PCs Get Stylish *slideshow*

  1. PC Makers Take A Stylish Turn To Tackle Apple
    Pink, Spotted Laptops Aimed at New Buyers;
    Designers Rule at Dell​

    January 4, 2008; Page A1

    Personal computer buyers often ask questions about technical features such as hard drives and microprocessors. Ken Musgrave hopes to inspire a different kind of customer query: "Does that come in pink?"

    Mr. Musgrave, an executive in Dell Inc.'s design group, is trying to inject a sense of style into the company's PCs, with new shapes, sizes and colors. One of its notebooks, the Inspiron, does come in pink -- not to mention blue, red, black, green, white, yellow and brown.

    Spurred in part by the success of Apple Inc.'s innovative products, as well as a consumer shift toward notebook computers, PC makers have begun a radical overhaul of their machines' appearance. They're racing to replace boring boxes with sexy silhouettes that will differentiate their products, entice new buyers and command higher prices.

    In the process, they're hoping to compensate for factors over which they have little control, such as software options. Unlike Apple, famous for its easy-to-use operating system and other original programs, PC makers largely rely on Microsoft Corp. for the underlying software. And that company's latest version of Windows, called Vista, has been panned by some reviewers, despite healthy sales.

    The new focus on looks -- underscored by exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Sunday in Las Vegas -- is forcing PC makers to re-think how they manufacture, whom they hire, how they advertise products, and where they sell them.

    Why all the action now? Though PC sales are surging throughout emerging economies, PC makers need new ways to spur consumer demand in the U.S. and other mature markets. By wooing buyers who care little about technical features, they hope to better tailor PCs to specific users -- including women, students, PC gamers and sports fans.

    It won't be easy. Producing new shapes and materials can raise costs and require tricky changes to production lines. Dell, which introduced its painted Inspiron laptops last summer, initially ran into problems with dust contamination that delayed shipments and angered customers.

    Moreover, it's unclear if most consumers will pay a premium for style. Companies that focus too much on fashion over function could end up with costly misses as trendy designs fall out of favor with fickle consumers.

    "It's a very dangerous route to go," says Sohrab Vossoughi, founder and president of Ziba Design, which has designed PC prototypes for Intel. "Things go up, and things go down."

    A possible pitfall, notes Mr. Vossoughi, is misinterpreting the lessons of Apple's success, which is hardly based on design alone. Rather, Apple's forte has been to create synergies among its hardware, software and retail stores in order to make its cool machines more au courant and simpler to use.

    'Wow Factor'

    But for customers like Glenn Pingol, who works in in-flight services for United Airlines, looks do matter. The 40-year-old says he doesn't hesitate to shell out more money for a machine that blends better with his home décor. "I have a PC as well, but I find Macs more distinctive," says Mr. Pingol, who was recently eyeing the new iMac desktop at the downtown San Francisco Apple store. "It's the wow factor, and PCs just can't master that."

    Forrester Research, which has extensively surveyed consumers' computing habits, issued a report last June heralding a new "age of style" in the PC market. It concluded that more attractive models could command $150 to $250 more per machine.

    PC vendors also hope to emulate Apple's healthy profitability, which is at least partly due to the higher prices it commands on some Mac models. The company reported a 33.6% gross profit margin in its fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 29. Dell, by comparison, reported an 18.5% gross margin in its fiscal third quarter, which ended Nov. 2.

    Hewlett-Packard Co., which leads PC sales globally, is offering notebooks embossed with black and silver dragons. Dell, synonymous with cookie-cutter corporate PCs, has developed a flat-panel monitor that floats in a sheet of tempered glass. Lenovo Group Ltd., best known for the ThinkPad laptops popular for business users, this week is introducing a consumer notebook line called IdeaPad that features frameless displays and red, black and blue cases with raised and woven textures.

    Sony's Vaio line now includes "eco edition" notebooks with leopard-print exteriors. The company introduced a pink model about two-and-a-half years ago, and since then says it has sold more Vaios in pink -- popular with young women -- than any other hue.

    "There are certain colors that appeal to certain segments of the market," says Sony Senior Vice President Mike Abary.

