Every year, Maximum PC does outreach at the annual nerdathon known as Comic-Con. For the 2011 convention, we wanted to make a big splash by combining two subjects dear to our hearts: Star Trek and PCs.
But just how do you do that? We decided to enlist the aid of MaximumPC.com columnist and former Star Trek writer David Gerrold, creator of the beloved episode "The Trouble with Tribbles." Gerrold's vision of the ultimate PC served as the foundation for our Comic-Con creation.
Crafting such a PC wasn't something we could do entirely in-house, though, so we tasked legendary Star Trek designer Michael Okuda with creating a blueprint for the custom case, and we had MNPCTech.com fabricate a machine worthy of representing the best TV series of all time. Read on to learn how it all came together.
Getting the Insides Right
THE MAN WHO BROUGHT US THE TRIBBLE IS ALSO A COMPUTER ENTHUSIAST
MaximumPC.com columnist David Gerrold has written more than 50 books, won the coveted Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction writing, and penned scripts for The Twilight Zone, Sliders, and Babylon 5. Despite his extensive portfolio, David will likely always be remembered as the man who invented the tribble with his script for the original series episode "The Trouble with Tribbles."
Given his association with Maximum PC, it stands to reason that David doesn't need just a typewriter on steroids—he wants a badass rig.
A young David Gerrold alongside William Shatner on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
For processor and chipset, David requested Intel's Sandy Bridge 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K using an LGA1155 motherboard. Although David initially seemed like a good candidate for Intel's six-core Core i7-990X, he decided that the better upgrade path of LGA1155 and comparable performance in apps that aren't optimized for six cores was worth the trade-off. This gives him a machine that's compatible with Intel's Ivy Bridge CPUs when they're available early next year. By using a Sandy Bridge part and a Z68 motherboard, David also gets access to Intel's superior native SATA 6Gb/s interface—something the aging LGA1366 platform sorely lacks.
David's storage needs were also particular. "I want to run Windows 7 (Professional or Ultimate) as fast as possible. A 240GB SSD looks like the sweet spot to me, but my experience with hard drives is that they fill up fast. I want the largest and fastest SSD that's cost-effective. This is one place where bleeding edge, bragging rights, and overall usefulness are congruent," David said. "Inboard, I want two 3TB hard drives for data storage. I have more than 2TB of music in my collection and another 1TB of video files I'm editing. I'm tired of having them scattered across four or five smaller drives. With the hot-swappable drive bays, I can pop in a 3TB drive and back up/clone each of the inboard drives."
To fit those requirements, we grabbed a pair of the same 3TB Seagate 7,200rpm hard drives that we used in this year's Dream Machine (September 2011 issue), along with a 240GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD.
RAM was also an important factor. "Ninety percent of what I do is research, so it's not unusual for me to have over 100 tabs open in Chrome. At the same time, i might be puttering around in Photoshop with six or eight large multilayered files. And I have several Excel spreadsheets I need to refer to during the day, at least three Filemaker Pro databases, and multiple files open in Word. My current machine is a 2.66GHz Core i7-920 with 9GB of RAM, but more than once, this machine has stuttered, hesitated, or simply frozen for a bit while it accessed the page-file on the hard drive," David said. "Obviously, 9GB of RAM is not enough and I suspect I could fill up 12GB just as easily. Ideally, I'd shoot for at least 16GB of the fastest RAM I could find—more if possible. There's no such thing as too much RAM. My ideal is to max out the motherboard."
For the LGA1155 platform, the max today is 16GB, simply because no one (at press time) was producing 8GB DIMMs that aren't registered. Elsewhere in the rig, we opted to install a single GeForce GTX 580 instead of a GTX 590 (for thermal reasons), and a Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty Titanium to run David's 5.1 audio system. But what about the case?
"So when I accepted this challenge/invitation, I said that this dream machine ought to look like it belongs on the Enterprise. It should evoke that same sense of simple but futuristic design, like the classic tricorder. For me, the original series is the real Star Trek. That's the starship I grew up on."
Conceiving the Star Trek Look and Feel
LEGENDARY GRAPHIC DESIGNER MICHAEL OKUDA CREATED A CASE THAT'S 'TRICORDER CHIC'
Once we nailed down our hardware, we needed a proper enclosure for David's Star Trek-themed PC. We decided to mod a stock case to fit our needs, and we tapped graphic designer Michael Okuda to conceive it. Okuda wore many hats during his tenure with Star Trek, including lead graphic designer and technical consultant to the staff, but he's probably best known for his work creating the LCARS computer interface on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
After accepting the task, Okuda said he started roughing out a few different designs, which he ultimately trashed because they started looking like big Star Trek toys.
The original sketch (not shown) called for a slot-fed optical drive and twin video screens to mimic the tricorder's look and feel, but deadlines and budget constraints quashed those plans.
"At a certain point, I thought 'this isn't doing Star Trek a service,'" Okuda said. Okuda never worked on the original series, but it's always held a special place in his heart. He grew up watching the show and admired the "genius" designs of Star Trek's original art director Matt Jefferies. Taking inspiration from the original tricorder, Okuda decided to apply a similar look and feel to the PC. That didn't mean just plastering Trek artifacts on the case, though.
"There's elegance to what Jefferies did. He didn't cram every surface with details. There are accents and nice, smooth things to offset the busier areas. That gave his work a wonderful sense of functionality that I'm hoping comes across in the tricorder chic case."
