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AMD tries on new look with oval-shaped PC

Advanced Micro Devices will swing into the fancy computer movement Monday at the Comdex trade show when it shows off design-minded, colorful consumer computers based on the company's chips.

Advanced Micro Devices seems to have a case of fashion envy.

But because its usual products--microprocessors--have limited wardrobes, AMD will be showing off a colorful consumer computer Monday at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas based around the K6-2 processor.

The oval-shaped "EasyNow" PC, which will be offered in several hues, is AMD's entry into the world of stylized computers, a hot market that was inspired by Apple Computer's iMac and Sony's portable Vaio. The EasyNow box will sport a colorful translucent case and shed traditional features such as a built-in floppy drive.

And more are on the way. "We certainly have plans on the road map to release similar products based on the Athlon in the not-too-distant future," said Gary Bixler, marketing manager of the initiative at AMD. In addition to concocting its own designs, the company will work with major manufacturers so that their own futuristic designs will be compatible with AMD parts, he said.

Comdex: Closing the millennium And, as with other new-wave computers, these systems will attempt to bring style on a budget. The new computers will cost between $499 and $699--a thrifty range made possible by its K6-2 chips, which are AMD's budget processor, according to Stephen Lapinski, the company's director of product marketing.

Still, looks alone aren't everything--especially in Silicon Valley--and tasteful aesthetics is never a guarantee.

"Some of the stuff I have seen in back rooms is great, and some of it is stupid looking," said Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corporation. "There will be winners and losers in the style game."

AMD will not make these computers, leaving that instead to PC manufacturers. Nonetheless, the chipmaker had a big hand in the effort, said Dana Krelle, vice president of marketing. AMD commissioned the design and licenses it to PC makers on the condition that they use K6-2 chips inside it.

So far, the company has signed up a few second- and third-tier manufacturers to the project, sources say, but more are expected. The majority of the stylized PCs released to date depend on Intel processors while many future groovy computers adopt the design specifications in the Intel-sponsored "EasyPC" initiative, which predates AMD's effort.

A rash of major PC companies this past week, including HP, IBM and Compaq, has revealed plans to start selling smaller, stylized computers next year. Dell Computer is expected to release its modular "Webster" PC in the near future.

These systems tend to have a great deal in common. First, they are typically much smaller than standard PCs and come in more novel shapes than traditional ones. Second, they generally are shorn of "legacy" technology such as floppy drives and ISA ports. Third, the systems are generally fairly inexpensive, starting at $499 but rarely if ever crossing into four-digit territory. Fourth, the companies all tend to claim that the devices straddle the line between standard PCs and easy-to-use Internet appliances.

On one hand, these new systems generally feature fewer buttons, and some, such as Dell's new computer, will come with special portal services that intended to make fixing PC problems easier. The AMD-based computers, as with other systems, will also support the "instant on" effort, which serves to reduce boot-up time.

On the other hand, the fundamental technology hasn't changed. These systems all run on Windows operating systems and depend on processors from the PC market.

The heavily designed PCs that are just emerging will likely come to define the corporate and consumer PC markets--and size, or lack thereof, will be especially important.

By 2003, Kay said, the lion's share of the PC market will be dominated by "nanotowers," or extremely small tower computers with hard drives and DVD or CD bays stacked on top of each other, and "smalls," or horizontal machines with hard drives and external drives that sit side-by-side.

Nearly 25 percent of computers sold will consist of "all-in-one" systems where the monitor and computer body are sealed together in a single case, he said, and only a fraction of the market will consist of today's "pizza box" desktops.

"We definitely see this as the evolution of the PC as one that will allow us to lower the cost of the PC in the midterm," Bixler said.