CIRCLE ONE: Portable Mini-ITX professional workstation

CircleTect

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CIRCLE ONE

CIRCLE ONE is a 7L mini-itx tower computer the size of a piece of A3 paper. The focus of this build is a balance of aesthetics and power for people who want a beautiful, quiet, capable computer. It uses a 'mini' GPU, which provides room for extra ventilation and internal 2.5" drives. The TFX power supply allows the case the be narrower than other similar cases, and quieter than those using a FLEX-ATX.

Update - April 2017

First prototype has arrived. As expected there were a few minor teething issues, but apart from having to drill out and tap some screw threads, everything fit together perfectly. See the full photo album of the prototype HERE.

Plans for the future include a major design revision with optional legs and an improved thermal layout. The main downside to the case (which is shared by other similar cases), is the CPU fan noise. Support for a full AIO water cooling solution is being explored.


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Update - March 2017

First full prototype in production. Current build is designed around a TFX PSU and mini format GPU, using an internal IEC passthrough cable, room for multiple 2.5" drives and additional 90mm ventilation fan.

qYvfSkN.jpg

Hi guys,

Long time lurker, first time poster here. It's been pretty inspiring to see a slew of great small form factor cases being developed here (NCASE M1, Dan A4-SFX and Sentry just to name a few). I want to pay respect to these cases - I have already pre-ordered the Sentry and am on the waiting list for the Dan A4. I guess you could say I'm a mini-itx case enthusiast.

Although I love these cases, I still think there's room in the market for a portable professional workstation for creative professionals. Many people that I know who work in video editing, post production and 3D use Apple hardware, but these people are increasingly feeling alienated by Apple's lack of professional options. Their top of the line Mac Pro hasn't been updated since 2013 and the new MacBook Pro has been widely criticised for not being 'Pro' enough.

I am one of these people. I think there is room in the market for an aesthetic, powerful, semi-portable computer that uses top-of-the-line consumer parts in a visually uncompromising package.

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Above is the current concept, borrowing internal componentry layout from Dr Zaber's Sentry, laser cut powder coated steel (or aluminium - undecided) with an anodised circle logo and machined back plate. The frame is symmetrical, so the stand doubles as a handle in any orientation. Removable rubber feet for noise dampening.

Keep in mind this is just a concept and is likely to change at any time.

A bit about me, I am an industrial designer and mechanical engineer by trade with skills in prototyping and manufacturing. I'm planning to make one of these things for myself as a hobby / experiment.

Design factors in order of importance:

1. Aesthetics / build quality / overall design
2. Installation and ease of use
2. Portability

Trade-offs will be made - having lots of build options, expandability and extra storage flexibility is not a priority. This case is better off being limited in the hardware it can support if it means it can be the best portable workstation for creative professionals.

This case won't be the smallest on the market - Sentry is smaller. This case only needs to be 'semi-portable' - small enough to move around comfortably with the built in handles, and to fit in a suitcase or carry-on luggage.


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Above is the first concept protyped in cardboard to test for scale next to an Antec One (already a case on the smaller side)

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Above: general part layout borrowed from Sentry but with some unique concepts, such as a sliding 'core' that all components attach to which can be removed from the case.

-

First stage CAD work is already under way for a proof of concept prototype in metal.

Before the design is locked in, my question to you guys is whether any of you would be interested in such a case? Do you think this is a market worth exploring? Do you think a case like this is different enough to warrant existing, or are there other cases out there like it? What factors are important to you, what would you change and why?

Thanks guys, I'm excited to be here on [H]ardForum and looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
 
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Alexreffand

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I personally would swap the sfx psu with a flex atx one oriented flat beside the motherboard opposite the gpu, better utilizing the space already reserved by the unnecessary bottom handles. Then I'd either use the space where the sfx used to be for an AIO cooler if one would fit or shorten the case to the minimum required for the mini 1080 zotac announced. Again, though, that's just my opinion. I think you've got a good starting point, I just think it needs a little bit more distinction from the sentry to be worth it.
 