    Worried About Fingerprints

    At H-P, executives debated whether to adopt a black lacquer finish on its Pavilion line of notebooks. Some were skeptical that people would want to buy a product that gets covered in oily fingerprints, recalls Stacy Wolff, the PC maker's director of notebook design. But a series of focus groups in 2005 showed that potential consumers still preferred the high gloss, despite the fingerprint issue.

    H-P's designers like to talk about "how our designs read" and ask themselves, "What are some of the elements that have an emotional connection?" Mr. Wolff says. Figuring that a black finish might seem too masculine for some users, he has been trying to appeal to women with lighter-colored models in white and silver.

    During most of the industry's 30-year history, PC makers didn't worry much about style. A bigger challenge was boosting technical performance and wringing costs from suppliers of standard components like computer cases, circuit boards and chips.

    Technology also posed limits: Chips and other components that generate heat required cooling fans and imposed limits on miniaturization.

    By the 1990s PCs had become generic: a simple box -- often in beige -- paired with a matching monitor, a keyboard and mouse. Consumers have long regarded desktop PCs as such aesthetic duds that they've been known to cover them with bedsheets and saris, says Genevieve Bell, an Intel anthropologist who observes global PC usage in homes. "There is this sense of, 'Oh god, why does it have to be so ugly?'" she says.

    There were a few early exceptions. At Sony in the mid-1990s, a stubborn designer named Teiyu Goto forced engineers to make components fit into his strict design for a purple, magnesium-sheathed PC called the Vaio 505, which garnered industrywide attention for its sleek look.

    But the biggest change agent was Apple's iMac, introduced in May 1998. The unusual one-piece design, in its first iteration, sported a colorful casing in translucent turquoise and gray. The computer sold so well that competitors scrambled to improve their own designs.

    Apple's Steve Jobs, who in the prior year had returned to lead the company he co-founded, kept conjuring up design breakthroughs. The iMac, for example, slimmed down as cathode-ray monitors gave way to flat-panel displays. With better prices and profit margins than its competitors, Apple can simply pay suppliers for design changes such as shrinking a circuit board, says Patrick Gelsinger, an Intel senior vice president who has spearheaded its design crusade. Apple declined to comment for this article.

    Apple has "infused" its products with style, says Barry Goffe, director of product management at Microsoft.

    The company in 2001 elevated the utilitarian laptop with a PowerBook model clad entirely in titanium, a metal more frequently found in fighter airplanes. That same year, it introduced the first iPod, which transformed digital music players with features such as its smooth shape and DJ-like wheel for navigating through songs. Along the way, it made white cords a staple of the new tech-chic.

    Portability is also boosting the industry's style quotient. Notebook PCs, once mainly a business tool, have become a consumer favorite as prices have fallen well below $1,000. Unlike desktops, notebooks travel with their users and -- like a car or a cellphone -- have a tendency to be seen as status symbols, PC makers say.

    Another factor: A new generation of smaller, energy-efficient components has reduced some design obstacles such as the need for cooling fans.
  2. 'The Revolution'

    With all the fuss, PC makers have begun hiring more people with degrees in industrial design and related disciplines -- and listening to their opinions. "We found people designing from the outside in, not the inside out," says Mooly Eden, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile systems group. "This was the revolution."

    David Hill, Lenovo's vice president of corporate identity and design, said his teams once played a secondary role to the technical side of product development. Now designers "have equal weight at the table," he says.

    The shift at Dell was dramatic. When the Texas company hired Mr. Musgrave in 2001 from a medical-device maker, Dell leaders saw little need to think about styling, he says.

    During his first week at Dell, Mr. Musgrave says, a senior executive told him the design director job was unnecessary and that he was lobbying for its elimination. (A Dell spokeswoman doesn't dispute his account.) Others, he says, derided his design talk as a sort of "mystical language."

    Some skepticism was due to a machine called the Webpc that Dell introduced in 1999 to compete with Apple's iMac. While it wasn't an all-in-one unit like the iMac, the computer weighed just 10 pounds, came in five colors and had the option of an $850 flat-panel screen. But the Webpc failed to catch on with consumers, and was abandoned less than a year later due to poor sales.

    In 2003, as Dell prepared to release a high-end gaming computer, Mr. Musgrave wanted to offer customers a choice of colors. The suggestion was shot down when top executives, including CEO Michael Dell, said designers could only pick a single color. Things changed after Dell started losing PC market share in 2005 and, needing a new sales spark, took a fresh look at design.

