Building a small, low powered, linux machine


My idea… to build a PC that I could happily leave on forever without worrying about the electricity bill. A small, silent, living room friendly PC. So that’s a No to gigantor cases with lots of fans and macho grunt and a half hearted meh to sleek, low powered, fanless minimalism.

Inspired by, where folk stuff motherboards into the likes plastic Millenium Falcons, I decided to use the slight 170x170mm Via embedded EPIA5000 Mini-ITX fanless board.

Although a little bigger than I would have liked, I decided to butcher a Hi-Fi separates system I’d bought years ago. The enclosures looked great with their brushed steel effect and at 210x100x300mm would be ideal for a teeny PC. Having picked the useless cassette deck (soo last century) as my victim and with the use of a small hammer, I happily bashed its contents into a neighbour’s skip.

the empty case
The main case chassis with cassette playing nonsense gutted

Without the cassette playing innards the box had a large gaping hole in the front panel — clearly begging to have an LCD panel in it. I found a blue/white alpha numeric panel on eBay, it looked the business in the photo. I could just imagine the romantic evenings in, lights dimmed and bright blue displays of MHz and Mb per second flickering softly in the candle light. I bought it!

I wanted my PC to be sleek and that meant no trailing Parallel LCD cable hanging out of the back. I’d try to keep the visible connectors and switches to a bare minimum. This means just one power button at the front and only network, USB, audio/video and power connectors at the rear. I figured that by rotating the board in the case there’d be plenty of space to keep my LCD wiring entirely internal.

A ?1.99 Maplin port extender would be the base for my new rear connectors. Chopped to bits, I removed its mic jack and transplanted a network socket from an old ISA NIC I had lying around. I knocked up a few cables to connect the extender to the sockets on the main board.

rear sockets
Lovely, new sockets for the back

I fashioned two hard drive brackets out of an old power supply case and screwed them into the enclosure. A small 60W power supply was mounted on the base.

drive brackets and power supply
Nice but will the mainboard fit in the box?

At this point I thought it probably a good idea to see if the mainboard would fit in the box — it did!

everything fits
I needn’t have worried everything rams in just fine.

The Face Job

I filled all the unused holes in the face plate with some kind of epoxy gunk (‘Araldite Steel’), added some small bolts as mounts for my LCD panel and attempted to level off the front plate with varying gradients of sand papers, a large file, power tools, half a house brick etc. It was at some point during a heavy session with a sander that I remembered the beautiful finish that first attracted me to the box…

the empty case
Beautiful front plate ruined forever

Eventually, with lots of filling and sanding I’d smoothed the front nicely.

Looking slightly less awful

A quick splash of primer and it looked promising.

primed ready for action

Finally, a few thousand coats of ‘Metallic Charcoal’ later…

The finished paint job

The final touch, 1 blue power led to match perfectly the blue LCD — lovely.

Finished, the end result was a little bigger than my original hopes but even so was a tight squeeze to get everything in.


It powered up silently except for the Seagate ST3200822A drive which has a tendency to noisily send the heads for a wander around if sat idle for too long. I later discovered this was it’s own cooling mechanism, clever but still a very annoying click click click, clack clack clacking noise — My dreams of a completely silent PC dashed! And with them any hopes of beautiful serene nights in – dinner for two if you like with the PC in a dress – now gone as the PC effectively farted every 5 minutes without fail.

As I’d lost the complete silence I was aiming for with the project (and as I’d forgot to drill any air holes into the case) I thought I might as well play it safe and… add a fan! I know, I know, this would totally ruin my kudos winning ‘fanless PC’ concept. But what the heck, if I kept it quiet enough I could always lie.

The slower the fan the quieter it’d run, so wiring an old 486 cpu fan up to the 5 and 12v points of the molex power connector I could run it at 7v, less than the recommended 12 but I wanted even slower. Connecting to a 5v supply and with a couple of diodes in series to push it even lower, I could run it almost silently.


I installed Ubuntu, a painless install. I’m using it headless as a web server, file server, a general downloads machine, connected to the hi-fi to play mp3s and occasionally hooking up to a TV to play the odd DivX (Epia5000 board only just about manages this). As it’s low power, I feel happy leaving it on for weeks on end downloading podcasts and other bits and pieces. The LCD, powered by LCD4Linux, now shows the date/ time, current upload/download rate and the latest downloaded podcast thanks to a home-made plugin (details of which may be posted sometime in the future)

It’s been running for months now without any problems and has pride of place under the TV in the living room. I’ve since drilled a few air holes in the base to help with air flow and now that the PC is busy doing its thing the noisy tick tick ticking when idle has stopped.

The soft focus glamour shot

Parts List

  • VIA EPIA 5000
  • 512MB RAM
  • 200GB Seagate Barracuda ST3200822A
  • 60W PSU
  • Blue / White HD44780 LCD
  • Blue LED – Maplin
  • Port Extender – Maplin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *