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Mini-PC offers Chrome OS, modular design
May 25, 2011

Xi3 Corp. announced the first desktop PC based on Google's Chrome OS, based closely on its Linux-ready Xi3 Modular Computer mini-PC. The ChromiumPC offers a modular design, including a swappable processor board with a single- or dual-core x86 processor, as well as two upgradable I/O boards.

Earlier this month, Google unveiled the first two notebook computers -- called "Chromebooks" -- based on its web-oriented open source Linux operating system, Chrome OS. 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.

Xi3's ChromiumPC

At the time, Google also flashed a photo of a "Samsung Chromebox" desktop PC running 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 and pre-sales starting in July.

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

Both computers are touted for a modular design that enables consumers to easily swap out modules to upgrade I/O, processor, and even 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 Xi3 Modular Computer

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 offers 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 processor board also appears to be similar to that of the Xi3 Modular Computer. 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 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 boards inside Xi3's Modular Computer

It appears that the ChromiumPC will offer I/O that is also fairly 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 (or should that be "side"?) 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.

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.

All these I/O details may change somewhat in the ChromiumPC. It will be interesting to see how the Xi3 Chrome OS experience will differ from that of the new Chromebooks, both of which followed strict guidelines from Google and lack the Modular Computer's external SATA connections.

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 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.

According to Xi3, its Modular Computer uses a design protected by six different U.S. patents, three of which were only recently issued. The patents are said to have been licensed to Xi3 by the holding company Isys Technologies, which has been working on the computer's design since at least 2008.

The computer is not currently available with an open design framework. However, the company says that "We also have partners beginning to develop their own proprietary I/O Modules as well."

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 Xi3.

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."


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 Xi3.

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.

In other Chrome OS related "news," TheStreet speculates that a Google-branded smartphone equipped with Chrome OS will be introduced by Google in 2012. The story offers no firm basis for the report, however.

-- Eric Brown

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