The Home Media Center

Water-cooled PC v6 / TV / Smart-control / Media center / Network hub
and more

Some background

I like to get maximum performance and long life out of the products I commit to. In powered items, I consider cooling a key factor to achieve that.

When building my first PC, the priorities were performance, cooling, reliability, upgradeability and longevity. All that, combined with trying to stick to a sensible performance-to-cost ratio, influenced my choices.
But priorities change and so did the way I was using my computer. It was turning towards more of an entertainment streaming and CAD tool and didn't fancy sitting at a desk every time I used it. And I did use it quite substantially.
So the PC got hooked to the TV in the living room. I would then gradually start neglecting the use of the dedicated screen and desk until these were removed entirely. However, I also didn't appreciate having two big boxes - one the PC, the other one the cooling system - standing in a corner of my living room. The 3rd water cooling system was an attempt to reduce at least the cooling's footprint but the PC case was still there. Later iterations had me improving this in very apartment-specific ways.
The 5th iteration of the setup saw the PC hidden inside a drawer in another room and just a minimum of cables connecting to the living room. It was invisible but still took away quite some space and accessibility was reduced for those rare cases it became relevant.
The space issue was fine for Europe. However, considering space is at a premium in Asia, a new approach needed to be considered.

I'd about 85% finished a compact case for micro ATX boards and even had a key component pre-made. The idea was still to throw the - ugly but functional - small form factor case into a drawer and make it disappear. Ventilation and water cooling were to be realized externally.
If I could, I'd have done away with a case altogether and just mounted the individual components to the shelf.

Issues with this were that this was still going to take up valuable shelf space and that cupboard sizes aren't all that standardized. Plus, cutouts would have to be made in the furniture to achieve passable cooling. Also, transportability and accessibility were horrendous.
So I decided that this was not going to work. 

Initial concept
What I required of my a PC was:

-low footprint, best using space that's otherwise wasted
-stealthy look that blends with the surroundings
-transportability in the event of an apartment change
-extreme rigidity during transport as moving (helpers aren't always gentle enough)
-easy access for maintenance and device plug-in
-upgradeability
-modularity

Plugging the PC into the TV was still my preferred course of action. However, there was no good way to hide the HDMI cable, marring the experience.

Then, I had an idea:
TVs are big and they're usually either on a stand or mounted on the wall.
Their backsides need to be somewhat accessible, similar to PCs. Usually, largely due to these factors, TVs need a bit of a gap between their rear sides and the wall.
That gap is unused space so it's wasted space.
And it's a displeasing to look into that space. People go to some lengths nowadays to cover the gap by either making wall recesses or setting up furniture around the TV.
Evolved concept
So there was the ideal spot to do something new.
Going through the idea, I recognized the following added potentials of the solution:
-added TV holder functionality
-hiding the backside of the TV with its unsightly cables from view
-good accessibility by using the TV as a case wall
-low weight due to wall mounting
-turning wasted space into useful space
That last point led to:
-inclusion and thus invisible storage of related equipment such as, for example, internet router, NAS storage, gaming console, Blu-Ray player or more.
Which, in turn, made some of the initial requirements like modularity and upgradeability requirements more complex.
A slim form factor was still important but with the added usefulness, it was acceptable to have everything take up slightly more depth than the original wall mount as long as things stayed slimmer than when using the feet stand option.

Concessions

An operational issue occurred: I was temporarily not in possession of a powerful PC able to handle the required computing. 
The PC I was designing to fit into the case after it was done was needed to design the case in the first place.
Meanwhile, I had to build a company from scratch.
And a home, wardrobe, life, et cetera.
All these small distractions would mean that the prototype would have to be built in stages.

Frame design

Universal aluminium profiles make up the base frame.
These profiles are used in the construction of semi-professional CNC machines and thus provide great rigidity and modularity.
Their universal t-slot design delivers just the flexibility required for a good, universal solution
Joining the corners together creates the base frame.

Specially designed, laser-cut and machined aluminium brackets are mounted in each corner to provide overall rigidity and allow for a total of up to 8 wall-mount points.
Also, they provide a safety interlock with the base frame. 

Sandwiched between the brackets and base frame is a 0.5 mm thin stainless steel sheet that acts as the case back wall.
In this configuration, the sheet metal lends support to the weaker frame axes.
In turn, the frame lends strength to the sheet's weak axis, creating a well stabilized, self-carrying assembly with maximum rigidity and without waste.

