Were there a Mount Everest of PC builds, the see-through PC would likely be it. The difficulties are great, and the possibilities for failure high, but there’s nothing that gets me more excited than the opportunity to crack my knuckles and customize the lighting and electrical setup of a transparent desktop system.
The most fearsome part of this build is the acrylic case I’m using: There’s nowhere to hide any mistakes. Nor can I just stuff a mass of cables in some secluded area of the case and call it a day. Every bit of this build has to be focused on aesthetics, so I’m grabbing my toolbox and busting out a ton of different tricks to make sure this system can stand up to scrutiny.
Case DangerDen DD Tower-21 $210
Fans 3x Yate Loon 12x2.5cm UV-reactive LED fans $21
OS Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (OEM) $99
Fan Controller Sony Optiarc BC-5640H-01 $35
Selecting the right hardware to make a system look good is the most important part of a transparent PC construction. That’s why you’ll see that my parts—a number of which were donated to the cause by online retailer FrozenCPU—are more focused on the system’s appearance than its actual performance. Feel free to use whatever components you want. I’m using the same standard parts I’ve used for my previous case builds.
The case is a no-brainer: acrylic. DangerDen graciously sent over a version of its acrylic case that hides the hard drive underneath the power supply, lest I be tempted to bust out the Dremel and construct a window within the drive itself. The two-bay cutout on the front of the case is critical, too, providing just enough space for an optical drive and a series of switches that I’ll use to power and control the system’s lighting.
Also critical: the modular power supply (provided by Kingwin). If you haven’t noticed by now, the name of the game here is cable management. Specifically, I need to use as few cables as possible inside the case, as there’s no great way to conceal them.
I’m packing a 3/8-inch water-cooling setup to give the inside a bit more visual flair. The reactive fluid should look extra special combined with blue lighting from the radiator fans and separate UV spotlights. And to complete the Tron motif, I’m outlining the exterior of the case with yellow electroluminescent wire.
The DangerDen acrylic case I’m using, the DD Tower-21, comes fully disassembled. The process for assembling your flat-packed parts into a mighty chassis will vary with whatever case you’ve purchased, but two key pointers will always stay the same.
First, take precautions to minimize fingerprint smudges. Wearing a pair of soft gloves or using a cloth barrier between you and the panels can keep things clean (above).
Second, don’t use power tools—no battery-powered screwdrivers, no drills, nothing. Over-tightening screws can lead to cracked acrylic, which defeats the entire purpose of having a see-through case to begin with. I love how the design of the DangerDen case makes it so I don’t actually have to hold nuts in place while attaching screws (above).
There’s only one place to attach a radiator on this case, and it’s on an acrylic panel that sits directly behind the case’s front. Since I knew I wanted to run EL wire to outline the front of the chassis, this secondary panel had to be in position prior to setting up the case’s lighting. This point illustrates the reason why you should inventory and strategize a case build before you start slapping things together.
I used smaller screws to attach my Black Ice GT Stealth 360 X-Flow radiator to the acrylic panel. I then flipped the panel over and used longer screws to attach a combination of three UV-reactive Yate Loon 12cm fans and three ModRight FilterRight fan filters (above). I then slid the secondary panel into place and screwed it into the case (below).
EL wire, or electroluminescent wire, is thin copper wire that glows a particular color (thanks to a phosphor coating) when you run current through it. After mounting the primary inverter to the rear of the case (above), right around the hard drive (for maximum concealment), I ran the black wire cabling for my two strands of EL wire through the holes in the rear of the case. I then looped each 5-foot strand of wire around the bottom, front, and top of the case, securing it to the case’s sides using clear adhesive tape (below)—any other method would disrupt the strand of light.
I next decided to throw in my Kingwin LZ-1000 modular power supply and 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black hard drive, because I wanted to get a feel for how the system’s primary components would affect the placement of the other aesthetically oriented parts I had in mind. I also wanted to start testing out my system’s lighting setup by connecting an Antec power supply tester to my PSU, which would generate juice for anything attached to its wires. Both the power supply (above) and hard drive (below) slid right in without difficulty, and I hand-secured them with a smile.
To assemble the water-cooling apparatus, I began by attaching Koolance Quick Disconnects to my various water-cooling parts (below); these would come in handy for adjustments and spill prevention later. My plan was to run 3/8-inch tubing from my Swiftech MCP35X pump (overkill in power, but extremely small and easy to position) to the Black Ice radiator, which would flow out to my Koolance CPU-370 water block, up to a Swiftech MCRes Micro Rev2 reservoir, and back down into the pump.
