Image: Dell Ruby Red
Dell's Studio Hybrid desktop PC, shown in Ruby Red and available in other colors, is almost the size of a portable hard drive, and can be placed vertically or horizontally. It starts at $499, without a monitor.
updated 8/19/2008 9:04:56 AM ET 2008-08-19T13:04:56

In a world of look-alike PCs, manufacturers are aiming to differentiate their computers more than ever with features such as antimicrobial keyboards (for the “Monk” in you) to facial recognition security, as well as colorful shapes and designs.

Buyers have an array of options, from all-in-one desktops that eliminate the standard rectangular, gray or silver CPU boxes, to laptops with Blu-ray players and widescreens.

In the United States, the laptop market continues to grow and dominate over desktops, with notebook computers representing about two-thirds of all sales, said Steve Baker, NPD Group’s vice president of industry analysis.

“The last time desktops were ahead was in 2004, when the market was 55 percent desktops, 45 percent laptops,” he said.

“As the prices come down on portable computers, they become more within reach, and because of people’s mobile lifestyles, you’re definitely starting to see a bias toward them,” said John New, Dell’s senior manager of global product marketing.

A no-frills laptop — one with a 15.4-inch screen, 2-gigabytes of memory and a 160-gigabyte hard drive — can cost anywhere between $450 and $600, depending on rebates and other special offers.

Many desktop models, without monitors, start in the same price range, and cost even less in some cases.

Desktops are still a good option for those who want a larger screen at home, especially for playing video games, or for those who prefer an upgradeable computer with a large hard drive of 250 and 500 gigabytes to house a family’s music, photos, videos and documents.

Some desktops are starting to resemble laptops in terms of being thinner and taking up less space on home office shelves and desks, especially all-in-one units inspired by Apple’s iMac. And some notebook computers are providing the same kind of functionality as desktops, with large screens and hard drives, although mobility is not among their strengths.

“The one-size-fits-all metaphor of computers is definitely long-gone,” said Stephen DeWitt, HP’s senior vice president for the Americas region, Personal Systems Group.

Image: HP Entertainment PC
HP's Pavilion HDX Entertainment notebook PC has a 20.1-inch display, and weighs 15.3 pounds. Some buyers are choosing it as a desktop replacement model.
A good example of that is HP’s Pavilion HDX Entertainment notebook PC with a 20.1-inch diagonal display, built-in HDTV tuner and four Altec Lansing speakers. The computer, which starts at $1,400 and weighs 15.3 pounds, and is being purchased by some as a desktop replacement.

At that weight, it’s not the kind of notebook that can easily be carried in a backpack or briefcase.

DeWitt calls it a “home theater laptop,” and said “there is a class of customer that wants that kind of system,” just as “there is a class of customer that wants to watch movies on a 2-inch screen,” meaning portable media players or cell phones.

The palette of the PC
Meanwhile, Dell’s Studio Hybrid desktop computer, which starts at $499 (without a monitor), is about 6-1/2 pounds, and its curved design and small footprint makes it look more like a portable external hard drive than a CPU.

The Studio Hybrid is about 80 percent smaller than “the typical desktop minitower,” and uses up to 70 percent less energy, Dell says. The computer can be situated horizontally or vertically, and there are several colors of “sleeves,” from red to bamboo, that are available to further personalize the unit.

Multiple color choices area also available for Dell’s laptop line, including “espresso brown” and “flamingo pink,” as well as notebooks that come with cover designs imprinted on them. HP, too, has a number of such offerings.

“Because people are more accustomed to personal computers being part of their day-to-day life, they are getting a lot more personal in the sense that the system you choose can sort of represent who you are,” said New of Dell.

Blu-ray not ubiquitous yet
Blu-ray players are showing up in more computers, but so far, they’re not a must-have for most consumers, said Baker of the NPD Group.

That’s reflected in the lackluster sales of Blu-ray DVD players, despite Blu-ray winning the high-def DVD format war over rival HD DVD earlier this year.

