Culture

Yearning for color on laptops

Black and gray may dominate the choices for many machines, but options are growing for people bored with plain old PCs. Photos: Modded laptops

Fans of the University of Texas football team, recently crowned national champions of college football, are known for their boisterous support for their home team and state.

That's why Nick Bhavsar, chief executive officer of LaptopLids and a Texas graduate student, knew he was onto something with his burnt-orange laptop cover bearing the iconic image of a longhorn.

The former Intel engineer's fledgling Web company began selling vinyl laptop covers with the Texas Longhorns logo as well as the Texas state flag in September 2005. After Texas won the national championship game at the Rose Bowl in early January and orders skyrocketed, Bhavsar realized he'd tapped into the growing demand for personalized laptop designs that are quickly vaulting the notebook PC out of its Model T era.

According to legend, Ford founder Henry Ford described his design philosophy for the Model T as, "You can paint it any color, so long as it's black." For many years a similar philosophy has held sway among laptop designers at the three largest PC companies in the world: Dell, Hewlett-Packard and the former IBM PC business now owned by Lenovo. Apple Computer, Sony, , Alienware, Voodoo PC and others have introduced more stylish designs, but the standard products available from the largest Windows PC vendors tend to come in either black or gray.

That philosophy is starting to change. A few computer companies and several accessory makers and custom specialists have figured out that, like '70s-era custom vans and dot-com-era BMWs, custom-look laptops can be seen as potent style statements.

Dell's new XPS PC, introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show this month, features a flashy case design. Like LaptopLids, Dell has begun selling notebook covers along with its consumer laptops that add color or collegiate logos to its products. HP's Livestrong notebook features Lance Armstrong's signature yellow band in one of the company's few nods to personalization. And last fall, chipmaker Intel showed off a line of concept laptops that featured Ultrasuede fabric on their casing.

But custom designs are still relatively new to the mainstream PC industry. As a result, tech-savvy individuals looking for something different tend to produce their own creations, a practice known as "case-modding."

Most case mods have involved desktop PCs, but now that laptop shipments are set to overtake desktops in coming years, consumers are looking for ways to make their mobile PCs stand out from the rest of the black-and-gray crowd, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. For the most part, they are finding what they need outside of the traditional technology vendors, he said.

Modded notebooks

Take Skyn, which makes colorful laptop covers that can be reused on multiple laptops. Skyn's co-founder, Letitia Lucero, was looking for a colorful laptop a few years ago, but couldn't find anything she liked. After experimenting with materials in partnership with her husband, Miguel, they discovered a type of plastic that stood up to the wear and tear on a notebook, and applied an adhesive to the back that allows the cover to be removed and used on other laptops, a Skyn spokeswoman said.

Last year, Inclosia Solutions and Tulip Distribution International Holding teamed up to release a series of leather-covered laptops that are also available with fabrics such as denim.

But if you're looking for the ultimate in customization, some companies will provide shiny paint jobs for laptops. An Oregon company called Smooth Creations is taking its expertise in painting flashy designs on cars to the PC world. The 15-year-old company started painting desktop cases for individuals and PC enthusiast companies like Alienware and Hypersonic PC about five years ago, and expanded into laptops about a year and a half ago, said Chris Eddie, client services manager at Smooth Creations.

Customers can choose from or order special effects like color-shifting paint, Eddie said.

Another high-tech painter, Colorware, specializes in

Potential customers should be aware that customizing a laptop with one of these paint jobs might cause problems if that unit needs support later on from a larger vendor like HP or Dell. Smooth Creations strips the notebook down to just the plastic elements in order to paint the chassis, Eddie said.

An HP spokeswoman said there was no specific policy in the company's warranties about disassembling a laptop, but if an individual or a third-party company damaged a notebook in the course of painting it, HP would not cover that damage. A spokeswoman confirmed a similar policy regarding Dell laptops. Smooth Creations' Eddie said his company would fix or replace anything damaged by its workers for free.

Consumers looking for flashy laptops will probably continue looking outside the mainstream PC industry for style and flair, Bajarin said. Given the thin margins of the PC business, large companies are interested in keeping costs as low as possible, and customization raises costs, he said.

"Consumers buy on cost, and while you can potentially upgrade them to a bigger hard drive or perhaps one with a bigger screen, you're going into new territory with pink or yellow or blue," Bajarin said.