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Compaq gets sleek, colorful designs

Taking a cue from Apple's success with the iMac and Sony's Vaio portables, Compaq will unveil two new products today--the Presario 3500 slimline PC and ultra-portable Presario 305 notebook--that emphasize color and design.

The word from above at Compaq Computer is make it cool.

Taking a cue from Apple's success with the iMac and Sony's with its Vaio portables, Compaq will unveil two new products today--the Presario 3500 slimline PC and ultra-portable Presario 305 notebook-- that emphasize color and design, as well as a new desktop that incorporates the 700-MHz Athlon from AMD.

Compaq's shift toward style, which comes down as an edict from new CEO Michael Capellas, underscores a booming trend among PC manufacturers to give their products distinctive personalities through size, shape, and hue--rather than simply beat each other up over performance and price.

"It's come down from our new CEO Michael Capellas that we must make cool products, with passion behind them, and connection to the Internet," said Trey Litel, Compaq's marketing manager of Internet services for U.S. consumer products.

"We're realizing the consumer is really responding to design, similar to the way the car industry developed," Litel said. "We're so obsessed with clock speeds and such--we're missing the point. We need to differentiate on design."

Coincidentally, Apple is expected to unveil new iMacs today.

The Houston, Texas-based company, of course, is not the first company to play the design card. Apple's iMac, and G3 desktops with color accents, have been the basis for a financial and marketing reversal for the company. The slim, magnesium-cased Vaio notebooks became Sony's breakthrough computer with U.S. Consumers. Gateway, meanwhile, introduced a slim desktop with a built-in flat panel monitor this year. Yesterday, IBM released notebooks with snap-on color covers.

More are on the way. Dell will later this fall release a small, curved Pentium III computer, code-named the Webster. Custom-colored cases that come with company logos, university mascots, or other artwork also likely, executives at Dell have said. Executives at other companies also hint that further variations on the theme are coming.

The first model in the Presario 3500 series is the 3550, a 500-MHz Celeron PC with 64-MB of RAM, 8-GB hard drive, 8-MB video memory CD-RW drive, 56k modem and 15-inch LCD flat-panel monitor.

The magnetic blue colored slimline PC, which will sell for $1,999, is a departure from Compaq's current line of overstuffed Presario PCs. The box is 60 percent smaller than the Presario 5700 series, measuring a slim 11.8 x 3.4 x 12.6 and weighing in at a lean 13.2 pounds compared with 31 pounds for the Presario 5736.

"Our target market are second-time PC buyers looking for something cool for a different part of the house than in their office," said Litel. "They're more for the higher end of the market than for the people who buy our entry-level systems."

That market includes music aficionados, for which Compaq is offering flat speakers and subwoofer from Monsoon.

Compaq is betting the small size and sleek LCD monitor will also widely appeal to the "Sharper Image" set.

"LCD models are very attractive to consumers, but there won't be more widespread acceptance until the prices come down more," said Lindy Lesperance, analyst with Technology Business Research. The optimum price is around $1,500, said Lesperance.

Compaq hopes to achieve that through a $400 rebate program offered to consumers that sign-up for three years of Internet access with CompuServe.

PC manufacturers are increasingly incorporating LCD displays in new design models. Sony in February broke ground on the market with the Vaio Slimtop LCD Computer. More recently, Gateway and NEC jumped into the game with all-in-one PCs built around LCD displays.

Compaq decided on a multi-piece system for support reasons. "Should you ever have to send the system in for repair, at least you can keep the LCD monitor for use with another PC," said Litel.

Compaq's other trend setting consumer PC introduced today is the Presario 305 notebook. The Presario 305 is an ultra-thin notebook, less than 1-inch thick, and weighing only 3 pounds. It is essentially the consumer version of the Armada M300 corporate model announced in July.

The Presario 305 is available in a lighter iridescent blue than the 3550. It comes with a 333-MHz Celeron processor, 11.3-inch TFT screen, 64-MB of RAM, and 4.3-GB hard drive, for $2,199.

Compaq plans to unveil other new systems, including the Presario 5900Z, which is based on AMD1s 700-MHz Athlon processor. The 5900Z, which will only be available initially on a build-to-order basis direct from Compaq, will start at $2,185 with 17-inch monitor.

Compaq is also adding new models in its Presario 1800 and 1900 notebook line.

Starting today, all Compaq Presario systems, will feature Al the technician and free Internet access from NetZero.