10. Designing the PC
The core of a pin cab is a PC running Windows. You could
theoretically build a pin cab around a Mac, an iPad, a Raspberry Pi,
or just about any other sort of computer. But for our purposes in
this guide, the only real option is a Windows PC, because that's where
all of the software runs.
I've observed that most pin cab builders like to start their projects
by building the PC and setting up the software, before they've even
started thinking about what's needed to build the pinball machine body
that'll house it. This is a natural first step for most of us,
because most of us know our way around PCs at least a little bit - the
way that most people discover the pin cab world in the first place is
through the PC pinball simulation community. It's also an attractive
place to start because you can see some immediate results, before
getting into the more daunting parts of the project.
Off-the-shelf or custom build
The easiest and most obvious way to get a PC is to buy one from a
retail PC maker, or even re-use one you already have. But most pin
cab builders come from a PC gaming background, so you probably already
know enough about PCs to know the benefits of building one yourself
rather than buying off-the-shelf. If you've built your own PCs in the
past, you know what's involved. If you haven't built one before, you
might be surprised at how easy it is. Modern PCs snap together out of
components practically like Lego blocks. The hardest part is often
the shopping, since there are so many options out there.
The big benefit of building your own PC is that you get to pick
exactly what you want for each component. The retail PC makers
usually give you a few options for CPU speed, hard disk size, graphics
card, and so on, but they're usually pretty limited choices from a
small pre-set list. If you build your own, you can choose exactly
what you want from the whole universe of available products in each
The rest of this chapter proceeds from the assumption that you're
going to build a custom PC, because that's what most pin cab builders
do. But that's not a must; if you're not comfortable building your
own PC, you can definitely build a perfectly good pin cab around a
retail PC. If you go that route, I'd suggest you focus on PCs that
are specifically designed and marketed for gaming. PC pinball is
fundamentally a video game, and it benefits from exactly the same
hardware upgrades that mainstream video gamers need. Pay particular
attention to the graphics card: that's the hardware element that makes
the biggest different for PC pinball performance. You might find the
material in this chapter helpful even for picking out a pre-built PC,
just for the background knowledge of what to look for and which
elements are the most important to pin cab performance.
I can't give you any hard numbers for performance metrics, since
things change too quickly in this business and any benchmarks I quote
would be obsolete in a couple of months. I can offer some general
The first bit of advice is that you should consider the virtual cab PC
to be a gaming PC. That might seem obvious, but my point isn't merely
that you're going to use it to play games, but rather that "gaming PC"
is a special category of PC. The thing that makes a gaming PC
different from a run-of-the-mill home or business PC is upgraded
performance, particularly for graphics. Gamers use special disks,
special memory, and most of all special graphics cards.
The second bit of advice is that you don't have to take this idea of
upgraded performance to its logical extreme. You do need good
performance, but you don't need the absolute best performance
available. Pinball emulation is demanding, but it's not as complex as
the latest "triple A" video games at any given time. My rule of thumb
is that you should look for the "second best" in most of the product
categories. Survey what's available, and don't buy the most expensive
thing you can find; focus your attention on the second price tier.
Products in that second tier are usually only slightly less capable
than the top-tier products, but much cheaper - you often see crazy
things like 90% of the performance for half the price. The gamers who
want the very best are willing to pay, pay, pay for it. So
products in that second tier often offer a much better balance between
price and performance.
To a first approximation, the CPU and GPU together determine your
machine's overall performance. And of the two, the graphics card is
generally the more important. These are the parts you should pay the
most attention to when researching what to buy.
Other components - motherboard, memory (RAM), disks, USB controllers -
also contribute to performance, but to a much lesser degree. How much
should you worry about those? If you talk to serious video gamers,
they'll tell you that every element is critical, down to the
military-grade titanium screws holding their ballistic carbon-fiber
cases together. That's true as far as it goes, but "extreme gaming
RAM" and the like will only contribute a few percentage on most
systems. Most people can't perceive that kind of difference in actual
use; you'd only know it's there if you measured it with benchmarking
tools. If it's important to you to build the fastest system possible,
then by all means do so; that can be fun in its own way. If your main
focus is pinball rather than PC benchmarks, I'd focus my research time
and cash budget on the CPU and GPU, and I wouldn't go too far out
of my way seeking the optimal choices for the other components.