Jen

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very good design , impressive

i am trying to find a case that will fit me not just some generic stuff that fits everything , either to long or to bulky for my taste. my biggest headache is find a case that fits my needs that uses a 5.25 optical drive that is as small as possible and yet also use a gpu. in the end i will end up with a card board template attempting to make one

Jen
 

CircleTect

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I personally would swap the sfx psu with a flex atx one

I chose SFX-L for the low noise and availability, but a good flex atx psu could be interesting. If space can be saved horizontally, it would be great to switch to the mini 1080.
 

Brian_R170

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Interesting concept and eye-catching. The internal layout is good, too. I like the Sentry's layout and would've bought one if it didn't weigh nearly 8 lbs. Weight is a factor in portability. Make sure to consider it since portability is one of your main goals.

I chose SFX-L for the low noise and availability, but a good flex atx psu could be interesting. If space can be saved horizontally, it would be great to switch to the mini 1080.

Being as small as possible is not mentioned in the design goals, and since there is an absolutely huge amount of space taken up by the handle design. Changing power supply and sacrificing graphics card compatibility doesn't seem like the right place to start optimizing the space.

Additionally, limiting the graphics card length to that of the mini 1080 might be OK for an small formfactor gaming system, but I'm not sure you'd want to limit the graphics card length if this is really intended to be a professional workstation.

Where do the storage drives go? I personally go with M.2 only in my home desktops because the installation is so clean, but is seems like you'll need at least 2.5" drive support for a professional workstation class product.
 

danger

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So it's a sentry with big useless handles on the top and bottom? Very innovative!
 
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To answer one of your questions in the OP, I personally don't think the design is different enough to compete in an increasingly competitive crowdfunded case market.

The design is, as you put it, mostly borrowed from the existing Sentry, which borrowed from a handful of Silverstone cases before it (or they borrowed from the Sentry, whatever). The main difference you seem to be pushing with your own design is uncompromised aesthetics, which is sort of contentious since it implies your design is better looking than others (which you will find polarizing responses to).

Just my thoughts
 

chx

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Whether the Silverstone RVZ02/FT01 or the Fractal Design Node 202 was first... the idea of lying down a ~300mm video card next to the 170mm ITX motherboard creates the spot for the 125mm wide SFX PSU does not require a PhD to come up with. Some refinements and ideas in the internal layout do help, the Sentry is smaller than anything came before, even the Node 202 which is very surprising. If I wanted a case to carry about, the Sentry fits even 17" laptop backpacks not to mention larger ones. So whether there's enough originality and reason here, I am just not so sure of.

Also, the Asrock DeskMini GTX, a Pascal generation of the BRIX Pro (the current one has a GTX 950 in a 300 x 230 x 30mm chassis) etc will shrink the enthusiastic SFF market further towards because for many it's quite OK to get a gaming machine in a 2-3L package with limited expansion.
 
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babadook

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What makes your case a better workstation case than the DAN A4?

Portability is more a factor of size than handles, because one graphics card, one Mini-ITX board and one SFX-L PSU are not so heavy that you'd need a dedicated handle. So the A4 seems more portable by virtue of being smaller.

I like the design of your case. There's only so many permutations of layout for standard size components, so people shouldn't expect each case to be revolutionary. Visual aesthetics have always been (one of) the most important purchase factor(s) for cases that internally all looked more or less the same.

So, um, my point is: scrap all that marketing hogwash about workstations and Mac Pros and emphasize how your case gives those who like the functional design of the Sentry, but not its looks, another option.

I doubt you'll be able to convince enough people to back this case, though. It looks like the !nverse is going to struggle to get its IndieGoGo campaign financed and the Cerberus, which was a great case, functionally and visually, failed last year.

The niche for expensive artisan cases is pretty small and your design, while quite unique, is very opinionated.
 

