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XSPC 20x4 Blue Character LCD XSPC 20x4 Blue Character LCD: We check out an inexpensive LCD to view system statistics, temperatures and other information.
Date: August 18, 2005
Supplied By:
Written By:
Price: and

If you are a PC enthusiast and you read websites such as this one (or most especially those more interested in PC modding) on a regular basis, you’ve probably come across more than a few PC’s that have been modified to hold an LCD or VFD display. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about; little strips of LCD’s, backlit in greens, blue, reds, and whites. Folks use them to display system information like temperatures, emails, funky Winamp EQ’s, HTPC info, even the time! But not everyone is into modding in a big way, and of course there is the cost involved. To get a decent Matrix Orbital or Crystalfontz display you are talking quite a bit of money. Don’t get me wrong, they are worth it with their USB connections, temperature probes and even programmable buttons on the front. But is there a cheaper solution? Can we get our cheap display without having to get out the soldering iron? Can we have our cake and eat it?

A few companies market the older parallel port driven character LCD’s and one such company is , who also sell (separately) two different mounts for their 20x4 Character LCD displays. We have an to look at, so let’s get to it.

Features

- HD44780 Controller
- 20 Characters , 4 Lines
- Blue Backlight
- Connects to Parallel port
- Powered by a 4 pin molex connector

Dimensions

Displays - 75mm, 25mm
Display Surround - 94mm, 36mm
PCB - 98mm, 60mm
Depth - 11mm (Approx 22mm inc plug)
Cable length - 1.1m

Ok, three things here. The first is that do not include any software for this, but they do recommend the freely downloadable software. Secondly, as I stated earlier, you won’t receive any kind of surround or mount with the LCD unless you buy one at time of purchase. This means you can pay for just the display itself should you wish to mod your case to accommodate it. Third, since this connects to your parallel port, you better make sure it’s free; in this day and age with USB printers being more proliferate, it should be quite common to find the parallel port unused.

The display itself arrives in a plain white box with a label to let you know what is in it. It’s a small and thin box, but arrived with other components securely packed in bubble wrap. Inside the white box we have the parallel/power cable and the LCD itself, again bubble wrapped for protection. I was surprised to see no documentation although it did turn out to be easy enough to install. The display supplied here is a blue display with white characters, although XSPC also have blue with black characters and green with black characters.

The LCD is a little heavier than it looks and feels solidly put together. There were no errant solder points and everything had the look and feel of high quality, which is always a good sign. The front display comes protected with a clear strip you peel off before use to protect it from scratches. Each corner has mounting points although they are not used with the mount we have. The rear is pretty much all PCB, although at the top you can see the 16 pins (with pin 1 and pin 16 marked for reference) for data and power.

The cable is a simple affair; you put the parallel end out of the case at the rear through a PCI slot for example, and connect it up to your parallel port. You also have a 4 pin female Molex for the power which obviously plugs into a free connector from your power supply. The other end has a 16pin, single row plug that goes on the back of the LCD. Just for future reference, there is a small triangle on this otherwise unmarked 16pin plug, which indicates pin1; pin1 on the LCD is marked correspondingly. I’m pleased to see there is plenty of cable here (1.1m), and you shouldn’t have any issues routing wiring. XSPC don’t currently supply any form of documentation with this LCD and while I’ve no idea what sort of damage you could do by installing the plug upside down, I do feel that even a single sheet to let you know which way round the plug goes would be beneficial.

Ok, I’m going to stop there for the moment and come back to the LCD in just a minute. I want to side track to the mounts. There are two kinds available from XSPC, an Acrylic Desk mount and a 5 ¼” Double Aluminium Bay mount. I’ve chosen to look at the Bay mount which arrived in this nondescript brown cardboard box with a white sticker to indicate the contents. Inside the box we find the mount itself inside a self-seal bag and a smaller self-seal bag with nuts, bolts and washers for attaching the mount to your case.

The mount itself is made from silver aluminium and bends quite easily. On the front there is obviously the hole that the LCD sits in and below this is the XSPC logo in raised/engraved lettering.

