Often lumped in with a new computer's laundry list of green features, among such phrases as "Energy Star compliance," "ROHS compliance," and "power-saving technology," is the term "modularity." From a sustainability standpoint, it's an intriguing word, suggesting not only a high level of recyclability -- which is good for the environment -- but also the promise of upgradeability, which can be tantalizing to both friends of the earth and friends of the dollar.
Vendors have made strides in terms of designing machines to be easier to dismantle so that components can be reused and individual materials (different types of plastics and metals, for example) can be sorted and properly recycled. To a lesser degree, however, vendors are improving on the upgradeability front: designing machines in such a way that individual components can be easily swapped out and replaced, ideally without a costly, time-consuming visit from a technician.
Notably, the latter type of modularity isn't a particularly new noting, according to Paul Prince, director of core architecture and technologies at Dell: "It's been true for the last 15 years. People have said, 'Modularity will solve all these problems.' But when you look at what you can actually reuse and what you give up to reuse it, it ends up not always making sense. It's not going to take over the world. The idea of reuse where possible is a great thing."
One modularity feature that is common among servers but just arriving in desktop machines is tool-less design. As the name suggests, the PCs -- such as HP's Z Series workstations and Lenovo's ThinkStations -- are designed in such a way that an admin or end-user can open up the chassis with their bare hands and swap in new memory, storage, power supplies, motherboards, and other components. New pieces simply slide into place.
Easing the process, the interior of the systems are free of wires, while small levers and clips help a user determine what goes where. "If, by chance, you had to upgrade from a standard power supply to an 800W power supply because you were adding more graphics, you could do it in thirty seconds," said Terry Pilsner, director of R&D for Workstations at HP.