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

Apple II and Xbox 360 laptops made to order

March 8, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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."

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