Necere

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Two observations:

1. As tall and narrow as it is, it's going to be somewhat prone to tipping.

2. The ventilation hole pattern looks nice, but has a quite low open area and cooling (and noise) will suffer significantly because of it.
 

CircleTect

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Hey guys, good feedback.

I'm not precious about the design at all and I appreciate the candid thoughts. I hear that a lot of you think the design is too Sentry-like and that's understandable.

There are two aspects to this project:

1. I want to make my own case, half as a hobby, half because I am really picky about the aesthetics of the way computers look. I do like the Dan A4 and the Sentry, but personally I find them quite techy and industrial looking. For this project I'm interested in exploring a different visual language that is friendlier to non tech people, think designers, photographers, filmmakers, etc.

2. I would however, love to try and make something that other people are interested in using as well. If there's not much use in re-hashing the same form factor over and over again, it might be worth looking at new hardware and layout concepts, such as Alexreffand's flex-atx PSU and mini GTX suggestion which would shrink the width of the case (making it an interesting narrow tower), or using an even smaller motherboard (something like Asrock's DeskMini GTX mobo).

In short, I'm not so concerned about pleasing everyone - this will likely be a niche case with a short production run. I will continue to post developments here and will respond to all good ideas.
 

CircleTect

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I like the Sentry's layout and would've bought one if it didn't weigh nearly 8 lbs. Weight is a factor in portability.

Will most likely be going with aluminium for this reason.

Where do the storage drives go?

M2 for system drive and will most likely support a couple of 2.5" drives, but nothing more than that. Will post more about this as the details are worked out.

So it's a sentry with big useless handles on the top and bottom? Very innovative!

I get it, but sort of missing the point - the value is in the combination of aesthetics and functionality - not all innovation is technical.

Emphasize how your case gives those who like the functional design of the Sentry, but not its looks, another option.

Agreed. And It would be great to work some other points of difference in there too.

1. As tall and narrow as it is, it's going to be somewhat prone to tipping.

I'm not too worried about this, the weight of the assembled unit will most likely be enough to keep it steady. It can also be laid flat horizontally if there's a risk of it being knocked over.

2. The ventilation hole pattern looks nice, but has a quite low open area and cooling (and noise) will suffer significantly because of it.

How so? There is quite a lot of open air due to the large number of holes. The size of the holes can also be tuned if airflow becomes an issue.
 

CircleTect

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Does anyone have experience with a flex ATX PSU? Here is a quick mockup of how using one could work in comparison to an SFX-L.

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Above: SFX-L layout on the left. Flex ATX in the middle with a mini GTX, and to the right an experiment to see if a full size card could still fit (wouldn't fit larger full size cards, but probably do-able for some). Note that with the Flex ATX, the depth of the whole unit can also decrease by 10mm.

OCppsbx.jpg


Above: unit is pretty compact with a flex ATX. I'm assuming there's an issue sourcing them at the ideal wattage and with good efficiency / noise perfomance though. Using a mini GTX gives lots of room for additional 2.5" drive mounting.
 
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Alexreffand

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If, rather than putting the psu in front of the motherboard, you put it underneath it (assuming the unit is standing upright) and remove the bottom handles, you could reduce the depth even more while keeping the same effective height, making it smaller without sacrificing anything but gpu compatibility, and since you mentioned compatibility wasn't a priority, I'd consider it the favorable option. I believe (though I could be wrong) that zotac's mini 1080 is 211mm, I'd leave just enough clearance for that as it'd allow space for cable routing and allow for at least that much compatibility. As for flex atx, there are several threads around here that deal with flex ATX and high power systems. Of note are the threads for the Hutzy XS which uses a back-to-back configuration for the gpu and motherboard with a flex ATX psu underneath, the Brevis S which uses a similar layout to what I'm suggesting but with the psu in the middle, and iFreilicht's custom version of the FSP500-50FSPT which is still in-process. These should serve as good starting points for reading up on flex ATX systems and how powerful they can get, as well as what's reliable and what isn't. As for my own personal experience, all I can say is stay away from Athena Power lol
 
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SaperPL

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I like the base concept but from what you've done to it, you made it over-engineered.

