PC makers giving facelifts for the future

Looking to emulate the success of Apple's iMac, Dell and many others are rushing to ship new cool-looking computers, although the verdict is still out on how far the trend will go.

4 min read
NEW YORK--Looking to emulate the success of Apple's iMac, Dell and many other PC makers are rushing to ship new cool-looking computers, although the verdict is still out on how far, or where, the trend will go.

At nearly every computer booth on the PC ExpoCNET's PC Expo coverage trade show floor here, some type of flat-panel display is being demonstrated. The use of these thin displays, along with smaller motherboards and shrunken components, is affecting overall system design, resulting in smaller and more curvy computers. Future Power, a Korean company, even showed off an iMac knock-off with a 400-MHz Celeron chip for $799.

Dell, one of the stodgier PC companies around, in fact, will get into this market within the next 18 months with a stylized PC of its own, said sources, following in the footsteps of Apple, Sony, Gateway, Packard Bell-NEC and others.

The new designs are another sign that Dell is expanding into new territory. The computer maker had a busy few days in New York, announcing an upcoming ISP service in the U.S., support for Rambus technology, and other moves.

Consumers are demanding high-speed Internet access and attractive and space-saving designs, like the iMac, according to Carl Everett, senior vice president of Dell Computer.

But attention is one thing; actual purchases are another. The sub-$1,000 PC category remains one of the fastest growing segments in the market. But because of their higher prices, many of the all-in-one machines and flat-panel display systems may be too expensive for average users. Still, declining prices and more innovations will prod the trend along.

"The iMac started all of this," said Dennis Mathis, computer division manager at accounting firm Cowan Gutneski and Company, speaking at Gateway's PC Expo booth. Gateway is devoting much of its trade show floor space to its new all-in-one computer, the Profile, which starts at $1,999. Mathis was impressed by the slim design of the Profile, as well as the reasonable price.

"It's not only cool, but it's pretty efficient," he said. In the past, hip-looking computers usually sacrificed usability or performance. "For the price, it's a really good deal," he said, comparing it to other Gateway notebooks.

Nonetheless, fashion has its drawbacks. The Profile would not be a good choice for lower-level employees, according to Sean Fitzgerald, LAN manager for White Rose Food.

"Because of the design, it doesn't offer much expandability," he said, adding that the Profile might also present headaches when servicing or fixing the computer.

But will they plunk down cash? Both Mathis and Fitzgerald admitted that they will not be buying the Profile anytime soon.

Sony inside
One company looking to capitalize on the movement is Sony. Consumers and executives are flocking to status-symbol computers, according to Ken Omae, vice president of PC marketing at Sony, which ships the popular ultraslim Vaio notebooks. As reported earlier, Sony is demonstrating new desktops featuring flat-panel displays which fit together with the CPU to create a desktop 25 percent smaller than normal, he said.

"It used to be, people were proud of the 'specs' of a computer," he said. "Today, it's the design," largely because of the popularity of the iMac.

Manufacturers' conception of cool design invariably includes a flat-panel display. "Flat panels are everywhere," Fitzgerald said. "Everyone wants a big monitor," and flat-panels take up far less space on a desk than typical CRT monitors. (Ironically, the iMac is one of the few that doesn't rely on a flat panel.)

Internally, many of these current and future systems take advantage of smaller motherboards, which eliminate support for aging PC technology such as the ISA bus, and other components. And ever-more compact systems are expected by the holiday season, according to an Intel spokesman.

Wanted: Fashion consultant
But even with the renewed focus on cosmetics, some are unimpressed with many of the new looks on display in New York. Gateway's Profile design is awkward, according to Dell's Everett.

To succeed, such a system should be more a hybrid between notebook and desktop system, Everett said. A true all-in-one should offer some measure of portability, as well as more advanced design, he said. Michael Dell, speaking in an interview with CNET News.com, added that the company is conducting focus groups to determine which cosmetic features are important to consumers, especially women.

The widespread availability of wireless Internet connectivity will also drive new designs, attendees say. Toshiba, which is demonstrating Bluetooth wireless technology in its booth, will ship Bluetooth-enabled high-end notebooks next year. But the technology can also be used in wireless keyboards and mice, for use with newer desktop designs.