Just look for parts from reputable manufacturers that fit the specs
Recommended: Windows 10, 64-bit, Home edition.
Windows is really the only viable operating system option for a pin
cab PC, because all of the popular pinball software runs only on
I'd recommend the latest, currently Windows
10. The main reason is that Microsoft only offers full updates to
their DirectX technologies (their gaming technlogy layer) on the
current OS version at any given time. Windows 8 is already somewhat
behind on DirectX support, and Windows 7 is very behind. This means
that newer games will increasingly be unable to run on the older
Windows versions; if you want to be able to run the latest games, you
pretty much have to have the latest Windows.
Older versions: As of this writing, Windows 7 is at end-of-life,
meaning Microsoft will no longer offer updates for it. As I'm sure
you've heard from many other people, the big concern when Microsoft
stops updating Windows 7 is that security bugs in the OS won't get
fixed, so it will become increasingly vulnerable to malware. For a
pin cab PC, I think the lack of DirectX updates is also a big issue.
Windows 8 will continue to be updated (according to Microsoft) until
the beginning of 2023, but it also is already lacking in some newer
The "Home" edition of Windows is fine for a pin cab. You can buy the
more expensive "Pro" edition if you prefer, but the added features in
the Pro editions are intended more for business users than individual
users. I don't think the extra cost gets you anything you really need
for a pin cab.
32-bit or 64-bit?
Easy: Use the 64-bit edition. The 32-bit version
of Windows is only for old hardware with CPUs from about 2002 or
earlier. Every Intel and AMD PC CPU you can buy today is 64-bit. The
64-bit version of the operating system takes full advantage of the
CPU's capabilities, and is still fully compatible with 32-bit
Emulation and virtualization options
Nope. Don't even consider it. Even though it's technically possible
to run Windows as a guest operating system using VM software on Linux
and MacOS, it's not a viable option for gaming software. 3D gaming
performance on virtualized hardware is uniformly unacceptable. The
same applies to Wine (a Windows API emulator on Linux).
Here are the PC components you need to assemble the computer that
runs a virtual pin cab.
Most people start planning PC builds with the CPU, because other
choices hinge on which CPU you choose.
The most common recommendation for CPUs is a four-core Intel i5 chip.
Note that the i5 line contains two-core as well as four-core versions,
so don't assume that it has four cores just because it has an i5
label. Check the specs on the specific product you're looking at.
AMD makes Intel-compatible four-core CPUs with performance levels
similar to the Intel chips. My own experience is mostly with Intel
CPUs, but other virtual pin cab builders have successfully based their
systems on AMD chips.
Intel and AMD also make CPUs with more than four cores, such as the
Intel i7 and i9 chips. As you'd expect, these are faster than the
four-core chips on generic performance tests. However, this can be
misleading. It might seem intuitive that eight cores would be twice
as good as four, but things aren't nearly that simple. Some
applications benefit from more cores, others don't. Most virtual
pinball software will see diminishing returns above four cores. If
you have the budget to upgrade beyond four cores, you're likely to see
a much bigger performance gain by putting the money into a higher-end
graphics card than into the CPU.
Even after narrowing things down to, say, the i5 line, you'll still
have several chips to choose from. The main variation will be clock
speed. Higher clock speeds generally yield faster performance, but as
with the number of cores, the correlation isn't always
straightforward. I always consider clock speed to be a good place to
apply the "second best" rule that I mentioned under
If you want to do more thorough research on the current CPUs
available, there are numerous Web sites with detailed performance
tests. You should give the most weight to tests for gaming
performance, since pinball simulators are similar to other video games
in the way they use the machine's hardware resources.
Most modern CPUs require a special fan mounted directly on top of the
chip. If you buy your CPU in retail packaging, it usually includes a
suitable fan. However, some vendors sell unpackaged "OEM" versions
intended for use by business buyers building systems for resale, and
these usually don't include anything but the bare CPU. In that case,
you'll need to buy a CPU fan separately. These can be found on Newegg
and other sites that sell components by using a search term like "i5
fan". Check the specs on the options you find to make sure your
specific CPU type is listed, since these fans usually have to match
the exact shape and size of the chip.
The motherboard is the main system board with all of the core
electronics, and connectors for all of the add-in cards, disks, and
Choose a CPU before looking for motherboards.
