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AKA Jeffrey Stephenson, The Slipperyskip Interview

TROY:   First off I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview, as one of the founding fathers of modding and the undeniable master of mini-ITX mods it truly is an honor.  Any modder needing a hard shot of inspiration need only visit to check out the works of Jeffrey Stephenson... seriously, go have a look and then come back.

So Jeff, I have to begin with an off topic question. Every modder has one, but a handle as cool as "slipperyskip" usually requires "shanking a screw while in the joint" and that's my best guess as to its origin. So, did you?

JEFF:  Hi Troy! Slipperyskip Road is where I live here in Suwannee County Florida. It is not the best handle by any means but it is unique and memorable.

The Humidor CL Server - 2003

TROY:   I dont remember which site I saw it on exactly, but back in early 2000 someone in a forum somewhere had cut a side window into their computer, the second I saw it I was hooked. Three part question... when did you start modding, what motivated you to get into it and what was your first mod?

JEFF:  In 2002 VIA introduced the mini-ITX motherboard. I’m a big fan of anything miniature and at 6.7” x 6.7” these boards fit the bill. I bought one straight away without thinking much about what to do with it. There were no enclosures available for the board. It would fit into a standard ATX case but what would be the point in that?

I calculated what the approximate volume would be needed for a box to house a mini-ITX board, power supply and hard drive. I looked first at Radio Shack project boxes and other such industrial enclosures but found the costs to be too high. I was at a generic box web site when I noticed a category called Cigar Humidors. The dimensions were dead perfect and they didn’t look too bad either. The great cigar fad of ’96 had left a glut of very nice, varied and reasonable cigar humidors on the market.

The rest they say is history. I wrote up a humorous story to go with pictures of my Humidor PC and sent them to a mini-ITX web site. They posted the story as a purely amusing entertainment piece and it got great feedback. Many found more than just humor in the design.

I guess it was about this time when case modding started hitting the mainstream media. My work got tagged as case modding though it is not. That’s another story right Troy?

The Machine Age PC - 2004

TROY:   Indeed, but the hobby was generically labeled "case modding" very early on. With a site named CaseModGod I have come to rationalize that anything used or created to house the computer must technically be considered a "case", but that kind of over simplifies your mods.  Do you think that the computers you have created will ever be realized for what they actually are, as legitimate art?

JEFF:  I think you have to die first before you can be recognized as an artist. I laugh but there is some truth to it. I’m sure that someday a museum will provide a venue for the display of our “Computers As Art”. I’m sure my widowed wife will enjoy it. lol

TROY:   James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, as I see it you are that to modding. I know you have an impressive portfolio of outstanding custom crafted computers, what is the actual number of modded PC's you've built?

JEFF:  I’m currently working on #23, 24 and 25. I try to average 3-4 projects per year.

The Madrone PC - 2004

TROY:   Looking at the workmanship of your mods I wonder how you can produce such finely crafted original PC's so rapid fire one after another, my mods always take a year or longer. Building my own mini-ITX mod "Hellusion" proved to me that smaller doesn't in any way equate to quicker... just coming up with original ideas fast enough to keep up with you would be a challenge, how do you do it?

JEFF:  Being retired and having nothing else to do certainly helps with the quantity. I typically have ten or so ideas on backlog at all times. I’m most motivated by the admittedly unreasonable fear that someone is going to build my idea before I do. The PSU-PC is a classic example of that. It was such a simple idea that I was absolutely sure others were working on the same thing. It’s not right but I no longer question the process.

TROY:   Before building my last project I (like most modders) had based my projects around ATX flavored mainboards, whereas you custom design your mod enclosures almost exclusively for mini-ITX and smaller embedded solution boards. What is your reasoning behind specializing in such micro sized computers?

JEFF:  I think there is a lot more opportunity for new ideas with smaller sized components, It makes the whole idea of hiding a computer into something non-computer related a whole lot easier to design and build. Additionally, imagine what the material costs would have been if you had tried to build your Hellusion with a standard ATX board. Ideas that were once unreasonable suddenly become very reasonable.

Besides, I think we all have some level of fascination for miniature things.

The DECOmputer - 2005

TROY:   Normally going mini or nano-ITX means giving up speed in favor of a smaller end product, things like 1GB DDR memory limits and slower embedded processors make the form factor less than attractive to performance hungry hardcore enthusiasts. I am in no way denigrating VIA or their products, I love my EPIA board... but, and pardon my drool, have you seen the soon to be released Albatron KI690-AM2 mini-ITX?

JEFF:  Yeah. That’s nice but….you have to look at it from a system perspective. Having to use a full-sized ATX power supply to drive a performance mini-ITX board starts to look pretty stupid after a while. If you are forced to install it into a microATX-sized case then why pay the premium for a smaller board? I use picoPSU power supplies exclusively because they are in the same scale as the mini-ITX. I have a Core2Duo mini-ITX board from Kontron that has a 16x PCIe slot. In theory, I could plug an 8800 into it but the power supply needed to support that configuration makes the whole setup lopsided in favor of the PSU.

