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Dell boots beige with new desktop PC design

At the DirectConnect conference in Austin, Texas, CEO Michael Dell will show off a redesigned version of the OptiPlex, the corporate PC that has been at the center of the company's rise.

AUSTIN, Texas--Dell Computer is ready to take another shot at design innovation.

At its

Meta Group says that increasingly, customers are focusing on much more than color or the styling of the box as an important part of the selection process.

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DirectConnect conference here today, Dell CEO Michael Dell will show off a redesigned version of the OptiPlex, the corporate desktop PC that has been at the center of the company's rise. The new OptiPlex GX 150, the most significant design change for Dell's corporate line in more than four years, is smaller than current Dell desktops and comes in gray rather than beige.

The new PC ideally will help the Round Rock, Texas-based company tie up two loose ends in its PC strategy. First, the redesigned OptiPlex will give the company a PC to compete against small desktops, such as Compaq Computer's iPaq and Hewlett-Packard's eVectra, which have found favor with corporate buyers. Compaq, for instance, has already sold more than 100,000 iPaqs.

Although these machines aren't receiving the same sort of design acclaim as Apple Computer's iMac or G4 Cube computers, aesthetics are only half the point. Because of their small size, PCs like the iPaq are cheaper to manufacture and ship.

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Video: Dell's new design--How different?
Dell executives said the company can manufacture 40 percent more of these small systems on the same production lines as standard-size OptiPlex computers. These PCs also generally contain central management features that reduce ownership costs.

Technology Business Research analyst Brooks Gray described Dell's new chassis as "sleek and serviceable...Dell is following the design trend that a lot of companies are looking for."

A successful reception for the revamped OptiPlex would also help wipe away bad memories of the WebPC, the highlight of last year's event. Roughly six months after Dell started selling the stylish, Internet-friendly consumer system, it quietly pulled the plug on the WebPC because of lackluster sales.

"The stake is up for these guys, because one of their early forays into more design-conscious PCs wasn't successful," said International Data Corp. analyst Roger Kay.

"Our eyes are on this one, and if, heaven forbid, it doesn't do real well, they get branded as not being capable of making this particular turn in the industry," he continued. "The stakes are pretty high for Dell."

Eye on design
The new chassis repeats some design features of the WebPC--more rounded features, the use of color-coded cables and the departure from beige--but the similarities stop there.

The new chassis, in development for 18 months, comes not from Dell's consumer group but from its commercial division. Sales will begin in October. But the basic design will be used in all Dell PC products, including Dimension consumer PCs and Precision workstations.

The case comes in midnight gray with light gray accents. Dell already uses the color in Latitude notebooks and PowerEdge servers, which will give products a more unified appearance. Eventually, every computer Dell sells will come in the color, as the company plans to retire beige next August.

Later this year, Dell also will revamp the designs of the rest of the OptiPlex line. Some will be larger, but others will be smaller than the model being shown off today.

The last time Dell introduced a new chassis, the U.S. women's gymnastics team won its first team gold medal during a Summer Olympics, Boris Yeltsin had bested Communist contender Gennady Zyuganov to remain Russia's president, and Pentium Pro was the fastest processor available from Intel. Dell's current beige chassis debuted in 1996, initially packing Pentium 133-MHz processors--desktop speed demons at the time.

The point is significant, because Dell rarely introduces new chassis designs. A departure from beige is a decision the PC maker and its customers will live with for many years.

"The whole proposition of bringing a chassis design to market is expensive," said Kurt Holman, Dell's manager of platform product marketing. "We want this chassis to exist for three years going forward."

The first model with the new chassis, the OptiPlex GX150, abandons the boxy look Dell helped popularize. The new design measures 4.25-by-13.37-by-16.97 inches, which makes it 10 percent smaller than Dell's smallest commercial model and substantially smaller than the typical Dell corporate machine. The new OptiPlex sports rounded edges, a circular Dell medallion, and ping-pong paddle-shaped light gray accents on the sides. For Dell, round is no longer square.

"It's sort of an evolution of the beige boxy look that dominated the PC industry for so many years," Holman said. "We're seeing that with iMac and some gadgets in the consumer space--the appeal of more rounded features."

Evolution is the apt adjective, analysts say.

"Dell has been particularly conservative compared to many other companies," Kay said. "Conservatism is part of who they are, so their new box designs are not terribly radical."

Dell Dimension consumer PCs will get bolder accents than OptiPlex, Holman said. But overall, the look will be similar across all products. Precision workstations will look closest to commercial PC models.

Selective bells and whistles
In a conservative move, Dell steered clear of the trend toward legacy-free systems that reduce support for or drop older connection formats, such as serial and parallel ports, in favor of USB. Following a trend set in motion by Apple with iMac and PowerMac G3 and G4 systems, Compaq unveiled the spiffy iPaq and HP the sleek e-Vectra. These more stylized commercial PCs are available in USB-only or reduced-legacy models.

"Some customers see the value in legacy-free, but the majority have legacy devices, mainly printers," Holman said. "We don't see a large migration to USB devices yet. When we talk to our customers about giving up those legacy ports, they're very uncomfortable. Maybe it's cultural."

In a survey conducted by Technology Business Research for CNET, 56 percent of technology managers reported they wanted legacy ports on commercial systems. The survey polled 50 technology managers at Fortune 500 companies with 5,000 or more employees.

Still, Dell strayed from the pack in critical ways inside the box. Gone are ISA slots in favor of PCI for add-on cards and AGP for graphics.

All new models will use faster 133-MHz SDRAM memory and Intel's 815e chipset. While other companies have shaved costs by relying solely on the chipset's onboard graphics, Dell will give customers more, rather than fewer, choices. They can use the built-in graphics acceleration, add a 4MB upgrade, or use a separate accelerator in the AGP slot.

Again borrowing from an Apple innovation introduced with the PowerMac G3, the GX150 opens like a suitcase, rather than forcing customers to slide off a panel to access the system's innards. This offers greater access to system components, none of which require tools to work on.

Other niceties include cables with tabs colored blue, orange or black, ensuring that hard drives and other components are properly connected, and four screws in the whole box vs. 15 in the older beige chassis.

Acoustics--how much sound a PC produces--is a growing concern for some businesses, particularly given the number of fans needed to keep speedier processors cool. With iMac and the G4 Cube, Apple took a no-fans approach, choosing to cool the system through an airflow convection system. No fan means a fairly quiet system.

Dell chose to keep the fan but made other changes that reduce sound between 20 percent to 40 percent over existing models, Holman said. Air intake vents on the front have been moved to the back, and a plastic shroud covers the hard drive. To reduce metal-on-metal noise, the hard drive rests in a vinyl polymer mount. In another noise-reducing effort, the power supply slows down or shuts off during periods of inactivity.

Dell would not disclose the price of the GX150, which ships the second week of October, or of other systems sporting the new look.