Any given motherboard only works with specific CPUs. Once you
know the CPU you're going to use, you should be able to find
suitable motherboards by searching the Web for "xxx motherboard",
where "xxx" is your CPU type. Use the detailed CPU part number,
I've had good results with motherboards from Gigabyte, but several
other manufacturers make good motherboards as well.
For a pin cab, your needs from a motherboard aren't very complex.
Here are the main features I'd look for:
- Must have: Compatibility with your chosen CPU
- Must have: At least one fast expansion slot for a graphics card,
typically PCI Express x16 (as of this writing).
- Must have: At least two additional expansion slots, in case you want
to add a sound card, Wi-Fi card, USB card, or any other add-ins.
- Must have: Memory slots for at least 8GB of RAM. (This is almost a given;
it's hard to find a board without at least this much capacity
- Nice to have: on-board Ethernet port. This is standard on nearly
all modern motherboards. Wi-Fi is less important, because you might
not be able to use a built-in antenna effectively; the walls of a
pin cab are thick enough to significantly block the signal. An
external antenna is usually better if you want Wi-Fi on the cab,
and for that you'll probably need an add-in card or an external
USB Wi-Fi adapter.
- Nice to have: integrated audio. Nearly all modern motherboards
include audio outputs. This isn't required, though, as you can add a
sound card via an expansion slot if needed.
- Nice to have: USB 2 and USB 3 connectors. Some older USB
devices don't work well with USB 3 ports, so it's helpful to have both
types in case you need a USB 2 port for some devices. This isn't
required, though, since an external USB 2 hub can serve the same
Performance considerations: Not really an issue, unless you're
looking to build an extreme gaming system. A motherboard designed for
a particular CPU is almost always based on the Intel or AMD chipset
mated to that CPU, so you won't see a huge amount of variation among
different boards for the same CPU. If you're concerned about finding
the fastest motherboard for your CPU, you can do some research on
benchmark sites on the Web.
What about on-board graphics? Unimportant,
because you'll need a separate graphics card whether or not the
motherboard has its own built-in graphics. There might be exceptions,
but all of the built-in motherboard graphics chip sets I've ever seen
are low-end, suitable for business graphics, not gaming.
If the motherboard doesn't have on-board graphics, great, that's one
less thing to worry about when configuring the BIOS. If it does have
on-board graphics, as most modern motherboards do, it's still not a
problem because you should be able to disable it in
the BIOS setup. In fact, many BIOSes will do this automatically
when they detect the presence of a separate video card.
The graphics card is the most important component for game
performance. It's even more important than the CPU for games, because
it's actually a whole separate computer in its own right that does
most of the computing work for displaying 3D graphics. Fast graphics cards
are capable of drawing more complex images more rapidly, making for
smoother game action.
You should wait until after selecting a motherboard to choose a
graphics card, because you need a graphics card that matches the
"slot" type on your motherboard. Your motherboard specs should tell
you what kind of graphics cards it accepts; look for "graphics cards"
or "expansion slots" in the spec sheet. For quite a while now,
motherboards have been standardized on "PCI Express" slots for the
graphic interface. These are quoted with a speed like "x16", so you
might see "PCI Express x16" in the expansion slot list. Once you find
that information, that tells you what types of graphic cards are
Graphics cards are available from many manufacturers, but most
(regardless of manufacturer) use chip sets made by either Nvidia or
AMD. The spec sheet should tell you the underlying chip set, and in
fact, most cards from most brands include this information right in
the name. For example, a "Gigabyte Geforce GTX 1050" is based on the
Nvidia 1050 chip set. You'll start to recognize the chip set names if
you shop around enough, since you'll see the same numerical
designations over and over on different brands of cards. The
performance of a graphics card is almost entirely a function of the
chip set, not the brand, so you should see reasonably similar
performance from cards based on a given chip set even if they're from
Which chip set? The standard answer on the forums, for Visual
Pinball use, is "Nvidia x60 or better". That applies if you're using
a 1080p TV. For a 4K TV, the standard advice is that an x70 is required.
What these numbers mean: The "60" part refers to the speed class of
the cards. NVidia names their chip sets by combining a generation
number (roughly analogous to a model year) and a processor speed
level. For example, the "960" chip is generation 9, speed class 60.
