Friday, 15 June 2012

Centre Com Builds A Lego PC!

How often do you get to tell your friends and family that you’re going to work to work on a Lego computer? More than likely never; however over the past week I have had the chance to do so building the first Centre Com Lego computer.

I hope you guys can read the whole thing as I’ve tried to add in as much detail as I can! I think you may enjoy it! There’s nothing else to really call what I’ve built other than a Centre Com Lego Gaming Computer however sometimes I do feel like it should be name after the creator, in this case ‘The Sahin’ as I put a whole lot of love, sweat, pain and effort into it. I was asked by the Marketing Manager to build a Lego case for a computer. Undoubtedly I was surprised and a bit sceptical whether or not she was bluffing or was serious. Turns out it was the latter.
Before I even started looking at getting the Lego pieces, I needed a good plan and layout to ensure I’m not just building as I go. I had to think about how I was going to put full electronic hardware inside a Lego box and make it safe enough to operate hours on end. I set myself a few rules when designing the layout:

1.       No Glue. I had to use only Lego pieces to hold together a mammoth of a unit.
2.       Don’t just build a box. I wanted to use the Lego to build storage compartments, holders and even passages for cable management.
3.       Somewhat un-upgradable. The downside to building such a complex Lego case is the loss of upgradeability to the parts inside. Apart from the Hard Drive bay I wanted it to a closed design.
4.       Awesome system. I’ve seen a fair few other Lego systems around and albeit a few, most are old simply PC’s that really have just been made to look at. I want this system to be a true gaming contender.

So, now that I had my rules I downloaded the Lego designer (which lets your 3d model with Lego pieces) and got cracking. Starting from the base and making my way up I roughly modelled out the shape and overall layout of the unit through the software. The plan was simple, PSU on the bottom, motherboard sitting flat on top, hard drives by the side and optical hanging over motherboard. I also had to think about cooling. Let’s face it, there isn’t much out there on how Lego takes on heat and how it will react to covering a gaming system capable of pushing out 80 degree heat, so I had to ensure airflow was a big part of the system. The plan was to include 3 fans, 1 for the hard drive(s) and 2 blowing air through the motherboard and graphics. Now, I consider myself to be a somewhat Lego pro but I was pretty optimistic on the success of the case. I knew it would bring plenty of challenges and be difficult to make at times.

So, the plan was sketched up and I was almost ready to go. The next part was to start picking some parts that could be used in the system, eventually with a bit of tinkering around I went with the following:

All in all about $1200 worth of parts, so it is quite a beefy system when you look at it. However, some of these parts were picked for their certain capabilities and features.

Intel i5 unlocked CPU. For a gaming system an i5 is most times more than enough. An unlocked will allow me to push it a bit and get a bit of overclocking happening.

The H60 water cooler was chosen for three reasons, one it allows me to keep the weight of a massive heat sink off the actual motherboard, two it allowed me to combine a heat sink with a rear exhaust fan, eliminating the need for an extra fan and lastly it helps reduce the actual amount of air within the box.

The external DVD write was chosen purely because of its weight. Having a full sized optical bay hanging over the motherboard would’ve required a lot of Lego pieces to hold up that weight. It also allows me to bypass using the power supplies cabling which in essence helps with the cable management.

The Enermax fans were chosen because they offer pretty good airflow for 120mm fans and have the option of many different lighting effects, something I really wanted to add in to my system!

Day 1
So I get to work with the first 1000 pieces of Lego. I had my parts and I had my Lego’s and it was time to get building. Starting from the power supply the Lego’s fit perfectly around the PSU giving it a completely snug and safe Lego mould.

Within the first hour the PSU was covered in a Lego frame and raised to allow for airflow to come in from under it. By the second hour I had managed to start the side wall for the hard drive slots and a rough outline of the motherboards outer lining.

It was time to put on the motherboard to see how I was going with size. It was a key factor because if it didn’t perfectly fit, it would mean there would not only be a gap but it would be an odd number of Lego lengths (which is a complete nightmare when working with only Even length Lego’s). 

