Image: Dell industrial designers and new computer models.
Harry Cabluck  /  AP
Industrial designers for Dell, Ken Musgrave, left, and Steve Gluskoter display the company's new desktop and laptop models. The BTX desktop series on the left has a side vent to promote cooling and provides a handle. The laptop on the right is the Inspiron 6000.
updated 7/14/2005 5:41:24 PM ET 2005-07-14T21:41:24

From boring old beige computer cases to the more recent gray and black models, style isn't a word often associated with computer maker Dell Inc. But as the company continues to push into consumer products with plasma televisions and digital music players, it's adding a dash of flash to a revamped lineup of desktop and notebook computers.

Many of the new models were designed in response to customers' desire for sleeker, more stylish computers, says Jeff Clarke, a Dell senior vice president.

Business travelers wanted a more travel-savvy laptop, so Dell came up with the silvery, featherweight, 2.5-pound Latitude X1 — a design licensed from Samsung Electronics Co.

For consumers, Dell's new white-on-silver Dimension 9100 and 5100C desktops are slimmer and have a more accessible layout of ports and connectors than previous tower models.

The XPS line of desktop and laptops, meanwhile, have glowing lights — which serve no function beyond lending a flashier appearance — and interchangeable faceplates that cater to video game fans willing to pay a premium for the latest technology.

With analyst firm IDC expecting PC shipments to grow by 10 percent this year — down from 12 percent in 2004 — Dell certainly isn't the only one turning an eye toward style. Most everyone in the business is doing what they can to conceal the often boring, utilitarian functions of today's home computing appliances in more eye-catching boxes.

"As the market gets to be more commodity-like you need to distinguish yourself in whatever way you can," said IDC analyst Roger Kay.

Taiwan-based Acer Inc., the world's fifth-largest computer maker, last year debuted a laptop sporting a Ferrari red paint scheme with a logo of the famous Italian auto maker's leaping stallion near the keyboard.

Alienware Corp. and other niche players tout space age designs that are in high demand with computing enthusiasts.

Dell's main rival, Hewlett-Packard Co., has already made the switch to silver-on-black with its Pavilion desktops.

Computers pose a challenge for designers because they remain little more than boxes that haven't changed much in decades, said Jean-Jacques L'Henaff, a design director for Audiovox Inc. and chair of consumer electronics for the Industrial Designers Society of America.

He called Dell's new systems a little bit edgier than they used to be, but added: "It's an efficient business and an efficient machine. I think that was translated into the design."

Kay of IDC says tech consumers want something called "design drama."

"It's something that sort of looks cool but exactly what that is is a little bit hard to pin down," he said.

The industry's leader in capturing that certain something in design has long been Apple Computer Inc., whose translucent, green-and-white iMacs and minimalist iPods are as much fashion accessories as pieces of technology.

At Dell, meanwhile, it's been more than four years since the computers went from beige to black and gray.

For any design, the key is striking a balance between cost and cool, said Ken Musgrave, Dell's director of industrial design and usability.

"We're not going to be charging a premium for design," he said. "We would not exchange a user's experience of the product for the sake of aesthetics. They're part of the story but not the entire story."

Though Dell isn't providing many details yet, the very company where price reigns supreme has hinted at a line of high-priced premium PCs sometime this fall.

The as-yet unnamed models were discussed briefly during a recent investors' call with Mike George, vice president of Dell's U.S. consumer business. The company has declined to discuss any details.

Kay, the analyst, says these premium models shouldn't come as a surprise, even at cost-conscious Dell. By offering low-end $500 machines, Dell is able to draw in customers, then entice them into upgrading for better machines with more features.

One analyst believes consumers will continue turning to Dell for value, not style.

"They haven't been positioning themselves as a style company before," said Chuck Jones, senior vice president at Stein Roe Investment Counsel Inc. "It's probably the right thing to do, unless they are moving away from a low price business model. And I highly doubt that."

L'Henaff said computers and technology in general will become increasingly invisible as electronic components shrink.

"All that's left is the interface _ the screen, the keyboard and a mouse," he said. "And even that further down the line might go away."

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