Just in Time for Halloween: FrankenNUC!

I LOVE fixing things. Whether it’s a TV, a computer, or a monitor, if it’s broke I’m all over it. Unfortunately, sometimes I find myself fixing something I broke myself. Resurrecting my own victim, you might say.

A while back I was working on a review for Gorite’s NIC adapter for Maple Canyon, and a mistake on my part fried the m.2 slots in the NUC.  I won’t go into detail except to say it was a boneheaded thing to do…one of those “oh, come on, that NEVER happens” moments. Safety third, right? I was pretty bummed about it at the time.  I was using a SATA 2.5″ SSD for storage, so there wasn’t a huge interruption in my work, but I was still sad.  No m.2 SSD in this NUC’s future, and WiFi would have to be through USB. It wasn’t ready for the trash bin, but it definitely wasn’t fully functional. So when Dawson Canyon came around, I moved everything over to it, and put the Maple Canyon on a shelf.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I was looking to use a NUC as a home theater PC in my spare/workout room when I used the treadmill.  I thought about the Maple Canyon, and then I thought about another slightly-less-than perfect item, also sitting on a shelf: my old USB TV tuner. It worked just fine, but the connector on the side was worn out and loose, so to use required a rubber band or tape to keep things connected. Not exactly the best solution.

As you may recall, Maple Canyon was the first NUC to include the “blank” on the back that allowed for the addition of an extra port. It seemed to me I could take advantage of that blank and use it for the TV tuner. So I decided to see what a few spare parts, a broken NUC, and an iffy TV tuner could become.

The Goal

What I needed was a functional home theater PC with a working TV tuner to record some shows. It needed to connect via WiFi, have a remote control, and run Kodi.  This presented a few hurdles for my project since the Maple Canyon had no working m.2 slots for an SSD and/or WiFi card, and didn’t have a built-in IR receiver.

The Pieces

  • The NUC: An i3 Maple Canyon NUC with two dead m.2 slots. There wasn’t much internal room, so everything would end up being a tight fit.
  • Hauppauge TV tuner: An older WinTV aero with a loose coax connector. Not particularly usable, as the connector falls out easily.
  • WiFi adapter: Obviously USB would be my only option for WiFi.  I’d have loved to use a GoRite USB lid, possibly even the “hidden” usb option, for this but I was already using the internel USB header for the tuner.
  • Remote/Receiver: With no built-in remote option on the Maple Canyon, I’d again have to rely on a USB solution. Fortunately for me, I’ve got an extensive collection of remotes with their own receivers.
  • Storage of some kind.

Getting Started

As I mentioned the coax connector on the side of the tuner was pretty well worn out, and would fall off easily without something holding it tight. I’d have to remove it from its fat plastic case, too. Otherwise it would never fit inside the NUC. usb tuner

I started by cracking open the case on the USB tuner. It broke off easily, and I was relieved to see the tuner itself wasn’t too large; about the size of a long flash drive. IMG_20181012_193554083It had a tiny built-in antenna that previous testing had shown to be essentially useless, so I clipped it off to remove a few millimeters of bulk on the side.

Next I took a look inside the NUC. Not much room, and I could see my original idea of putting the tuner where the m.2 SSD would normally go wasn’t realistic.  I thought about putting the tuner inside the drive cage. With the mSATA-to-SATA storage option, there was just enough room for both. But then I realized while I could fit the tuner in the drive cage, there wouldn’t be enough room to connect the cables to it. IMG_20181012_193739840_BURST000_COVER_TOPSo I decided to just remove the drive cage entirely. That freed up a bunch of space.

As much as I wanted the larger 60GB mSATA drive, there wasn’t room.

 

The drive, SATA adapter, tuner, and all cables were just too much to fit. I couldn’t find a configuration where I was able to get the lid on with everything in there, so I settled on the 32GB USB flash drive for storage and focused on getting the tuner done.

Since the tuner was going to be internal, I needed a cable to connect it to the internal header.  Luckily, I had just the thing, left over from some testing and reviews I’d done for one of GoRite’s lids:

IMG_20181012_193645023_BURST000_COVER_TOP

I installed the GoRite header cable and connected it to the tuner. I then connected the MCX cable, plugged in the 32GB flash drive (which already had a copy of Libreelec on it) and tested the tuner. It worked perfectly.

