Computers Get Better -- Looking

ByABC News
January 3, 2006, 6:48 PM

Jan. 13, 2006 — -- Let's face it, computers are ugly. In the last 30 years or so, they have evolved from bulky beige boxes to bulky grey, silver or black boxes.

But some hard-core computer enthusiasts have decided they don't have to make do with boring, cookie cutter designs, and they're cutting, splicing, burning, etching, lighting and painting their computers to unique perfection.

"Computers have become so ubiquitous now -- they're in everyone's homes -- so we can play DVDs through them and record TV shows and things like that," said Russ Caslis, one of the legions of "modders" -- people who modify and customize their PC's appearance.

"But do you really want this really ugly beige thing sitting next to your TV? Well, no, not really."

Some manufacturers now provide customers with a choice of colors -- or even custom paint jobs -- as they turn away from clunky, rectangular boxes.

But it's the modders who blur the line between art and machine, crafting computers that -- unlike many of their mass produced counterparts -- beg to be displayed, rather than hidden under a desk.

"There's three kinds of modders," says another computer modder, Joshua Driggs, who goes by "ZapWizard."

"There are ones who build just for performance, some who build just for aesthetics and then some who build for both."

Modders who build for performance squeeze as much power out of their computer as possible, often "overclocking" or ramping up the power output by a computer's processor or video card.

But it's the modders who cherish the aesthetics that are helping to change the way the computers in our homes and offices look.

Driggs is part of a club called Austin Modders in Texas -- a group of computer enthusiasts who build some outrageous looking computers.

Like other design niches -- car customizers, for example -- modding offing gets competitive. Driggs says he's one of the best modders around, citing one of his computers that he has covered in a layer of polished wood.

"We're doing the modding that's ahead of the curve," said Driggs, "we're doing things that are brand new that no one else even thinks of."

And manufacturers are paying attention. No longer are consumers forced to choose between a beige and tan case when choosing a new computer.

"If you walk in there [an electronics store] now, it's very hard to find one that's beige," said Russ Caslis. "They're all different colors and sizes and look like weird Japanese animation figures and things like that."

Caslis is a system administrator for Good Technology, a wireless e-mail company. But when he's not at work, he's at work -- slicing, dicing, soldering and welding to create utterly unique computers.

He's been featured on Tech TV and had even written a book on the subject, "Going Mod: 9 Cool Case Mod Projects," a how-to book on turning a boring computer into a work of art.

Caslis says the first mod he remembers seeing was on the Internet.

"I found this one site that talked about this really weird thing at the time of cutting a hole in the side so you could see the components on the inside of the computer," he recalled.

Caslis says he started tinkering and before he knew it, was building computers that look like motorcycles, aircraft carriers and even one that resembles the Millennium Falcon spaceship of "Star Wars" fame.

He says computer modders have a lot in common with grease monkeys -- who love to bury their heads in a car's engine -- and that there are lots of parallels between computer modding and car modding.

"Originally -- for computers -- when people started putting lights on the inside and things like that, well that stuff just didn't exist," he explained. "So modders would actually go to car stores and buy all these lights and stuff that were intended for cars, but because they run off the same kind of power supply, could be used in a computer."

Caslis says that real push to break computers out of their bland shells and get them into more attractive attire was made by computer game enthusiasts attending LAN parties -- local area network.

A LAN party is a gathering where a number of gamers -- from a few to a few thousand -- bring their own computers to a predetermined location, connect them and play games for hours or even days.

"You bring your rig over to the LAN party and you want to show it off to your buddies -- it's the computer equivalent of 'Mine is bigger than yours,'" he said. "So if you're showing off your Dell XPS [Dell's high end gaming PC] and a hundred of your closest friends in the same room have a Dell XPS, that's not very unique anymore."

That's always been one of the big motivators driving modders to give their "rigs" a unique appearance: one-upping their friends.

While major manufacturers like Dell dip their feet in the waters by offering a limited number of choices to give their computers a touch of personality, boutique shops like Alienware and Falcon Northwest have been at it for years.

Since 1992 Falcon Northwest has been making personalized, hand-painted computers that reflect the specific requests of the buyer.

"Basically the greatest common theme is that there's virtually no commonality," said Falcon Northwest President Kelt Reeves. "Everyone has their own take on what their colors are, what their custom graphics are and so we found that just about everybody has their own idea of what a PC should look like."

Falcon Northwest mainly produces "gaming PCs," filled with all the latest, greatest and most powerful parts in order to display all the features of cutting-edge video games.

Reeves employs an artist who uses auto paint to create or recreate artwork depending on the buyer's desires. The artwork alone can cost up to $1,500 and the computer can run up and over $3,000-$4,000.

"We often joke about it by calling it the 'spousal rationalization factor,'" he said. "Basically the guy can spend as much as he wants on a gaming PC -- as long as it fits in with the décor."

The modding community Reeves says is doing some amazing stuff and what holds companies back is the economy of scale.

Smaller shops like his wait until the buyer calls before they even touch the machines, but larger companies have to deal with volume and don't have the luxury of custom building each machine both inside and out.

Despite the difficulties some larger companies may have in fulfilling the needs of individual buys to express themselves through their computers, Reeves thinks they better catch on quick.

"I don't think there's any reversing this trend," he said. "If you can have a computer look any way you want, why would you ever go back?"

Whether this trend includes creating machines as unique as snowflakes, or just allowing buyers to choose some kind of personalized aesthetic touch, the days of the beige box may be over.