What is a Modular Computer and Why You Should Own One

  • Comments: 12
  • Written on: October 1st, 2006

Since 2001 a lot of computer designs have come and gone at Schrock. The one consistent design feature between all of our PC designs has been their Modular construction. Despite these design principals being the cornerstone of our computer hardware business, our customer service surveys consistently show that many of our customers do not know what makes a computer a Modular PC. Since more computers are purchased October-December than any other time of year, I think it is important to explain what a Modular computer really is, and how it is different than most mass-manufactured PCs on the market right now.

I preface my remarks by acknowledging the fact that there will always be some percentage of computer users who prefer a national brand PC regardless of any other contributing factors. These consumers believe that owning a computer assembled by a national company offers a greater degree of quality over a computer manufactured locally or regionally. Their opinions are as valid as anyone else’s opinions, and nothing that I can write here will change their minds.

With that said, the Modular concept I introduced to my staff in 2001 is a simple one. My staff and I set out to design a computer that maximized upgrade opportunities, minimized costs, and only used standardized components in its construction.

At the time, Compaq and Dell were vying for the title of #1 computer manufacturer in the nation, and both were designing and manufacturing computers that were only intended to be in use for two or three years. If the computer was still functioning after the expected life cycle, within another year it would be rendered obsolete by Moore’s Law. Consumers were being carefully guided into a 3-year purchase cycle that pulled at least $1,000 out of their wallets with each purchase. We wanted to find a better way.

The Three Pillars of the Modular PC

Pillar #1 – Maximise Upgrade Opportunities

In the world of mass-manufacturing, saving a few cents per unit can quickly accumulate in to a much more attractive bottom line. Given this truth, any for-profit PC company that mass manufactures computers would save money anywhere possible to boost their investors’ return on investment. As competitors like Dell entered the marketplace with new cost-cutting tactics, the engineers sharpened their blades and trimmed any feature that was redundant or unnecessary to the original system designs.

The result of these efforts was a continual reduction in the price of mass-manufactured computers. However, these gains do not come without consequence. Consumer began to realize that the small size and poor air circulation in the customized casings coupled with the lack of surplus PCI slots, Memory banks, AGP ports, and drive bays made upgrading difficult, if not impossible in some cases. In addition, use of passive air cooling systems, odd shaped power supplies, and black-label motherboards gave the mass-manufacturers a greater degree of price control over the sale of replacement components. The bottom line was that every few years you would have to come back and buy a new PC because upgrading was ineffective, too expensive, or not possible.

As we started to design our first Modular PC, the challenges became apparent. If we used the components that would be necessary to open up upgrade options again, our PCs would be $50-$100 more expensive than those offered in the big box stores. In effect, we were attempting to undo the efforts of the very engineers who had been working so hard to cut PC prices on the national playing field. After some debate we decided to move forward despite the price difference. We believed that if people understood the long-term savings the Modular design would offer, they would be willing to endure a slight up-front “Modular premium.”

We elected to use motherboards with integrated video like most national companies did, however we insisted that the computer have the proper ports on the motherboard that would accommodate a greater video card is the user should ever decide to upgrade. We also made certain that there were always additional memory slots, PCI slots, drive bays, and drive interfaces so that we could retrofit almost any combination of features our customers might want in the future. We also made certain that our cases and internal components were high quality, brand name components of a standardized design. As new technology emerged such as 64-bit CPUs, SATA (Serial ATA) hard drives, RAID (redundant arrays of hard drives), DVD-RW drives, and multiple core processors we have adapted out Modular designs to incorporate the capability to utilize such features.

The challenge in designing a Modular PC is to build a computer that offers today’s technology at today’s prices, while also holding the door open to the promise of tomorrow. This is the final question that each Modular PC must answer before it is released to our customers.

Pillar #2- Minimize the Price of the Modular PC

Although we knew that a Modular PC would never be less expensive than a mass-marketed computer, we needed to minimize the price difference. That meant that each Modular design we created had to be targeted to the largest possible audience – the home and small business user. With that audience in mind, we started looking for ways to reduce the production costs of our Modular PCs.

The first place we looked for price concessions was to our suppliers. We negotiated price breaks for orders as small as five units – an unheard of quantity discount in the PC technology industry. We also worked to develop relationships with local hardware wholesalers to reduce shipping costs. While this seemed like a logical idea on paper, it was more difficult to execute in reality. Almost all computer components are assembled overseas. That means they come to America on boats. Nebraska is equidistant from both coasts, so buying heavy items such as CRT monitors from local retailers made sense because they could spread the enormous shipping costs over more units. However, the local wholesalers’ prices on smaller items like computer memory was often much higher than wholesalers on the coasts. In time, we were able to develop a supplier network that was custom tailored to meet our needs.

Next, we carefully selected the components that went into each Modular computer. There are literally dozens of suppliers for any one component that goes into a PC. The features and benefits can vary greatly between product lines, so there was a lot of trial and error as we tried to maximize the performance, fault tolerance, redundancy, and availability of each component that would go into our Modular design

Last, we attempted to streamline our own internal procedures to minimize the amount of labor that went into constructing and programming a Modular PC. These efforts are still ongoing today as our new software development division designs software tools to automate many mundane tasks. We also have become resident experts in using Microsoft’s System Builder software. Not only was this required to comply with Microsoft licensing guidelines, it allowed us a greater degree in customization of the Windows operating system that we had enjoyed in the past.

Pillar #3 – Use only Standardized Components

If I had a nickel for every phone call and email I get about some great new PC product that will cut the costs of a Modular PC, I would not be writing this blog right now. There are some simple, straight forward ground rules about component selections for Modular PCs. First, the component must be available widely in the open marketplace. If only one company manufacturers a component, whoever used their components is completely beholden to changes in the strategy and product lines. In addition, when more than a few companies make the same component it creates competition and that drives down price.

Second, we were keenly aware that if we offered a PC that would be easy to upgrade, we would probably be called on to upgrade it at a later date. So in the back of our minds everything from the milling of the sheet metal of a case to the wattage of a power supply was important. In fact, one model of Modular PC that we built in 2001 was equipped with a CPU fan that would have been capable of cooling an Athlon 64 processor a full three years before they even existed. If we said it would be easier and less expensive to upgrade than buy new, it had better be or our credibility would be short-lived.

Over the years some have dismissed our Modular concept as little more than a design gimmick. While I would strongly argue against these naysayers, others have said that our Modular systems are no different from any other custom-built computer. In the most naked sense I suppose that could be true. If someone sat down and spent over 35 hours of research, 4 weeks of bench development, and 2 weeks of additional refinement they could probably build a computer just as Modular as ours. But our target market of home and small business users don’t have the time or money for that, and our efforts provide them with a viable product option that is unique in the marketplace.

Before you purchase your next computer, give some thought to the valuable benefits a Modular PC offers. It is possible to have the best of today’s technology while keeping an eye on tomorrow. It is possible with a Modular PC.

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