Next I needed to mount the type-F end of the cable in the Maple Canyon case. I needed something to get the coax connector to the outside of the NUC. The existing coax connector was useless, so I ended up ordering one. It took me a while to figure out what connector the tuner used, but I finally found the right cable. The tuner uses an MCX connection, so I ordered a male MCX to female type-F (aka coax) 6-inch cable off of Ebay.

s-l1600

Mounting the Coax Connector

The blank on Maple Canyon is actually two pieces; the metal plate with a serial port-sized punch-out, and a rubber cover to make it pretty. It’s held in place by two screws, and the rubber cover pulls off easily.  IMG_20181012_193205465_HDRI snapped out the punch-out, then went through several rounds different ways of mounting the coax connector. Ultimately I found the most secure method was using a washer on the inside and the nut that came with the cable on the outside.

I cut out a space in the rubber cover to allow it to fit over the coax connector. It worked, but I realized I’d cut one entire side off, which left an opening when everything was put together.  You’ve heard of “measure twice, cut once”? This was a case of “think it through before you start cutting”IMG_20181015_061901610. Fortunately for me, I have friends on the NUC team, and they were able to scrounge up another rubber cover for me and mail it.

So I tried again. I started with a hole punch from the 99 Cent Store. It punched a hole through the rubber just fine, but the hole was too small. I tried to use it again to widen the hole, and it crushed in my hand. Apparently for one dollar what you get is a single use hole punch.

I used my wire cutters to widen the hole. the result was pretty rough looking, but once everything was together, the ugly parts were all hidden, so I was happy with it.

 

WiFi, Remote, and Other Stuff

Next was the WiFi. I had a couple of extra USB WiFi adapters:

 

I’ve had both on my workbench for a while, so I’m not sure on the model numbers. One is a D-Link, the other is a generic adapter. The D-Link was reliable and fast, but also bulky. The generic adapter was tiny, but inconsistent and slower. So I opted for the bulk.  Having reliable, fast WiFi makes all the difference when you’re streaming. It’d be on the back of the unit, out of sight anyway.

For the remote I decided to use one of my old favorites:

20160518_192306

I love this thing. It’s a remote, an air mouse, and a keyboard all in one. It covers all the bases. And it comes with its own receiver. Boom. Done.

Once everything was together, it looked surprisingly good. At least to me. I especially liked the look of the coax connector in that opening:

IMG_20181012_205051408

Software

Now it was time to turn to software. I knew before I got started I was going to use Libreelec. It’s been my goto HTPC platform for years.  Installing from a flash drive is uber simple.

The last piece of the puzzle was setting up Libreelec to access the tuner. That would give me my local tv channels and the recording capability I wanted. I’ve had multiple requests for a walk-through of this process. So I put together a video:

The TV reception on the workbench was terrible, mainly because I don’t have access to the house antenna out there. I was stuck using a cheap wall antenna, so I only picked up a handful of stations, and even those didn’t come in well. Inside the house, it gets more than 30 channels.
its alive

One Last Thing

The hardware and software were all configured and functional, but there was one thing missing. If you remember this project, where I “skinned” my daughter’s NUC, you’ll remember I used a white lid and an image on a clear vinyl sheet to achieve a pretty good result. This NUC had the standard black lid, which made me think the image wouldn’t show up very well, but I decided to give it a try anyway. As I suspected, with no white behind it, the image disappears:

IMG_20181016_062034122

So I went a different route. I printed the image on a white shipping label, then carefully cut it out:

IMG_20181016_063133258

I stuck that to the lid, then covered it with a piece of the clear sheet to protect the image:

IMG_20181016_064107132

And with that, FrankenNUC was complete:

Conclusion

It’s alive! FrankenNUC turned out better than I’d hoped. It looks great, and works perfectly. I have it hooked up and recording shows so I can watch them while I’m on the treadmill. This was a fun project. True, it wasn’t terribly technical or complicated…no soldering or swapping out chips…but this gave me the chance to combine a bunch of parts that I wasn’t using and create something functional.

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I'm a self-described technology nut, as well as a writer. That means the only thing I love more than learning about and playing with new technology is writing about it! Techster means "one who techs", and that's me!

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