1) If this is supposed to be vertically standing then why bother at all with internal pass-through power cord? You could attach the power cord outside since it's already somewhat hidden between the stand "legs". This would let you save up space you're wasting internally for the C14 panel connector.

2) Back panel looks like something that will be extremely costly to manufacture. Some simple piece of bent metal sheet should be enough here since you're hiding it between two huge panels anyway.

3) The handles are kind of weird idea - they aren't close enough together to be held ergonomically by one hand and using only one handle they whole thing will be tilted because you're not grabbing it by the center. Additionally rounding the edges like this seems expensive to make it look nice end evenly rounded.

If you are choosing PSU type then if you want to make something different, try TFX form factor - those are bit thicker than SFX but that may give you advantage over Sentry in CPU cooling support - there are quite a lot of interesting coolers just over 50mm of height. With a bit less depth of case you can still target blower style GPU's and you could think about adding fans below the GPU thanks to added width by TFX size.
 

Necere

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I'm not too worried about this, the weight of the assembled unit will most likely be enough to keep it steady. It can also be laid flat horizontally if there's a risk of it being knocked over.
You would need additional feet to raise it up in a horizontal orientation, or else the airflow will be choked on one side.

How so? There is quite a lot of open air due to the large number of holes. The size of the holes can also be tuned if airflow becomes an issue.
There are a lot of holes, but they're small and spread out. That's a problem because the fans are within a few millimeters of the side panel and are going to be starved for air.

As an engineer, I thought you might be familiar with the concept of open area, but perhaps not. Take a random open area calculator off google - this one, say - and input the specs of your proposed hole pattern. Based on your images I'm guesstimating 3mm holes, with 8mm center-to-center, in a 60 degree staggered pattern. That gives you an open area of about 13%. In other words, 87% is solid panel, which is going to restrict airflow considerably. As a point of reference, the hole pattern Lian Li (and by extension the M1 and DAN A4) uses is a 45 degree staggered pattern of 3mm holes @ ~6mm spacing, for an open area of ~39%.

You can just make the holes larger to increase OA, but that has aesthetic and EMI consequences that should be taken into account.
 

DG25

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You can just make the holes larger to increase OA, but that has aesthetic and EMI consequences that should be taken into account.
I wondered about this for a long time, what exactly are the consequences of poor EMI shielding and how do you know when a specific hole pattern is too permissive or not? Sorry for being a bit offtopic here...
 

206er

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I wondered about this for a long time, what exactly are the consequences of poor EMI shielding


As far as i know, the EMI shielding is to protect other devices, like a wi-fi router nearby for example, from the EMI that occurs inside the case.

Check the news for the poorly shielded Apple 5k display that has to be put at least 2 meters from a router because of poor EMI shielding of the display.


and how do you know when a specific hole pattern is too permissive or not? Sorry for being a bit offtopic here...

You can use open area calculator, the bigger % the open area will be more permissive. Necere's explanation is already quite good

If you want to have the same open area as DAN A4, for example, you need to add more holes

Also, lots of small holes are usually very expensive to produce.
 

CircleTect

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Thanks for the feedback guys, here are some updates.

g4hGxPK.jpg

Above: An experiment into using either a flex atx (left) or TFX psu (right) in a vertical orientation, similar to the layout of the Brevis.

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Above: the vertical orientation is certainly interesting, but probably not ideal due to the risk of tipping over. Note that this concept uses a TFX psu, which increases the width of the body a little, allowing for a 50mm CPU cooler. In this concept I also removed the top handles and tried indenting the side panels into the body for space saving.