You did hit on a sore spot Troy. My work is constantly criticized for not being performance-oriented. The thing these critics miss is the fact that you can have more than one computer. If I had to have only one then it would be my dual 8800 Crysis-ready ATX gaming rig. I don’t need to fire it up to check my e-mail or reply to this interview. I have specialized computers for home theater, file serving, firewall and photo display. I also have “everyday” desktop computers for both my wife and myself.

Not every custom computer made has to be your “one and only”. IMHO it really is a hollow criticism.

TROY:   Explaining it that way makes sense, until small PSU's can provide the necessary juice I'll pass and also retract my previous drool. I have to say that one of the things I respect most about all of your mods is that you don't waste space, it would be all too easy to just throw a mini-ITX or smaller motherboard into anything bigger than six inches and call it a mod... thankfully that's not your style. That said, your microphone case "The Unidyne PC" has a tight fit modular design where the actual computer section is removable and could easily slide into other mods, any plans for creating new cases to fit it?

JEFF:  I try to add a little ”tech” to every piece I build. The tech doesn’t have to be about performance. The Unidyne’s tech is the cartridge computer design that unplugs as a module. I have another classic microphone design on the books that should benefit from having its internals already built for it.

The Unidyne PC - 2006

TROY:   Of your mods if I were to pick three favorites (in no order) they would be the "Humidor CL Server" that was featured in the March 2003 issue of Popular Science, "The DECOmputer" - It's still hard for me to believe that stylized mod began as a kitchen appliance... and "The Unidyne PC", from design to completion it's a mod that just plain kicks ass. I could have as easily picked seven, but if you could only pick a single computer that you've built as your crowning achievement and absolute favorite which would it be and why?

JEFF:  I’ll cop out with the typical “I love them all” reply. The most satisfying computer I’ve built is the Decomatic HTPC. I built the computer to compete in Intel’s design contest earlier this year. This was a contest for “companies only” so I faked being a company and snuck in the back door. I did reasonably well, beating professional design teams from companies such as Gigabyte and Asus. In the end I lost to a design from South Korea and another from Norway. Odd thing was, when the Wall Street Journal reported the contest on their website they chose to include a picture of the Decomatic instead of the winners.

The main reason I entered was to (hopefully) prove that the case mod community was a significant source of real innovation in case design. The bottom line….they pissed me off by not letting us case modders enter their contest. It was satisfying to kick a little ass.

The Decomatic HTPC - 2007

TROY:   I remember the Intel design contest and even considered entering, it required an Intel Viiv build. I saw your Decomatic HTPC competing in it and recall thinking "how cool" and hoping you would pull it off, the prize amount was insane. The Microsoft / IDSA PC Design Competition  started up again this summer, but it appears they are having technical difficulties and aren't taking submissions right now. When and if it does start up again will you be entering any designs or builds into it?

JEFF:  The Microsoft competition was a paper submission kind of contest. I’m not much good at that sort of thing. For me it’s all about getting my hands dirty and ending up with something tangible instead of “imagine this”.

TROY:   All of your works other than the humidors (and maybe to a mild degree even those) have an art deco/machine age stylized look which really sets your mods apart, but the "in" thing right now seems to be steampunk, what is your take on it and is it a style/theme you would ever consider using in a mod?

JEFF:  I love steampunk. I have been a big fan since the TV series “Wild, Wild, West” used so much of it. I have a working miniature steam engine and boiler in my studio right now

The Skyscraper Photo PC - 2007

TROY:   Your most recent mod, "The Skyscraper Photo PC" uses an 11.3" automotive rooftop LCD mounted vertically, I have used automotive 6" TFT LCD screens in almost all my mods mounted horizontally and though the viewing angle is great from side to side or from the bottom it cuts out on angle viewing down from the top... with it mounted the way you have it do you notice a more extreme image fade when viewing it from one side or the other?

JEFF:  The Skyscraper was suppose to be a little nothing summer project built to a low budget. The screen isn’t the highest quality but it did help demo the idea of a hybrid PC/Digi-frame. I have subsequently teamed up with an industrial LCD provider so a follow-up project should turn up soon with touchscreen and all that good stuff.

TROY:   I won't ask you what you have planned for future mods because I enjoy the suspense while watching your projects progress, but I will ask if you are currently working on anything new, is there any fresh work on the bench that we should be aware of?

JEFF:  I’ll be going back to Las Vegas this coming January to display a couple of new projects at the Consumer Electronics Show. One will be a based on a VIA nano-ITX board and the other will be a pico-ITX. I’m also in the process of building a classic full ATX tower case mod. That is something I’ve never done and am looking forward to doing.

The Nano Form Factor (NFF) PC - 2003

TROY:   I have seen Nano-ITX boards and thought they were tiny, but until you mentioned it I had not seen the Pico-ITX form factor... damn that's small, seeing it really gets my gears turning.  So, how are you liking the ATX tower modding... going old school or are you making it into something to rival your other works?

JEFF:  Building an old school case mod has always been on my mind. It’s just something I need to do. The size of an ATX tower’s “canvas” must be very appealing to a pure artist. To me, it is a challenge to fill in the space with something interesting that fits within my skill set.

TROY:   I'm sure it will be great and I look forward to seeing it, again I want to thank you for this interview and wish you the best of luck on all your future mods.

JEFF:  You are welcome Troy. Good luck to you as well!