It’s hard to believe, but AMD’s Project Quantum nearly stole the show from the company’s big Fury X GPU reveal at the E3 gaming show this year. Sure, fast GPUs are a given from AMD, but a concept PC so exotic, so custom and so powerful? No one expected that.
Beyond teasing us with pictures and some engineering schematics, Project Quantum has been a deeply guarded secret, with access limited only to AMD employees.
Join us as we take the world’s first public look at Project Quantum outside the control of AMD. For this dissection, there were no nervous marketing or PR professionals looking over our shoulders as we took out our Leatherman. We had unfettered access, and we used it.
What you’re about to see
For this autopsy, AMD provided one of maybe a dozen Project Quantum prototype machines in existence. Ours was specifically Number 5. We were given free rein to mess with Number 5, with the sole stipulation that we had to put it back together. An off-the-shelf PC is no problem for this veteran of hundreds of PC builds, but the close-quartered Project Quantum would be a challenge.
Number 5 started its life traveling the world as a demo machine for AMD’s VR initiative. That’s not an easy life, and Number 5 suffered the fate most demo machines do after being manhandled in a dozen cities: It broke. Exactly how I don’t know, but AMD said Number 5 was dead, making it the perfect cadaver for my autopsy.
Why Project Quantum is special
Project Quantum is definitely small-form-factor, measuring 6.5 inches tall by 9.5 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep. A few things set apart from other tiny PCs i’ve seen up to now. The most striking feature is its outside-the-box design.
As a showcase for AMD’s new Fury X GPUs, any $75 PC case would have worked. Instead, AMD decided to rethink how you could liquid-cool an entire PC in a tiny package.
Attention to detail
One of the best examples of the nutty attention to detail on Project Quantum are the rubber feet. AMD could have used the little hockey-puck rubber feet I’ve seen used on everything from $200 budget PCs to $12,000 custom gaming rigs. Instead, the company made them triangular, using a design element from its corporate logo.
Steve Jobs would have liked these feet
Remember, these feet are on the bottom of the machine, and no one will ever see them. This brought to mind a story I’d heard about Steve Jobs: He argued with engineers about altering the trace routes of an early Apple PC, because he didn’t like how they looked. The engineers pushed back, saying no one would see the backside of the motherboard. Jobs said it didn’t matter because, like a master cabinetmaker, it’s not just about what people can see—it’s about having pride in the craftsmanship. You know, like making custom rubber feet that no one will ever see.
Still don’t recognize the triangle? If you peep at the next picture, you should. This logo, by the way, is laser-cut or milled into the bottom of the Project Quantum rig.
Made in ‘Murica
And if you think AMD just picked out the case from the catalog of some Taiwanese manufacturer, the company says no—it was an in-house effort. Check out the tiny print on the bottom: It was designed at AMD’s Austin, Texas, facility.
Read on…we’re going in deep.
Enough with the buildup, let’s get inside this rig. Project Quantum features two compartments. The top integrates a 180mm radiator, a pump, and a unique reservoir. A fan sucks in air through the open center section and pushes it up through the radiator and out the top. You can easily get inside by removing four screws at the corners.
An unconventional PC
While the radiator and pump appear off-the-shelf, the reservoir is built just for Project Quantum. In the past, having a small run of custom reservoirs would be too cost-prohibitive, but the 3D printer revolution has changed everything. This tank is clearly 3D-printed, as is much of the hosing.
Parts of the hose are rubber, but the main lines that carry the liquid between the top half and the bottom half are 3D-printed in hard plastic. I’m not sure why AMD didn’t just use conventional hosing, but I suspect the company was concerned the tubes would folding or crimp, cutting off the flow. But then, maybe it’s just because this is an unconventional PC.
A view of the backside
Flipping Project Quantum around to give you a better view: The LiquidVR logo is prominently displayed and reminds you of Project Quantum’s original purpose: to showcase AMD’s VR program. The round port on the lefthand side is where the power supply goes.
One way AMD saved space was to move the PSU outside of the case. This meant a lot of tricks internally, but an external power brick on a desktop case isn’t unheard of, nor a bad idea. It gets the heat from the PSU out of the system and lets AMD run a much larger unit. Unfortunately, AMD didn’t make the brick available for this autopsy, but from pictures I’ve seen of it, it’s very hefty and I suspect fairly high wattage.
One of the limiting factors on system performance in a small-form-factor gaming machine today is getting enough power to run all the hardware. Power supply maker Silverstone, for example, made a big deal earlier this year about its 700-watt PSU that fits into micro-towers.
While the radiator, pump, and reservoir are all located on top, the bottom holds all of the electronics. To get inside it’s just four Phillips-head screws, and off comes the aluminum panel. The bottom half and the middle are aluminum, while the top is molded plastic.
With the bottom panel removed, you can see every single square inch of Project Quantum is put to use. Yes, that’s an AMD Radeon SSD, which is a rebrand of an OCZ SSD. Why AMD got into the SSD business (and memory business too) I’ve yet to figure out.
On the bottom is a Fury X card. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much a stock Fiji XT card. I know, you were expecting a dual Fury X card, which AMD made a point of saying was inside Project Quantum at E3. I tried to get a dual-Fury X Project Quantum for this autopsy, but AMD wasn’t going to play.
Conspiracy theorists unite
I know that’ll inspire the tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists to say AMD never based any of the Project Quantum machines on a dual Fury X, and they faked the Apollo Moon landing too.
