M 160GB SATA SSD (right).
Above the board's container, which is cut away so that the USB, HDMI, VGA and Ethernet ports are showing, a T&T; 11-blade 12V fan draws air through a silver-painted 35 piece vented box with stacked fins at the top of the unit, which is where the power switch, power jack and auxiliary audio connections are found. Below the SSD container sits a similar looking DE box (for the purposes of creating a tiny bit of intrigue or suspense, the function of this box will be revealed later). Driving the system is Windows 7 64-bit edition.
More case mod examples
Past works have had public showings in museums (the most recent saw the Mission, Unidyne, G-metric Nano, DECOmputer, Decomatic and Pico Bayard works shown as part of a Rods and Mods event at San Francisco's Exploratorium) and technology events, such as six of the last eight CES trade shows. They're also on display at Stephenson's website and some choice examples have made it into the gallery here.
Included here is 2008's Ingraham model, a tribute to the 1946 Stromberg Carlson model 1110H, and similarly styled Art Deco speakers. The Ingraham features a VIA VB8001 mainboard with the 1.6GHz VIA Nano processor, 4GB of DDR2 RAM and a 64GB SSD. There's also the DECOmputer, made from a 1930's toaster. Looking like a relic from a B-movie sci-fi epic, the cast aluminum and Bakelite box built in 2005 houses a Kontron board with a 1.8GHz Pentium processor, a gigabyte of memory and a Seagate 40GB HDD.
Walking "that fine line between genius and insanity" Stephenson created a computer within a PSU in 2005. This one sports an Advantech 5820 babyboard with a Geode 233MHz processor, 6GB HDD and a USB port to the top. My personal favorite though is the Unidyne. Sitting atop a cast iron mic stand is an aluminum-painted basswood replica of a Shure 55 microphone. VIA's mini-ITX board, cooling fan and HDD just slide into the cavity of the vented frame.
And finally, for those who haven't worked it out already - the DE box on the Level Eleven stands for Decorative Element.