Things have been a little slow around here because I’ve been dedicating a bunch of time to my latest project — disassembling a grape iMac and fitting its parts into an LC III case. I’m finally done now and am happy to report that it was a complete success. It required more hardware modification than I had initially anticipated, and I ran into some problems along the way, but without those troubles I wouldn’t have made it to this point. What follows is a step-by-step of what I did to cram a big gumdrop shaped iMac into a pizza box sized LC III case.

iMac Without It's Candy ShellSeveral weeks ago I received a dead grape iMac from a MUG member who suspected that the power supply had bitten the dust. I had previously agreed that I would take the iMac in trade for retrieving the files off of the hard drive…which was a fairly easy task thanks to an IDE-to-FireWire bridge out of a hard drive enclosure. Since the power supply was useless, I couldn’t easily tell what else on the iMac worked. I disassembled the candy colored machine and salvaged the logic board, video board, speakers, microphone board, hard drive, and case. With all the major useful components laid out, I set to doing a little research on the net.

I found several useful iMac hack pages, including one (saved copy) which detailed the power connector on the bottom of the iMac’s logic board. Attached to the board is a power filter, likely because the power supply is very close to the (electrically) noisy cathode ray tube inside the iMac case. Since I wouldn’t be using the same physical configuration, it most likely wasn’t necessary.

Digging around in my array of old computers, I found a Macintosh LC III which no longer worked. I decided to challenge myself and see if I could fit the iMac’s components into it. The LC III is a dream to take apart compared to the iMac — the back of the case has one screw, then two snaps. The top then easily lifts off to reveal all the parts. Since the LC III was already defunct, I just removed all the parts from the case and set them aside.

I began placing the iMac’s components into the LC III case to get a general idea of where they might fit. As far as I could tell, all the parts would fit within the area of the case, but height was another issue. The case only provides a little over an inch of vertical space, so I had to keep everything very low profile.

Booting the Motherboard with an OS X CDThe first issue I ran into was power. Since the iMac’s power supply was dead, I couldn’t use it’s board, not to mention the fact that it was gigantic and would take up far too much space. On the iMac to ATX conversion page I found earlier, the author detailed how to adapt a standard PC ATX power supply to an iMac. Following his diagrams, I built a small adapter with a female plug and pin header, which would connect an ATX power supply to the bottom of the iMac’s logic board. With the adapter built, I carefully checked my connections — you only get one shot with this type of work. Borrowing a spare ATX power supply, I powered up the iMac logic board. While it had no magnetic or optical drives connected, it still made the familiar Mac startup chime and displayed a blinking question mark, indicating it could not find a system folder to use. I’d never been so happy to see that symbol before. I quickly powered it down and attached the iMac’s CD-ROM and let it start Mac OS X 10.3.5, which also booted just as easily.

After having complete success with the logic board and power supply, I moved on to the optical drive with a good feeling that I may actually accomplish something with this project. I noticed that the LC III had a lot of spare room around the floppy drive, and I thought it would be a perfect spot for a CD drive. However, the slot facing the front wasn’t wide enough for a CD. With a little filing and sanding, the slot was wide enough to accept any disc, and has the benefit of still looking stock to the untrained eye. After that, I spent the next few hours modifying a slot-loading DVD-ROM so that it sat at the proper height to catch an inserted CD or DVD. The hard drive would stay in the same cradle as it was in the original LC III design, and required no modification to make it fit.

IDE Cable FoldingThe biggest task in this project was to clear out most of the raised plastic squares on the bottom of the LC III case to gain an extra quarter of an inch under the motherboard and power supply. Between Dremel grinding wheels, pliers, and some sandpaper, I was able to knock out enough plastic to allow the IDE cable to sit comfortably against the bottom of the case without raising the motherboard any higher. The power supply was another issue — I scavenged a small 120 Watt ATX power supply from an old PC tower and carefully stripped it of its protective metal housing. With the small height gain, the power supply just barely fit inside the case and pressed snug against the imac logic board, holding everything in place. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.

