Is Apple planning a mini tower?
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Is Apple planning a mini tower?

I find it hard to believe that Apple is planning a mini tower desktop with the iMac being such a raging success, but a new Apple patent (20100088450) at least hints at the possibility. The patent is for a component retention mechanism and could also reflect an upcoming revision of the Mac Pro, though the wording makes that seem unlikely.

Apple says the invention relates generally to "personal computing devices" (which would seem to differentiate the computer in question from the pro-oriented Mac Pro workstation) and more particularly to the facilitation of increased modularity with respect to various components of such personal computing devices. According to the patent, a component retention mechanism facilitates improved installation, retention and removal of hardware components (e.g., PCI cards) on a personal computer. The retention mechanism includes a locking component, support member, and release mechanism coupled to each other. The locking component can be a steel bar or other stiff item positioned proximate to multiple socket connectors on a circuit board. The locking component moves between unlocked and locked positions that mechanically and simultaneously unlock or lock in place multiple add-in cards inserted into the socket connectors.

The support member moves and thereby facilitates movement of the locking component between locked and unlocked positions. The release mechanism facilitates movement of the support member and is actuated when a force is exerted by a user thereto. An associated slider housing coupled to the release mechanism and support member includes a fan, support shelves and a door that provides additional support to oversized PCI cards. The inventors are Vinh H. Diep, Giles Matthew Lowe, Peter Russell-Clark, Philip Satterfield, Clark Everett Waterfall and Alex Chun Lap Yeung.

Here's Apple's background and summary of the invention: "Sophisticated personal computers are developing at a rapid rate, and there is an ever-present demand for improved appearance, speed, functionality, and reliability in the newest personal computers. One area that sometimes lags behind in the field is the ability of users to have increased flexibility in upgrading and building their own personal computing systems.

"While various hardware components, such as monitors, speakers, printers, disk drives, hard drives, memory units, peripheral component interconnect (PCI) cards, and the like tend to be easily interchangeable for a home user, other hardware components are not so modular. For example, many traditional home computers are manufactured with a central processing unit (CPU) or two that tend to be permanently affixed to a backplane, motherboard or other base printed circuit board (PCB) in the computer. Such an arrangement tends to represent the permanent "heart" of the personal computer, with any desire to upgrade the CPU(s) and/or base PCB usually requiring the acquisition of a new computer.

"Another area where modularity can be somewhat difficult in personal computers is with respect to PCI card arrays. Many PCI cards have a retention tab integrated along one edge of the card that is used in conjunction with a board-side retention arm to lock the card in place on its respective PCB when installed. Such a retention tab and arm arrangement helps to keep the PCI card installed and in place during vibrations, drops, or other sudden movements of the computing system.

"In many instances, however, these manually operable retention arms are difficult to access for a user that wants to replace a single PCI card in a tightly arranged array of installed PCI cards. As such, users often must resort to removing one or more adjacent PCI cards in order to access the retention arm mechanism to unlock the PCI card that they actually want to replace. Such a process can be cumbersome and unduly lengthy, and can subject desired components that are installed but must be temporarily removed to unneeded wear and risks.

"Another issue that arises as the modularity of a personal computer increases is the ability to measure accurately the temperatures of various internal computer components. For example, many hard drives and other basic items are permanently built into a respective motherboard/CPU arrangement. Under such circumstances, it is fairly easy to build in a permanent thermocouple or other temperature sensing arrangement to monitor the temperature of such permanently affixed hard drives and other items, such that appropriate application of fans and/or other cooling techniques can be applied as needed. A permanently installed temperature sensor can benefit from direct contact with the housing of an operating hard drive or other component, as will be readily appreciated. When such hard drives and other components are modular (i.e., removable and replaceable), however, then the ability to measure accurately the temperature of these devices is complicated.

"While many designs for aiding in the modularity of personal computers have generally worked well in the past, there is always a desire to provide new and improved designs or techniques that result in even more modularity options for such personal computers. In particular, various desired improvements can include increased modularity for base CPUs and related components, easier removal and secure installation of PCI cards located within closely spaced arrays, and the ability to accurately measure the temperatures of removable components in personal computers, among other features and enhancements.

"It is an advantage of the present invention to provide improved features for a personal computer. These improvements can include an increased modularity for primary CPUs and related components in a personal computer, easier removal and secure installation of add-in cards located within closely spaced arrays and/or the ability to accurately measure the temperatures of removable components in personal computers, among others. This can be accomplished at least in part through the use of modular personal computer tower having removable and replaceable CPU/DIMM modules, a more comprehensive hardware component retention system, and/or temperature sensors that are spring loaded to facilitate direct contact with removable computer components. In particular, the more comprehensive hardware component retention system can include a locking component that is adapted to lock or unlock simultaneously a plurality of computer add-in cards or components.

