It’s my last CES post (finally, I know), but I saved one of the more innovative ideas for the end. Coming courtesy of Razer, Project Christine ran away from CES with numerous awards and accolades. There were other items on display at Razer as well – like the “Nabu” wearable fitness band/smartwatch – but most of the products have already been launched so I won’t dwell on them. And as for Nabu, the idea isn’t bad but the early models shown at CES felt a bit too bulky/uncomfortable to me. The big news in my book was the modular PC, so let’s take a closer look at what Razer has created.

First, it’s important to note that the two Christine prototypes shown at CES are apparently not functional (or at least, no longer functional after shipping?), which is unfortunate as we would have loved to see a more real-world demonstration. Anyway, the idea is that you have this modular case (tower/column) where you can plug in GPUs, HDDs/SSDs, and other devices that come in self-contained modules. Need a faster GPU? No longer do you open up your PC and unscrew the old GPU and then install the new GPU; instead, you simply pop out the old module and add a new one – or in the case of CrossFire and SLI systems, you could simply plug in a second (or third?) GPU. Or perhaps you need more storage; simply pop in another SSD module and away you go.

Take one look at the Christine prototype and you might start to wonder about cooling. Instead of air-cooling or even liquid-cooling, Razer is apparently using a non-conductive mineral oil that circulates through all of the modules (or at least the modules that need cooling I suppose), with as I understand it the parts being completely submerged in the oil. Presumably along with the GPUs, Power Supply, Storage, and other devices, one of the modules will likely need to be a pump + radiator. Again, it would have been great to see the PC actually running, but perhaps it’s not at that stage yet – though Razer indicated that there’s at least one working prototype that’s currently being used by their CEO.

So far so good, but rerouting PCI Express lanes to custom ports isn’t really all that difficult (relatively speaking). Where things start to break down is when we get into the idea of adding more…let’s say “unusual”…parts. Swapping GPUs is easy enough, as we already do that with our “modular” desktop PCs. The same applies to storage devices as well as things that might plug into USB ports. But what happens if you want to upgrade your CPU or chipset? And what sort of RAM is supported and where is it located? RAM is usually in close proximity to the CPU, and one of the modules houses the CPU + RAM, so that solves that question (though it might make upgrading RAM a little difficult). But the location of the chipset wasn't disclosed (maybe it's in with the CPU and RAM?), and I suspect in the prototype upgrading the chipset/platform simply isn’t possible.

What would be really ground breaking would be a modular PC where you could easily swap any and all components. Maybe that’s something Razer is hoping to deliver in the future, but imagine having the center column contain a large PCI-E backplane that could be upgraded with various options. The default model might come with 24 or 32 PCI-E lanes, while higher end backplanes could boast 48, 72, or even 96 (or more!) lanes. Perhaps the chipset would need to be part of the backplane, or maybe not – certainly it would have to be something more than a stock chipset if it were going to support differing numbers of PCI-E lanes – or at the very least, it would have to have something like a PLX switch, which wouldn't actually doing anything for peak bandwidth. We could even have a design that could be upgraded to PCI-E 4.0 support in the future, and maybe something with the ability to transition between CPU platforms – so AMD, Intel, ARM, etc. That would take a lot of work and probably wouldn’t really receive much in the way of support from Intel, but it’s a nice dream.

Ultimately, it’s an idea we’d love to see flourish, but we’ll have to wait and see where Razer goes with it. We could draw a parallel with the automotive industry and their concept cars, where all sorts of cool/crazy ideas are shown but few of them ever reach the point of mass production. Right now, we have plenty of questions and Razer isn’t really providing much in the way of answers. How much would the modular PC cost – for the initial base unit as well as for the component upgrades? When will it be available (if ever)? What’s the cooling capacity? How much (if any) noise does it make? How reliable would such a device be long-term? What about durability for frequent upgraders (or if someone happens to accidentally knock it over – I mention this as someone with a few children running around the house; I like my big, sturdy box, thank you very much!)?

Even if the device may not be entirely practical, Razer has built a brand around somewhat niche products. Their peripherals have catered primarily to gamers since they first showed up, and the Razer Blade laptops are generally high quality designs if a bit expensive. The Project Christine prototypes felt pretty solid and it’s certainly an eye-catching design, though perhaps a bit too much so. If Razer brings in other partners or perhaps licenses the core elements, we might even end up with more traditional looking modular PCs that still provide an easier path to upgrades than our current devices. Now if we can just get something similar for laptops, I’ll be happy.

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  • lmcd - Friday, January 24, 2014 - link

    Well if you have a bunch of people with these, say take the sound card over to a friend's for a party?

    IDK what other situations even make close to sense with this.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Friday, January 24, 2014 - link

    Now that I think about it, with PCIe 3.0-based XF, AMD graphics cards in these would make a ton of sense for choosing where your power goes. Reply
  • Gigaplex - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    The point is to appeal to the "gamer crowd" who supposedly like the aesthetics. Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    http://www.anandtech.com/Gallery/Album/3364#1

    On the left side, fourth module down. That module says "CPU RAM" on it, which leads me to believe that you can replace it. If I had to guess, either the PCH is also in that module, or the whole system will be limited to specific components based upon the underlying tech in the base.
    Reply
  • pewterrock - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    I think he meant upgrade the CPU or RAM. You can only upgrade both, not one or the other. Reply
  • syxbit - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    If the price we reasonable, I'd definitely buy one.
    Say, a 20% markup on each component. But we all know they'll screw the pooch and overcharge, and it just won't sell well
    Reply
  • fokka - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    i completely agree with you. i would be honestly surprised if this thing comes with less than 100% markup. Reply
  • beginner99 - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    This things has no market. Most people don't care and just buy a new one after their 5+ year old turd becomes completely unusable. Others that care more are already served well with the current status. Nowadays it's not like you need to be a rocket scientist to add RAM or any kind of PCIe card. Before plug+play days this might have had case but not know. Reply
  • doc.ram - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    I saw some video where they told about monthly subscription. If you pay certain amount, they will send you the latest parts (which are swappable) whenever they are released & you will have to send the old part back to them. Reply
  • Gigaplex - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    "though Razer indicated that there’s at least on working prototype that’s currently being used by their CEO"

    To me, that's the most unbelievable claim they've made related to this project. Even if they had a working prototype, why would the CEO be the one doing the hands on testing? He's got better things to do with his time, and minions to do that for him.
    Reply

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