The Hive's Amplicity is a modular, smartphone-sized PC with a graphics card dock

Imagine slipping your entire work computer into a pocket, taking it home, then plugging it into a black cube that could give it a little extra gaming oomph with a separate GPU. That’s what The Hive promises, with its new Amplicity modular computer.

Amplicity is something unlike you’ve probably ever seen before: An orange, self-contained slab of metal that can stand alone like a smooshed Intel NUC. It will launch in the spring. But an upgraded black version, available in mid-2015, will connect via PCI Express to a discrete GPU in a dock. 

And even how The Hive sells its PC is unique. The base model (known as Amplicity Anywhere) will be sold as a $99 subscription, with a term of six months. At the end of the period, you’ll have the option of keeping it, returning it, or trading it in for an upgraded model, if one’s available. The upgraded model, however, is more conventional: you’ll be able to buy it outright for $399.

“I may not have the power to do 4K video at work, but I can take it home, plug it in, and with the power of the discrete graphics, I can do 4K across these monitors,” said Justin Nishiki, who is actually the senior director of products for a separate company, Fuhu. (Both Fuhu and The Hive were cofounded by John Hui, who also cofounded eMachines.)

The Hive Amplicity docking stations Mark Hachman

Amplicity modules will dock in these large slabs of plastic. Note the expansion ports in the center.

Both the Amplicity and Amplicity Anywhere modules share some common hardware: 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB or flash storage. Amplicity Anywhere also includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. But the cheaper Anywhere product includes an Intel Atom chipset (either the Z3745 or Z3795, 64-bit “Bay Trail” Atom chips), while the black $299 Amplicity module includes an Intel Core M.

The Hive showed off Amplicity running in several contexts: in a home office, in an editing studio, as a gaming machine, and as a kiosk-like device in an airport or mall. Nishiki said that Amplicity would like to work with partners to develop branded lines of monitors, hardware, and even furniture. 

Functional, but not quite finished

Although both Amplicity modules are functional, the two black docking stations the company showed appear to be not quite finalized, and executives wouldn’t comment on what GPU were used within them. They differ in length, with one long enough to suggest that it houses a full-length graphics card, and the shorter model possibly hiding a lower-power mobile GPU.

The Hive Amplicity retail Mark Hachman

The Hive plans to work with retailers and others to put Amplicity modules and workstations in different locations.

The Hive executives also noted that the Amplicity Anywhere module will also ship with a full terabyte of cloud storage, allowing subscribers to access their files even after their subscription ends. Both modules will also include specialized graphics software that will come preinstalled, perhaps from companies like Adobe—the basic Anywhere module will include the basic versions of those packages, while the $399 upgrade will include the professional installations. Naturally, graphic designers are going to need to know that Amplicity packs some serious graphics horsepower before they commit.

The Amplicity modules—about the size of a Galaxy Note 3 smartphone, though much thicker—slid easily in and out of their docking stations when we tried them. But what happens if they slip out of a pocket, on a subway or bus? Unfortunately, unlike a smartphone, there are no location services to track it down, executives said. But it is a Windows machine, so it will require a password to log on and use.

Why this matters: Some might argue that smartphones are today's modern computers, and that laptops and tablets can step in and serve as true mobile solutions. But there's an ambition of design here that I haven't seen in some time. It's hard to believe that The Hive is going to change the world overnight. Even if this year's CES didn't seem determined to sell you sensors that can track your every sniff and gurgle, a modular computer like the The Hive's Amplicity would stand out. It's just this year, it feels even fresher.

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