Drives and CableA final problem I ran into was that the connector on the back of the slot-loading DVD-ROM was on the opposite side of most laptop drives, meaning that my IDE adapter board would stick way too far outside the case. This problem had me stumped for a long while, but I eventually came up with a hack to make it work. I cut a hole in the bottom of the DVD-ROM and moved the main controller board *under* the drive, and ran the ribbon cable to it. This way, I could turn the board 45 degrees and make use of the IDE adapter, although at an awkward angle. Doing this modification also required that I re-run some motor control and switch wires on the drive.

Finished iMac LC IIIFinally, with all the major modifications complete, I carefully fitted all the components into the case, ran power and data wires to the drives, and attached the audio and video cables. While all my hacks had worked throguhout the process, I still half-expected the whole mess to go up in smoke when I powered it up. Yet, when I flipped the switch, the machine slowly came alive. With some final modifications to add a small processor fan and proper AC connector, my iMac LC III is now happily running Mac OS X 10.3.9.

All pictures of the process are available at my Flickr photostream under the imac tag — I would post them in my gallery here, but I still have yet to subscribe to Flickr Pro. When I do, I’ll create a photoset, and that group will appear here. If anyone is willing to donate a Flickr Pro account, it would be greatly appreciated :-) Until next time, happy hardware hacking!

Update: I’ve subscribed to Flickr Pro, and the iMac LC III photoset can be viewed here.


Mail Stamps

I’ve been meaning to add this little app for a long while. Mail Stamps removes the new aqua buttons from Mail in Tiger. While I know many people who like with the new look and enjoy the segmented toolbar items, I — and apparently others — happen to prefer the Panther look. Mail Stamps runs and changes the .tiff files inside Mail back to the Panther look. It has an uninstaller, but as always, make a backup of before running Mail Stamps. Mail now sports the good old buttons I’ve come to know and love in past OS releases.

Mail Stamps

Magstripe Snooping

Here’s a little mid-week hardware hack: building a magstripe card reader (a.k.a. credit card reader). When completed, the device can pull data off just about any type of common magstripe card, including credit cards and identification tags.

Last summer I took a trip to Ohio and made it a point to visit a gigantic store in Dayton — Mendelson’s Liquidation Outlet. They carry just about everything you could want, however I was particularly interested in the several floors of electronics surplus items. I happened across a magstripe reader with a connector attached, but it was unwrapped with no documentation. It’s surplus, so you take what you can get. On the off-chance it might be useful for a project such as this, I paid about $10 for it. It’s been kicking around since then, and only recently have I done something with it.

I looked up the documentation for the reader I had using a model number found on the bottom, and discovered it was an Omron 3S4YR-HSR4. It could read common cards and output TTL signals, so I searched around some more to see what could be done with it. I found a SourceForge project dedicated to magstripe readers, called Stripe Snoop. They provide diagrams showing how to connect the reader to a PC game port, so I took a trip to my local RadioShack for a matching connector. With a little soldering, I had the finished magstripe reader ready to go.

The Strip Snoop project also maintains an open source program for reading and parsing the card data that is sent in from the reader unit. With my aging Windows box fired up (ugh), I swiped nearly every magstrip card I could find to see what they contained. For example, I was surprised to find that my college student ID contained only my social security number as an identifier.

In short, building a simple magstripe reader isn’t too hard a task, and it’s interesting to see what information is hiding from you even when it’s right in the palm of your hand. While the reader I built only connects to a PC game port, the signals are standard TTL level, so building a USB version is quite feasible. With complete software and diagrams available from the Stripe Snoop project, it’s trivial to get a basic reader up and running on affordable hardware. Total project cost was about $12 plus a few minutes of soldering.

Update: Via Bruce Schneier: Ownership of Mag Stripe Readers May be Illegal in Illinois. Crazy.

Magstripe Snooping

Tiger Fast User Switching

“In Tiger, Mac OS X 10.4, fast user switching gets a related feature. When a user session is switched off-screen, if a screen watching program such as OSXvnc-server is running, the off-screen session will get a virtual framebuffer so that it can be remote-operated while another user session or a login window is on the hardware console.”