At the sides are 4 arms, 2 each side which are used for attaching to your case. To mount the LCD itself in the bay mount couldn’t be simpler. You put the LCD into position (it will only go in so far) so it sits just proud of the front of the mount, and then bend 4 lugs on the rear to hold it in place. It might seem a little flimsy or loose fitting to look at but it actually works very well.

Installation

Now I personally came across a slight problem with this setup, or rather with the mount. The 4 arms have holes that travel vertically to allow you to bolt the mount into place. The Antec P160 case uses a rail system to attach to drives and other items that mount in its bays and the position of the holes on the aluminium mount arms meant that the rails sat too high for it fit in the case properly.

Now if the holes were opened downwards on the arms, I could attach the drive rails lower and get the correct position. I was able to cut mine very easily since this is thin aluminium with just a pair of scissors, although I also tried using sticky pads which didn't work as well. Two minute ghetto modification and the LCD mount slid into the case perfectly.

XSPC don’t supply any software with the display, and this helps to keep the costs down. It also allows you to use software of your own choice. XSPC recommend you use the freely downloadable which is exactly what we did. There is one extra piece of software you will need to install and that is the software which allows your LCD software to communicate with the LCD. After both of these are installed, the LCD will instantly start displaying characters and different screens from the demo configuration that LCD Smartie installs with.

LCD Smartie looks complex at first glance but is in actual fact very easy to use. You can leave things as they are pretty much, with perhaps you just adjusting things to suit your details, email addresses, preferred news feeds, etc and have the display running in no time at all. Or you can tweak everything and install other plugins and get functionality for Teamspeak, Extended Winamp EQ’s, BIG NUMBERS and many others. Either way it doesn’t take long to get yourself some screens running to your liking. You can also set the screens to active or inactive depending on certain rules, such as if Winamp is active/inactive, if you are not connected to the internet or if you have no mail. Here are a few pictures to show you a few possibilities I knocked up in about an hour or so, with the 2 Winamp screens only appearing when Winamp is running.

And here a couple of videos to show the transitions between screens. The first shows the two screens that become active when Winamp is running, the second video shows the multiple screens that cycle when Winamp is inactive.

Winamp Video - 862KB, Cycle Video - 3.56MB

Final Words

When you consider that this display will set you back just under £22, it does represent very good value for money. It doesn’t have temperature probes (but MBM5 information can be displayed with LCD Smartie, and there is also an alpha plugin available for Speedfan) and it doesn’t have buttons. It is a character display rather than a graphic display, however with a little imagination, creativity and the right software you can get some pretty good looking information shown very quickly. The supplied cabling is nothing fancy but it is plenty long enough and it works, which is all you really need. I know some folks might be put off by the parallel port cabling but honestly, unless your printer is old, I bet most of you have your parallel port sitting doing nothing right now.

The LCD is sold without either software or some form or mounting system, but you can easily download LCD Smartie for free and have two different mounts available for sale separately; an Acrylic Desktop mount and a Double 5 ¼” Aluminium Bay mount. We had an issue using the bay mount with our Antec P160 case*, but a slight modification to the mount’s arms with a pair of scissors had things set right.

*Editors Note - After contacting XSPC to let them know of our issue with rail systems and the bay mount, they had this to say.

"Thanks for the photos and feedback. I will have some changes made on the next version so it works better with the rails."

So perhaps by the time you read this, the changes will have been made. If not and you do have a rail system in your case, a pair of scissors and a minute extra installation time is all you need.

I like gadgets and what some folks would call superfluous items as long as they are useful, not too expensive and not cheaply constructed. The has all three of those criteria covered; you can get system stats on changing screens which could be useful while gaming or perhaps to display information from your Media/HTPC, and as far as Modding on the cheap goes these LCD displays look good for very little outlay, and are quick and simple to install.

Pros: Easy installation with a mount, Very low price, Look good, Nice long cable, Quick to setup, Software is free, Good construction, Uses the often unused parallel port

Cons: No documentation, mount didn’t match up with a cases rail system without modification*, Anyone with a printer or other device running from the parallel port will be out of luck

Bottom Line: LCD displays to show off system information have always looked great in both modded and non-modded cases. With the right software they can also be used in an HTPC to great effect. With the XSPC displays being very inexpensive and ready to go, they make a great addition to your case without costing a fortune.

Comments and Questions should be directed to our Forums.

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