Walt Mossberg

Dell’s All-in-One PC Has the Guts, Design to Compete With iMac

Something interesting is going on at Dell. The Texas personal-computer behemoth, long associated with boxy, boring machines, has started emphasizing industrial design. And the company, which in recent years seemed to care only about corporate customers, techies and hard-core gamers, appears once again interested in average, mainstream consumers who value simplicity.

The most tangible example of this new approach is Dell’s XPS One desktop — an elegant, handsome, cleverly designed one-piece computer. If it didn’t have the Dell logo on it, the XPS One might be mistaken for a product of the PC industry’s design leaders, Apple or Sony.

Like Apple’s iconic iMac, the XPS One looks like it’s simply a sleek, flat-panel monitor. The guts of the computer have been stuffed into the back of the screen.

But this new Dell is no mere iMac clone. It makes its own style statement, even though it shares the same 20-inch widescreen display and a similar Intel dual-core processor with the base-model iMac. Where the iMac is squarish and silver, the XPS One is all black and rectangular, with speakers attached to the sides and a wide glass base. It looks more like a small TV set than a computer and, in fact, comes with a built-in TV tuner.

In my tests, I found the XPS One to be much better designed and equipped than Gateway’s iMac competitor, also called the One. In fact, the Dell XPS One is the first Windows all-in-one desktop I’ve tested that I believe matches or exceeds the iMac in hardware design. That’s no small feat, especially coming from Dell.

Unlike the Apple, for example, the Dell has a built-in slot for camera memory cards. It comes standard with a wireless keyboard and mouse, which cost extra on the iMac. Its screen can be turned off with the touch of a button without turning off the computer itself. Its USB and headphone ports are arrayed conveniently on the side, instead of mainly at the rear, as on the iMac.

And, when you wave your hand in front of the black border to the right of the screen on the XPS One, a set of blue, back-lit touch controls magically appear for controlling the playback of music or video. They go away after a few seconds. The Dell also comes with a free year of 10 gigabytes of online backup.

For my tests, I used the least expensive standard configuration of the XPS One, which can be ordered for $1,499 at dell.com/theonepc. It came with two gigabytes of memory (twice the comparable iMac’s standard amount), a 250 gigabyte hard disk and Wi-Fi wireless networking, unusual in Windows desktops.

The computer performed crisply and well for me. I installed several popular third-party programs that weren’t included, such as Microsoft Office, the Firefox Web browser, Apple’s iTunes and Adobe Reader. All worked fine.

I also successfully tested the built-in TV function, which requires a cumbersome external attachment to work with a cable box. I was able to view and record TV shows, something you can’t do out of the box on an iMac.

I still recommend the iMac over the XPS One for several reasons other than hardware design. First, there’s the software. I believe Apple’s operating system, Leopard, is superior to the new Windows Vista operating system, the only choice on the XPS One. In my tests, a reboot of the XPS One took more than twice as long as a reboot of the iMac.

And I regard Apple’s built-in software, especially the iLife multimedia suite, as superior to the Dell’s built-in software, which includes a group of Adobe multimedia programs that are less well integrated and more complex.

The XPS One, unlike the iMac, also came with a bunch of craplets — trial software like Yahoo Music and come-ons for online services like NetZero.

Second, the iMac, unlike the Dell, is immune to the vast majority of malicious software floating around, so you don’t have to run annoying, memory-hogging security programs. The first time I turned on the beautiful Dell I was met with a warning that I had “multiple security problems,” and was led to install a security suite in a complex and tedious process.

Third, defying popular perception, the iMac costs less than the XPS One. The base, 20-inch iMac costs $1,199 — about $300 less. And even if you double the memory, and add a wireless keyboard and mouse to match the Dell, it’s still $1,399 — $100 less than the base XPS One (though Dell is currently running a sale that wipes out the $100 gap). Even the cheapest iMac has a dedicated video card with its own memory, something the base XPS One lacks.

Plus, while Dell offers only 20-inch screens on the XPS One, Apple has higher-end iMacs with huge 24-inch screens for the same price, or less, than the higher-end Dells.

Still, if you want a stylish Windows Vista machine that runs well and won’t cost a fortune, the XPS One fits the bill, despite its unlikely heritage.

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