Design Engineering

November/December 2006 - Eddie's Page (p. 34)

Thinking Outside the Beige Box

Typically, personal computers are noisy, wire-entangled and downright ugly boxes hidden beneath a desk or banished to a closet. For Howard Suissa, founder of Suissa Computers, technology should take centre stage. After all, personal computers have become storehouses for people’s increasingly digital lives.

Suissa says his aim is to create heirlooms that his clients can proudly display to complement a refined lifestyle. In his company’s North Toronto workshop, Suissa handcrafts custom computers aesthetically pleasing enough on the outside to sit side by side with sculpture yet powerful enough on the inside to put any upstart LAN party fanboy in his place.

“Ever since IBM developed the computer into the form that we know, computers really haven’t changed much from that beige box,” he says. “Although there are quite a few companies that have looked at the aesthetics of the computer’s exterior in the past, they have been of the mind-set that a computer is supposed to look a certain way.I want to challenge people’s pre-conception of what a computer should look like.”

If recent moves in the PC computer industry are any indication, the market seems ripe for high-end custom-built computers. In March, Dell Computers bought PC gaming boutique, Alienware Corp, whose high-performance rigs feature the company’s distinctive alien head logo. Similarly, computer giant HP acquired Calgary’s Voodoo Computers Inc. in September as part of a new gaming business unit.

While computers from Voodoo, Alienware or even Apple and Sony have their appeal, Suissa says they’ve missed a segment of the market that isn’t interested in youth culture or an industrial aesthetic.

“Someone who drives a Porsche, has a beautiful mahogany desk and has custom kitchen cabinetry wants the performance of a high-end computer but doesn’t want an ‘alien head’ in their living space,” he says. “Our market includes anybody who wants a visual status symbol that says ‘This fits in with my sense of who I am.’”

Still, taking on the big players in the computer business has its challenges, especially when your product is so different from its competitors that prospective buyers have a hard time recognizing what it is. For example, when the company debuted its products at the IIDEX/NeoCon Canada design show in September, Suissa says it quickly became necessary to explain to attendees what they were looking at.

“It confused people,” he says. “The biggest challenge for us continues to be people’s disbelief that our products are indeed computers, that a computer can look this good and be made out of beautiful materials.”

The company offers four standard designs available in any combination of 10 hardwoods including maple, oak, walnut and mahogany. The Junna and Moeka models, while reminiscent of a traditional computer’s appearance, more closely resemble fine wood furniture than a garden-variety desktop. The Yuki and Yasuko models break completely with tradition by combining shapely wood forms with glass and metal accents.

Suissa starts each case with rough hard wood lumber that’s board planed, hand scraped and machined before being joined by hand and varnished to a warm glow using woodworking techniques he learned as a cabinetry and furniture maker. In keeping with their artistic sensibility, each case is signed by the artisan and numbered. Suissa says he will limit each model to only 100 units before retiring it, to preserve their one-of-a-kind mystique.

“Every person who sees one of our computers for the first time, the first thing they do is touch it,” he says. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted people to make a physical connection with technology. You don’t walk into Best Buy and run your hand over an HP computer and say, ‘Oh, this is nice.’ But that is what people do with our systems, and it’s really very gratifying.”

And brains to match

A former industrial designer, Suissa says he chose wood not only for its aesthetic appeal but also for its practical properties. Unlike aluminium, for instance, wood is a poor conductor of heat and sound which makes Suissa’s computers all the more suitable for open display in a living room or office.

“There were a lot of design issues I had to take into consideration such as the bracketry, airflow and cooling issues,” Suissa explains. “Since we are dealing with wood, it tends to expand and contract at different rates to the bracketry, but we were able to deal with those design issues by using a liquid cooling system. With it, we are not only able to provide a quieter system but we are able to keep the parts that need to be cooled down cooler.”

And given the components in even the company’s baseline model, there’s a lot to keep cool. While they may be pretty on the outside, the hardware inside is every bit as serious. Suissa says he spent considerable time researching each component to ensure maximum stability, performance and technological longevity.

The company offers three general configurations (office, gaming and entertainment) that come in a standard and premium SMC configuration. The “modest” office line, for instance, comes with a dual core AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ or 5000+, Nvidia’s GeForce 7900 GTX video card, 2 to 4 gigabytes of memory and 960 gigabytes to 1.5 terabytes of hard drive space. The gaming model adds a dual GPU 7950 GX2 card while the entertainment model features 2 terabytes hard drive space and adds a prosumer audio card for theatre-quality sound. And even though these systems, which take about four weeks from order to delivery, should satisfy even the most picky technophile, Suissa is quick to point out that everything about his systems is open to customization, from the outside look to the hardware inside.

Of course, customization ups the cost of these high-end systems. Prices for the standard models range from $6,100 for the base model to $9,300 at the high end. Pricey, no doubt, but based on on-line price comparisons with similarly configured machines from other boutique companies, Suissa Computer systems fall within $100 to $200 of its competitors.

And unlike its competitors, Suissa says the company performs on-site service. After the first year, the company performs a general update and overhaul of the system, in addition to any upgrades or tweaks the customer may want.

“Because of the type of product and service we offer, clients are going to want to talk to us and we are going to want to talk to them,” Suissa says. “I want to get to know the type of person the client is so I have them in mind while I’m putting the system together so that when I install it, we’ve built a relationship. We aren’t interested in just building a customer base, we are interested in building a relationship with our customers.” de



Suissa Computers  |  P.O. Box 262, Vegreville, Alberta, T9C 1R2  |  +1-(780)-603-2701 |