Intel has shown off a new dual-slot PCIe card which the chipmaker has dubbed as 'The Element,' though the official product name is still up in the air. The Element houses its own processor, memory, storage, and other interfaces, such as Thunderbolt 3, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and USB ports.
The Element comes out of Intel's Systems Product Group, the same folks behind the NUC (Next Unit of Computing) and NUC Compute Element. As reported by AnandTech, Intel demoed a working prototype of The Element at an event held in London yesterday. The Element resides inside a dual-slot enclosure with unknown dimensions that resemble a graphics card.
Intel developed The Element to slide into a backplane with PCIe slots where it can mingle with other graphics cards or accelerators. The general idea is that you can upgrade your system by hot-swapping out a single module rather than removing a bunch of components. Unfortunately, Intel's concept still has you removing the SSD yourself.
The Element prototype employs an unidentified Intel BGA Xeon processor and has two SO-DIMM LPDDR4 memory slots and M.2 slots, which are user-accessible. Some onboard controllers take care of wireless networking, display, and connectivity duties. The rear panel exposes two Ethernet ports, four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and an HDMI port that draws its output from the Xeon chip's integrated graphics. A single cooling fan provides The Element with active cooling. We're looking at a proof of concept design, so the final product will likely vary greatly from the prototype.
The Element would communicate with the backplane through a standard PCIe x16 interface. It probably adheres to the PCIe 3.0 standard, but Intel didn't confirm it. The chipmaker did admit that it has established a roadmap for The Element. Therefore, it's safe to assume that the device could eventually transition to the newer PCIe 4.0 interface, or even PCIe 5.0 in future generations.
In terms of power consumption, the Element can draw up to 225W in total (75W from the PCIe slot and 150W from the 8-pin PCIe power connector). However, it's important to highlight that 225W is distributed between the processor, memory, and storage devices. Depending on the configuration, there might not be enough leftover power for the processor, which could seriously limit the number of processor options on The Element. Luckily, the device is still in the prototype phase, so there's still enough time and room for improvements to the design.
Intel doesn't think partners can produce The Element on their own. Therefore, there won't be any AIB (add-in board) partners for The Element, so don't expect to see any aftermarket models with extravagant designs or crazy RGB lighting. Essentially, The Element is aimed at OEMs for them to use inside their pre-built systems. Nonetheless, Intel will allow OEMs to play with the design and create their own backplanes.
Surprising as it may seem, The Element is positioned in the same category of the NUC, meaning there's a chance the device will make its way to the consumer market. However, we're a bit skeptical that the device finds itself outside the professional market, considering that it would probably have an eye-watering price tag. This is enterprise-grade technology, after all.
Intel is optimistic that it will get The Element, or whatever the chipmaker decides to call it, to OEMs in the first quarter of 2020. There is no word on pricing or available configurations yet.