So now you can remotely control a Mac while someone else is logged in as another user. [via]

Update: More information available at

Tiger Fast User Switching

Tiger Tweaks Won’t Kill Folders

This story made me laugh. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how it got onto Wired’s website. The article claims that the “experts” at Silicon Valley’s Frog Design say that the Mac OS X Finder is dying and will be removed from the system altogether in the wake of new search technologies like Spotlight.

“Spotlight changes the landscape fundamentally — how people manage and organize things on their computers,” added Mark Ligameri, also a frog creative director, who formerly worked at Microsoft on the user interface of Windows XP and the forthcoming Longhorn. “Spotlight is a good alternative to the hierarchical organization of information.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but since the introduction of Spotlight, absolutely nothing has changed in the way I organize my files. I still use categorized folders as well as the appropriate places in my user’s home folder. I really can’t see Spotlight being an alternative to a good hierarchical layout. It’s certainly great addition to good organization, but replacing it entirely is extreme. Can you imagine having 10,000 files all in one place on your computer and simply letting Spotlight manage them? What if you just want to browse? That would just be hideous.

Another sign of the Finder’s decreasing relevance: the increasing incorporation of file-management functions into applications. “iTunes and iPhoto provide immersive environments to allow users to better manage their music and photo files,” Ratzlaff added. “Both of these developments are indications that the Finder is not meeting people’s needs. I think and hope that the Finder as we know it will go away in the next two years, likely with Mac OS 11.”

I think the arrival of iTunes and iPhoto simply arise out of the need for applications that fit specific media management purposes. One can’t expect the Finder (or any single program) to handle all the duties of media management programs like those mentioned because there are too many different functions associated with each file type. Some file types have a distinct separation, as well. Aside from music in slideshows, I want my tunes to have nothing to do with my image files.

Secondly, the time frame described is way off. Ratzlaff talks about the next two years and Mac OS X 11 as if they will coincide in some way. Mac OS X 11 (or whatever Apple decides to call it) is way ahead in the future. In two years, we’ll likely have Mac OS X 10.6.

Wired notes, “Apple begs to differ. ‘The Finder is far from dead,’ said Wiley Hodges, a senior product line manager for the Mac operating system. ‘It is still an extremely familiar metaphor that’s logical, putting related and relevant data into folders. Spotlight extends the Finder with queries for frequently used folders.'” Search and organization go hand in hand, not against each other. A good organizational layout combined with desktop search is what the Mac OS X Finder is all about. Folders are a standard that have been around since the very early days of computing and will be here for a very long time, even if only for backward compatibility with the rest of the non-Mac world.

The problem, he says, is that “we tend to organize data by hierarchical folder. But we may want to view the data many different ways, organized by different criteria, often through ad-hoc searches…. These new search tools offer multiple ways to find things according to changing context.”

I tend to keep my files separated by type — movies, music, pictures, etc. When I want to view them in a different way, I let the files’ metadata and some simple search algorithms do the work. iTunes organizes my music using embedded data, and iPhoto using my own photo album structure. When I want to work with the files directly, I use the Finder. Spotlight is a great new technology, but it in no way endangers folders or heirarchical layouts. It’s main purpose is, as Apple puts it, to “Find stuff.” If the Finder had such a slogan, it would be “Manage stuff.” While the Finder isn’t my choice for Mac OS X “app of the year,” claiming that it and folders themselves are on their way out is simply ridiculous. What do you think?

Tiger Tweaks Won’t Kill Folders


Concierge is a handy little bookmarks drawer which attaches to Safari windows as if it were a built-in function. It allows you to view your browser history sorted by domain, edit your Safari bookmarks without using an entire window or tab, as well as temporarily store links. Personally, I have a habit of throwing links into my Dock and letting them accumulate. After a week goes by, I may end up with a dozen identical-looking URLs in my Dock, each pointing to a place I meant to visit but didn’t have time. Concierge seems to be a great solution for me, and may help you out too. More information is available at Concierge‘s homepage, as well as MacUpdate.