Will Your Next Computer be Made of Lego Blocks?

Category: Hardware

Have personal computers gotten boring? How about a snap-together, modular, Lego-style computer? Just pick the components that suit your needs, and snap them into place -- no tools or special skills required. At least three vendors are offering modular PCs. Here's how they work...

Modular Computers (The Lego PC?)

The personal computer market is in desperate shape. Only 281.6 million PCs will ship this year, down 8.7% from 2014, predicts research firm IDC. Next year will see further declines, and hope for a mild recovery in 2017 is tentative.

Part of the problem is a long-standing lack of innovation in PCs. There just hasn’t been anything new to get consumers excited in the past three years or more. So OEMs are trying to generate enthusiasm with all-in-one desktops, 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrids, and now... the “modular computer.”

A modular computer seals each of a desktop PC’s major components into its own slick package. The CPU and motherboard go into a base unit; a hard drive goes into another unit; an audio circuit board and speakers go into another, optional unit; and so on. Instead of struggling with barebones parts, hex-head screws, bay rails, and color-coded cables with mystifying connectors, you can just snap units together to build any PC you want. It’s as easy as Legos.

Lego Modular Computer

In fact, there is a Micro Lego Computer available from TotalGeekdom. The base unit’s footprint is only 5x5 inches and it stands just 4 inches high. It houses either a 1.6GHz Intel Core i3 or 2.1 GHz Core i5 quad-core CPU; a 120 GB SSD; WiFi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort and mini HDMI connectivity.

The $600 i3 model comes with 4 GB of RAM and Intel HD 5500 integrated graphic, while the $730 i5 model provides 8 GB of RAM and a more powerful HD 6000 graphics kit. Both models include a quiet Noctua fan and high-efficiency power supply. For $880, you can have a 3.1 GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, and Intel Iris 6100 integrated graphics. You can also order a custom-built system with various CPU, graphic, and RAM options.

Currently, only two add-ons are available. One is an external USB 3.0 drive (blue in the image below); the SSD version can be up to 2 TB, while the HDD model goes only to 1 TB. The card reader and USB 3.0 Hub add-on (red in the image) provides reading/writing of 15 memory card formats, and 3 USB 3.0 ports in addition to the 4 included in the base unit.

Good Looks *and* Brains?

X7A Modular PC I love the concept. But for me the problem is that it looks like a 9-year-old's Lego project. Fortunately there are some other modular PC offerings that sport a more elegant look.

Xi3 Corp. makes sleek, tiny computers that are modular internally. Essentially, the motherboard has been chopped into three boards. The Processor Board holds the CPU and RAM. The Primary I/O board holds SSD storage and most of the external ports. The Secondary I/O board handles power, video management, and Internet connectivity. Each board can be swapped out for another with upgraded or functionally different capabilities.

The X7A Modular Computer is a sculpted cube about 4.25 inches on each side. Packed into it are an AMD Trinity processor (up to 3.2 GHz); Radeon HD 7660G GPU; 8 GB of RAM; SSD storage ranging from 64 GB to 1 TB; 2 – Mini–DisplayPorts; 1 – HDMI/DisplayPort combo; 4 – eSATAp–III ports; 4 – USB 3.0 ports; 4 – USB 2.0 ports; and 1 GB Ethernet port.

The X7A consumes only 30 watts of electricity. It’s small enough to mount on the back of a monitor, or to toss into a briefcase or backpack. But don't lose it -- prices start at $839.

Acer announced a modular computer system at IFA 2015, Europe’s biggest consumer electronics show. The Acer Revo Build system looks like it will be more at home in the average living room than the Lego or Xi3 designs.

The base unit contains an Intel Pentium or Celeron CPU incorporated in the new power-saving Skylake chipset; 32 GB of SSD; and 8 GB of RAM. Additional modules stack on top of the base unit, connecting via magnetically aligned pogo pins.

One of the add-on modules will be a GPU block that provides high-performance graphics for gaming. A hard drive block will contain 500 GB or 1 TB of storage. Another block will add speakers and a microphone. A wireless charger is planned as the cap of the five-tier system.

The Acer Revo Build will start shipping to Europe in October, with a base unit price of €249 ($276 USD). Acer has not announced a U. S. release date or price.

Modular PCs cost a bit more than their traditional cousins, but for some the extra cost may be offset by the flexibility of upgrades or the ability to snap together a custom-built computer.

Would you buy a modular PC? Why or why not? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Will Your Next Computer be Made of Lego Blocks?"

Posted by:

08 Sep 2015

I have a modular computer. It's called a "Desktop." Pick a case (aka "box") CPU & Motherboard, power supply, storage device of your choice, optional disk burner, keyboard, mouse, display, etc.
If you don't want to put it together yourself, there are many that will do it for you - some even for free.