Side note: This assembly, including the plastic mounting plates, has already been through one transport into a new apartment. It was experienced to be extremely robust while surprisingly easy to carry thanks to the frame texture. The self-supporting design meant that any way it was carried was perfectly easy and absolutely uneventful.

TV Mount

A suitable mechanism is as compact as possible while providing good accessibility in the "open" position
Using a vertically upward-opening lever was the optimal solution. Closed, the lever slots right into the support profile that acts as the mechanism's base and a stop.
Self-lubricating, extra-large bearings provide robust, wobble-free TV hangers while ensuring that operation is absolutely quiet, smooth and long-term reliable. Once the initial adjustment of the aluminium brackets on the shafts is taken care of, the stops on the ends of the shaft self-center the assembly. 

The entire weight of the TV hangs off the central, laser-cut stainless-steel lever. If desired, that can be used to cleanly pull any cables going to and from the TV through.
Thin, light aluminium arms maintain the front-facing angle of the screen mounting plate. Their slight offset from the main arm's mounting point was carefully considered and provides some nice benefits.

Opening and hold-open is done by a pair of pneumatic shocks, a widely used, proven technology. Since commercially available joint adapters were too long and milling compact ones wasn't economical for this prototype, I went low-tech and had some laser-cut brackets welded to nuts. Fine adjustment of the assembly is done via the threaded rods on each end.

The mounting plate for the TV is simple and can be universally scaled to fit any device. When open, the TV faces downward slightly.

Enclosure Frame

2mm thick Aluminium plates that follow the TV's back outline bolt directly to the base frame. In an attempt to reduce visible screws, the plates are bent and fixed to the back of the frame.  
The TV rests against the edges of the frame which gives further support to the screen alignment.
Vent holes in the top and bottom allow warm air to exit on top while drawing in cool air from below.
As the enclosure frame is the only relevant visible part of the solution, a matte black spray coating creates the desired optics.

Due to their connecting to the TV, the plates are considered TV-specific and need to be matched to the specific model.
Additionally, they function as the first line of protection during transport and can cheaply and easily be repaired or replaced if dented, scratched or worse.
During transport, the TV can, but doesn't have to, be removed and a protective shield may be installed instead.

Component Mounting

5 mm thick PE (plastic) plates allow free component mounting anywhere. Slotted mounting allows enhanced transportability while simultaneously dampening vibration when in use.
The PE acts as an insulator, preventing static electricity buildup. I've grounded component groups systematically via wires.

Light, inexpensive gadgets can be directly bolted to the soft plastic. 
For heavier and/or more valuable parts, I'm using simple laser-cut brackets.
The bracket mounting screws are all installed after final frame assembly and slid into position via long holes.   
Various other means of fixture such as cable ties or clamps can also be used as desired.
Cable management can be done by either laying them behind the plastic plates or classically in front. In the prototype, a mix of both is employed.
 

Wall assembly

The entire assembly is mounted to the wall via a couple of wall anchors.
In total, the entire assembly stands only about 15 mm further away from the wall than the initial wall mount and about 25 mm closer to the wall than the original TV feet.
All in all, the closed-up Solution is 140 mm thick from wall to TV screen face. The TV itself is 75 mm thick and included.

Warm air exits at the top, drawing cold air in from the bottom and cooling the low-performance components.

Component layout

The PC is a center piece. Since water cooling is the only good way to cool this setup but water is one of the worst things to get into contact with powered devices and since there's a lot of space available, the reservoir and pump to the other side of the case. 

Critical components that are responsible for the lions' share of heat generation are integrated into the water cooling loop. That's the graphics card and motherboard. 

Good cooling in a PC case is not always easy to achieve. As this is a highly unusual enclosure both in layout and orientation, I implemented a special arrangement.
Two large radiators are fixed to the top by laser-cut baffles that double as air baffles. The attached upward-blowing fans evacuate any warmth outside of the water cooling loop via the shortest route possible while improving thermals inside by sucking further air up through the enclosure at the same time when the PC is running. 
When the system is closed up, this creates a narrow corridor through which the air is drawn, bringing a measure of air cooling to parts less needy of active cooling while nonetheless benefitting from some circulation. 

If required, additional fans could be placed liberally around the interior to provide more directed cooling. For my setup, this is completely unnecessary.

