Mini-PC offers Chrome OS, modular design

Xi3 Corp. announced plans to ship the first desktop PC based on Google’s Chrome OS, based closely on the new, Linux-ready 4.0 x 3.66 x 3.66-inch Xi3 Modular Computer. The ChromiumPC offers a modular design, featuring a swappable processor board with a single- or dual-core x86 processor, as well as two separate, upgradable I/O boards.

Earlier this month, Google unveiled the first two notebook computers — called “Chromebooks” — based on its web-oriented, Linux-based Chrome OS operating system. The 12.1-inch Samsung Chromebook Series 5 and the 11.6-inch Acer Chromebook — both of which run on dual-core 1.66GHz Intel Atom N570 processors — are expected to reach market in June.

At the time, Google also flashed a photo of a “Samsung Chromebox” desktop PC running on the open source Chrome OS, but offered no timetable for the device. Now, Xi3 has announced a rival desktop computer that is likely to beat it to market, with availability slated for the second half of the year.

The ChromiumPC — which has received no official endorsement from Google — is based closely on the Xi3 Modular Computer announced with Linux and Windows support in November. Apparently shipping now, the system will be upgradable later this year in a new 5 Series version with updated I/O modules that have been changed based on customer feedback, according to Xi3.

Both computers are touted for a modular design that enables consumers to easily swap out modules to upgrade I/O, processor, memory, and even the operating system. Although the ChromiumPC ships with Chrome OS, both systems are said to be upgradable to support Windows 7, SUSE Linux, Unix, or other open source operating systems.

The ChromiumPC uses the same 4.0 x 3.66 x 3.66-inch aluminum chassis and three-board, modular design as the as the current model, says Xi3. It also provides the same typical power consumption of 20 Watts, says the company. The computer will be available in multiple colors, including a chrome-plated chassis.

The ChromiumPC will be powered by a dual- or single-core 64-bit, x86-based processor, says the company. This also describes the Xi3 Modular Computer, which offers a single-core 1GHz AMD Athlon 64, or dual-core, 1.8GHz or 2.2GHz Athlon X2 processors. The Xi3 Modular Computer is said to use AMD’s 780E northbridge and SB710 southbridge, with the latter mounted on a separate board from the processor so as to ease I/O upgrades.

The processor board is further equipped with between 1GB and 4GB of RAM, as well as an 8-16GB solid state drive (SSD) of unstated capacity, and optional external hard disk drives (HDDs). Keyboards and displays are also said to be optional.

The ChromiumPC will also likely be similar to that of the Modular Computer. While Xi3 did not supply details, the company says the primary I/O module typically houses the majority of the external communications ports, and the secondary I/O module offers “Ethernet, video, and power connections.”

As described in our previous coverage, the original Xi3 Modular Computer features a dual-link DVI-I port that is said (with the aid of external adapters) to support HDMI, DVI, or DisplayPort displays. Xi3 says the Modular Computer has six USB 2.0 ports with Type A connectors, along with two eSATA connectors. The device’s rear panel also includes a gigabit Ethernet port and 3.5mm audio jacks (headphones, mic in, and line in), according to the company.

The interconnect between the Modular Computer’s boards carries PCI Express signals, among others. The device is said to offer both a “Xi3 port” and an “Xm3dia” port. According to Xi3, the Xi3 port supports external PCI Express, two SATA ports, and a USB 2.0 port. The Xm3dia port, meanwhile, provides access to an expansion bus that also carries USB signals, as well as other unstated functionality. All these I/O details may change somewhat in the ChromiumPC.

Since November, the company has announced a “Z3RO” USB hub module that lets users extend Modular Computer processing services to up to three additional workstations.

The Modular Computer is not currently available with an open design framework. However, Xi3 says that “We also have partners beginning to develop their own proprietary I/O Modules as well.” According to Xi3, its Modular Computer uses a design protected by six different U.S. patents, licensed to Xi3 by the holding company Isys Technologies. The computer was named by the Consumer Electronics Association as an Innovations Award Winner in the Computer Hardware category for the 2011 International CES trade show, according to the company.

The full Chrome OS experience?

It will be interesting to see how the Xi3 Chrome OS experience will differ from that of the new Acer and Samsung Chromebooks, both of which followed strict guidelines from Google. The Chromebooks lack the Modular Computer’s external SATA connections — also per Google guildelines.

One of Chrome OS’ key advantages — or disadvantages, depending on one’s point of view — is that it does not run native apps, but depends entirely on web-based applications. Since Chrome OS is an open source operating system, all these web services would presumably be open to all compatible devices. However, it is unclear whether this compatibility will extend seamlessly to Google-powered, cloud-based updates and security features, for example.

Stated Jason A. Sullivan, president and CEO of Xi3 Corp, “Although we’ve been promoting, discussing and working on modular computers for some time, we feel the market is now ready for a desktop computer with a cloud-based operating system like the one offered by Google. In fact, we expect that over time we’ll see many operating systems that are wire-bound and require the computer to be connected to the Internet to run, and we will likely support these new operating systems as well.”

Availability

The ChromiumPC will be available for pre-sale on July 4, with availability later this year, says Xi3. More details about the general availability of the Xi3 Modular Computer 5 Series model will be available before July 4, says the company. New I/O modules for both computers will be available this summer, and later this year new versions of the Xi3 Modular Computer that run other operating systems will also be announced, says the company.

The current version of the Xi3 Modular Computer is available with SUSE Linux starting at $849 or Windows 7 starting at $998. More information, plus links to online sales, may be found at the Xi3 Modular Computer site.

Source: Xi3