Surprisingly, and with a massive relief it fitted perfectly! At this point though I realised moving this is going to be a complete nightmare. I needed at least a large flat Lego board, so my lunch break was spent rushing to the local shops and finding the biggest board and luckily, there was one in stock! Mounting the already built Lego onto the board was a bit of an effort, but I managed to get it in and heard the almighty ‘click’.
Using the motherboards outer lining I kept adding up pieces to build up some kind of a wall around it. I threw in the 7870 and even the back plate of the motherboard to see how it would sit in and just like the motherboard itself both parts seemed to sit in like 2 Lego blocks! (Pun intended).
The front however was missing and would be a key factor on how it will hold up. The front is the area I’d planned to put in 3 fans. Now this may not have crossed your mind, but when you have 3 120mm fans covering a large part of the front, that’s a whole lot of empty area which needs to be supported somehow. Don’t forget, there’s still the optical bay to sit on top of all these fans.

Today was also going to be about setting up the hard drive bays and getting that motherboard safely in its Lego tray. I had to keep reminding myself however that I needed to cable up the parts as I went. I wasn’t going to have the luxury of opening the side panel and popping in parts, they had to be made while I built around them.
After the PSU the next hardware to go in permanently was the SSD. I’d made a nice little holder for it to slide into from an opening I planned to leave on the side. I plugged in its power and data cable ready to go.

Next up it was time to take a small break from the Lego’s and start prepping the motherboard. After throwing in the CPU and memory modules it came time for the cooler. It’s at this point I was questioning the water cooling option as I realised until I secured the fan and radiator, it was going to be hanging around loosely.

The last little thing I needed to do was add in a rough lock position for the fan that will help cool the hard drive bay and provide airflow for the base of the system. With the first fan roughly locked Day 1 was coming to an end. Looking at how it finished up, I knew I need a lot more pieces and ridiculous amount of patience and on-the-fly planning.3

Day 2
Equipped with an extra 3000 pieces it was time to get back into it. The first order of business was setting up the outer wall for the base fan and SSD. Building the wall up and up I decided to leave a bit of a hole to the SSD’s top part which has the connectors to allow for any possibility of failure and still give me the chance to change it if anything happens (which turned out to be one of the wisest choices I have ever made which I’ll explain later). 

I decided to add a few pillars behind the PSU which would essentially become parts of the structure that holds up the entire front end. Using these pillars I was able to add in the final pieces to the border of the motherboard. Having done that, the motherboards now sits in a perfect square Lego moulding.
With the motherboard in, I had the problem of the dangling radiator and fan from the water cooling unit. I need to get this into a good enough position as soon as possible. So began the process of building the back white wall and side yellow inner wall to help support the radiator. After an hour or so I was able to leave the radiator stand for its own. At the same time I was building up the red wall to help support the 7870 and bride the white and red wall together to help add some extra support to radiator. The problem was (and I saw this coming when building it) the radiator sits on a bridge that is literally suspended over the back plate. It doesn’t really have any extra vertical support and it showed when I could see certain pieces break off from one another.  So I came up with an idea to run a Lego bridge through the motherboard from the back of it under the radiator to the front edging. It worked to a certain extent but still didn’t stop the Lego’s breaking off from one another. 

With the back part somewhat done (was enough to hold its own weight) it was time to pay some more attention to the front. First I start lined up the path of the front blue wall and side outer wall. The first fan at this time was locked in to place at an interesting angle. Plugged that up to the motherboard Fan headers and threaded the small button which changes the lighting effects on the fan through a small crack I added in on the side. I was going to do this with all the fans.  I felt it would add a nice little touch to it while keeping the customization available to play with. With that in mind though I had to add in the other two fans so I could keep building up the wall. Problem was the fans had no place to sit yet, but had to be pre-plugged in. so I was left with those two fans dangling around. I kept soldiering on and eventually I had the first base fan all covered up with a solid support wall hanging over it. With the wall done, I had to setup the base for the two fans which proved to be one of the hardest things on this case. I didn’t seem to have enough support from the bottom to help keep up the pieces I was trying to bridge from one part to the other. It also didn’t help when our web guy Matty decided to throw in a finger and break a section of the bridge. At this point I was infused with Lego rage, something I worked so hard on was crumbled within seconds all because of one silly finger. It did however make me realise it was not strong enough. I had to get used to people touching my Lego case even though I’ve been numerously telling people around the office to NOT TOUCH IT!
Anyway, enough of the slight rant at the other office workers, getting back on Lego track; I eventually built the platform that would hold up the two fans. It wasn’t finished and wasn’t completely supported but it was enough to hold up the fans and lock them in their places. And like that, Day 2 came to an end.