    By the beginning of 2006, Dell had 38 designers, up from six in 2001. It now has more than 90, and is still recruiting. One prominent hire is Ed Boyd, a Dell vice president of consumer design who previously held design jobs at Sony and Nike Inc.

    Search for Inspiration

    The new style focus is forcing designers to roam far and wide, both for inspiration and new materials.

    Lenovo's Mr. Hill says this fall he spent a day poring over designs at North Carolina car dealerships with a photo-snapping designer from Japan. They checked out new Corvettes and classic muscle cars like the 1965 Pontiac GTO. Mr. Hill has also taken the head of Lenovo's Beijing design group to inspect a version of the Batmobile, he says.

    Messrs. Boyd and Musgrave of Dell recount their own visits to custom car shows and furniture conventions. Mr. Boyd says he's inspired by products like his Porsche 911, which he calls "the quintessential combination of great performance and great design."

    In late August, Asustek Computer Inc., a longtime maker of circuit boards that now sells PCs under its own brand, joined Microsoft and Intel at a 2,800-square foot booth at Project Las Vegas, an annual fashion trade show. Asustek executives showed portables that include the leather-covered S6, a bamboo-sheathed model called the Eco-book, and a yellow-and-black notebook designed with Lamborghini.

    At the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, during a keynote speech by Chairman Bill Gates, Microsoft will hold a PC "fashion show" with judges -- including Nigel Barker of "America's Next Top Model" -- to size up various machines and pick three winning designs. One advantage of rubbing elbows in the fashion set: Asustek says it is now discussing with Macy's ways to promote its Asus PCs at the retailer.

    Such cross-industry influences are also spawning new products. H-P's Mr. Wolff says a furniture convention in Milan gave him new ideas for surface finishes and etching techniques for notebook cases.

    That led H-P in 2005 to strike a deal with Kyoto-based Nissha Printing Co. to develop a process for laminating designs into a notebook's case rather than printing them on top. With Nissha's process, H-P has produced several "special edition" computers with multicolored designs, including a dragon and a wave pattern.

    The new materials can pose new problems. Toshiba Corp. found that in 2006, when it worked with Microsoft to design a distinctive-looking notebook computer that would showcase the software maker's new Windows Vista operating system. The Portege R400 system, as it was called, stood out from other designs because its plastic casing had sharp, square corners.

    But Toshiba learned that that it's far more difficult to mold plastic with sharp corners than the round edges that are found on most portables. The company had to retool its production lines and work with a supplier to make plastic that would flow more easily into a mold.

    Pink Leather

    Asustek's S6 model -- which comes in tan, brown, white or pink leather -- requires special metal hand tools to stretch the cowhide around the notebook's outer casing. A single mosquito bite on a cow's skin can mar the leather enough to make it unusable, says Jackie Hsu, president of Asustek's U.S. unit, which goes by the name Asus.

    As customers become attuned to style, some executives predict the industry will break up into new design and price segments -- much like the car business has Toyotas and Mercedes, and clothing spans from Gucci to the Gap.

    Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder says Apple is likely to cement its place as an "elite" niche brand while Dell moves into mass customization -- offering products tailored to many different types of PC users. He expects H-P and Sony also will be design innovators, while other manufacturers develop styles for low-end PCs.

    Microsoft is working behind the scenes to help. For two days in September, for example, a team of Microsoft's design specialists sat for 12-hours a day behind a one-way mirror watching consumers answer questions about whether they'd be interested in PCs built around themes like sports, celebrities, fashion and art. The responses helped convince Microsoft that the PC industry can customize products around such interests.

    Will more-engaging designs pay off? The numbers from Apple are encouraging; for the quarter ended Sept. 29, the Cupertino, Calif., company says Macintosh sales rose 34%, more than double the world-wide PC growth rate of 15.5%.

    Competitors are certainly betting that they can stitch up more sales. A glossy-paged booklet from Asustek opens with a quote from French fashion pioneer Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel: "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only."