"In various embodiments of the present invention, a provided computer apparatus can include a plurality of socket connectors coupled to a circuit board, a locking component positioned proximate to the socket connectors, a support member coupled to the locking component, a slider housing coupled to the support member, and a release mechanism coupled to the slider housing. The plurality of socket connectors can be arranged in a pattern that is substantially parallel, wherein each of the plurality of socket connectors is adapted to mate with a computer add-in card, such as a PCI card. The locking component can be a bar or similar item, and can have a first locked position and a second unlocked position. The first locked position can simultaneously mechanically lock in place an add-in card that is inserted into any of the socket connectors by using a notch on the add-in card, and the second unlocked position can simultaneously mechanically unlock any and all add-in cards installed in any of the plurality of socket connectors.

"The support member coupled to the locking component can be adapted to move and thereby facilitate the movement of the locking component between the first locked position and the second unlocked position. The slider housing coupled to the support member can be adapted to slide and thereby facilitate the movement of the support member, with the slider housing being further adapted to provide additional support to one or more oversized PCI or other add-in cards inserted within one of the socket connectors when the locking component is in the first locked position.

"The release mechanism can be adapted to facilitate the locking of the slider housing into a locked position when the bar or other locking component is in its first locked position, and, when a positive force is exerted by a user on the release mechanism, to release the slider housing to be movable to an unlocked position that also results in the bar or other locking component being in its second unlocked position.

"Various details of these embodiments can include the computer add-in cards comprising PCI cards and/or accelerated graphics port (AGP) cards. In some embodiments, the circuit board can be a motherboard or back plane for an associated personal computer, and the device may include such a circuit board. The locking component can be a rigid bar that engages simultaneously a notch on each of the add-in cards. Such a rigid bar can be metallic, and can be made from stainless steel, for example.

In some embodiments, the plurality of socket connectors and the locking component can be located on one side of the circuit board, and while the support member is located on an obverse side of the circuit board from the socket connectors and locking component. In this manner, one or more moving components can be located in a region that has less of an impact on the various components on and attached to the circuit board, such as the obverse side of a motherboard.

"Various further details of these embodiments can relate to the slider housing, such as the presence of one or more cooling fans located within the slider housing. Such a cooling fan or fans can be adapted to cool one or more add-in cards when such card(s) are operational within the computer, such as when a card is installed in a socket connector on the circuit board. In addition, one or more support shelves can be located within the slider housing, with such a support shelf or shelves being adapted to provide further support to one or more oversized computer add-in cards that might be inserted into one of the socket connectors.

"Also, the slider housing can include a door or other front portion that provides additional support to oversized computer add-in cards inserted into one of the socket connectors when the locking component is in its first locked position, and wherein the door or front portion provides no support to the oversized computer add-in cards when the locking component is in its second unlocked position.

"In further embodiments, which may include some or all details of any or all of the foregoing embodiments, a personal desktop computer can include an outer housing, input and output ports about the outer housing for a plurality of peripheral devices, a motherboard located inside the outer housing and adapted to facilitate various processing functions and communications between peripheral devices, storage units and processors, a hard drive in communication with the motherboard and adapted to store data thereon, a CPU/memory module coupled to the motherboard and adapted to perform core processing functions for the personal desktop computer, and mating electrical connectors on both of the motherboard and the CPU/memory module.

"The CPU/memory module can be readily removable and replaceable from the personal desktop computer without needing to remove or replace the motherboard or hard drive. The mating connectors can be adapted to facilitate communications between the motherboard and the CPU/memory module when the module is installed, and also to facilitate the ready decoupling of the CPU/memory module from said motherboard to facilitate the removal of the module from the personal desktop computer. Further, a dual core CPU can be used, and the module memory can be DIMM and/or any other suitable memory for use with a CPU.

"In still further embodiments, which similarly can include some or all details of any or all of the foregoing embodiments, a computer apparatus can include a temperature sensor adapted to sense the temperature of an operating removable computer component, a communication link coupled to the temperature sensor, a support structure adapted to support and hold the temperature sensor within a personal computer, and a compressible spring coupled to both the support structure and the temperature sensor.

"The communication link can be adapted to facilitate the communication of a temperature read by the temperature sensor to a processor, and the support structure can be mounted within the personal computer proximate to the location for a removable computer component. Also, the compressible spring can be adapted to permit the movement of the temperature sensor when the removable computer component is installed or removed from the personal computer, wherein such movement results in the temperature sensor directly contacting the removable computer component when the removable computer component is installed within the personal computer."

The accompanying graphic illustrates in side elevation view the exemplary desktop personal computer with portions of the housing removed therefrom according to one embodiment of the present invention.

-- Dennis Sellers


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