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Above: internal layout with the TFX supply. Please note all other details are extremely rough and unrefined, i.e. the back panel is not correct.

I24zPsq.jpg

Above: left, original concept with SFX-L, middle, TFX in vertical orientation, and to the right is a more standard form utilising Saper's TFX recommendation. This would only accept mini GFX cards (or smaller standard cards), but would also allow secondary 2.5" storage.

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Above: here is the original concept and the new concept. Note the denser hole pattern and the handles removed from the top. The unit is generally much more compact now.


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Front panel is still an unknown. Perhaps just a single push button / LED. I don't plan to include any i/o on the front for minimalism.

From the research I've done, it seems like the TFX PSU is a more solid choice compared to the Flex ATX. The problem with the flex is the lack of any good options. iFreilicht's custom version looks promising, but still a long ways off.
 
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CircleTect

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1) If this is supposed to be vertically standing then why bother at all with internal pass-through power cord? You could attach the power cord outside since it's already somewhat hidden between the stand "legs". This would let you save up space you're wasting internally for the C14 panel connector.

Hey Saper! Love your Sentry, thanks for the feedback. Neat idea, but I want the side profile to be clean, i.e. I don't want to see a cable rotating 90 degree under the case. Thanks to your TFX suggestion, the new concept has a bit more room to spare internally, so I don't mind the internal pass through.

2) Back panel looks like something that will be extremely costly to manufacture. Some simple piece of bent metal sheet should be enough here since you're hiding it between two huge panels anyway.

Yep, totally agree. One of the goals has been to hide the GPU screw mount - I like how the Sentry manages it, but I want to take this case a step further and hide it completely. I was initially planning to machine the whole back plate out of aluminium, and I might still do this for a prototype, but you're right, it would obviously be cheaper to use sheet metal. I'm going to focus on this a bit this week.

3) The handles are kind of weird idea - they aren't close enough together to be held ergonomically by one hand and using only one handle they whole thing will be tilted because you're not grabbing it by the center. Additionally rounding the edges like this seems expensive to make it look nice end evenly rounded.

Yeah, I guess they are a bit 'weird', but I think they're also pretty unique. It's important to me that design isn't arbitrary, the reason they existed was to provide handles, and they also happened to work as feet when mirrored symmetrically. I do agree that the ones on the top are a bit redundant though - so I've removed them. I still think the concept works - the legs now double as handles, which I think is fairly elegant. You're right about the tilting thing if you only grab one of the handles, but it's not hard to put your fingers through both sides.

In regards to the rounded edges, I was thinking of having these panels machined. not laser cut. The curves wouldn't be hard to make with a curved router bit. I'm aware of the additional expense, but I don't mind if this case is a bit more expensive.

If you are choosing PSU type then if you want to make something different, try TFX form factor - those are bit thicker than SFX but that may give you advantage over Sentry in CPU cooling support - there are quite a lot of interesting coolers just over 50mm of height. With a bit less depth of case you can still target blower style GPU's and you could think about adding fans below the GPU thanks to added width by TFX size.

Yep, great suggestion. I've incorporated this into the newest concept and will run with it for a while, see how it goes.

There are a lot of holes, but they're small and spread out. That's a problem because the fans are within a few millimeters of the side panel and are going to be starved for air.

Yep, got you. In the new concept I've doubled the density of the holes but am aware this isn't optimal because of cost. I'm going to look into some alternate patterning techniques.
 

DG25

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You can use open area calculator, the bigger % the open area will be more permissive. Necere's explanation is already quite good

If you want to have the same open area as DAN A4, for example, you need to add more holes

Also, lots of small holes are usually very expensive to produce.
I know but i was referring to the EMI shielding, in relation to the number and size of the holes. For example: bigger holes, better airflow, less EMI shielding. How big the air holes can be without negatively affecting the EMI shielding.
 

