Walt Mossberg

Dell Aims for Style With New Laptop and Family Model

Dell is bound and determined to show that it can be a bigger player in the consumer market. The company also is trying to shake its reputation for stodgy design.

I’ve been testing two new Dells that aim to prove both points. One is a pricey, style-conscious, ultrathin laptop; the other is an economical all-in-one desktop with an optional touch screen that lets you flick through pictures, music and video, and perform other tasks, with just your fingers.

Both computers, the Adamo laptop and the Studio One 19 desktop, are attractive and functional. But neither is ground-breaking. The laptop is a belated competitor to superthin, high-end machines like Apple’s (AAPL) MacBook Air and Lenovo’s ThinkPad X300 series. The desktop is a belated competitor to Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) TouchSmart touch-screen series.

Before getting into the physical attributes of these computers, a major caveat is in order: Both run Microsoft’s (MSFT) sluggish, annoying Windows Vista operating system. That puts them at a disadvantage to computers using the faster Microsoft Windows XP, or Apple’s superior Leopard operating system.

The Studio One is handsome — bordered with cloth, wrap-around trim in red, blue, white or other colors. And its optional touch screen is a sexy feature, complemented by special Dell touch software called the Touch Zone. Perhaps its most striking attribute is price. You can get one for as little as $699, far below the $1,200 base price of the H-P TouchSmart.

However, there’s a catch to this low price. The $699 base model lacks the touch screen. That costs $100 extra. Also, all of the Studio One 19 models — even those configured to cost more than $1,000 — have a relatively small screen: just 18.5 inches. The base model of the H-P has a 22-inch screen.

Dell (DELL) says it deliberately made the Studio One smaller so it would fit on a kitchen counter, where family members can walk up to it and use it as a kiosk for viewing photos, surfing the Web and performing other tasks. It even comes with a family calendar program, called Cozi; a touch-based notepad feature for leaving messages; and an appealing finger-painting program for kids.

In my tests, all worked pretty well, and the touch features also work in regular Windows programs, not just in the Touch Zone. The only downside of this latter capability is that, to make touch control easier, Dell has blown up the text and graphics in Vista, with the unfortunate side effect of making some program icons look jagged and fuzzy. (You can turn this effect off.)

As for the kitchen scenario, I have my doubts. In my kitchen, the Studio One took up precious counter space — it’s as wide as my microwave — and the wired keyboard and mouse on the cheaper models clutter up the counter.

On the other hand, there’s nothing cluttered about Dell’s new Adamo laptop. Like the MacBook Air, the Adamo uses a solid metal case and a sealed battery, and it simultaneously projects sleekness and solidity. It’s gorgeous, in both its black and white versions, and feels great in the hand. If the label was hidden, you’d think it was from Sony (SNE) or Apple, not Dell.

Like the Air and the ThinkPad 300 series, the Adamo uses a screen that’s about 13 inches, with good resolution. And, like its two competitors, it’s very thin. In fact, the Adamo is thinner than the tapered Air at the latter’s thickest point. The Adamo also has a far better selection of built-in ports than its Apple rival, though almost all are inconveniently placed in a protruding strip at the back of the machine.

Also, like the Air, the Adamo has touch features built into its trackpad. It has a built-in solid-state drive, like the Apple and the Lenovo. Such drives are faster and use less power than regular hard disks, but cost more. Also like the Air, it lacks a DVD drive.

Desktop

Dell’s Studio One 19 desktop

In my tests, the Adamo performed fine, and drew admiring glances wherever I took it. But the Adamo has three big flaws.

First, it’s expensive for these economic times — $2,000 with a 128-gigabyte drive and two gigabytes of memory. The Air can be bought for $1,800, with a slightly smaller regular hard disk. With the same size solid-state drive as the Adamo, the Air is $500 more.

Second, for all its thinness, the Adamo is relatively heavy. It weighs four pounds, versus three pounds for the Air.

Finally, it has mediocre battery life. In my tough battery test, where I turn off all power-saving features, leave on Wi-Fi, and play an endless loop of music, the Adamo got just 2 hours and 44 minutes, which likely translates in normal use to maybe 3.5 hours. By contrast, the Air lasted 40 minutes longer in the same test, and the Lenovo beat the Dell by 21 minutes.

With these machines, Dell is making a strong bid to win back consumers’ hearts. It’s off to a decent start.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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