So you might see 960, 1060, and eventually 1160 chip sets,
representing successive model years of the "x60" speed class. Higher
speed class numbers represent faster chips: "60" is faster than "50",
and "70" is faster still. The generation numbers increase about once
a year. The cards in a given speed class get a little faster each
generation, so a 1060 is probably faster than a 960, but the speed
class differences are bigger and typically hold across generations.
That is, an older "60" is probably faster than a newer "50". So don't
assume that newer is automatically faster; the speed class is the
number to look at first.
Gaming cards with AMD chip sets will also work with Visual Pinball and
other gaming software. But I don't think there's a standard answer
for which AMD chip set to use, the way there is with NVidia, because
pin cab builders have mostly gravitated to NVidia cards. I think the
main reason they gravitate to NVidia is that the pin cab builders
before them gravitated to NVidia, so those are the cards that people
know will work. If you want to cast a wider net, there are lots of
video-gamer Web sites that do seriously in-depth performance testing
on video cards (as well as other PC components), so a little research
should give you some idea of which AMD-based cards are comparable to
the recommended NVidia cards.
Video memory: Video cards have their own on-board memory,
usually 1GB or more on a modern card. The fastest type of memory has
a type like "GDDR3" or "GDDR5". A higher number suffix indicates
faster memory. Visual Pinball and other gaming software benefits from
large memory sizes with fast memory. I'd recommend at least 2GB of
GDDR3 or faster.
Display size and refresh rate: If you're using a standard HDTV
for your playfield TV, it probably uses the 1080p format, which is
1920x1080 pixels and refresh at 60 Hz. Your backglass TV might also
be 1080p, but some smaller TVs run at 720p, which is 1280x720 pixels.
Any modern graphics card will be able to drive these image formats,
but check the specs to be sure.
If your playfield TV is a "4K" model (Ultra HD or UHD), the image size
is 3840x2160 pixels. Support for this format isn't a given in modern
graphics cards, so you might have to look a little harder to find a
suitable card. In addition, the higher resolution places much more
computing load on the graphics card, so the earlier advice about
Nvidia x60 cards probably doesn't apply. You'll probably need a very
high-end card to get good performance; I'd recommend asking for advice
on the forums.
Outputs/connectors: Be sure you have enough outputs for all of
the monitors you plan to connect, taking into account the playfield
TV, the backbox TV, and the score display (DMD) TV, if you're using
Most higher-end graphics cards offer several output ports with
different types of connectors. You can almost always use all of the
outputs simultaneously to drive multiple monitors. This lets you
use a single graphics card to drive all of the TVs in your system.
I'd recommend finding a card with at least two of the following
connectors, in any combination: HDMI, DVI-D, Display Port (DP). All
of these types can be connected (using passive adapters) to HDMI
inputs, which is what you'll need on almost any modern TV. As long as
you have two ports of these types, you should have no problem
connecting two TVs to the card.
If you're planning to also use a third display for the DMD area,
you'll need a third output for that. A VGA or DVI-D connector will
usually work for this third output, since DMD monitors are usually
implemented with laptop displays or small desktop monitors. Most
video cards have a VGA output in addition to one or more of the more
modern connectors listed above, so this is fairly easy to find.
If you're going to use a real pinball DMD instead of a small video
display, you won't need to connect that the graphics card.
Real DMDs aren't video devices, so they don't connect to your graphics
card; they connect instead to a special external controller via USB.
You should check the specs to confirm that the card you're considering
can handle the two or three simultaneous outputs you plan to use.
Nearly all modern graphics cards allow this, but it's worth checking
to be sure.
Port compatibility: You don't necessarily need an exact match
between the output port types on your video card and the input ports
on your TVs and monitors. Many of the port types are electrically
compatible with each other, meaning you can connect them with a
simple cable that has the right plug on each end.
The following combinations of port types are compatible.
The only requirement is a cable with the corresponding connector
type at each end. These are relatively inexpensive and can be
easily found online.
|TV IN||Video Card OUT||Compatible?|
Two cards for two monitors:
Not advised. It seems
two cards would be better than one - more hardware is always faster,
right? But in practice, two cards are actually slower
Everyone on the forums who's tried this has had the same results: you
get lower frame rates, more stutter, and more lag with multiple video
The technical reasons for this are unclear (my wild guess is that it's
due to increased PCIe bus contention). Without understanding the
cause, I can't rule out the possibility that some systems exist
where two cards would go faster than one. But if there are, they seem
to be the exception; many people have tried it and had poor results.