The main beneficiaries of the water cooling are CPU and graphics card. Arranging the PC hardware upside-down has various benefits: 
The upside-down arrangement of mainboard and graphics card works excellently for thermals while also enabling easier flat installation of the graphics card via an extension cable.  
Air circulation from the small vents in the bottom takes care of auxiliary mainboard cooling. 
The water first cools the CPU, exits upward goes into the GPU, with the extra lenght of tubing allowing easy uninstall of the card if required a feature I've often found practical.  
From there, the warm water continues through the radiators where it gets cooled down right away. 
Suction from the radiator fans provides additional airflow over the back of the graphics card and improves cooling even further.
An excellent, compact and high-performance solution.

With both radiators mounted at the highest point of the water cooling loop, there was the issue of air bubble elimination.
In regular PC cases, that is done by wiggling the assembly. For obvious reasons, this wouldn't work here. By arranging the fittings on both radiators in a low-in high-out fashion, air would be permitted to easily exit the radiators gradually. The last fitting out is the absolute highest point in the loop and allows any residual bubbles to be pushed through the tubing and out. Within a short time running, all air is cleared from the radiators.

Side note: My apologies for my lack of skill with installing water cooling fittings. I've previously used industrial fittings for use with hex wrenches and have probably overtightened them all.

The reservoir needed a sink tube whose outlet is below the reservoir's waterline so no air can reenter the radiators. The lower tube creates a sump for ease of maintenance.
Using my laser, I went a little fancy on the ball valves and gave them a little labeling.
Regular maintenance on the system is thus very comfortable even for inexperienced users.

Most other components are pretty straightforward. For improved cable management, the pump and fans' cabling is drawn behind the plates. Since PWM is something I use only when working with lasers, I opted for a more old-fashioned speed control for the pump and fans.

Functionality and performance are things I care about, fancy RGB is not. So all these features are disabled. Most of the charm of this solution is inconspicuousness, after all.

In order to turn on the PC, I went a little fancy and wired the main switches up to a Raspberry Pi that I can control via an App on my phone. For most use cases, that's good enough.
Since I prefer Gigabit LAN and room was plentiful, there was space for a network switch. Here, I tried the simplest mounting solution: cable ties.
This is also the ideal place to put a NAS server, gaming console, BD Player, Router or more.

Both keyboard and mouse are wireless, their dongles connected to quick-access USB ports inconspicuously integrated into the lower frame, behind the TV status LED. These are the only two external interface devices I decided to have. 

The finished solution

This is what everything looks like when done and in use.
Hardly anyone would take a second look at the assembly and that's just as intended.
The TV is normal. The case is normal.
One wouldn't give it a second glance.

With some effort, it's possible to look inside the enclosure through the vent holes and see that, between the tallest component and the back of the TV, there's at least one centimeter of space - an overall quite comfortable installation environment. 

For quick access to the power connectors and for inspection, the TV tilts forward.
If desired, further I/O connectors can be placed near the now-accessible opening thanks to the t-slot rails.

From this tilted position, the TV can be moved up with minimal force, enabling access to the interior.
The open position permits a wide array of activities: Access to all of the PC's ports as well as any other devices installed, water cooling maintenance, wiring, memory or storage changes, cleaning, ...

Accessibility of the TV's rear ports is greatly improved over almost all other mounting solutions so external devices can be connected most comfortably and everything closed up with the cables sticking out of the case lower. Naturally, the TV's ports may be extended to the side of the frame to make things even more comfortable.

Many components can be exchanged from this open position. There's even enough space for someone to go in between the screen and frame and do maintenance - something I've actually found useful during install, although I prefer to do maintenance on the system while sitting down. 
While most maintenance can be done like this, it's not intended to perform a full system build with the TV on. Feasible but not comfortable. TV removal and installation is, however, just as quick and simple as with many other wall mounts. 

Something of an unintended bonus is that the TV in the up/open position makes for a surprisingly comfortable "lounge mode" on the couch. That's if one doesn't mind the look of bare electronics in the back, which can be ameliorated with optional sheet metal covers.

It should be said that, due to the direction of the mechanism, this system should be even more beneficial for arrangements where there is a lot of furniture around the TV. Most of the furniture should be cleared by the forward motion, even further improving accessibility in those use cases.