    The brochure asks if tomorrow's notebook computers will "share the space with shoes, bags and watches as everyday tools turned fashion statement?" It leaves the question unanswered.
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  4. [​IMG]
    Spurred by the success of Apple Inc.'s innovative machines and other factors, like the iMac, in 1998, at left, and 2007, PC makers have begun a fundamental makeover of the way they design computers.

    Dell, known for cookie-cutter corporate PCs, is focusing on style in a new line of computers, including a small notebook that comes in pink -- not to mention blue, red, black, green, white, yellow and brown.

    Lenovo Group Ltd., best known for the Thinkpad laptops popular for business users, this week is introducing a consumer notebook line called IdeaPad that features frameless displays and red, black and blue cases with raised and woven textures.

    Hewlett-Packard Co., which leads the PC industry in global sales, has notebooks embossed with dragons in silver and black.

    By wooing buyers who don't care about technical features, manufacturers hope to better tailor PCs to specific buyers, including women, students, gamers and sports fans.
  5. [​IMG]
    Dell began showing the Crystal Display monitor as a prototype at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. Made of heavy tempered glass with a metal tripod base, it's a departure from the conventional screens encased in plastic. Dell will announce at this year's CES that it will begin selling the display

    Dell's new XPS One, a thin, black one-piece PC.

    For most of industry's 30-year history, PC makers didn't worry much about style. But some companies have been exceptions to the rule.
    Intel pushed for more innovation, offering cash design prizes, hosting fashion shows at its technical forums and enlisting industrial designers. Prototypes included the 1999 "ottoman PC," -- a round stool from San Francisco-based Sozo Design that came in leopard skin and opened to reveal a computer and keyboard.

    Intel also commissioned Ziba Designs' Aztec, at left, which looked like a chopped-off orange and silver pyramid.

    Focusing on fashion over function is "a very dangerous route to go," says Sohrab Vossoughi, founder and president of Ziba Design, which has designed PC prototypes for Intel. "Things go up, and things go down."
    Another old Intel prototype, the Koi.
  6. These are definitely cute, although I would prefer quality over appearance, or both!
  7. i work at a store that sells LOTS of computers, and i think that PC manufacturers need to be careful with this. the thing about apple's computers is that MOST PEOPLE can agree that it's good design. it's simple, it's sleek, it's unobtrusive. i've seen some of the computers that they're painting tacky colors and putting things like dragons on...and it's a different thing. it's still a big, ugly box with a dragon on it. and not everyone likes dragons. if they're going to make 8 different versions of the same laptop or PC, that creates huge stock and supply-chain issues for retailers. we may display a particular laptop in red, for example, but when a customer says 'i want that one,' all we can say is 'well...we have it in pink...' and then they're disappointed. making something like an ipod in different colors is different because they're tiny and retailers have enough space to store hundreds upon hundreds of them. computers are different.

    they're still not learning Apple's lesson. Apple doesn't paint stupid crap on it's computers, it just makes them unoffensive to a wide audience by designing them to be, over all, aesthetically pleasing. THAT is what PC makers should be doing.
  8. Cuuuute! I want a pink or a white laptop now :drool:
  9. I've got two iMacs and my sister has a Mac Mini, all cool and stylish :smile:
  10. I'm glad that PC makers are catching on to that. When I was shopping for a laptop, I got a Sony VAIO because the assorted colors drew me in. It was definitely important to me how the computer looked.

    I would've gotten an Apple but I don't know how to use them.
  11. You don't have to figure out how to do anything. Just point, click or drag. You'll be making photobooks, movies and DVDs in no time!
  12. I have the pink Vaio laptop. In fact, I am posting from it right now! :p I love it. The SA at Sony was very snarky about the pink colour though. It's a good thing for him that my heart was set on it. When we were paying for it, my dad said "Pfft pink, why not get a better colour?" in a joking way. The SA replied "Unfortunately, pink has been selling the most. I don't understand it." Lol! I admit that if it weren't pink I wouldn't have bought it... it's just so cute. When looking for a new laptop I didn't know anything about dual processors :confused1: or whatever and was very lost. Lo and behold, Sony has a pink one! I snatched it up without hesitation. Quality AND style! :yes:
  13. Actually I think Dell is doing a good job with the new designs. Mr. Musgrave is doing at least one thing right....
  14. ohh i love the leopard topped bubble one!! and i def want a pink laptop too!!