I realised I hadn’t used the iCade for a while. This arcade housing for the iPad was a lot of fun for the first few weeks, but I had got tired of the ‘gotchas’ such as the inability to run iMame4All without some significant work (and even then, it didn’t work as so well). Time to get out the screwdriver.
I had an old netbook, a Compaq Mini 110, that was enjoying a comfortable retirement in the parts bin. After a bit of head scratching and holding-things-up-to-other-things I had an idea: Turn the iCade into a standalone MAME console. After all the switchgear is great and probably very easy to hack, right?
Step One: Turn the iCade’s controls into a USB device. The iCade uses bluetooth to talk to the iPad as a remote keyboard. Opening up the control box, I found what i’d hoped to: a series of simple switches wired into a small PCB.
My parts bin also threw up an old Saitek USB games controller that was no longer required. Once the screwdriver had it’s way with it, I found a very well-labelled PCB inside wired by small ribbon cables to PCBs that held the buttons.
Couldn’t have been more convenient. In fact, the wiring was so good I decided to let the soldering iron rest and just used 3A terminal blocks to link everything together. It was delicate work but, following a few false starts, I was able to use the iCade’s controls as a USB device and Windows was perfectly happy with it.
Getting it all back in the box was a little more problematic, the Saitek PCB was much larger than the bluetooth one, so the piece of plastic that acts as a riser for the iPad’s USB cable had to go. To the Dremel!
A small widening of the original power socket aperture later and the USB cable fits through. I was able to reassemble the control unit, which is now a normal USB joystick.
Next, the computing part. Following a YouTube video, I was able to disassemble the laptop, remove the hinges, then discard all of the housing around the LCD screen. Then, I could put the lower part back together. We now have half of the netbook as normal, but no upper half, just a some wires leading to the screen, camera, speakers and wifi antennas. I very delicately checked it was still working and happy (phew) then set to work on the iCade case.
By cutting a notch in the side of the back plate of the iCade, I was able to feed the screen data and power wires through, so the screen would sit centrally. Then the lower part of the netbook could be bent back to lie against the rear of the plate, effectively opening the netbook up 360 degrees. I affixed the screen using some screws and the lower assembly on the reverse side using Scotch sticky mounts (wonderful things).
The iCade can now be reassembled! Once together , it was now on to software. I decided on Windows XP as it was the OS the netbook was designed for. I reckoned Windows 7 might overawe the ikkle Atom processor and don’t even talk to me about Windows 8. Ubuntu got the boot (or not) as well as driver support for the Mini 110, especially wifi, is flakey.
Windows XP meant I could use GameEx, a truly wonderful front-end for these kind of projects. It’s a scary beast to configure but is probably the most customisable of it’s type. The answer to ‘I wonder if you can’ is invariably ‘yes, and we’ve thought of a few other ways of doing it too’. For instance, a requirement was going to be screen rotation and that was a doddle.
So, GameEx installed, MAME installed and controls configured to the iCade. No real challenges there. Load up some roms and we have our first test. Of course, there could only be one game to try out for a first run.
Hmm. The screen is a bit ugly. I purchased some thick mounting card from the local hobby shop and cut it to size. We’re done. Time for the tester to get involved.
Final tweak I’ll probably make is to get a battery for the netbook and then this puppy is portable! It’s going to be a retro Christmas at Evans Towers.