Posted by:

Greg Fontenot
08 Sep 2015

I would buy one for the convenience of adding extra USB ports, DVD drives or whatever new storage hardware is invented in the future.

Posted by:

Mike Cunningham
08 Sep 2015

Thanks again Bob for a very interesting article

Posted by:

08 Sep 2015

I'd like to see a module for either a surge suppressor or a UPS.

It would be nice if they were "stackable," in layers so that the unit just gets a little taller with each slim layer, with a sleek look.

If you could add multiple "internal" hard drives (not USB), there could be an external switch to select the drive you want to boot from. There could even be a remote switch to make it easier to select the boot drive. That way, the same computer could either be a Windows or Linux system at your choice, without having both operating systems on the same hard drive.

Also, a switch setting to turn off unused drives would be handy to reduce wear and tear, and prevent corruption of a drive.

And of course backup drive modules would come in handy.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2015

I've been buying the components and assembling (or having assembled) my computers for the last 10 years or so. I can get higher quality components and better performance for less money than brand name computers with similar specifications through careful shopping for the components. Some were based on components recommended by Bob in his articles. They typically worked out well.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2015

@Jack, I like your thinking. I would add one more thing: A shock-dampening cage (or similar), for the inevitable times when it's gonna get dropped.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2015

I read an article recently that stated that the first google server was housed in a lego case.

Lego is a very underused component of modern life. I only discovered this recently when I needed to make a caddy to hold securely a water bottle, pills container and oral dosing syringe for my wife who is disabled and needs secure compartments that are easily accessible.

I discovered a quite large underground AFOL (Adult Fans Of Lego). The colours are not just the white and red of my youth but many hues and tints, including variations of purple loved by wives.

Yes I like the idea of modular computers, but, no I think my next 'project' will be a lego cased beauty.

Just think of it - fans where needed and no fans where they are not - being able to 'compensate' for the shape of drives without buying another case - adding extras by just building an 'extension'.

Doesn't it sound like the fun we used to have?

Posted by:

Mike Schropp (Totalgeek)
08 Sep 2015

Thanks for the post about my Micro Lego Computer! Appreciate it. It was primarily built for those that just needed a basic computer, but wanted something different looking than just the standard metal box.

Since I wanted to add easy expandability, as well lower the price for those that just needed the base system, I designed the system to be modular in respect to adding future modules to expand the system further.

I've had a lot of interest of course from Lego fans, but also a surprising amount of young kids that are not very familiar with desktop computing and more interested because of the alternative system design and Lego case. It's been interesting to see, but eye opening when you think about the sheer number of kids that really are not at all familiar with desktop computers, as they were born into an age of tablets and smartphones.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2015

Thumbs up to bb... seems that all my Dell PC's for at least the past decade have been essentially modular... I chose the parts and underpaid Dell employees assembled it!
Hopefully we are all satisfied, in not happy!

Posted by:

Mark Smith
08 Sep 2015

Modular is an idea that has been around for awhile. Convergent CTOS NGEN workstations back in the 80's provided a networked system that was not based on a main frame and could be customized for each user.

Posted by:

Hans L. Dragsnes
09 Sep 2015

We are currently planning to acquire 1-3 laptops.
Currently we are using Dell HDD 1000 gb
Memory 8 gb
We may change from HDD to SSD with relevant storage capacity. Will Acer Revo Build be competitive with price speed and storage capacity?
What about power consumption and durability.
It seems that there is no monitor but the displacement appears to be high. What is the displacement of a cube (PC) like this?

Posted by:

10 Sep 2015

I think Acer has definitely found the next "desktop" configuration. I expect we'll go through a period where each brand wants to build their own proprietary system that will only accept their add-ons. The first manufacturer to publish a well-thought-out set of standards for aftermarket suppliers to follow can be the next IBM. That is when prices will drop into the really affordable range.

Posted by:

Frank Valliant
11 Sep 2015

As Mark Smith pointed out, Convergent Technologies CTOS was used thruout the USCG in the 1980/90 era. The modules were called "slices". They measured roughly 10 inches deep by 10 inches high. The width was dependent on the contents of the slice. They latched together horizontally, and I've seen systems that were almost three feet wide. Add, subtract, or replace modules as required; power supply, hard drive, floppy drive, modem, tape drive, etc. Below is a Wikipedia link for a picture of a set of six basic modules, with monitor and keyboard. The operating manuals always exceeded the width of the completed system!

Posted by:

15 Sep 2015

Why can't they build a laptop where the hard drive snaps in and out as easily as the battery?

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