NEW YORK -- The bulky, beige personal computer is going on a diet. Thanks to ever-shrinking components, manufacturers are introducing thinner machines with flat-panel screens that save desk space for coffee mugs and family photos.
Not that your average clunker, which costs less than the svelte newcomers, is going away soon. But the arrivals, displayed Tuesday at the PC Expo trade show in New York, signal an important deviation from the desktops that have cramped work space and depressed office ambiance for nearly two decades. Now, you can buy a well-equipped PC for $2,000 that takes up one-quarter the space.
The unconventional designs, from Sony, Gateway, Packard Bell NEC and others, take their cue from Apple Computer's iMac, which has shaken up the world of desktops since its launch last summer. Apple's highly popular machine is shaped like a giant jelly bean, equipped with a built-in monitor, and comes in five translucent colors through that inner circuitry is faintly visible.
But unlike the iMac, which starts at $900, the futuristic machines cost more than twice as much and are aimed at a smaller niche of buyers. The main reason is their space-saving flat-panel screens, which use liquid crystal instead of electron beams to show data and images and cost four times as much as conventional monitors.
"They look great, but they add a significant chunk to the overall price of the system," said Tom Rhinelander, an industry analyst with Forrester Research, a Boston-based high-tech consulting firm.
Profile computer, which starts at $1,999 and is just 3 inches thick, looks like it's missing something from the back. Yet crammed against the thin monitor is a 400-megahertz AMD microprocessor, 64-megabytes of memory, a 4.3-gigabyte hard drive and sockets for attachments.
A comparably equipped Gateway of the bulkier variety costs $1,317.
"It's a nice slim unit. We would recommend it to customers," said salesman Gary Paraschak of the Waytek computer distributor in Voorhees, N.J., who was checking out the PC Expo exhibits for products to sell to retail stores.
Saving room "is a real big issue because office space is expensive," he said.
"It's got a possibility," said a more skeptical Catherine Miller of Cigna Corp., who advises the big insurance company on computer purchases. She was concerned that employees used to conventional monitors might have a hard time adjusting to the new screens.
"The visibility is just OK," she said.
Sony's new Vaio Slimtop LCD computer also features a sliver of a monitor. But unlike Gateway, Sony packed its vital circuitry into a separate box the size of a hard-cover dictionary -- about one-third the dimensions of a conventional computer tower.
THE VAIO SLIMTOP,
available in lavender-gray, sports an innovative keyboard with a dust cover that slides out to convert into a palm rest. Prices start at $2,299 for a machine equipped with a 400-megahertz Pentium II, and $2,999 for a version with a 500-megahertz Pentium III.
Sony officials said the Slimtops, announced earlier this year, are aimed at such space-conscious buyers such as Wall Street firms, where financial traders' desks typically are crammed with up to six monitors.
Packard Bell NEC, owned by NEC Corp. and Groupe Bull, last week rolled out its Z1 desktop, a $2,500 desktop that fits its important components into the back of a flat-screen monitor. It also includes a wireless keyboard that no longer tethers users to the desktop. At the PC Expo show, the company displayed a slim computer designed for business use, costing $2,400 and up.
Like its slim rivals, the Z1 uses many Packard Bell parts that were originally made for laptops, enabling the feat of desktop miniaturization.
"Basically it is a notebook in desktop clothing," said Michael DeNeffe, Packard Bell's product manager for laptops.