Closing is essentially a reverse of the opening process. As per the typical usage profile, the mechanism is meant to be used about once every three months. During testing and assembly, I've used it several times daily and in rapid succession with no sign of degradation. 
This solution is going to stay in my life for very long.
 

Plans for the Future

I've presented the past and the present of the solution. What's missing is the future.  As the inventor, designer and first user, I'm using and living with the prototype.  There are some things that I've learned both during the process and during use which will find their way into subsequent iterations. 

None of these things change the fundamentals and none of them will change the overall functionality. Most are comfort or luxury features so I'll only do them after a change in apartments or major change in PC hardware or TV which is, hopefully, a couple of years in the future.  

Hence this section.

For fun, I'm going to also point out some things I know people may like but that I will never implement for myself.  



All the way during the design and assembly process, I'd intended for the cables to just stay in the visible area, with some minimal cable management by cable ties for ease of upgradeability. During PC assembly, I started to really enjoy putting the cabling cleanly away behind the plastic plates. Pulling the chunkier ones through was too much of a bother at that late stage. So next time I perform a major hardware update, I will replace the plastic plate with an updated one that has extra holes for the larger PC cables. During plate install, the crucial cables - which will be made to custom length - are put in place and later connected up to their components for an extremely clean PC build.

Further mounting points will be added as well, in order to provide even more modularity.

In that vein, as mentioned before, cables going to and from the TV can be pulled through the mounting arm. The next arm gets bigger cutouts in order to make this easier and more comfortable, along with better cable management.

Generally, I'll be looking into making the mounting brackets much simpler and low-profile as well. 

To reduce visible screws, the enclosure frame panels are bent and fixed to the back of the base frame. However, the visible screws are aren't completely gone and rather inconspicuous but the panels are harder to access, offer little adjustability and are more difficult to finish. 

For the next version, simpler, more modular and easily adjustable panels will be used instead.

These updates are going to be applied.

Speaking of frame panels, there are a ton of options regarding those. It'd be very easy to include anything from additional ports, buttons and switches both immediately behind the TV as described earlier, integrated into the enclosure frame panels or as an external dashboard. 

RGB enthusiasts may prefer the panels cut and illuminated.

On a more practical note, various stats such as temperature readouts may be displayed externally as well.

Maybe I'll window the base frame profiles here and there, to use them as cable or cooling tube channels - although that requires CNC milling and may end up making everything far more expensive.

The lifting mechanism could also be motorized, although it would just add unnecessary weight and complexity to a system that's designed more for ease of use and maintenance.

If ever I decide to tickle every last bit of performance out of this system, I may apply a few baffling to further precision-guide airflow over specific components.

Performance is another topic. Installing multiple graphics cards would be entirely possible, I can vividly imagine arranging the cards and power supply on one side and the board on the other. PCIe extension cables appear to have gotten good enough to go the distance.

The entire assembly could also be outfitted with a cover that hides the electronics when the screen is up, or the enclosure reduced to not include the TV rear at all.

The updates mentioned here are nice gimmicks that I've thought of them, considered their feasibility and decided that they're not for me.


Last but not least, there is one important aspect whose design principles were explained but which still lacks the proper proof of concept: Airflow and temperatures 

While the priorities for this particular setup were not absolute top performance and it will likely never be used for these tasks, cooling is nevertheless the elephant in the room that people are curious about and have been discussing. To that end, I've run various tests using Furmark and Prime95 to see what's what.

The following caveats have to be understood and factored in:

-I'm an amateur at PC stress tests and only have a cursory interest in the matter. My methodology may thus be flawed.

-My aircon/heater happens to blow air in the general direction of the Home Entertainment solution, with about a third of overlap. At the time of measuring, that meant I was using the heater function to keep the room at a comfortable 24 degrees to create a stable testing environment. I can only guess what influence this has.

These points create a certain inaccuracy in testing and depend heavily on the task performed.

Results

All fans are PWM controlled to run at 60% up to 60°C and then go up to 80%.

In real usage situations, I've never experienced the CPU go above 74°C. The GPU ever exceeded 72°C. Idle is around 36°C for CPU and 30°C for GPU.

During Prime 95, I've gotten a readout of maximum 85°C on the CPU while the GPU stayed at 67°C (even when running CPU+GPU stress tests simultaneously).

The case-open scenario shows a temperature drop of 9/7 degrees in CPU/GPU. Part of that is due to heat radiated by the TV itself.

