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New Models Sport Chic Minimalism

November 16, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID |

Regardless of whether you like the Macintosh, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs has proved that looks do matter. The Apple iMac has not only won design awards but also millions of adoring fans. Whatever its technical merits, iMac's main appeal seems to be the way it looks.

Historically, PC vendors have paid scant attention to aesthetics. Those ubiquitous beige boxes might get plenty of use, but they don't get many adoring glances. That's changing.

For one thing, home PCs are starting to show up in living rooms and even kitchens. And thanks to advances in technology, they no longer need to be as big or expandable. One reason is the advent of the Universal Serial Bus, or USB--a small socket used to connect scanners, video cameras, external disk drives and other devices that used to require users to take apart their PC and plug in an add-in card.

In fact, some manufacturers are experimenting with what are called legacy-free PCs that don't even come with serial ports, parallel ports, an internal floppy disk drive or expansion slots. You don't need those ports and slots because there are now USB versions of popular printers, modems and other devices. You don't even need sockets for the keyboard and mouse because they too can connect to the USB port.

Compaq, for example, offers its iPaq Legacy-Free, starting at $499, which is designed for businesses whose employees need basic computing power without a lot of frills and expandability. The lack of a built-in floppy drive or, in some cases, even a CD-ROM drive, is attractive to some corporate PC managers who don't want users to add software or take files home.

Hewlett-Packard hasn't built a legacy-free PC, but it just introduced a new line of machines that are smaller, sleeker and more attractive than previous models. The HP Pavilion 2755 ($1,049 without monitor) has as much memory and hard-drive space as the heavy-duty business machine I generally use. And it's faster. But instead of a big beige box, the PC comes in a sleek case that's 13 inches tall, 14 3/4 inches deep and 4 inches wide.

I have mine sitting under my desk and, ironically, my only complaint is that it's too small. I have to reach down almost to the floor to turn it on. You can also place it on a table either vertically, like a tall, thin tower, or horizontally like a standard desktop PC. It comes in metallic gray, but sometime next year HP plans to offer a color kit that will let you swap out the side panels on the PC and monitor for as-yet unnamed colors. In paring down the machine, HP made few compromises in performance. Its 800-megahertz Pentium III CPU doesn't make it the fastest around. But it's close enough, and the 128 megabytes of RAM is adequate. Gamers might not be pleased that the video and sound circuitry is built into the motherboard. The hard disk stores 20 gigabytes, but that's still plenty.

The machine has internal floppy disk and CD-RW drives, but you wouldn't know it at first glance. The drives are hidden behind plastic doors. The CD pops out at the touch of a button, but opening the floppy door is awkward. That same door hides the serial port, which is on the front of the unit instead of the back as on most PCs. That might make it easier to connect a device such as a digital camera temporarily, but I strongly prefer having the serial port at the back for devices such as the docking station of a Palm organizer that are connected all the time. HP put audio in and out jacks in front and in back.

Two empty PCI slots offer the ability to add an expansion card if you need one. But there are no empty drive bays, so you can't add an internal Zip drive or a second CD or DVD drive. For that reason, I probably wouldn't buy this machine for personal use.

Still, most people don't really need a lot of expandability, and even if they do, they can get external USB devices that will work fine with this machine.

Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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