The Mod King’s Newest Arcade Dock: X1

Guest blogger and PC modification (modding) extraordinaire, Dean Liou, takes us through his journey to create his coolest arcade dock mod to date.

Let’s start at the beginning of my journey to create the X1 Arcade Dock mod, on June 14th, one month into the project.  I filmed the final result on October 9th, nearly six months after I first put my pencil on the drawing board. Fear not, good readers, as it wasn’t six whole months of non-stop sleepless modding -- it was closer to just 10 weekends of blood, sweat and tears*. Hey, I gotta work during the week, ya know?  And together with my wife, we have two kids to worry about (*tears were mostly theirs).

This is my second arcade dock project, which is essentially an encore to the first arcade dock I created last year – a 15" widescreen IdeaPad Y560 built as an homage to Street-Fighter.  It featured a joystick and eight buttons based on a standard bar-top arcade kit purchased online and modified to fit the dock.

This second project was much more ambitious as I wanted to create everything from scratch in terms of the cabinet and physical structure. My formula and objectives were as follows:

1. Cut out the middleman arcade kit purchase (why buy and end up modding it anyway?)

2. Design my OWN arcade kit instead, with all the fittings to be a laptop dock

3. Make it awesome and MASS-producible*

*Mass-producing this dock was a minor detail that turned into a major problem!

May 3rd - One month prior to the actual start of the mod

So, the first task I set out to tackle was finding someone to turn my cardboard mock-up into a real cabinet. No better place to look than Craigslist, right? And no better search term than "custom cabinet maker.”  I found this dude on Craigslist; the kind of guy whose dad was a cabinetmaker, and his dad's dad was a cabinetmaker, and now he’s following in their footsteps. I showed him my cardboard mock-up and he said, "Arcade cabinet? No problem!" What could have been more perfect than a family of artisans with the craft of cabinetry passed down from generation to generation to generation? He promised it in one week, which seemed like a fast turnaround. Well, it was. Three weeks later, I was presented with this:

The mod looks great in the photo, but there were several major problems. In reality, the drawers were crooked as well as the hinges -- definitely not a seaworthy ark.  Also, look how it was propped up. Yes, two skinny wood boards!  A couple days after that, I get a phone call and he tells me it fell off his workbench and "shattered."

... Herein lies the first prototype of the X1 Arcade Dock.

June 19th - DIY

You know how the saying goes, right? "Never send the son of a son of a grandfather's cabinet maker to do the work of a ..." never mind. Rather than try again with new cabinetmaker, I revisited my old cabinetmaker, trusty Ganahl Lumber in Anaheim. I brought them my template and had each piece cut out to spec, planning to assemble it myself.

Creating the Template

I knew generally what an arcade cabinet looked like, so I began drawing one with a ruler, pencil and paper. No fancy CAD computer magic here, just good old-fashioned elbow grease, lead and plenty of erasers! To get the curves, I simply used a mixing bowl set.

Making the General Cabinet

The cross section pictured below is all I needed since the inside portions of the cabinet are rectangular pieces. I set the inside width of the cabinet at 15 inches. Just a few days after leaving my template with the lumber shop, I had the pieces I needed and began assembly:

Side Art

Like the side art? I used the image of a fighter jet, blew it up to size, made a copy, mirrored it, and then asked a banner company to print it out for me on banner material. Once that was done, I cut it to fit the dock and used permanent spray glue to stick it on. I love the way it turned out!

The "Docking" Door

An arcade docking station wouldn't be much of a dock if you needed a screwdriver and pliers to get your laptop in and out of it.  To make things easier, I put the front of the arcade flight stick panel on a hinge that can be opened and closed like a cabinet door.

The Extra Display

My first mock up of the arcade dock did not include an extra display as part of the plan. I had originally intended to use the extra piece of wood to cover the keyboard and cover the top of the wood piece with artwork. But as I was researching for airplane instrument cluster photos online, I realized that it would be a nice location to put a real screen. That's when I started looking around for mini USB screens, but quickly banished that idea since tiny USB monitors cost more than a full-sized widescreen monitor these days.

While staring at my iPhone, I wondered it if it was possible to turn it into a secondary monitor. A quick search showed that a program called Air Display could do just that. Success! It communicates via WiFi and is pretty responsive -- perfect for keeping an eye out for email and keeping up to date on your social networks.

To create the iPhone dock, I contacted a scroll saw artist I met at the weekend farmer's market to help. I first created the mockup in foam board and then the artist reproduced it in a nice piece of wood. Once done, all that was left was to paint it black, wrap the laminated Photoshop image over it and cut out the screen area with a razor blade.

The Flight Stick

The flight stick used is a Saitek X52 Pro flight control system for PCs. It's great because the entire setup only requires one USB cable. There were also mounting screws on each part that I could use to keep the joysticks securely fastened to the arcade cabinet.

Cables

I've seen some nice docking stations with proprietary connections that you press down the laptop onto so you never have to connect any power or USB cables by hand. Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury here. However, to make things as simple as possible, just one USB and one power cable needs to be connected in order to dock the X1. The USB cable leads to a USB hub that splits off into the USB fighter pilot sticks, external keyboard and laptop cooling fan for a streamlined connection.

The External Keyboard

In order to prevent annoying things like having to open the cabinet to press “enter,” I attached an external Lenovo ThinkPad keyboard on a keyboard tray located in a hidden door with a click-and-release latch. When unsuspecting bystanders see you open up the keyboard tray for the first time, the oldest trick in the magician’s book (sawing a person in half) takes over and it appears the laptop has been cut in half.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

One of the biggest challenges was starting the work on this mod, twice. When the first prototype of the X1 Arcade Dock was nearly complete, the finish line was almost in sight. Granted, that first prototype's hinges and drawers were crooked when I saw them, but those things could have easily been adjusted or re-worked. When I found out that it had been destroyed, it was as if the finish line was just a mirage of an oasis in the middle of the desert! You feel like you've been running at your most efficient strides only to find out that the energy and hope you've been putting into the project was for nothing up till that point.  I think the cabinetmaker had the same problem, so what ended up happening was we split the cost for the materials and went our separate ways. He also had the wind taken out of his sails and didn't have the energy to restart the project from scratch. This was no sprint, but a true artist’s marathon.  There was no saving the shattered dock: joint areas were stripped and pieces were cracked in the most structurally-important areas. That prototype was unsalvageable.

I realized the reason I was trying to contract a cabinetmaker or company to build the arcade dock was because every time I envision an idea, it's difficult to get that thought to manifest itself in the physical realm.  It takes immense planning, numerous cut fingers, cursing and smashing of things.  I wanted to skip that part of the process and reach the final product. I was hoping that I could dream up the mod and have someone skilled and someone with the right tools to do the actual creation for me.  Working on mods is actually the fun part. What was the lesson in all of this for me? The journey is more important than the end result. And it was.

While I don't think I'll be able to easily mass produce or even reproduce just one other arcade dock to mimic this one, I feel completely happy that this one-of-a-kind X1 Arcade Dock mod  has its own character and its own story to tell.  That makes all the difference.

For the full experience, here's a video of the X1 Arcade Dock Mod coming to life: