At CES 2014, Razer is showing off one of the craziest and most beautiful PCs ever imagined: A fully modular PC tower that is cooled with mineral oil. Each of the components, whether they’re graphics cards, hard drives, or RAM, is stored within a self-contained pod that can be switched out at any time. Each pod is sealed and contains two self-sealing ports that, when plugged into the system’s central spine, allow mineral oil to circulate and keep the components cool. Dubbed Project Christine, the modular PC is currently just a prototype, but if everything goes to plan Razer hopes to have a finalized version of Christine ready for CES 2015.
According to Razer’s CEO Min-Liang Tan, Project Christine is meant to bring build-your-own computing to the masses. Tan argues that one of the main perks of the PC is flexibility and upgradability, and yet due to the complexity of working inside a PC, the DIY thing has always been the reserve of enthusiasts. Project Christine hopes to change that. While it’s a nice idea, we’re pretty dubious about whether it’s actually technologically possible — and even if it is, we expect it will cost so much that only enthusiasts will be interested, anyway. (Read: Will the PC be replaced by the Apple iStack?)
At the moment, Christine is an incredibly high-concept prototype that, if it ever made it to reality, would probably only sell a few dozen units. Still, let’s discuss it anyway, because let’s be honest: It’s frickin’ awesome. Christine consists of a central spine containing the motherboard and mineral oil reservoir, and self-contained modules that plug into it. According to Razer, these modules can contain a CPU, GPU, hard drive, SSD, RAM, or power supply. Multiple-GPU configurations are supported (the prototype at CES 2014 is a triple-SLI setup). The motherboard, at least in Christine’s current setup, is not upgradeable. Integrated graphics are also available, if no GPU modules are plugged in. (See: Motorola and Google unveil upgradeable modular smartphone platform.)
On one end of each module is a proprietary connector, plus two self-sealing ports that allow mineral oil to circulate through the module, keeping the components cool. Tan says that everything is connected via PCIe 3.0, though that’s probably just marketingese. While it might theoretically be possible to connect the CPU and RAM to the motherboard via the PCIe bus, it would be a bad, bad idea due to high latency and low bandwidth. It’s possible that Razer has MacGyvered some kind of special, low-latency PCIe solution powered by a custom ASIC — but realistically, the CPU and RAM will probably just be connected using their normal buses, leaving PCIe for the storage and graphics modules.
Even if the CPU and RAM do use their own buses instead of PCIe, there are still a whole raft of problems with making them modular. In a normal PC, the CPU and RAM are socketed on the motherboard. The hundreds of traces (wires) that run between the CPU, RAM, and other controllers/bridges are very short. If you move the CPU or RAM off the motherboard, the wires would have to be very long — and that could introduce all sorts of timing and crosstalk issues. It’s possible that Razer have completely overengineered Christina and given her absolutely ludicrous internals. But it’s also possible that Christina, at least in her current incarnation, just isn’t viable.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s completely viable to have a PC with modular storage, PSU, and graphics cards. A plug-and-play oil cooling solution is completely genius, too. But unless Razer can pull off a rather miraculous feat of engineering, I just don’t see the modular design extending to the CPU and RAM. A better solution — and probably a cheaper solution — would be to have a “base module” that consists of the motherboard, RAM, and CPU that have been engineered to be easily replaced. It might not look quite as dramatic as the current Christine incarnation, but it would still be pretty darn cool. (Read: Oil cooling: Deep fried, or deep energy savings?)
Currently there’s no word on either a release date or expected MSRP of Project Christine, but spring 2015 and a price point of around $ 300 for a barebones system (just the central spine) sounds about right. Because Razer will probably be the only one who makes the modules (at least to start with), you are probably looking at a premium price of $ 2,000 or more for a top-end system. Significantly more than building your own PC, eh, Mr Razer CEO?