Deep in the Somerset countryside, roughly 10 miles outside Bath and Bristol, lies the little village of Clutton. Half a mile or so past The Railway Inn public house is a quiet lane with open fields on one side and a row of old cottages on the other.
One of these cottages is painted bright blue. Inside it lives professional musician and composer, Peter Green. When he's not composing music, Peter Green hacks Macs. During the last year or so, Peter has designed and hand-built two custom Mac machines. As far as he knows, they are the smallest, lightest Mac laptops in the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Mac mini portables; the MMPs.
The first, MMP MkII (Mac mini portable, mark 2), was an attempt to make a Mac laptop as small as it could possibly be.
Figure 1. The Mk II machine--a Mac mini turned into a laptop
Boasting a 1.2GHz G4 processor, 256MB RAM, a 40GB hard disk and a 1024x768 TFT screen, the MMP MkII also included a tiny QWERTY USB keyboard scavenged from a PlayStation add-on. Peter also included a USB hub and dual-head monitoring. The 5600mAh Li-on batteries provide three hours of battery life.
At just 3.5x6.5x8.2 inches big, and weighing only 2.5 kilograms, the Mk II was, as far as Peter could tell, the smallest and lightest Mac laptop computer in the world.
But it wasn't enough. Having built the Mk II, Peter found his creative nerve itching again. "The thing was, I wanted to do another hack," said Peter. He was driven to make something better. So planning began on something else; something smaller, neater, easier to use, and lighter. The Mk III project began.
When I knocked at the door, Peter's two friendly dogs looked me up and down and decided I wasn't any kind of threat, so they didn't bother to bark. There was no answer from inside, though. For a moment, I worried that I'd got the wrong day. I stood for a minute in the rain, then knocked again. Finally I pulled out my phone and called him.
"Hello Peter," I said. "I think I'm standing outside your front door. Are you in?"
Of course he was in, and of course he hadn't heard me knocking because he's a professional composer. The music tends to be quite loud in his home studio.
He took me inside and in his cozy kitchen, revealed the Mk III model. I must confess that my inner nerd took over at this point, and all I could do was smirk and giggle and say "Wow. That's so cool."
My first look at the Mk III
So why did he make it?
"I wanted to have something I could use as a day-to-day internet browsing box," Peter said. "I kept wanting Apple to do a tablet of their own but of course, they didn't. In the end I told myself, 'I could do this myself.'"
So he did. He maintains that his work was really very simple--the parts were easy to find, the electronics basic. According to Peter, almost anyone could make one of these. But no one else has.
Figure 2. Peter's computers--the Mk II on the left, Mk III on the right.
Of course, the idea of a modded Mac tablet isn't new. The iTablet, for example, was around long before Peter finished work on his machine.
But the crucial difference is size. Peter Green's Mk III is tiny in comparison, measuring just 2.1x6x10.4 inches. Does that make it less usable? Well, that depends on what you want to use it for. No, it's not going to be much good for graphic sketching, but that's not what it was built for. It was built as a general-purpose browsing box.
As Peter puts it, "With this machine, I end up spending more time with my wife. She watches stuff on TV, and I can browse stuff on the web with a tiny little computer on my lap. We spend more time together because of this computer."
So why not buy a basic MacBook?
"Well, it wouldn't be a tablet for a start. And it would have cost a lot more. And anyway, I wanted to do the hack."
It's the use the Mk III gets that helps it stand out from some of the weirder, more esoteric mods you see lurking on the internet these days. This was a machine made for a purpose, made for something specific. It's a useful computer built to meet Peter Green's personal requirements.
Putting the Mk III to work
The machine's specs are: 1.5GHz Core Solo processor, 512MB RAM, 60GB hard disk, 8.2 inch 1024x768 touch-screen TFT, built-in Airport, Bluetooth and Infrared ports. It supports all the usual extras, like Front Row, has its own stand (made from the rear of the TFT screen housing), and weighs 1.9 kilograms. As far as Peter knows, it's the lightest portable Mac ever made.
The most challenging part of building the Mk III machine was integrating a fan. At first, Peter tried a third-party fan because it was smaller, about the size of a thumbnail. But this simply didn't do the job, and the machine kept overheating. The original Mac mini fan had to be included, and miraculously Peter found enough space for it within the case.
Batteries were found on eBay. Peter searched for the cheapest laptop batteries he could find, ripped out the insides, and reconfigured them to suit his needs. The total cost was about £12 ($24). At the moment, the Mk III manages a very respectable three hours of battery life, and Peter has built an external battery pack that can be plugged in when the built-in ones are low. He also included a power management system in the box, so that it is possible to plug in the Mk III and revert to main power with no fuss.
The smooth white casing material was a stroke of pure luck. It was originally plastic shelving used in a local branch of a Tesco supermarket. Finding it abandoned in a dumpster (known in the U.K. as a "skip"), Peter helped himself to it, thinking it might come in handy one day. Indeed it did. The heavy-duty plastic makes a perfect shell for his Mk III, and was bent into shape using just the heat from a household gas lighter and the edge of a desk.
Figure 3. Peter's cluttered workbench--the lo-fi approach
Peter's proud of his lo-fi approach. He doesn't have a huge workshop crammed with power tools; just a tiny desk in the corner of his spare bedroom, which is also his music studio. The desk is littered with bits of wire, screwdrivers, widgets. and rolls of adhesive tape.
Take off the smooth plastic case and the insides of Mk II and Mk III demonstrate just how handmade they are.
Figure 4. Inside the Mk II
The externals are somewhat haphazard, too, with bits of wire snaking out of the case and winding around it in a few places. But none of this matters; the machines just work, and that's what Macs are supposed to do.
Peter's got plans. He found a dirt cheap USB webcam on eBay, and discovered that it will work fine on the Intel Mac mini; but it only has PowerPC-compatible drivers, so ends up running in Rosetta. Surprisingly well, though.
Peter grips the little cam between his fingers and eyes it closely. "Look at that, there's not much electronics in there," he says. He holds a little invisible cube between his fingers and puts it up against the front of the Mk III. "That could fit in there, I reckon."
There's a twinkle in his eye.
Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.
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