ISYS launches the Xi3 modular computer

Who, what, why?

FROM TIME TO time there’s a technology company that you’ve never heard of that surprises with a product that you just can’t understand that no-one’s come up with already. We’re not sure if ISYS falls in this category as yet, but its Xi3 modular computer sure made us interested, as we’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Somehow this unknown company has managed to pack in what is more or less a desktop PC into a cube that measures a mere 4×3.66×3.66 inches (102x93x93mm) and they’ve even managed to make it look attractive. But the design in itself isn’t what makes the Xi3 so special, as judging by the company’s website, the design is more of an afterthought based on what is a very clever internal design, unlike any PC we’ve ever seen.

There’s no motherboard as such, instead the Xi3 is using three separate modules, one for the CPU which is also the baseboard onto which the other two modules connect. The same module that houses the CPU is also home, at least for the time being, to the northbridge, as well as up to 4GB of onboard memory (current models ship with 2GB) and 128MB of side-port memory. By now you’ve most likely figured out two things, one, the Xi3 isn’t using the latest technology and two, it’s based on AMD hardware. The Xi3 comes with three CPU options, an 8W single core AMD Athlon 64 2000+ which is clocked at a mere 1GHz, an AMD Athlon X2 3400 which is a 22W part clocked at 1.8GHz and finally an AMD Athlon X2 4200+ which is clocked at 2.2GHz with a TDP of 35W.

The chipset of choice is the tried and tested 780E chipset (E for embedded) combined with the basic SB710 southbridge. The Xi3 is also stuck using DDR2 memory, as there’s no support for DDR3 in these slightly older processors. We’re not exactly looking at a performance monster of a machine, but that wasn’t really what’s expected either, considering its size. To be honest, at first glance we thought the Xi3 was yet another Atom system, but alas, it’s a fair bit more powerful than that. Hopefully we’ll see models based on more recent generations of AMD hardware such as Fusion, or even Intel’s various processors in the future, especially as this would help save up PCB space and allow for DDR3 memory to be used.

As the current design is using a southbridge, this is located on what ends up being the lower of the two modules that slots in to the CPU board. Xi3 refers to this as the “backplane” although this doesn’t quite seem like the correct term in our opinion. Nonetheless, the so called backplane houses six USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA ports, three audio jacks and a special Xi3 port or Xi3p for short. The Xi3p offers a selection of interfaces which according the specs consists of a further USB 2.0 port, a third SATA interface and an external x1 PCI Express interface. Confusingly this port is also referred to as the Xm3dia port, but it’s not clear as to what it will be used for. There pictures also show a single internal USB 2.0 port, although the specs mention two internal USB 2.0 ports.

The third and final module houses the power regulation circuitry, the Gigabit Ethernet port, a DisplayPort, a dual-link DVI port, the power connector and the power and reset buttons. Two displays can be connected at once and Xi3 claims a maximum resolution of 2560×1600, although we’re not sure if this applies per port or only for a single display due to the use of an integrated graphics solution. Both the DVI port (via an HDMI adapter) and DisplayPort are said to be able to deliver audio as well as a display signal.

As there’s no space internally for a hard drive, the Xi3 will be booting from an internal “Linux SSD” connected via USB according to the spec, or what is referred to as Vista quick boot which we’re not quite sure what it is. There are a fair few glaring omissions like the spec sheet that makes us stop and think about the Xi3 after our initial amazement by this tiny little cube PC. For example, there’s no mention of how the CPU is being cooled, although it’s clear from the pictures that there’s an air intake on both sides of the system and there’s a mention of a fan connector in the specs. A nice touch is that Xi3 is available with an optional mounting bracket that allows it to be fitted to a VESA mount and it also looks like it’ll be available in a selection of colours, although our own Editor was a bit upset that it doesn’t seem to be available in Hello Kitty Pink as yet.

The idea behind the modular design is that you should be able to swap out the modules as and when it’s needed. However, basing your brand new modular system on two generations old hardware doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in terms of future upgradeability options, especially when both AMD and Intel have decided to ditch the two chip chipset design for all of their future platforms. With a bit of re-engineering the Xi3 could be quite interesting, but as it’s stands it’s technologically too far behind to have any kind of appeal outside of some vertical markets where embedded type solutions are being used.

On top of all of that, the Xi3 is set to hit retail at a very steep $849. The company’s President and CEO, Jason A. Sullivan added a memorable quote in the press release stating that “We reject the concept that computers should have a useful life of only two to four years,” and continued “Instead we believe that computers should be upgradeable and updateable over and over and over again, and that’s how we’ve designed the Xi3 Modular Computer, making it (potentially) the last computer you ever need to buy.” Well, it’s not the last computer we’re ever going to buy, at least not for that kind of money.S|A

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