Necere

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I wondered about this for a long time, what exactly are the consequences of poor EMI shielding and how do you know when a specific hole pattern is too permissive or not? Sorry for being a bit offtopic here...
There's a bit of work in figuring it out, involving not just the size of the holes, but the shape as well and the wavelength of the frequencies you're concerned about, plus the conductivity of the enclosure. Seams in the chassis (e.g. where the panels meet) can leak EMI as well if the points where the meet isn't conductive. Anodizing or paint isn't conductive, for example, so in actuality a lot of cases are probably quite leaky.

Anyway, it seems most aftermarket case manufacturers don't pay much attention to EMI, considering the preponderance of windowed side panels. I'd say the only real reason the OP might want to give it some extra consideration is if he's targeting professionals as he says, which could include e.g. audio engineers who might actually care about it.
 
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CircleTect

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Hey guys, just a quick update.

Here is a render of the first prototype, which is now in production.

BamfdUJ.jpg


qYvfSkN.jpg


The build is using a TFX power supply, which is quieter than a FLEX ATX but also much smaller and better oriented than an SFX or SFX-L. This means the case can be narrower, nearly exactly the width of an A4 piece of paper. In total, the unit is two horizontal A4 pages tall, or one vertical A3 page.

Because the unit is narrower, it doesn't support a full length GPU, so mid-length or mini cards are the way to go. What this provides however, is the option for standard multiple 2.5" drive support and an additional dedicated 80mm case ventilation fan.

The legs provide the height necessary for the exhaust from the PSU to escape the case. The side panels only have ventilaton holes on one half of the panel (flipped on either side) to reduce cost, but also to provide directed airflow.

Hole patterning provides an open area of ~39%, same as the DANA4 and other Lian Li cases.
 

Jen

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i had 3 rmas with seasonic tfx powersupplys till i gave up on them and tossed the last one in the garbage. the last one just shot flames out and that was when i said i am done with this brand of tfx powersupply. my pico setup works fine but i wanted something internal for a custom case design i was doing. now its back to drawing board to rethink tfx powersupplys and what brand is reliable

sorry i know off topic perhaps nobody has problems with them it was just me with very bad luck with this brand

Jen
 

CircleTect

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the last one just shot flames out and that was when i said i am done with this brand of tfx powersupply.

I am currently using the 350W Seasonic - I wonder if I should be worried.. Anyone else have issues with this PSU?
 

CircleTect

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Hey guys, the prototype finally arrived! Apart from a few minor teething issues (holes needing to be drilled out and tapped), the whole thing went together perfectly. Check out the photo gallery of the prototype HERE.

The thing is surprisingly sturdy, hasn't fallen over yet! Regardless, the community has spoken and I hear that people don't like the legs, so they're coming off in the next revision. Also in line for the next revision is support for AIO water cooling, as the main learning from the prototype has been that CPU noise is louder than I would like.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Gyxa4xl.jpg
 

CircleTect

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Well done looks very good :) Who is your manufacturer?

Thanks man, glad you like it. I'm a big fan of your work!

I work professionally as an industrial designer, so I used one of our standard suppliers in China. I can't divulge industry secrets here though ;)
 
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Lutfij

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This project has potential and if it were to go into production(a limited run ofc) then chalk me up for one! I'd need to know the cost of each case though... :p

Good work thus far buddy!
:)
 

darksable

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Hey guys, the prototype finally arrived! Apart from a few minor teething issues (holes needing to be drilled out and tapped), the whole thing went together perfectly. Check out the photo gallery of the prototype HERE.

The thing is surprisingly sturdy, hasn't fallen over yet! Regardless, the community has spoken and I hear that people don't like the legs, so they're coming off in the next revision. Also in line for the next revision is support for AIO water cooling, as the main learning from the prototype has been that CPU noise is louder than I would like.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Gyxa4xl.jpg

Why take the legs off? I could see them working just fine; they just need to be bent out at, say, a 20-degree angle or so. I think that would take care of most of the aesthetic and stability concerns people are having.
 
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