By far the best way that anyone has found to improve performance of the
pinball simulators is to use a faster video card.
I'd recommend at least 8GB of motherboard RAM. This is enough memory
for Windows plus the pinball simulator to run comfortably without
"swapping" to disk. More RAM is generally better - particularly for
future-proofing, considering that Windows and other software tends to
need more memory on every update. If you have the budget, you can
install as much memory as your motherboard can accept.
The type of RAM chip you use must match the requirements for your
motherboard. You can find the RAM type requirements in your
motherboard's spec sheet, but it's usually easier to find the right
chips by typing your motherboard's model number into a Web store's RAM
search. Most online stores that sell RAM let you search for
compatible chips by motherboard, narrowing the results to show only
compatible products once you enter the motherboard information.
You'll probably be able to find many compatible RAM chips for your
motherboard. These will be listed with a speed class like "DDR3-2000"
or "DDR4-2133". "DDR3" and "DDR4" are essentially versions of the
electrical interfaces, so your motherboard will probably accept
exactly one of these types. The suffixes like "-2000" are clock
speeds, so higher numbers are faster in terms of the bus clock. These
numbers don't translate directly or linearly to overall system
throughput, since there are many other factors besides the raw clock
speed that affect the actual performance, but using higher-speed RAM
will generally increase overall system speed. I'd recommend buying
the fastest speed class that your motherboard supports, since the
price differences between RAM types aren't usually dramatic, but you
can let your budget decide, since the performance differences probably
won't be dramatic either.
Note that you might see the "DDR" speed class combined with another
class with a "PC" prefix, such as "PC3-16000". These are just
different ways of stating the same information. Don't compare "DDR"
speeds with "PC" speeds, since they're different systems - only
compare "DDR" speeds with other "DDR" speeds, and "PC" speeds with
other "PC" speeds.
In addition to the "DDR" speed class, you might see a series of other
specs, such as "Timing 15-17-17-35" or "CAS Latency 15". These
numbers are further details about the memory speed. Hardcore gamers
try to optimize these, but I don't recommend worrying about them,
because they represent very slight differences in speed that might not
even be noticeable in actual use. The "DDR" speed class and the total
amount of RAM are much more important.
The best type of hard disk for a virtual pin cab PC is an SSD, which
isn't actually a "disk" at all, but serves the same storage function
using flash memory instead of magnetic media. SSDs are much faster
than conventional hard disks, especially for booting Windows and
loading software. Booting Windows from an SSD typically takes ten or
twenty seconds, compared with a minute or more with a conventional
SSDs also smaller than convention disks, and they're essentially
immune to damage from vibration or shock. The shock resistance is
good for a pin cab since you'll want to be able to nudge the machine
without worrying about damaging the disk.
The main drawback of SSDs is that they're more expensive than
conventional hard disk per gigabyte. Fortunately, a pin cab doesn't
need a very large disk, so most pin cab builders will find that a
suitably sized SSD is well within a reasonable budget for the PC
How much storage do you need? Let's look at what you'll typically
need to install on a pin cab PC:
- Windows operating system: about 20GB
- Visual Pinball: about 20MB
- Future Pinball: about 100MB
- VP and FP tables: varies, hundreds of MB
- PinballX (menu system): about 40MB
- PinballX media (table images, videos, etc): varies, hundreds of MB
- Web browser: 1GB
- Other software and utilities: varies, hundreds of MB
We obviously can't come up with an exact number here because the total
will depend on how many tables you install. But we can still come up
with a pretty good upper bound, since there are only so many tables
out there (perhaps 1000 in circulation), and they're not all that big
individually (perhaps 1MB to 20MB apiece). Even if you install all of
the tables you can find, and even if you never delete the less
interesting ones, you're probably talking about less than 20GB of
total disk space required for them.
Adding all of this up, we come up with about 45GB. Realistically,
you'll want to increase that figure to account for the inherent
overhead in the way Windows uses disk space, and to leave some room
for temporary files, downloads, etc. So I'd recommend an absolute
minimum disk size of about 65GB, and preferably at least 120GB. But
given current prices, I'd step up to about 250GB - that size is available
for about $100 US as of this writing, which makes it the best value in
terms of price per gigabyte. 250GB is plenty of space for all current
pin cab needs and leaves lots of space for future expansion. Depending
on when you read this, the best value size might be even larger, so
shop around to see what's available.
