Every year at CES (and other large tradeshows such as Mobile World Congress and Computex), certain trends emerge. Increasingly at CES, those trends include throngs of quirky or gadgety tech such as smart-everythings (even faucets and beds) or Bluetooth speakers (so, so many Bluetooth speakers), but one that stuck out me this year was modularity.
Computing, In Pieces
The most obvious modular trend is coming in the form of external GPU docks. MSI and Alienware had external GPU docks last year, but the idea is catching on. Asus has one now, and so does Razer, and actually, MSI kind of has another one. We’re eager to test these out for ourselves in a comprehensive way, both practically (day-to-day) and with benchmarks, but the concept is attractive: You can have a svelte and light but powerful laptop to carry around for work or play, but when you need extra graphical horsepower, you can sit down at your desk and connect to a beefy GPU. As a side benefit, you can plug in all your desktop peripherals (including extra storage) to the GPU dock, which makes for a nice and tidy desktop setup.
Lenovo is taking a similar approach with its ThinkPad X1 Tablet. It’s a 2-in-1, which is a type of PC that is inherently modular because the keyboard can be detached, but Lenovo took that concept a leap further. In addition to an optional stylus, the company developed three modules that bring specific extra capabilities such as a projector or an Intel RealSense camera. Lenovo didn’t say that it was making more modules, but we imagine that it will, as requests from its customers start rolling in.
Both Asus and Gigabyte showed off gaming keyboards that have removable numpad/macro key pads that you can place on the left of the main keyboard for an extra bank of macro keys (or on the right for, uhh, accounting?).
Thought of a certain way, smartphone docks like the still-in-development model for the Acer Liquid Jade Primo and the Microsoft Display Dock for the new flagship Lumia phones are modular. The docks give you flexibility and also create more value and use cases for smartphones. You don’t need the docks, but they’re available if you want them.
You could even think of the burgeoning VR market as an inherently modular one. Even if you buy one of the marquee HMDs like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive Pre, those devices are technically peripherals. You still need a PC and hand controllers (although those should be included with the HMDs when they come to market), and there are more and more exciting add-ons coming, such as the 3DRudder and the Virtuix Omni treadmill. (In the case of the latter, you still need another controller like the rifle we used in our demo, to get the full effect).
You don’t need a VR treadmill or a foot controller or a rifle controller to get the full effect of VR -- necessarily -- but some people will want those things for some of their VR experiences. Peripherals for your peripherals.
An Era Of Shifting Needs
Where is this modularity trend coming from? I believe that partly, we’re seeing some of this as a way for companies to overcome the commoditization of too many products, but also, as we’ve seen from the shifting form factor trend, people’s computing needs are becoming more specific.
There’s a burdensome weight to the increasing sea of sameness. We see this in smartphones, gaming laptops, peripherals (increasingly), motherboards and even many lower-end VR HMDs -- these “Google Cardboard plus” devices that are proliferating.
We need fresh ideas. Look no further than the RGB trend. Sure, fancy lighting is cool (really cool), but we’ve seen things come to market that turn out to be a previously-existing product, but with lights. Meh.
Really, the market increasingly demands the flexibility that modularity provides. Someone that wants to game at the highest settings in 4K does not necessarily need the same PC as the guy who wants a killer rig for recording music and running complex audio software in real time. The daily game streamer needs something different than the video producer. And so on, and so on.
CyberpowerPC is taking a whack at the issue with its ProStreamer line, which is essentially two PCs with different dedicated purposes crammed into one chassis.
Thinking of mobile computing, one of the executives at Purch Media (Tom’s Hardware’s parent company) that we saw at CES noted that with a dock and a phone like Acer’s Liquid Jade Primo setup, he wouldn’t have needed to bring his laptop to Las Vegas at all. Contrast that with what I (and many other journalists covering these tradeshows) need: I could really use a secondary display for my laptop as I write, fact check, and edit photos and video. Asus showed us a portable display (basically a USB Type-C version of this) that would be an ideal add-on for my hotel room productivity setup.
Again, that’s modularity at its finest. I’d have a laptop, a second display, massive external storage for scratch disks, mouse, and so on. That exec, using a smartphone/dock, a wireless keyboard/touchpad and any TV or monitor, would have an eminently portable, lightweight productivity solution. Different needs, different solutions.
How far might this go? Perhaps we could see something happen in the motherboard market, which is an area in which companies are struggling to differentiate themselves. What if you could select not just your motherboard, but the components present on the motherboard? You could choose how many and what type of PCIe slots or storage connections, for example, or swap out standard heatsinks for slick aftermarket solutions. A motherboard maker could start with a standard board design and let users configure them extensively. (Just a thought, motherboard makers.)
In hindsight, I realize that this has been coming for a while. Project Ara and Puzzlephone have been harbingers of a modular smartphone for some time, and of course there are the aforementioned GPU docks from a year ago. The 2-in-1 trend was a big marker, too, and new markets like VR/AR are introducing new problems that multiple products are solving in multiple ways.
Keep an eye out in the coming months and years for further innovations in the way of modularity.