How to Make a Very Tiny iMac

A hardware hacker had to partly destroy his Raspberry Pi to get it to fit inside a miniaturized 3D-printed iMac case.
August 28, 2020, 1:00pm
imac

Trying to take big things and shrink them into the tiniest possible size is something that people have been doing for generations, with computers getting in on the trend with help from the Raspberry Pi, which packs a lot of computing power into a modest slab of silicon—it even got a big-boy amount of RAM in a recent upgrade.

But the Pi, a veteran of numerous Altoid-tin builds, was nearly too large for the latest gadget mod that’s getting attention this week.

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Michael Pick, an Alabama software engineer by day who moonlights in hardware via his YouTube channel The Casual Engineer, has gotten into the habit of miniaturizing computer builds in recent months. (Previously, he put a gaming PC together that was based on a Raspberry Pi 3B.) His latest endeavor? An iMac lookalike, based on a Raspberry Pi 4, that’s roughly the height of an energy drink can.

Not quite a Hackintosh except maybe in the sense that it was carefully hacked together, the device benefits from iRaspian, a Mac-lookalike variant on the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS that was recently folded into Twister OS, which adds exacting Windows skins to the mix. (It’s part of a long history of operating systems pretending to look like MacOS.)

In an email interview, he said that his miniaturization projects have been inspired by the similarity in appearance between a Raspberry Pi and a more traditional motherboard.

“I've built a lot of computers over the years and thought it would be fun to see how close I could make a Pi resemble a full-size computer,” Pick said.

While the build is not an actual Mac in the flesh (the Pi, notably, is based on an ARM chipset, a superset of which will drive Cupertino’s forthcoming Apple silicon computers), the build is nonetheless impressive because of the steps Pick took to miniaturize the machine to fit inside of the painted 3D-printed case, which is small enough that he had to remove some of the Raspberry Pi’s USB ports, as well as the Ethernet port, to get it to fit. The result is a computer that looks snazzy on the outside, but had to forego some of its inner beauty to maintain the small size.

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And it wasn’t just the Pi that found itself being sacrificed by a Dremel. As shown in the video, Pick had to scrape down the plastic and braiding on his cables to ensure that the cords bent in such a way that they could handle the twists and turns that the tiny case required. (That said, he did have some cables that were relatively purpose-built, such as the HDMI cable, which plugged into the tiny screen by ribbon cable for space reasons.)

Pick says that lots of planning goes into this kind of build before he gets going—including building the case in a 3D CAD program, charting out the path of wiring on a sheet of paper, and researching the exact cables and components he needs “to make sure they'll play nicely with each other.” It’s a strategy he recommends to fellow builders.

“Take your time, research your parts, and model everything if you're able to,” he explained. “This will save you a lot of time and energy during the final assembly.”

With some of the innards of the painted 3D-printed case held together by hot glue, there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room for the computer itself, but Pick still made room for one thing that actual Macs don’t traditionally have—lots of compensation for cooling. The fan on the miniaturized iMac is visible from the outside of the case, ready for whatever demanding task gets thrown at it.

For the most part, Pick says this build went smoothly, but one of the few challenges involved the case. “I did have to reprint the iMac case several times in order to get the proper look I was going for,” he said. “The earlier designs were too thick and I couldn't live with that.”

In case you’re wondering, there is a way to get the actual MacOS onto the Pi via emulation, as long as you’re willing to go vintage. (Pick says he might look into trying it.)

Sure, it may not be a 1-to-1 experience between a miniature iMac and the real thing—after all, there’s no Final Cut Pro for the Pi—but hey, at least it has Blender.