Many consumers are still content to watch movies on their standard DVD players and not incur the extra cost of Blu-ray, with most stand-alone players starting at around $400.

On Dell’s Studio Hybrid, an optical drive that can play Blu-ray high-definition DVDs is a $250 add-on, a “pretty affordable way to get Blu-ray into the household, much less expensive than going out and buying a Blu-ray player,” said New of Dell.

For families that share a home PC and a keyboard, Lenovo’s IdeaCentre K210 ($500 retail, sans monitor) comes with an anti-microbial keyboard.

Most of us know the kinds of things that wind up on a keyboard, and they’re not pretty — or healthy.

“Specifically with the IdeaCentre K210, we are focused on the concept of a family PC where individuals use the desktop for everything from online shopping to homework to keeping track of bills,” said Kristy Fair of Lenovo. “With multiple users, antimicrobial keyboards are a good way to keep germs at bay.”

Wipes and sprays are widely available for eliminating bacteria on keyboards, but the IdeaCentre K210’s does not need maintenance other than standard cleaning, said Douglas Bell of Lenovo.

And, while more and more laptops and desktops come with fingerprint readers for secure log-ins, the IdeaCentre K210 uses facial recognition, a “convenient” and “fun” approach, said Fair.

Those little laptops
Last fall, when the Asus Eee PC, a 2-pound, $299 laptop with a 7-inch screen, debuted it made history and created a new niche market for ultra-lightweight and inexpensive PCs, geared to users who mainly want to surf the Web and do e-mail.

Image: Acer nettop PC
Acer's Aspire one netbook weighs a little more than 2 pounds and has an 8.9-inch screen. Pricing starts at $379.
It’s a type of computer that some call “netbooks,” with their lightweight, desktop counterparts being known as “nettops.”

The $299 price tag is long gone, but there are a variety of ultra-mobile, low-cost PC offerings from companies including HP, Acer and Lenovo, which are making a strong showing, with prices starting at around $350.

The 2- to 3-pound laptops are appealing because of their weight and price. Downsides include their smaller screens, keyboards and hard drives.

The devices are “more for people who say, ‘I want to have something smaller and lighter that I can carry with me more often than my 6-pound, 15-inch notebook,’ ” said Bob O’Donnell, vice president of IDC technology research firm, in a recent interview .

Some of the little laptops use flash-memory solid-state drives instead of traditional hard drives, which have rotating, magnetic platters.

Solid-state drives weigh less and are heartier and less likely to be damaged than hard drives, both plusses for laptop user on the go. They also cost more per gigabyte than hard drives, but that cost is expected to come down over time.

Attention was drawn to solid-state drives earlier this year when Apple came out with its 3-pound MacBook Air with a 64-GB solid-state drive, as well as a model that has an 80-GB traditional hard drive. The 80-GB model is $1,799. The solid-state model, which started out at $3,098, now sells for $2,598.

Dell is expected to unveil a 12.1-inch, 2.2-pound laptop, the Latitude E4200, that uses a solid-state drive, in the coming weeks. There is no word yet on pricing.

Other major computer manufacturers, including Sony, Acer, Toshiba and Fujitsu, are using solid-state drives as well in laptops. There are also some “hybrid” models, which come with both SSD and hard drives.

Hybrid drives add “very little difference in weight,” said John Rydning, hard disk drive research director for IDC Research. “You’re basically adding one silicon chip onto the hard drive.”

Another plus of a solid-state drive is that it doesn’t eat into a laptop’s battery life the way a hard drive does. And battery life is always something manufacturers are working to improve.

Last week, Dell announced its business-class Latitude E6400 laptop (starting at $1,139), which it claims can run for up to 19 hours without recharging.

The company said it achieved that result, in part, by using a solid-state drive and a larger nine-cell battery (vs. a standard six-cell battery) with the laptop, as well as having an additional battery “slice” attached to the bottom of the computer.

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