Virtually all motherboards and disk drives are compatible with the
standard "ATX" type of power supply. The only exceptions are
motherboards designed for very small form factor machines, so as long
as you're using a standard full-sized motherboard, you should be able
to use any ATX power supply from any manufacturer.
ATX power supplies are so standardized that you don't have to worry
about the types of plugs it has or the types of voltages it produces.
These are all uniform across all ATX power supplies. The only thing
that varies is the total power capacity, expressed as a number of
Watts. You'll have to pick a power supply that produces at least
the wattage required by your motherboard and other components.
You can determine your wattage requirement by adding up the power
figures in the specs for your motherboard and video card. Those are
the two components that draw the most power in your system. Be sure
to pay attention to the video card, because it might require even more
power than your motherboard does.
For example, if your motherboard spec sheet says that it requires
200W, and your video card requires 300W, you'll need a power supply
that provides at least 500W. I'd add about 100W to the total you come
up with from the motherboard and video specs, to account for the
little bit of extra power that will be drawn by the disk and USB
devices, so in this example I'd look for a power supply rated for at
least 600W. The number you come up with here is just a minimum: you
can buy any power supply rated at this number or higher.
Most modern motherboards have integrated audio. For a basic setup,
this is all you'll need.
If you want, you can add a separate sound card that plugs into an
expansion slot on your motherboard. This will let you set up a
second, independent set of speakers on the added card, in addition to
the main set of speakers attached to the motherboard audio outputs.
Why would you want two sets of outputs? Visual Pinball has a special
feature that lets you take advantage of two audio systems to separate
the "music" tracks from the playfield sound effects. Many pin cab
builders set things up so that the music plays from the backbox
speakers, the same arrangement as in the real machines from the 1990s,
and the playfield sound effects play through a separate set of
speakers located inside the cabinet under the TV. The playfield
effects include the sound of the ball rolling and bumping into things,
so it improves the simulation to have these sounds come from the
direction of the playfield.
If you do want to install a separate sound card for the playfield
effects, you don't need anything fancy. Any inexpensive sound card
will do. Just make sure that it uses the same type of expansion slot
that you have on your motherboard. For most modern motherboards,
these will be standard PCI slots.
Case or caseless
Most pin cab builders house the whole PC inside the cabinet. This
makes everything self-contained and adds to the illusion of a real
machine. That's not a requirement, though: some cab builders simply
put a regular PC on the floor next to the cabinet. This works, but
it's not as nicely integrated, and you'll have to run several cables
(video and USB) between the external PC and the cab. It's fairly
obvious how to set that up, so we'll ignore that option and focus on
how to set up a PC inside the cabinet.
There are two main options for mounting the PC components inside
the cabinet. The first is to build the PC using a conventional
tower case, and then put the case inside the cabinet. The second
is to skip the case and mount all of the PC components directly
inside the cabinet, attaching them to the floor of the cabinet
or one of the inside walls. The cabinet itself serves as the
case. Each approach has some tradeoffs.
The main advantage of using a conventional PC case is that it
provides structural support to hold the video card and other add-in
cards in place, and provides places to mount the disks. A case also
provides physical protection from falling objects, and provides
shielding for the radio frequency energy that a PC produces.
The big downside of using a case is that it takes up a lot of space.
A typical mid-tower case is about 14x16x7 inches. A standard pin cab
is 20.5" wide on the inside, and you'll have about 9 or 10 inches of
vertical clearance between the floor and the playfield TV. That
leaves enough room for a tower case lying on its side, but just
Note that there's such a thing as a "small form factor" case. These
take up less space, as the name suggests, but they're not really a
good option for pin cabs. The big problem is that they don't
accommodate full-size PCIe video cards. The video card is so critical
to performance that you won't want to be limited to the few available
small form factor options.
If you skip the case, it's straightforward to mount the motherboard,
disk, and power supply to the floor of the cabinet. The only real
complication is that the video card and other add-in cards will need
some kind of structural support to keep them from working loose from
the motherboard slots. One option is a partial case, known as an "I/O
panel" or "I/O tray". You can search for these on the Web by looking
for terms like "ATX I/O panel" or "mATX motherboard tray" (use "ATX"
or "mATAX" according to your motherboard's "form factor" spec).