Day 3
Day 3 started off where I left off, well almost, I first decided to build up the side red wall facing the 7870. I decided to add in a few gaps and holes so people could see inside the case (and save some pieces) but it turned out to look quite prettier than I expected and I was happy with that. That part really didn’t take long to build up so before I knew it I was back at the fans. Slowly but steadily I started building up the sides. Building up also meant I had to build across, so the massive outer wall started to take shape as well. This outer wall gave me a gap between the walls that hold up the power supply and motherboard to thread cable through. This section was going to be closed up so I could jam in as many cables as I needed and it wouldn’t be seen.

So I kept adding pieces to the wall and the front to keep up those fans and build up the support. Then it hit me, I hadn’t turned on the machine to make sure parts work, by now the motherboard, PSU and fans were locked in and any fault would literally cause a meltdown on my behalf. I needed a power switch. Working at Centre Com I was privileged to be at the access of many old cases that no longer had a home and someone to push its buttons. I took apart one of these cases and to my surprise (and luck) the one I had picked had the power button in a nice silver plate which came off with ease and featured a reset button and LED lighting! Score! So before I built up the walls any higher I plugged in the switch and fired it up and it works! But wait, why are the fans only working in red? These fans are supposed to be tri colour ye t only red seem to work. After a quick search on the web and a few inner tantrums it turns out the fans need more power than supplied through the motherboard. 

Problem, there is a massive wall between I and the PSU. Problem, the back of the PSU is almost inaccessible. Problem, I need to plug in the Molex power cable. Thought, I forgot to do it in the first place. So I sat here for a few minutes feeling depressed for myself, I had no choice but to break down a large chunk of the outer wall and somehow, using my chunky manly finger’s thread in an additional power plug. Eventually, using a long screw driver I managed to plug that little sucker in without breaking any other part. I never though the sound of a ‘click’ would bring so much relief.
Eventually with that all plugged in, I reattached the fans directly to the power and fired it up once again, and what do you know, it now works with all colours! I also managed to rebuild the wall before days end. With that done it was Friday and home time.

Day 4
Today started off building around the top two fans, trying to build up a strong enough bridge to not only hold up more parts but hold up the roof. The side red wall and rear radiator also received some treatment today. Adding a few more pieces to the radiator to help secure it more and started to build up the red roof. Adding more pieces around and above the radiator it became even more evident that I need to add in extra support from somewhere and add it fast! I decided to break off a piece that sits just above the back plate and built outwards. By doing this I was able to build up a straight block from the base to the middle of the radiator which helped in distributing the weight evenly and down to the base itself (engineering at its finest here). Crazy thing is it worked like a beauty! Both the radiator and wall were up running and solid.

My attention went back to the front. It was time to add in the power button board and the DVD drive. At first they were quite wobbly and not so sturdy. But I kept pushing on and the higher I went the stronger the bridge got. This was the problem I foresaw when adding the fans. I knew the fans would take up a lot of the room and would mean I have limited place to add in support to hold up the weight. Lego pieces aren’t as strong as you think when trying to cover a vertical area without support. They can struggle to hold up their own weight let alone the weight of hardware. Eventually though by continuing to add to it, it got stronger and stronger. The extra layers do help out and it got to a point where I could push down on to it without breaking something. 

