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MMOWare - Modular Computers

Posted Sat, Jan 11, 2014 by Xerin

Project Christine

Modular computing is a funny idea and Razer seems to be moving to the forefront. Computers… in a sense are modular. However, Razer is introducing one of the easiest to upgrade systems ever invented. You buy the base station and fill it full of modules containing your favorite parts. Want more ram? Slide the ram module out, insert a new one, and your upgrade is done.

The Razer Christine is going to be the second big push for modular computing and the first real push for something that can actually make sense. We’re going to go into some real detail about modular computing, so we’re going to break this discussion down into several parts.

Current Computer Updatability

For current PCs, they are easily upgraded with a screwdriver and the ability to steel yourself against the fear of breaking them. You remove the side of the case that allows you access to your PC then unscrew the part that needs to be replaced, remove it, and slide the new part in. For each part, there is a different method. For instance, the power supply generally has four screws and must be disconnected from all components. Then you slide it or pull it out, replace it, rescrew it in, and then reattach the power cables.

My Computer

My computer. Took an hour to build but that's with years of building my own systems..

For RAM, there is generally two levels, one on each end of the RAM. You push them out and the RAM pops up. You then push the RAM down into the slot and the levers lock the RAM into place. CPUs require removing the heat sink (which can be attached in a multitude of ways, but the default way depends on the CPU slot), lifting up the lever locking a CPU down, removing the CPU and replace it, making sure thermal paste is down, and then reversing the steps.

If you didn’t understand any of this, then that is why you generally don’t take your computer apart and try to upgrade any of the parts. There is a two way mentality with this. You can either pay some insane price for computer technicians to perform an upgrade to your PC or just buy a pre-built complete PC.

This creates a few problems - first it’s very waste friendly. Computers are huge with a ton of parts in them and create a ton of waste. If you just chunk your computer out then well, that’s a lot of waste. I’m not an eco lord who can cast magic environment facts at will, but there is enough of a problem with our McSandwich wrappers that we don’t need giant computer cases landing in landfills day in and day out.

The next is price. A lot of people have to suffer with their current PC builds because they can’t afford to pay someone to slide in a new video card for them. Likewise, they can’t afford a whole new computer. Leaving them with no true affordable option for upgrading their PC without doing it themselves. Which, I mean seriously, if you don’t know what you’re doing and you can’t afford someone else to upgrade your PC for you, then you’re kind of probably don’t want to risk breaking the thing.

Enter the X5A

X5A

The first “modular computer” solution that’s been mainstream recently is Xi3’s line of really small really powerful really inexpensive computers that are fully modular and “future proof.” After tons of research, I’ve come to the conclusion that Xi3’s line of “modular computers” are more proof of concept gimmicks then an actual modular solution. I can not find any current i/o or processor board upgrades for sale and you will have to rely fully on Xi3 to support your future processor board sales because it’s a propriety design to fit their form factor.

So it’s not really a solution, in my opinion, although I will give them a giant thumbs up for building really small really powerful computers.

“Modular” Cases

A big misconception is that “modular” cases make a computer “modular” but the reality is “modular” cases are another gimmick to try and give the computer builder access and ability but instead just gunk up the case and make it difficult.

Antec Lanboy

The real solution is, in the end, at least right now “modular cases.” I feel like if a case manufacturer designer a case where if you inserted a motherboard, screwed it down, attached the power cables through that modules wires, and then slid it into the system, we could have easily upgraded modular computer. Especially if it was standardized. We’ll get a little bit more into this in a minute.

Razer Christine

We’re finally here, to talk about Razer’s new product. First, I want to say I think it’s a great idea, but it’s going to run into two huge problems and by huge I mean, the same problems that most of Razer’s neat ideas fall into. The biggest problem is going to be price. Razer’s cool ideas cost so much money that they aren’t feasible for us normal peons of the world.

The Razer Edge is $1,000 and the Pro is $1,300. Razer Blade is $2,000 while the Pro version is $2,500. Hilariously enough, these are their best sellers on their store. Just to like… highlight what this is like, most Louis Vuitton bags are sub $2,000 for the handbags you see rich people walking around with. A lot of used cars can fall below $2,000 on craigslist. It’s a ton of money… for something that already exists, but has a little bit of a neat idea attached to it.

So, I’m sure the Christine and its modules will come in at a very high price point. Meaning that, at the end of the day, the modular computer from Razer will be another gimmick for rich gamers to place in their home much like fine art.

Project Christine

There is the second issue, as well, which is upgrades. I’m sure Razer will produce upgrades for some time, but again it’s a proprietary system. The idea is that you can forever keep shoving new modules into the base station and keep forever upgrading it, but the big issue here is that we’re not at a modular computer standard.

So Razer will be the decider over what upgrades you do and don’t get on your PC. Unless other manufacturers decide to make their own upgrades for you. Which is possible, but I’m sure the modules will be sold directly through Razer.

Universal Standard

This is where we talk about what we should do with modular computing. We need an ISO standard for a form factor for a base station and the modules that insert into it. We then need two options - case manufacturers who produce modules that you can insert parts into yourself and component manufacturers who sell their components pre-packaged into modules.

These standards and this setup already exists and it’s probably almost more used than PCs… they are called server racks. You purchase a rack, then you insert the motherboard rack. Then the storage racks. Then whatever other components you need (load balancers, etc.) and voila. You have your server built. There are pre-built server cabinets, but for most applications people use racks and insert the equipment they need.

A PC should be something similar, in my honest opinion. We should be able to install a motherboard / CPU component, storage component, memory component, video card component into easy to use slide rails, snap it in, and be done. Phone systems of olden times used a system similar to this. You could remove trunk cards and install new ones as you pleased, greatly expanding the capacity of the phone system.

We currently live within a few form factors, primarily ATX and micro-ATX. These form factors dictate the size, shape, and build of our computers and the standards are necessary to make sure no one creates a proprietary part to lock you into their network of parts. The Christine will do this, because you will have to rely on Razer for their parts or have super technical skill to take the parts apart and self service them (however this will be difficult, as each component is water cooled and built to very specific specifications).

Ending Thoughts

I like the Razer Christine like I like my art, something I look at but don’t touch. It’s a great idea and for those with big wallets will make for an awesome computer, but it’s not going to revolutionize the way computers work. For that we need new ISO standards, new open source modular computing designs, and probably some crowdfunding and big business backing.

Until then, I will dream of a world where it takes 3 seconds to upgrade a computer and we can cut out the super pricey middle man for getting someone to install a video card for you.


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