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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  • Rocket321 - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    I agree that this is a bit of a silly idea, but if there is one thing needed in the PC space it's innovation. I hope Razer keeps dreaming up crazy ideas and gets some motivation behind other companies as well. Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    Something like this DID come "eventually" ---in the 1980s and 1990s. That's what a bog standard tower PC is.
    You may also have noticed that they are being outsold 100 to 1 by phones, tablets, laptops, even iMac clones. Which tells you something about the urgency of the "problem" that modularity is solving.
    Reply
  • An00bis - Saturday, February 01, 2014 - link

    It's like saying matchstick boxes outsell modern cars 1000 to 1, well of course they do dumbass. Something that costs less, breaks more easily and is worn as a fashion accessory will get replaced faster than something that just works and doesn't need upgrades. Modern PCs have been so powerful since 2010 or so that there's no reason for most people to upgrade. I have a sandy bridge i5 and if I were to buy a modern cpu, I'd barely get like 10-20% more performance in a few specialized programs. Phones on the other hand, are cheaper, and receive performance/OS/spec upgrades every other month. It's clear to see why phones outsell PCs and this has been the norm since cellphones appeared.

    what are you going to say now? you'll start saying with a smirk that the sun is bright and that hitting your head on the walls gives you a boo-boo? thank you captain obvious, you always come to the rescue.
    Reply
  • fokka - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    i had really hoped that we'd get depper insights here at anandtech, but it seems razor just isn't providing enough information for this.

    i think we can all agree that this seems like an intriguing concept and looks quite stunning at the very least. also it won't be a cheap solution and given the rumours that only razor will sell parts for it is another big problem.

    on the hardware architecture itself, unless razor implements some genius design-solutions, there will be a boatload of difficulcies and restrictions inherent to a build like christine.

    things like upgrading ram could be solved rather easily, there just needed to be a door on the main module, where cpu/chipset are included. handling with ordinary ram-dimms would defeat the razors concept a bit, though, but they could just encase them in slim black/green metal sticks, akin to fuel cells one might know from sci-fi movies, or videogames. not a big problem.

    but upgrading the cpu is a whole nother scenario, since you'd probably have to exchange the whole chipset/mainboard-module including this part.

    that's also why i don't think razer will offer amd-based solutions, at least not for quite a while. it's difficult/complicated enough with intel only, i imagine, so i don't think they're very eager to include processors from the underdog of the cpu-sector. unless amd pays good money, that is, but i doubt that.

    another thing i'm not sure how they will solve it is cooling. ok, it's cool (no pun) they want to use oil as a heat conductor/disperser, but where will the oil be cooled? is the surface of the whole rig enough to cool down a 500-1000+w machine? without fans? i could imagine they can pull it off with vertical modules and a very ripped surface, but that thing would look like a radiator then.

    the next point might be more nitpick, than problem, but i'd find it to be overkill, to add a whole module, just to add another ssd/hdd. i think, at least with ssds, they should still offer a module, where you can plug in 2-4 2,5" drives of your own choice, instead of wasting space for each individual drive.

    also, adding a cheap part like a hdd in its own module, maybe even oil cooled (to help with the heat load of the whole system) seems mighty exaggerated. this would easily make a 200$-upgrade out of what you could have for sub-100$ on a normal machine.
    but somehow i ghave ot the impression that a low price is the last thing razor wants to adress with this concept.

    the last point i came up with regards recycling old/broken parts. i guess razor would have to offer a free service where they'd take back the modules, recycle the oil, refurbish case and maybe even the electronics and then resell them somehow. this seems to be rather effortful, but just throwing away those nicely built aluminum-modules filled with oil and electronics would be an irresponsible waste.

    something else i wanted to add (no, i'm not finished, yet!): in the article jarred mentions additional pcie-lanes. i think a build like christine is predestined for ivy bridge/haswell-e and triple/quad-sli. hell, maybe they even bring a xeon-based model, just for the hell of it.
    if they "only" went with ordinary consumer class hardware, lanes really could be used up quite fast and afaik a plx controller can only help with "redistribution" of lanes, not offering more lanes/bandwidth (to the cpu).
    pcie4 could further help with this limitation, but it will be a while until we see pcie4-hardware.

    this would be all, i think.
    Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Saturday, January 25, 2014 - link

    I would disagree...this thing looks hideous, stupid, expensive, impractical, and worthless in the market. Reply
  • Aries1470 - Sunday, January 26, 2014 - link

    They said the same thing about the car ;-) Reply
  • andrewaggb - Monday, January 27, 2014 - link

    yeah I think it's ugly and relatively pointless. Desktops are already upgradeable. Unless this works substantially differently, I suspect it will have many of the same problems. Reply
  • justaviking - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    It's a CONCEPT, not a product. Nobody said it was practical today.

    Look at automotive "concept vehicles." Gull wing doors, six wheels, a desk and a fridge, holographic displays...

    Look at "runway fashion." Victoria's Secret "angel wings," or a dress that drags 12 feet behind you, or a suit with shoulders you could place your nick-knacks on...

    Things like this are meant to attract attention, demonstrate ideas, brand your company, inspire your customers, employees, and investors, and maybe, just maybe, evolve into an actual product someday (which may or may not look much like the initial prototype).

    I think it's a cool idea. It seems to me having a fiber optic backbone would be a good way to provide the bandwidth between sections, but that silicon-to-fiber interface is still tricky. And would you have to buy the "internals" of the modules from Razer, already packaged in the module? (Probably, which means no more shopping a Newegg or TigerDirect.) Practical? I don't think so. But a cool concept? Oh yeah.
    Reply
  • fokka - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    you're right, it's just that in the computer sector those concepts and prototypes seem to be more grounded in reality, than futuristic car concepts and of course those ridiculous contraptions they're wearing at fashion shows.

    so i think it's reasonable to expect razor to bring this concept to market sometime in 2014, early 2015 which isn't all that far in the future. and that's why people like me publicly comment on the concept and verbalize their hopes and doubts about it.
    but that is a good thing, because who knows, maybe razor hears some of the feedback, even from lowly commenters and forum users, and is able to adapt and fine tune the rig to better appeal to the future customer.
    Reply
  • Murloc - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    The price will never be worth it since anyone who's able to choose a cpu/gpu/ram/hard disk configuration for himself has enough ability (and probably interest) to assembly the PC himself. If not, you can pay $100 for someone or the shop to do it for you and test it as well, which is much less pricey than whatever pricey cooling system component goes to waste every time you change a piece in this modular PC. Reply

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