With his extensive production work on the Star Trek movies and all of the Star Trek sequel series, Okuda is all too familiar with the constraints of budgets and deadlines. That meant some design ideas had to go out the airlock. On top of the case, for instance, Okuda wanted to embed two functional touch screens that used Star Trek GUIs from the original show. But those fell by the wayside for practical reasons, as someone would have had to write the custom interface software from scratch. The original design also didn't anticipate the cooling needs of a modern PC, so a newer design featured a mesh grill in front.
Since the PC was intended to showcase David Gerrold's most famous work for Star Trek, we requested that a tribble-bearing compartment be added.
"I think the final vision does capture the spirit of Matt's original design. I hope it's something that David can look at and say it's a throwback to something that he's proud of."
Taking It From Blueprint to Build
MNPCTECH.COM, CREATORS OF THE WEB SERIES MOD MEN, SEEMED LIKE THE PERFECT CHOICE FOR TURNING OKUDA'S DESIGN INTO A FUNCTIONAL ENCLOSURE
To pull together David Gerrold's dream specs and Michael Okuda's enclosure design, Maximum PC turned to a professional mod shop. Bill Owen and his team at MNPCTech.com have been producing some of the coolest PC mods in their Minneapolis, Minnesota shop for more than 10 years. MNPCTech can do it all: mill it, paint it, design it—you name it. Some of the shop's mods are out-of-this-world impressive, but the Star Trek-themed PC presented particular challenges for the guys.
"Given the short time frame we had in which to make two identical cases for Comic-Con, my biggest concern was making sure everything fit perfectly the first time, since there was no time to order material if we goofed," Owen said. Why two? We needed one to grace David Gerrold's man cave and the other to give away at Comic-Con. So they had to be functional and exactly the same, too.
To fit our time and budget constraints, MNPCTech decided to mod an existing case—a LanCool PC-K58—rather than fashion an entire enclosure from scratch. The two cases took more than 150 hours to build, including the 3D modeling of the 25 individual parts used in each build. Our photo montage represents just a fraction of the work that went into the case.
The massive H-frame that went into the case's front bezel was milled out of a solid 1.5-inch billet of 6061 aluminum. That makes the case a beast. Empty, it weighs 70 pounds.
The side bezel was also constructed out of a billet of 6061 aluminum. In fact, Owen said they had never used so much aluminum in a PC mod before.
The smoked side windows were custom cut out of 1/8-inch-thick opaque red acrylic and 1/8-inch-thick gray cast acrylic. These were layered with the aluminum and the factory side panel.
The front grill was made with Modders' Mesh, which is 22-gauge perforated steel, and an Enterprise assignment patch was attached to the front. The mesh is functional—and retro, too.
The stock LanCool PC-K58's feet were removed in favor of beefier and cooler-looking machined case feet. The feet weren't custom made for this build, but are standard mod accessories.
With the sides and front attached, the Star Trek-themed PC starts to take shape. This shot also gives you an idea of how much work and aluminum went into just one of the computers.
To class up the LanCool's internals, Owen integrated a Lian-Li toolless PCI holder into the design. The matte black slot covers were jazzed up by painting them a glossy red.
David requested a media reader in the machine, so a SilverStone FP34S was integrated into the case. It's mounted in the aluminum and placed at an angle.
An aluminum compartment was milled out to house miniature tribbles for Comic-Con, but it can obviously be used to store PC detritus instead.
Like most of the case, chunks of aluminum were cut out and hand-sculpted or filed to create most of the latches and starship assignment patches.
The front panel sports a Bulgin orange-dot vandal-resistant power switch and a Sentey fan controller. The original plan of dual video screens got shelved for budgetary and deadline issues.
A silhouette of the iconic USS Enterprise, NCC-1701—no bloody A, B, C, D, or E—was cut into aluminum, painted black, and layered over additional aluminum. Yes, there is a deflector dish, too.
When on, the Yate Loon fan gives a nice blue accent to the Enterprise assignment patches, which, in the 2250s, were specific to particular starships and not used fleetwide, as they would be decades later.
Two MB877Sk-B Icy Docks get the storage job done. Both are active-cooled and don't require the use of a tray to hold the hard drive.
The final touch: David Gerrold's signature was digitized and cut into an aluminum plate that was added to the front of the machine.
Behold: The Tricorder Chic PC!
BEAMED STRAIGHT FROM THE 23RD CENTURY, THIS BABY IS FAST, FUNCTIONAL, AND RETRO-FUTURISTIC
16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3/1333 If we could have found 8GB unregistered DIMMs we would have run those, but the next best thing is 16GB of RAM using four sets of 4GB DIMMs.
Asus P8Z68 Deluxe The LGA1155 socket gives us the best bang-for-the-buck processor available today and offers an upgrade path to Intel's 22nm chips with 3D transistors due out next year.
EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Superclocked We passed on the hotter GeForce GTX 590, since the machine will be primarily run in a warm environment and we had concerns about thermal issues on summer days.
OCZ Vertex 3 OCZ's Vertex 3 is among the fastest SSDs using the second-gen SandForce controller available today. We actually configured the machine using Intel's SSD caching since David didn't want to live on a meager 240GB of storage space for his primary boot drive. That leaves 176GB for games and programs.
3TB Seagate Barracuda XT One of the 3TB drives is used for boot, with a big performance boost from Intel's Smart Response Technology SSD caching. The other is for backups of the first drive. The two hot-swap bays, believe it or not, are for additional backups and storage.