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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  • LB-ID - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    NetFRAME pioneered this approach with their servers back in the early 90's, so it's not a new idea by any stretch. Still all in all an awesome concept that I hope can be made workable and affordable. Reply
  • RoninX - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    I'd like to see an open standard for a PCI-E backplane with CPU/chipset boards that can be easily replaced.

    Right now, it's easy to upgrade a GPU in a desktop, but a total pain-in-the-ass to upgrade the CPU and motherboard.

    At the same time, while I love Razer's products and design, I'm not entirely comfortable with having to rely on a single vendor for proprietary modules when building or upgrading a PC.
    Reply
  • CaedenV - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    A few things I noticed:
    1) There is a CPU/RAM module in the pictures, so it is likely replaceable, but you would not be able to upgrade the RAM separate from the CPU. Possibly an issue there... but if these things are coming with 16-32GB of ram then I don't see it being a big deal.
    2) If the motherboard is in the CPU/RAM module, then most likely an upgrade of this unit would also upgrade the motherboard/chipset/PCIe Revision/Etc. If the front and rear IO ports for USB/TB are actuial PCIe cards and not mere risers, then it means that the motherboard/chipset could be heavily paired down and simplified... but it would also mean that it would make for some expensive IO modules.
    3) On the website there are some pictures clearly showing a reservoir in the PSU unit, meaning that this is probably where the pump could be living as well. If the PSU is liquid cooled as well then there would be no particular need for a fan anywhere in the system.
    4) While I have not built one (yet!) I have done quite a bit of research on doing a mineral oil PC, and it is a very different beast compared to other forms of water cooling. To start with, it distributes heat very easily throughout the fluid, which means that it does not need a whole lot of fluid movement to transfer heat from the source to the radiator. Secondly, because mineral oil is non-conductive, it allows for much more flexible radiator designs. Typically the surface area of the container (traditionally a fish tank) is enough to dissipate the heat of a fairly powerful system. Metal is much better at heat transference than a plastic/plexi fish tank... and there is a lot of surface area in the design of this unit... so I would wager that the entire rig becomes the radiator with no need at all for any fans in the system, and only minimal need for a pump to help with a little active heat removal from parts like the CPU and GPU units. Lastly, because of the heat spreading nature of mineral oil, the entire system runs at the same temperature. This means that if your GPUs are putting out a bunch of heat, then the whole system will reach peak temperatures. But with metalic modules, and so much surface area, it would probably never get more than mildly warm to the touch. Maybe 35-40*c?
    5) The control module is the really interesting bit to me. Is this merely a fancy interface for the BIOS/UEFI on the CPU module? Or does the Bios/UEFI live separate from the motherboard? Either would be interesting, and it looks amazing!

    The whole thing looks pretty amazing. Probably too expensive for me to get even if it ever does come out, but still a very neat idea that I would be interested to see come into reality.
    Reply
  • CaedenV - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    Another possibility, which I cannot quite tell from the pictures, is that the custom ports on the front of the device could be very different from the ports on the back of the device. This could allow the ports for the front facing pods to be passthroughs for things like motherboard IO and SATA ports, while the rear facing pods would be pure PCIe. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 24, 2014 - link

    The front ports don't provide as much power, but it's not clear what sort of PCIe interface goes to the front vs. back -- they all look the same, so probably physical PCIe x16 but with different lane allocations. This is one of the questions we couldn't get an answer to (yet). Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, January 24, 2014 - link

    The CPU is probably mounted onto a COM Express module. If so then its not really a modular system. It's just a typical pc with a "somewhat" external gpu and an undoubtedly outrageous price tag. Reply
  • Aries1470 - Sunday, January 26, 2014 - link

    Ok, her goes my observation and comments and ramblings etc.
    It looks like the tower has front and rear entry points.
    From top to bottom we have:
    Handle.
    Empty <-> BD RE
    GPU 01 <-> CTRL
    GPU 02 <-> 2 in 1 connected with CTRL
    GPU 03 <-> SSD 01
    CPU RAM <-> SSD 02
    Empty <-> FRONT IO
    REAR IO <-> AUDIO
    PSU / WATER COOLING With a level indicator Full / Empty
    There seem to be 2 liquid connectors, of which one would be an entry, and the other the exit point. Then some proprietary connectors.
    Option to select operating system. Touch screen selection?

    Now having looked at the pictures, it does look like it is still in the prototype stage, since personally I would not like the square connector, especially if it was to tip over/ get knocked over by a pet or someone, the connectors would probably bend.

    Personally, I would have chosen an optical bus, and there are a couple out there already, but for convenience, it could be the Intel / Apple lightning bus instead of the copper version, or have PCIe or riser, maybe with a proprietary connector for the ‘block’, and external SATA for HDD/SSD drives, as that would lower cost. Have assigned locations for each type of block, or some interchangeable ones too. If the video cards are to be in SLI etc, then there could be a flap and connector available at the rear with a flexi-cable connector.

    Now, since the width is around 6 in, this is from the 1st image that houses the 5 ¼ in BD drive bay, there can easily be a housing that would have 4 – 2 ½ in drives in it for raid etc.

    Each module, contains its own mineral oil, so when the system is powered down, it can be removed or added, without affecting the rest of the system. I think this is already the case.

    As for adding more memory to a system, that can be easily addressed, with a slide in locking mechanism, that also contains a smaller connector for the mineral oil and snaps in to place. So the memory issue is the easiest ;-) plus it can be at any location needed, and it would make the CPU / RAM module look cool too. The benefit is to this approach, that only tested and approved modules can be sold, that have been tested for the motherboards, and can have a notch / connector slightly different so they can not be used on the wrong type of board.

    Any way, I have made a comment elsewhere, so I might include my “slogans” here too :-) :
    Aries1470 - Sunday, January 26, 2014 - link
    I guess, just saying...
    "This is for your average Tom, Dick & Harry, you can now add a new HDD / SSD, have your contents AUTOMATICALLY copied over with our auto detect software, an then remove your old drive and return it to us, 'without ever using a screw driver'(TM). Do you want to replace your graphics? Simple, our modules come with an 'Auto driver update detect'(tm), as soon as you plug it in, our system receives the driver from the module and automatically updates it the next time you connect to the "net". (internet is optional).".

    I can go on.... ;-)"
    Reply
  • bestguyever - Wednesday, February 05, 2014 - link

    You guys can bash it all you want it doesn't change the fact that this is much more innovative than the new Mac Pro. If Jonathon Ive created this everyone would be saying how innovative it is and how only Apple could create such a unique design. I think it's a great idea that will never make it to market because razor doesn't have the money, marketing or millions of brainless fans that see it as their duty to buy whatever they make. Reply

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