While I have nothing to contradict that theory, there are plenty of logical reasons why Number 5 isn’t a dual Fury X machine. The most obvious one is that AMD didn’t say all Project Quantum machines were dual Fury X-based. Even if only one Project Quantum were dual-GPU, that’d be enough. And because a dual card won’t ship for another few months, it’s unlikely AMD would leave its upcoming hotness outside its control.
There’s one other bit of evidence that led me to wonder whether this was the original GPU. The serial number of the system is 5, and several of the components were marked ‘5,’ too. But oddly, the Fury X in the machine above was marked ‘4.’ Maybe AMD just pulled out the dual card to keep it a secret longer?
Here’s an image Anandtech.com grabbed at Project Quantum’s E3 launch. The motherboard pictured here is roughly 9 inches long, but you can see the chips are closer together and it should fit, just barely, into the Project Quantum chassis.
Getting the Fury X out of the machine is surprisingly easy. I removed several screws and pulled the tensioner that held the card to the water block. Then I just flipped out the entire assembly, including the PCIe right-angle adapter. If you look closely at the GPU, you can see the ‘4’ written on it, which suggests it came from Project Quantum Number 4.
A lot of Coke cans died for this
The card interfaces with this massive aluminum water block. Like the case, it’s all custom. Water flows through this machined aluminum chunk to cool the GPU and, on the opposite side, the CPU. It’s actually a pretty clever take on liquid cooling. In most small-form-factor machines I’ve seen that come close to this in size, it’s either a liquid-cooled GPU or CPU, but not both.
By sandwiching the water block between both, AMD is able to cool both with minimal space and hoses. It is, however, still a massive chunk of aluminum. I was also surprised No. 5’s was aluminum. Videos AMD showed of Project Quantum machines previously had water blocks made of copper. which is a better thermal conductor but also more expensive, heavier, and harder to work with.
The water block seems to solve the dual-GPU mystery, though. Marked ‘5,’ this block is clearly designed for a single GPU. A dual-GPU version would require its own custom-designed water block. Again, conspiracy nuts, the only thing this proves is that Number 5 wasn’t a dual setup.
Here’s a view of the same water block from the other side. It’s a single unit that’s sandwiched by the CPU and the GPU. Cooled liquid from the radiator flows through channels milled out of the water block. These little legs mount to the motherboard itself.
Read on…was that an Intel CPU we just saw? Say it ain’t so!
That’s not true, that’s impossible!
Yes Luke, search your feelings, there is indeed an Intel CPU powering AMD’s Project Quantum. It’s specifically a Core i7-4790K “Devil’s Canyon” chip. A lot of AMD FX fan boys will be heart broken to see an Intel CPU inside instead of an AMD PC but there’s no real reason to despair. AMD officials have said from beginning they could have based it on an AMD CPU too. But in the here and now, AMD knows who is in charge and it’s not Charles from the sitcom show.
A specially modified motherboard
The motherboard is indeed off-the-shelf, but if you look at the pictures, it’s been heavily modified. For a point of reference, this image shows an unmodified Asrock Z97E-ITX/ac board. Note those silver blocks near the top.
The shot below shows all those silver blocks (of the rear I/O) removed, leaving just the gigabit port. AMD uses a short dongle that plugs into the ethernet port that goes to the back of the machine. Why? You probably didn’t realize it from looking at the picture of the back of the machine, but AMD actually mounted the motherboard backwards. The back of the board faces the front of the machine. The whole board is also inverted to make contact with the water block.
Here’s a look at the front of the motherboard. The Main Power Connector on the motherboard has been rotated 90 degrees and a small PicoPSU-style power adapter plugs into it.
This is not a DIY build
One thing I’ll say about Project Quantum is that it’s not an easy build by any stretch of the imagination. Just getting out the water block and motherboard was a serious pain. Every tightly packed cable I pulled represented rebuild time, time in my life i’d never get back. Project Quantum, at least in this state, presents best as a completed or nearly completed product.
I did get it back together, but not before sweating bullets. If AMD ever does manage to turn Project Quantum into a commercial product, I’m sure custom cable length cables will be used. Even then, I’d probably want to buy a Project Quantum, then build it from the ground up on my own.
One day, it might actually be sold
Project Quantum is indeed an incredible little PC. It ranks among one of the coolest I’ve seen in a small production run. Yes, I’ve seen modded PC’s that are even more amazing and certainly wired better but those are one-off machines. From nosing around Project Quantum, I can only conclude that AMD actually intends, or at least hopes, to market it.
I make that statement based on the simple fact that there’s no other logical reason for Project Quantum. AMD could have just jammed its new Fury X cards into off-the-shelf, small-form-factor case, or hired a modder to craft a few machines, and called it a day. Why burn engineering time and precious (and dwindling) resources to make it?
So if AMD is intent on making Project Quantum, the question is, what would it be used for? The company isn’t likely to sell directly to consumers. That would just anger PC OEMs, giving them another reason to run into Nvidia’s arms.
Where could AMD sell Project Quantum machines without angering OEMs, and who needs such a crazy-looking and compact water-cooled PC?
The answer: VR.
With VR positioned as a hot tech buzzword with billions at stake, AMD could potentially sell Project Quantum machines packaged up with the VR headset of choice. It could be a turnkey product for Hollywood, universities, and corporations. Project Quantum rigs could run small demo kiosks or even be used to build small VR “theaters.”
At least, that’s what I can conclude. Such a use wouldn’t offend its PC partners as much,and it’s a context where such a small, cool and powerful box would actually be called for.
Of course, I could be completely wrong. Maybe, just maybe, AMD wanted to spend tens of thousands of dollars and months of work to make a dozen Project Quantum rigs just because it’s friggin’ cool.