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HP pushes new look with low-cost e-Vectra

The computer maker's new generation of small, stylish computers for businesses takes up less space and costs less, the company says.

The new generation of small, stylish computers might be appealing to users, but as Hewlett-Packard introduces new business systems today, it plans to pitch another theme too: Small computers cost less.

The e-Vectra, due to be unveiled today and to begin shipping in April, is HP's entry into the stylish computer market. Weighing just over eight pounds, the system features a blue-white color scheme and comes with various features to make operating the machine relatively easy, such as a large start button and USB (universal serial bus) ports.

Formerly code-named the ePc, the e-Vectra will compete directly against Compaq's iPaq and the Stardust system from IBM.

Like its competitors, HP will emphasize the cost advantages of the new generation of computers. A smaller chassis leads to a lower overall hardware budget and cuts shipping costs as well as necessary desk space, said Michael Cade, product manger in the U.S. PC marketing center for HP.

A basic e-Vectra with a Celeron processor will start at $549. More high-end models, using the same chassis, will come with Windows 2000 and 733-MHz Pentium III processors.

HP has also built in a number of features to cut down on support costs. The e-Vectra uses an external, notebook-like power supply, for instance. Most desktops put the power supply inside the computer. This creates problems, however, because a power supply breakdown requires that a technician open the case. With the e-Vectra, owners just have to look at the power cord.

"If the green light is on, the power supply works. If it is out, you replace it," Cade said. "It makes diagnostics much easier."

The new computer also comes with features to stop office tomfoolery. Employees, for example, can't open the case. This will cut down on memory theft, which IT managers say remains a problem.

The hard drive is the only part that can be removed easily. "The hard drive breaks down more than any other part," Cade said. To foil would-be thieves, however, the door to the drive can be locked.

In addition, the USB ports on the e-Vectra are located in the back of the system and can be blocked with a muzzle-like device. Both of these design features exist, among other reasons, to make it more difficult for workers to plug in digital cameras, MP3 players and other entertainment devices, he said.

All these points, which Compaq and IBM also will emphasize, will be some of the more important factors in selling the new desktops. Apple may have kicked off the stylish computer wave with the iMac, but the computer was sold in consumer markets to people who don't manage large IT budgets.

Interestingly, the emphasis on low cost may eventually have a rebound effect on manufacturers, analysts have speculated. If corporate buyers concentrate too heavily on costs, PC makers could see the same sort of price spiral that decimated profits in the consumer market.

Downward pressure will be tempered somewhat by the release of Windows 2000, which appears to require fairly fast processors and lots of memory. Versions of the e-Vectra containing Windows 2000 will come with a 600-MHz Pentium III and 128MB of memory at a minimum, Cade said. Still, with cost at the forefront of marketing pitches, pricing will likely continue to inch downward.

"In 1999 there was a bloody battle in consumer (markets)," Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corp., said late last year. "The same could happen in commercial (markets)."