OPINION Computing Editor Michael Passingham likes the idea of Project Avalon, but the realities of computing mean it faces an uphill struggle
On the opening day of Computex, Asus unveiled Project Avalon, imagining a future of modular PCs where cable tangles, uncertainties about component sizes and unexplained hand bleeding are no more.
Asus is not the first to imagine this, of course. Razer tried it with the oil-cooled concept Project Christine (below) in 2014, and we’ve not heard a peep about it since.
In 2015, Acer pitched in with the Acer Revo Build. A slightly different concept, but with its release date intended to be the end of 2015, a total absence of available modules and no sign of it on store shelves five months into 2016, one has to wonder where it’s got to.
In late-2015, Microsoft patented a very similar stackable computer idea including a screen, although this is just a patent so the fact we’ve seen nothing of it is not exactly unexpected.
The double-sided motherboard with a PCI-E connector and riser at the rear
In 2016, Asus is trying again, and it’s the most compelling (and realistic-looking) idea yet. The basic concept is a set of standard parts and connectors for a desktop PC.
These include attachments for power supplies, removable SSD trays and a two-sided motherboard that comes pre-installed in your PC case. To switch out a piece of hardware, you just slot it out and put another one in.
A couple of I/O modules
It’s all cable-less (aside from pesky graphics cards, which need cumbersome PCI-E power cables) and it means you can build a fairly compact and easily-upgradable PC or, more sensibly, sell a pre-built PC with the promise of future upgrades. For example, maybe you want to add Wi-Fi to your motherboard, or add a new port? Just replace the I/O block at the rear with a new one.
Problem is, desktop PCs are already modular. That’s what the motherboard is for. Your PC case has holes for all these things. That's why PCs are so great. Already. See where I'm going with this?
Granted, cables are a faff and some of the ports are bafflingly stupid and hard to connect, and trying to work out where you put your magnetic mini screwdriver is annoying, but the inevitable extra costs of creating components specifically for an Avalon case will make this a hard ask for enthusiast PC builders. Other cases already do this
What’s more, adding connectivity and other bits and pieces isn’t as simple a few years down the line: a new type of data transfer standard might exist in the future (think a new SATA or M.2), but because the motherboard baked into your Avalon system is inflexible, you’ll have to buy an entirely new one and go through the muddle of fitting it anyway. And don’t get me started on processors.
That Avalon PCs will be more expensive than regular ones is an assumption, but a safe one, I think. And, for enthusiasts, that will be the decider. Perhaps Asus hopes to lure in people who would otherwise buy a console instead, but I'm even less convinced by that.
Disagree? Tell us in the comments.