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IBM to unveil business desktops

Big Blue will release on Wednesday a new line of desktop PCs called ThinkCentre, following the company's "Think" vision for machines that are easier to use.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
IBM is thinking differently about desktop PCs.

The company will introduce on Wednesday a new line of desktops for businesses called ThinkCentre, following the company's "Think" vision for PCs, that are easier to use and therefore should help companies save money.

ThinkCentre desktops combine elements of the retiring NetVista desktop PCs with some new design enhancements and IBM's ThinkVantage technologies--a special home-brewed software collection designed to make it easier for businesses to address tasks such as setting up a new PC, said Rob Herman, program director for ThinkCentre at IBM.

The new desktops are based on Intel chips, including the chipmaker's new 865 chipset, which is expected to make its official debut Wednesday. A number of PC makers are expected to announce new machines that use the chipset.

The ThinkCentre line will initially consist of three models: the ThinkCentre S50 small-size machine, the A50p multimedia computer and the M50 that IBM will ship with desktop versions of Red Hat or SuSE Linux on request to large customers. More models will be added as the year progresses.

The S50, which takes up less space than a traditional desktop, measures 12.2-inches wide by 14.1-inches deep by 3.3-inches high, or about 62 percent smaller than a regular IBM desktop. It still uses standard hard and optical drives, however, and offers two full-size PCI slots and three drive bays.

The S50 starts at $729, while the A50p, which includes a choice of graphics boards, starts at $699. The M50, which offers more expandability, starts at $979. Later this year, the company will launch a new low-price ThinkCentre, the A30, selling for less than $500.

The ThinkVantage software suite preinstalled on each machine will include several applications and an "Access IBM" button, which connects a PC operator to diagnostic tools, software updates and online customer support. Preinstalled software will include an updated version of ImageUltra, an application that aids in creating a companywide software package and installing it on a new PC. A new version of Rapid Restore Ultra software will control data backup or recovery. A number of the ThinkCentre desktops will also include IBM's Security Subsystem, which lets computer operators encrypt sensitive data.

IBM is hoping that the combination of the new software and security tools, as well a more stylish and easier-to-service chassis, will add up and give the company an advantage over rivals like Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard.

"That's where we're really spending a good deal of our research and development dollars...to continually enhance the tools and solutions around the customer pain points...deployment, migration, uptime and security," Herman said. "Ultimately, the goal we really want to get to with ThinkVantage technology is to deliver a system that's self-configuring, self-optimizing, self-healing and self-protective. Today's technologies are what we're going to build off to reach that advantage."

IBM has its work cut out for it. Dell and HP, the top two PC sellers in the world, outpaced IBM by a considerable margin in the first quarter. Worldwide, IBM sold 1.9 million units to Dell's 6 million and HP's 5.5 million units during the first quarter, according to IDC. Despite the difficult economics of selling them, Big Blue has said PCs are an important part of its portfolio of information technology products.

Analysts praised Big Blue's new approach, but warned that it still faces challenges.

"IBM is not getting too wild about what it's doing. It wants to make sure it's delivering some unique value. That comes in the form of the software mostly," said Roger Kay, an IDC analyst. But Kay said marketing could be a problem.

"It's not so clear that this product goes with this segment--compared to Dell, which has a very clear focus. IBM needs a sharper target for the box?why you should buy this product versus that product," Kay said. "People mistakenly think of IBM as premium-priced, and it's not always."

Big Blue hopes its technology alone may do some of the talking. Aside from the ThinkCentre's new look and the software, IBM also created a new tool-less design--enabling someone to easily open the PC and swap components like a hard drive, without needing a screwdriver.

With the push of a couple buttons to release a latch, the new chassis opens from the front, like the hood of a car, and stays fixed in position. Components, such as memory, are visible and accessible, while a special hard drive cradle lets people remove the drive by pulling on a color-coded handle.

IBM also beefed up the quality of its keyboards to provide a better feel and made an optical mouse, normally about a $15 upgrade, a standard feature on the PCs.

IBM will also launch several new displays, along with its new ThinkCentre desktops, including a new 17-inch flat panel, the L170p, priced at $539.