How To: Kitchen PC

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My wife and I have two young children. Although our house was pretty wired, the upstairs computer was away from the action and good for “work”. The downstairs computer was for the kids to check out PBS Kids or Nickelodeon. There wasn’t an easy way to do a quick check of personal e-mail, do a little internet research, e.g., “How many beaches are there in the world, Daddy?” (still don’t know the answer to that one) or keep track of the “to do” list and shopping list.

So I decided to set up a kitchen PC.

Although there were a few resources on the web and a couple of products, I learned some things along the way that I thought were worth sharing. So please take a look at what I’ve done and add your own suggestions.

The Marketplace (circa 2007)

There were two products that I seriously considered. The first, from HP, is called the TouchSmart It’s a complete solution, with a touch screen interface and applications oriented to a kitchen PC (see Use Cases below). However, I didn’t like the counter space that it required and the price tag exceeded my budget. There was also a product called the iCEBOX from Westinghouse and then Salton. It’s an appliance with a proprietary operating system and the following features:

  • Television
  • Internet
  • DVD/CD
  • FM Radio
  • Home Video Monitoring
  • Touch Screen
  • Remote & Keyboard

It had a number of functions that I didn’t really care about. I already had ready access to a home entertainment system in the other room with music and movies.

Use Cases

With any IT project, even a kitchen PC installation, it’s good to start with some use cases. I sat down with my wife and outlined the following, in order of importance.

  • Calendar: We had a calendar hanging on the wall that we used to schedule personal events
  • eMail: My wife belongs to a Mom’s Club and would coordinate “play dates” at the park or gym with other members via e-mail. Sometimes people would send last minute updates.
  • “To do” and Shopping list: We had a number of sticky notes hanging on the top cabinets of things to do and things to buy.
  • Recipes: We thought it would be cool to pull up a recipe online and then start cooking on the counter below.
  • Conversion: Ever try to remember how many tablespoons of butter are in a cup? (16) We wanted to have that information at our fingertips.
  • Maps and local information: Yahoo! Maps, Yelp, Craigslist RSS feeds, and more.

Now that the system has been installed for a month, I now know that a big use case that I didn’t even think of is the screen saver. Yes, the screen saver. I downloaded 16GB of pictures and movies and now we reminisce a lot more. The occasional photo of the kids as babies really takes me out of work mode at the end of the day and reminds me of what’s important.

I also added “research” after the fact. We often get some creative questions from the kids at the dinner table. Having Wikipedia (How many volcanoes are there in Indonesia? 150) and YouTube (What is Bollywood?) improves the family’s brainpower. As a child, I remember that the WorldBook Encyclopedia on a bookshelf at the head of the table received heavy use as well.

Non-Functional Requirements

Although we didn’t achieve everything on the list below, it provided a good starting point.

  • Instant on: No one wants to wait for a PC to boot in the kitchen
  • Under cabinet mount: We wanted the screen to drop down from the counter and swivel
  • Low power/noise: We wanted this to be unobtrusive
  • Touch screen: Although we wanted/needed a wireless keyboard, we didn’t want to have to drag it out just to check the weather or e-mail
  • Barcode scanner: I wanted to try out an automated shopping list by scanning in items when they needed to be replaced
  • Wireless internet: No cat5 in our kitchen

Armed with the use cases, non-functional requirements, internet access and a credit card, I went to work.


I started with the concept of a low-powered appliance, perhaps running Linux. The Mac Mini was suggested by some sites. After all, most of the use cases could be met with simple internet access. However, the low-powered machines were expensive relative to their utility. I wanted to retain some flexibility because the whole concept of the kitchen PC was evolving for us. In the end, I bought a new slim-case Vista PC with wireless keyboard for $500.

Next, I started looking through eBay and newegg for a cool touch screen. It turns out there are a bunch of these in the marketplace for retail point-of-sale applications. Although you can probably get a better deal on eBay, I opted for the 15” gVision monitor from NewEgg. It had great reviews and I added a positive one of my own. The support is provided by phone and the guys handled my two dumb questions (How do I vesa mount? How do I connect via USB?) promptly.

An under cabinet swivel mount from Sanus (pictured below left) provided a nice way to keep the touch screen off of the counter. I like the 110 degree rotation it provides and the appearance of the mount, but the cables do get tangled up when it’s turned from lock to lock.

Finally, a cheap handheld scanner from eBay (dangling in picture on the right) arrived from Hong Kong and made a cheerful chirp when I plugged it in. It started scanning groceries a few seconds later.


It’s all about the web applications. Thank goodness for some cool sites out there that offer good functionality at no cost other than a few advertisements. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Grocist: I keep this as one of the home page tabs on the browser. Touch the screen, touch the tab, scan the grocery item and voila! It’s on the shopping list. What’s more, it generates an RSS feed that can be read on the Blackberry or on the portal page.
  • Tada List: This is a nice web app that creates “to do” lists. It, too, generates RSS.
  • Craigslist: My wife just started paddleboarding borrowing a friend’s board. I created an RSS feed for local paddleboards and popped it on the portal page. We bought a nice epoxy board at a fair price a couple of days after the ad was posted.
  • Yelp: A great tool to get reviews of local businesses that you want to try out.
  • On Screen Keyboard: Vista has a little app called osk.exe that provides an easy way to get to on the touch screen without pulling out the wireless keyboard.
  • My Yahoo!: I’ve been a Yahoo! user for years and I use their portal page to get access to headline news, entertainment news, e-mail, calendar and RSS feeds. It looks like the photo below