We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: Test your loop away from expensive components before you put it in your rig. I tested the whole setup using UV-reactive Feser One cooling fluid (below) before cracking open a cold one and pondering just how I was going to get this into the case—and look good, to boot. I decided to delay this decision a bit and proceeded to install the system’s motherboard into the case using the provided standoffs and screws, followed by the graphics card.
I decided to mount the reservoir right below the hard drive, using a mechanism that would allow me to run the reservoir itself parallel to the case. I screwed a mounting bar into a hole previously designed for a hard drive, then screwed a mounting bar attached to the reservoir into the first mounting bar (above). The way I attached the reservoir meant that the tank could conceivably pivot on an axis, so I made sure to tighten the screw and nut combinations as much as possible to lock the entire contraption into place (below).
Attaching the pump to the case was much easier: I just used velcro, adhered to the case itself (below).
To minimize cabling and maximize my ability to control lighting brightness and fan power, I connected all the case fans and lighting equipment (including a 12-inch UV cathode) to a Sunbeam Rheobus Extreme six-channel fan controller (below). The controller provides up to 30 watts of power per channel, meaning that no connected device would need a secondary connection to the power supply.
I cut off these secondary connections and, if a device didn’t come with a 3-pin connector, I split its cable and the cable of the fan controller’s included 3-pin wire, then connected these two halves by twisting the wiring and covering the connection with electrical tape (below).
After I plugged in all the cables to the controller, I installed the system’s optical drive over the top of it—both to hide the cabling connections and because it would have been a real pain to try and hook them up with a huge optical drive in the way.
For any smaller cables that didn’t come presleeved, I used Flexo Pet sleeving to wrap the cables in a colorful, UV-reactive exterior. Heat-shrinks and—in some cases—velcro strips were used to hold the sleeving in place (above). I used these same velcro strips to bind all of the power supply’s black-sleeved cables together, and then wove all UV cabling around the exterior of this mass, akin to vines around a tree trunk (below). It might not look that interesting with the lights on, but the UV-reactive cabling looks striking in the dark—and with my UV spotlights on, of course.
I finished out the system build by connecting all the associated power and data cords, including the tiny wires used by my third-party, UV-glowing system switch. The last part of the puzzle involved finding the perfect place to mount my three UV-LED spotlights, which deliver focused light over a good chunk of the case’s now-glowing parts.
This build would not be possible without this rig’s six-channel fan controller. Every light and fan in the case (save for the PSU’s) is adjustable (and powered) using this simple series of switches.
In addition to providing better cooling than air, a
liquid-cooling setup provides visual flare, especially with UV-reactive coolant.
I didn’t just pick Koolance’s CPU-370 for its prowess. The water block is also a snap to install, requiring very few parts, headaches, or wizard swears in order to firmly attach the block over one’s CPU.
Use elements like your lighting inverter or your water-cooling pump to wall off cabling where possible. It’s a lot easier to keep a cable in place with a rigid device blocking its path than with a ton of Velcro and twist ties.
It sure looks easy on paper, doesn’t it? In practice, the physical construction of the see-through PC was a multiday build involving several trips to the hardware store to deal with a variety of issues. The biggest hurdle in working with a case that you build yourself is that not everything always goes according to plan. Some screw lengths don’t fit the predrilled holes in the chassis; some unexpected twists have to be navigated (the first UV-reactive coolant I used looked less than impressive); some dents, dings, and cracks find their way onto the chassis no matter how careful you are.
If I could offer one piece of advice to instill courage in folks looking to follow in my transparent footsteps, it would be this: over plan. Take your time. Don’t order a mess of components at once with some grand vision in your head of how they’re all going to come together, because you’ll be amazed at some of the new ideas you’ll come up with once you actually have a huge acrylic case sitting on your coffee table. You can just wing it with a conventional build, but acrylic cases require a lot more TLC.
Had I the time, opportunity, or work setup, I would have loved to craft some acrylic frames for both the power supply and the optical drive. That’s not the kind of deal that one just budgets an hour for, and it does pose some risk that a newbie with a Dremel could send his or her expensive components off to the scrap heap. Still, see-through is see-through, and see-through devices, where possible, would have been a nice touch.
One final word to the wise: EL wire is both a blessing and a curse. Get the longest single strand you can purchase. Here’s why: The more strands of EL wire you connect to a converter, the dimmer the strands become in total. Depending on the brand of inverter and wire you’ve chosen, the inverter itself can also emit a loud, high-pitched whine. It’s a rookie mistake, but one that could easily scuttle the dreams of those looking to turn their mid-tower desktops into a device out of Tron: Legacy.
Building a see-through PC is like the sword in the stone of computer construction: Once you’ve mastered the sleeving, electrical, and liquid-cooling challenges of a transparent build, you can accomplish great things. May your lights shine bright, aspiring builder.