Ben Heckendorn takes a mad-scientist approach to game console design

Apple II and Xbox 360 laptops made to order

From the Apple IIc to the MacBook Air, each generation of computers seems to grow smaller and more portable than the last.

For Ben Heckendorn, that size evolution came too late for some models — but with a little creative engineering, he's figured out how to give yesterday's computers today's form factor.

Heckendorn's business card says he makes a living in design consultation and prototyping. In practice, he's an independent contractor whose clients hire him to build custom machines, often to make them portable. He starts with off-the-shelf consumer products and, if the circuitry is simple -- as with an Atari 2600 video game console (released in 1977) -- the end product might be a handheld device with a built-in screen and cartridge slot. More modern hardware, such as a Sony PlayStation 3, could end up looking like a laptop.

Altogether, Heckendorn has already created roughly 200 custom machines from a dozen different computers.

Turning a behemoth of decades past into a laptop is no easy engineering feat. "A lot of things in the '80s had this mentality where, to make it seem like it was worth the high cost, they would actually physically make it bigger," Heckendorn said. Sometimes, a Frankenstein's monster-type patchwork of new and old parts must be assembled to fit into a small case. Old power supplies are swapped out for smaller batteries; archaic floppy drives are replaced with CompactFlash slots. The assembly may be custom, but the individual parts are not.

Heckendorn, whose background is in graphic arts, downplays his engineering skills. "My main skill usually is with aesthetic design, mechanical design, things like that -- where I just basically design something that looks good and everything fits."

Ben Heckendorn's laptop IIGS

The innards of a laptop Apple IIGS. Photo courtesy Ben Heckendorn.

Rarely does the final product better the capabilities of the original machine: The CPU isn't faster, it won't run incompatible software, and if it didn't play DVD movies before, it won't when Heckendorn is done, either. "I think of someone sitting around, eating Cheetos and playing World of Warcraft when I think of overclocking," Heckendorn said. "It's always some guy, and he's got some pile of stupid motherboards in his basement that his wife wants him to clean up -- but he never does -- and he's like, 'I'm going to overclock this toaster so I can play Quake 5!' Just buy a better computer, moron."

Likewise, many people who want their Xboxes modified are looking for "mod chips" that bypass various encryptions and allow the console to run pirated software. Forget it, said Heckendorn. "I try to stay on people's good sides," he said. "I ran into a Microsoft guy earlier this year, and he told me that they were really happy with the stuff I've done. ... I buy more Xbox 360s than probably anyone on Earth. It makes people interested in the hardware."

Instead of enhancing a system's capabilities, Heckendorn occasionally combines old hardware with other existing products. Last summer, he modified an Atari 2600 game console to accept PlayStation 2 software; earlier this year, he crammed a Microsoft Xbox 360 controller into an Atari 2600 controller's case.

The quality of his work -- and the distinctive results -- keep business rolling in. Heckendorn does little to promote his products, and he doesn't exhibit at conferences or otherwise go out of is way to attract customers. His Web site, benheck.com, is the only online presence he has. "I'm lazy. I'd rather just sit around watching Law & Order."

Heckendorn has been profiled on G4's X-Play and The Digital Lifestyle. His laptop Apple IIGS was the cover story of the December issue of retrocomputing magazine Juiced.GS. And a custom controller he designed was featured in the independent film I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

That's enough to keep orders rolling into his Verona, Wis., home — and enough that he can be picky in which projects to tackle. "The trick is to get me to do something challenging," he said.

His skills don't come cheap. Heckendorn charges between $1,500 and $2,000 for each project, with a turnaround time of two to three months.

That's a lot of money for a computer that can be bought for $10 at a flea market in its original shape. There's certainly a "cool" factor to owning a one-of-a-kind design, but Heckendorn thinks there's more to it than that. "People go to the junkyard, get an old car and fix it up. There's really no point to that, but people do it because they like the car. It connects them to their past, or they want to share with their kids.

"Computers are a lot like old cars. I think that's what it is — almost a car culture with computers," he adds.

Ken Gagne is associate editor of community content for Computerworld and editor in chief and publisher of Juiced.GS.

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