Another option is to fashion your own ad hoc support from wood or
sheet metal. We'll look at specifics in Installing the PC
PC components and TVs generate heat when running, so you'll want to
make sure the cabinet interior is well ventilated. Most cab builders
do this by installing a couple of PC case fans in specially cut
openings in the floor or back wall of the cabinet. See
You'll definitely want network connectivity in your cab PC, so that
you can download software and pinball tables from the Internet.
Nearly all motherboards have built-in Ethernet ports for wired
connections. If you'll have access to a wired router port in your pin
cab's ultimate location, the built-in Ethernet port is all you'll
need. If not, you'll want to consider another option, such as WiFi or
If you're already using WiFi for your other devices, you can get your
pin cab on the network by adding a WiFi card. Some motherboards have
built-in WiFi, so you might not even need to add anything; check your
If you do add WiFi to your pin cab PC, I'd recommend doing so with a
PCI add-in card that has an external antenna with at least a few feet
of wire, to allow locating the antenna away from the motherboard. The
reason is that the wood walls of a pin cab can substantially block the
WiFi radio signal, so you'll get a much better signal if you can move
the antenna outside of the cabinet. A built-in antenna or an antenna
that's attached directly to the PCI card might not get a strong enough
Another option is a "powerline" network. These send signals over your
house's AC electrical wiring rather than by radio, so they're not
susceptible to the interference and blockage problems that make WiFi
problematic in some setups. They also don't require any extra wiring,
since they use the existing power wiring in your house. To make this
work, you'll need one powerline adapter connected to the pin cab PC
via the motherboard's Ethernet port, and a second powerline adapter
connected to a port on your Ethernet router. Netgear, Linksys, and
others make starter kits that come with the necessary equipment to set
I always prefer a wired Ethernet connection when possible, since it's
extremely reliable and almost effortless to set up. Powerline is my
second choice when a wired Ethernet connection isn't possible, since
it tends to be more reliable than WiFi and easier to set up. WiFi
is great for mobile devices, but a pin cab has to be plugged into
the power outlet anyway, so I think powerline is the way to go if
you can't arrange a regular wired Ethernet connection.
Assuming you're placing your PC inside the cabinet, you'll need a way
to connect the keyboard, mouse, and (if you're using one) the Ethernet
One easy way to deal with the keyboard and mouse is to buy wireless
devices. Modern wireless keyboards and mice come with USB
transceivers; just plug the transceivers into USB ports on the
motherboard and you're set. Similarly, using WiFi or powerline
Ethernet (see the Network
above) eliminates the need for external network cabling. Making
everything wireless is the most convenient approach, but it's more
expensive, and I've never been fully satisfied with the performance
of any wireless keyboard or mouse I've used.
If you're using wired devices, a simple solution is to drill a hole in
the cabinet big enough for the cables (preferably somewhere
inconspicuous, like the floor or back wall), pull the cables through
the opening, and plug them into the appropriate motherboard ports.
The downsides of this approach are that it uses up a couple of feet of
cable inside the cab (which might put your keyboard and mouse on too
short a leash), and that it's inconvenient to disconnect and reconnect
the devices (you have to open up the machine to get to the plugs).
If you want something a little more elegant and flexible, you can
install the appropriate port connectors on the exterior of your
cabinet and wire them to the motherboard internally. You can set this
up pretty easily with parts made for installing data jacks in wall
plates that resemble regular electrical outlet plates. These are
commonly used for home theater and office installations. Here
are the parts I'd recommend:
- 1 Keystone wall plate insert with 2 openings, for the keyboard and
- 1 Keystone wall plate insert with 1 opening, for the Ethernet port
- 2 Keystone snap-in USB 3.0 female-to-female couplers
- 1 Keystone PS2 (6-pin mini DIN) female-to-female coupler
(optional, if you're using an older keyboard with a PS2 connector
instead of USB)
- 1 Keystone snap-in RJ45 Cat6 female-to-female coupler
- 4-foot standard male-to-male cables for each of the above
Most pin can builders don't include any optical disks (CD-ROM or
DVD-ROM) in their systems. And it almost goes without saying that
floppy disks and other removable media are obsolete and can be
Apart from the operating system, you should be able to load all
necessary software by network download. The operating system itself
can be installed from a USB thumb drive. Newer versions of Windows
can be purchased on a pre-loaded thumb drive, and you can also use
your existing desktop PC to create an installable thumb drive image
from Windows DVD-ROM install media.