With that done day 4 came to an end. It sounded short but took me a while to get all this support up and running. By this point after 4000 pieces I was left with about 50, so my efficiency with Lego was an all-time high.

Day 5
The home run, I could smell, I could see it. By now my fingers are sore and I had broken a nail. I had been through it all but wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Equipped with an additional 2000 pieces it was time to build up the roof and close this sucker up. 
By now most of the red side was done, I had a few missing pieces so with the new batch I would be able to finish it off. I wanted to create the roof so that people could see in to the motherboard but not around the DVD drive, so I need to create a bridge through the middle of the case to help support this idea. I won’t lie; it was one of the hardest things in the case. The only thing really holding up a large chunk of the roof is nothing but itself pushing and pulling on one another.

Eventually though with a bit of hard work and sweat, I managed to break up the roof into its sections and even out the height. With the latest purchase of parts I also picked up a few little characters which I added in and around the case for a bit of extra eye candy. Slowly but steadily it got higher and higher and started closing up. 

After a few hours, the last piece was added. It was done! I had done it! After almost 5300 pieces and 5 days of Lego building, my Lego powered computer was done! All that was left now was to add a few special bits here and there and any other things that come up. Although I did drop a few pieces down the sides and gaps, they’ve now become part of the case.

Day 1: Most of the case was built and setup. PSU, Motherboard, SSD , H60 and 1 fan are all in!
Day 2: Radiator is secured in; walls are coming up even higher. Matty broke a section but I fixed it.
Day 3: Most parts are now functioning. Fans didn’t have enough power so had to break and rebuild a section. Got depressed then got over it.
Day 4: All fans are secured and working. Power switch is in. Optical drive is in. Roof is starting to come together.
Day 5: Roof is closed up. Little characters are added in and the machine is finished!
The First Run
Remember I mentioned I really wanted to be able to change over the SSD if anything happened? Well thank god for that because during the Windows installation, the SSD failed. It just died.  So using that gap I left for ‘just in case’ circumstances there I was trying to unplug an SSD through quite a small hole. It did come at a cost. My fatty fingers did break off quite a chunk of the SSD holder; I was raged not as much as you think. The SSD still managed to stand still and steady so it was OK. Before you know it I was up and running into Windows. After all the driver installation and games it was time to push this a bit and see what kind of thermals it was producing.
First thing, I overclocked the 7870 from its default 1000MHz to 1150MHz and pushed up the CPU from 3.4GHz to 4.0GHz.

Overclocked the 7870 temp was idling at 22 degrees and the CPU was idling at 25 degrees. Both of which are ridiculously good temps for overclocked hardware of regular cooling options. The two fans at the front are doing an amazing job and pushing air through the whole case.

On load it even gets somewhat better, the 7870 would not budge over 65. I ran stress tests and 100% load for a good 3-4 hours solid and didn’t affect it at all. 65 degrees seems to the max it will go to. Using Prime95 for about two hours the CPU clocked at 4GHz maxed at around the 61 degree mark. Now surly winter has something to do with this as it is basically pushing cold air through the system, it still however is promising results considering it is located inside pieces of plastic blocks that weren’t meant to house such delicate electronics.
Benchmarking wise the system put out record breaking results. Unigine 3 gave me a result of 2140 with an average of 81.3. If you look at any of our past results, this beats even a GTX680 Overclocked card running on an i7 system!

So that’s that, I’ve built a Lego Computer system. So you ask why? Well, we did it for you guys, and hence shortly this computer will be on display for you guys to come and check out! It’ll be loaded up with a few games so you can have a play and be on display so you can see! Keep an eye out on our Facebook page and gaming blog as we’ll keep you guys updated on its public display!

By Sahin Selvi
The benchmark results may differ from user to user depending on what background software you are running and versions of benchmark software. These results aren’t portrayed to be seen as exact performance figures but merely as a rough estimate on the performance of the machine. These results are in no way bias to any company or person and are here to provide the end user in depth details and to provide extra assistance of potential purchases. All information on this page is subject to copyright. Please do not copy any parts of this article.

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