Especially during the stress tests, the air can be felt as being sucked into the lower vent holes in the case which proves the concept's workability.

To sum up, it is safe to say that the Home Entertainment Solution ticks all the boxes of the original and extended concept. 

The solution is a novel interpretation of a small form factor PC, with a ton of other added functionality on top. As I've already mentioned, the entire assembly stands only about 15 mm further away from the wall than the initial wall mount and about 25 mm closer to the wall than the original TV feet could have brought it. Further reductions in footprint would be feasible but usually require caveats in other important features (i.e. reduced cooling) while providing little benefit and have thus been left out of the prototype. The screen's front face is now 140mm off the wall, everything included, while the TV is 75mm thick all on its own. This system is very comfortable to use, as-is.

Cooling is really good, with the small difference between open and closed temperatures being indicative of the overall performance and viability of the case as a PC housing. Even though the case can be considered not entirely sealed, airflow works as intended and provides even the lowermost mounted components with adequate cooling.

The beauty of this solution is that it can do a whole lot of things, the possibilities are endless, and it does all it needs to for me.

As is obvious from the free space inside, it's actually overachieving in some areas.

In fact, I like the mechanism so well that I will make more of it.

But since I only need only one Home Entertainment Solution to fit all my hardware, I will make a cut-down version consisting only of the bare essentials that will be used for hanging just TVs in a very accessible fashion, or maybe even use a derivative in furniture. If I owned this apartment and didn't need to keep things transportable, I may even have made the "Barebone version" only to begin with. 

Update on future versions

As of the time of writing, the Home Media Centre V2 prototype is in the final design stage. Due to the recent Covid situation in Shanghai, finalization and production are currently on hold until the supply chain can continue.

What's changed?

Compared to the V1 and its focus on versatility, lessons learned from living with the prototype have found their way into the design.

Mainly, the PC motherboard and graphics card have been flipped over. This will benefit accessibility and passive component cooling. The GPU, as it turns out, has less of a need for that than initially anticipated.

On top of that, integrated cable management will bring an added degree of professional looks to the solution. Initially, I opted to lay the cables out in the open to increase accessibility but was displeased with the optical results. I'll be experimenting with cable guides as well.

The former, along with the intended vertical mounting, prompted the introduction of a quick-release mechanism for the hardware mounting plates: They can now be released from the base frame, the hardware installed on a horizontal surface, cables placed in back and the entire assembly popped into the case easily and comfortably by a single person. 

I haven't had to play around with component placement otherwise as things were pretty much spot-on. Thus, I'm reducing the amount of adapter brackets and inlays by changing the mounting plate material to aluminium. The new accessibility of the back gap allows for most remaining adapter plate connecting points to be hidden while adding even more stability and security to the overall mounting solution.

As an added benefit, I've achieved a small reduction in overall build height. At present, however, I'm not looking to transfer this into exterior space savings but rather keep the clearance gains for use in another matter. 

Speaking of reduction, many structural members received a once-over. The goals were to increase available space, reduce individual parts and simplify the design while maintaining rigidity. As it turned out, many rails around the side of the frame ended up not being used so they were eliminated, further improving air flow as a side benefit.

Working with a different bearing supplier is intended to drastically decrease the footprint of the opening and closing mechanism while purpose-designed cutouts in the hinge arm will allow for easier cable laying.

The outside frame panels were simplified as originally intended. Also,I've tried my hand at making them more visually appealing by introducing a canfier outside pattern (subject to further improvement).

The prototype will see an air cooled setup. Owing to my unique wallmount design, it may be possible to make the Home Media Center viable for air cooling by using the rear gap not only for cable management but also as cool air channels to GPU and PSU. This ducted layout offers very interesting cooling options for other components, as well.  For the CPU, I'm considering to design a custom CPU cooler to replace one of the radiators.

Power supply will also be integrated via more permanent outlets.


Last but not least, the pattern is becoming more defined: The universal mounting plates are somewhat going away in favor of predefined hardware mounting spots. While this means that adding new hardware will either need better tools or a replacement mounting plate, the quick-release mechanism will make this easier overall.

I've decided to move my router into the Home Media Center as well, along with my NAS. The picture shows the current draft layout. With that, I actually have the entirety of fixed-install home electronics neatly in one place and plenty of space left over for future upgrades.

Once production can commence and V2 replaces V1, further trials with ducting and airflow will follow. Whenever that's going to be, given the current situation...

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