Friday, December 14, 2007

Dell Inspiron 5160 in a Cooler Master Centurion 532

This is my second "successful" attempt at converting my laptop to a desktop. Well, the first one was clumsy. The fault was my wrong decision about the laptop motherboard size, which finally ended in a very conjusted setup inside a microATX case. This time I went for the Cooler Master Centurion 532 - a mid-tower cabinet. Lots of breathing space for the chips now!! I think I would provide a glimpse into the project. I shall be adding more pictures as soon as I get some time to click them.

First things first. I had to rip the 5160 out of its Dell casing. The battery, keyboard and LCD display are not of much use, atleast not yet! Once the motherboard (and the goodies that hangs with it) is out, I had to find the right orientation for it to be on the case. Things to consider - I will have to use external patch cables to extend the ports to the back of the cabinet, so room to hook them up to the motherboard; make sure the processor fan won't be obstructed by any wires running atop; finding where to connect the power and LED wires on the motherboard.

To fix the motherboard on the cabinet, I drilled in 3 holes on the motherboard panel of the case and then used three long screws to hold the motherboard to the panel. Its a good idea to leave some gap between the motherboard and the case, just for the sake of air flow. However, its not yet time to tighten the nuts.

I saw that the power switch of the 5160 was connected to a jumble of wires, all going into this tiny harness on the motherboard. That was so because the jumble of wires carried other signals as well - CAPS LOCK, for e.g. The challenge was to figure out which two wires were actually from the switch. A way to do this (not safe though) is to look into the harness on the motherboard into which the wires go - take a piece of wire and, with the power line plugged in, short two ports in the harness. When you have right ports, the machine will turn on. I did it this way and it worked for me. The next step is easy - take the two wires coming from the power switch of the case and hook it up to these two ports. You can now turn on your machine using the switch on the cabinet.

For the LEDs, I kept the harness that connects to the motherboard. This harness also connects to the touchpad on the 5160. To figure out which wires were meant for the LEDs, I exposed the wires on one end (not the end with the harness) and tried the same trick as for the power switch. With the harness plugged into the motherboard and taking two wires at a time, I connected them to the Power LED wires on the cabinet. It will glow when you will have the right pair. Same trick for the HDD LED, although to do this you would have to keep the HDD busy...just open a big file or something!!

I wanted stereo speakers inside the cabinet, so thought of putting the speakers from the laptop inside the cabinet. This was easy. The harness for the speakers were only for the speakers. I did have to extend the cables a bit - just cut it in the middle and put some extra wire in between.

The Centurion also comes with an in-take fan on the front with a cool neon lining. I wanted the neon to glow so much that I ended up stripping the wires on the processor fan and hooking up the cabinet fan wires on to it. By the way, I made it a point to insulate back any exposed wires with electrical tape. You don't want these wires to touch the metal cabinet and give you a shock!

I was through the difficult part and the motherboard is ready to be fixed to the cabinet for good. The only part remaining is to somehow take all the external ports to the back of the cabinet. The Dell motherboard does not follow any ATX or microATX specification when it comes to the way the ports are laid out at the back. The way to go is to use extension wires from the back of the motherboard (now fixed to the cabinet) to the back of the cabinet. I have already mentioned about the patch cables in the previous post. Take a look at the link! Cables I needed - VGA, Ethernet, Headphone, Microphone, USB (the Centurion comes with 2 built in USB ports, so I needed two internal USB wires as well), and SVideo. I fixed these cables to the extension brackets that came with the cabinet and the other end to the motherboard. This way I can now hook my devices to the back of the cabinet.

The 5160 had only 2 USB ports at the back. I wanted more!! So, I bought two 4-port USB hubs and used it to internally expand the number of available ports at the back of the cabinet. However, some devices (my WD Passport) do not work on extended USB ports, so I decided to keep one port that directly connects to the laptop motherboard.

Some note on the display. I faced some problems with the external display when I first ran the system with the setup. With the LCD gone, the system did not boot up on the external monitor. Luckily, I remembered the keyboard sequence to correctly log in - the welcome sound on the speakers verified that I am logged in. Once that's done, I used the keyboard hotkey combination to switch the display to the external monitor and then made it the primary monitor. Remember that your external keyboard will not have the "FN" key, so make sure that you know how to simulate it from the external keyboard. My NVidia card lets me specify a custom key combination that I generally use to switch displays.

The CDROM drive is not yet connected. But with the right cables it shouldn't be too difficult to extend it out to one of the bays. I hardly use the drive, so decided to let go off it. If needed, I can always use the shared drive on my MacBook. Something I want to add - if somehow I manage to extend the LCD cable, I intend to hang the LCD off the wall and display weather information on it.

DISCLAIMER: The information here is not a "DO IT YOURSELF" guide. I am not responsible if you manage to electrocute yourself while trying to take inspiration from this page.