On paper, the modular desktop PC seems like a dream come true.
Companies like Acer, which recently announced its Revo modular computer, promise to make PC component upgrades as easy as snapping together a few Lego bricks. The idea is that anyone should be able to customize their own desktop rig without the usual tangle of wires, finicky connectors, and exposed circuit boards. You may recall Razer making similar promises a couple years ago with Project Christine, a modular PC that didn’t get beyond the concept stage. And of course there’s the recently released Micro Lego Computer and its accessories, all of which literally look like Lego blocks.
While these announcements always elicit oohs and aahs from the tech press, in reality they just don’t make a lot of sense. Without a concerted, industry-wide effort to make the modular PC a reality, you’d be wise to steer clear of the concept. Here’s why:
1. Upgrades aren’t guaranteed
The promise of a modular system is that you can easily add new components or update existing ones, but that assumes new components will actually be available a few years down the road, when you get around to needing them. You don’t see Acer making any sort of promises in that regard with the Revo Build, and a major reason Razer abandoned its modular PC was due to resistance from component vendors, who wanted guaranteed margins and sales projections before they started making any custom modules.
It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem. There’s no way your favorite graphics card maker would guarantee a lifetime of modular upgrades for a system that could easily be a commercial flop, and your average risk-averse PC maker isn’t going to make sales promises it can’t keep.
2. You lose buying power
Hypothetically, let’s say Acer does manage to get some vendors on board, promising at least five years’ worth of modules from various graphics card, CPU, and storage vendors. Unless each component type has support from at least a few vendors, buying this machine would essentially lock you into an ecosystem where there’s little to no competition. Combined with the use of specialized modules that likely cost more than a typical PC part, and you’d almost certainly be paying higher—maybe much higher—prices.
You’d also end up with fewer options overall. Want a specific graphics card from Nvidia? You’d better hope there’s a module for it—assuming Nvidia even supports the system in the first place.
3. The PC maker decides what you can swap
If you build your own PC, everything is replaceable, from the power supply to the wireless chip to the motherboard. That’s not necessarily the case with a modular design, which may bundle certain components together for simplicity’s sake. The Acer Revo Build is a case inpoint, with its motherboard, CPU, and RAM built into the base unit. Replacing any of those components individually will take a lot more work—if it’s even possible. Swapping motherboards would be an especially huge hassle, because OEM copies of Windows are typically bound to a single motherboard.
4. Your ability to repurpose old parts is hampered
One nice thing about building your own PC is how easily you can reuse old components. A spare hard drive could make its way to your next rig, while an old graphics card and CPU could form the heart of a new living room PC.
Repurposing proprietary modules could be a lot more difficult unless you happen to own another machine that uses the same modular system. Otherwise, you’d have to crack open each module to free the components inside. That could be a huge hassle if vendors don’t use standard screws or rely on adhesive to keep their designs slim and snug. And again, there’s no guarantee you’d be able to reuse components from a modular PC in a standard PC anyway.
5. Tweaking your own PC is kind of enjoyable
This is sort of a geeky point, but there’s something to be said for opening up a desktop PC and replacing the components yourself. Swapping a hard drive or adding a DVD player is not terribly difficult, and even building an entirely new PC is more intimidating than it is challenging.
Once you’ve done it, you’ll get the confidence to replace parts at will, without the risk of lock-in, higher prices, and reduced choice that modular machines could introduce. You can even decide what the computer looks like, for better or worse.
Where modularity makes sense
In fairness to Acer, for now the Revo Build is only aimed at emerging markets, where the goal is to sell people a basic affordable PC and let them add new pieces when they can. The idea at least comes from the right place, though it may still do more harm than good if the components are more expensive than they would be otherwise. (Acer still isn’t talking prices for the modules.)
For modular PCs to really make sense, the entire PC industry would have to band together for some sort of standard, or at least a broader platform that lots of vendors can tap into. In theory, PC vendors such as Acer, Lenovo, and HP would offer the base stations, and they’d all work with the same modules from a variety of component makers.
This sort of collaboration would eliminate many of the issues described above, from ecosystem lock-in to transferability of modules between different machines. If such as system became the norm for desktops, you could then be confident about the availability of upgrades five or ten years down the road. Unfortunately, one-off attempts like the Acer Revo Build do little to nudge the industry in that direction.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.