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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  • Aries1470 - Sunday, January 26, 2014 - link

    There are still many people out there, that prefer form over functionality, and prices to be higher than your average Joe can afford, so that they can have something different.

    Just saying. :)
  • DemBones79 - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    I'm more interested to know how- if at all- they solved the issue of Windows freaking out when you replace certain low-level components of the computer. I haven't tried doing this since Windows 7, but I know with older versions of Windows, if I had to replace the mainboard, it would no longer boot. Is this still an issue? That would really suck the appeal out of the system if replacing your CPU meant you had to reinstall the whole damned OS and applications.
  • Rocket321 - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    That's a very good point... The only thing I can think of would be to use a hyper visor - perhaps pre-installed on all the Razer HDD/SSD modules which would add a layer between the OS and hardware and would probably cause a performance hit. Either that or plan to reinstall your OS if you swap the mobo/cpu module.
  • fokka - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    if this problem still persists, i bet razor would just offer a registration service to conveniently reactivate windows. i don't think windows would do anything differently and i also doubt they would implement another another layer between win and razor-bios.
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    Win 7 and 8 are much cooler regarding motherboard exchanges. They will start up fine most of the time (especially if it is a direct update from one Intel chipset to another Intel one or the same with AMD). But you should always do a clean install, because while it will boot, it might not run stable or have unexpected results (low SATA/USB transfer rates for example).
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    It is a nice idea with many pratical hurdles. However, if they build up this infrastructure and especially the interconnects, they could be used in other form factors too. Like in some big box with large and quiet fans, using those modules without Razer's cases. For example attaching a few external GPUs in practical boxes to a more regular PC via these interconnects.
  • PEJUman - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    I see this slightly differently, IMHO Razer is thinking about turning into gaming version of apple. There are numerous boutique builders out there, but they are still less mainstream than apple, meaning there is a certain technical knowledge required to properly interact with them.

    Razer modules & subsriptions based system seems to point towards color coded / level based hardware.

    let's say that they have 2 main bases (custom motherboards: latchless memory connectors, latchless CPU, etc) one with Zx7 series another with Xx9 series chipset.
    label one tier 1 the other tier 2.

    then a customer with tier 1 subs will get tier 1 GPUs, tier 1 CPU - Mem, tier 1 cooling modules, etc.

    when a new GPU is released, everyone at tier 1 gets their updates, the old parts goes back and becomes tier 2 new modules.

    Since it's a subcription, it does not matter if the modules are new/used (think comcast), Razer will replace them free of charge if/when it breaks.

    then the final piece would be razer specific software that would install drivers, custom 3D profiles, etc. So all the games would be 'fire and forget' and the settings are properly optimized by Razer's engineers prior to the update release.

    I can see Razer market is as:
    Tier 1: 4K - 45 FPS gaming on all latest releases, new modules within 2 weeks of AMD/Nvidia launch.
    Tier 2: 1080p - 60 FPS gaming on all latest release, new modules within 6 weeks behind tier 1 launch.
    Tier 3: we just want your money, you can have this razer sticker... JK
  • nerd1 - Thursday, January 23, 2014 - link

    EVERY desktops are already modular and why do we need this at all?
  • 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.... ;-)
  • An00bis - Saturday, February 1, 2014 - link

    wow, that's so sexist, why did they only mention male names?

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