The Dell One vs. the iMac: The Chase for Beautiful

It continues to amaze me how long it has taken for the rest of the market to realize that Apple does some things incredibly well. For example: Apple survived the consolidation of the PC market onto Windows by focusing on creating an incredibly user-friendly platform and wrapping it around generally-pleasing and well-designed hardware. (On the Windows PC side, that market went down a different path – one much more focused on cost – and the end result were products that were increasingly both less expensive and less interesting.)

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though – and if so, Dell’s finally paying homage to Steve Jobs and co. at every possible turn. Because this year, while Acer/Gateway and HP have focused with laser-like determination on building compelling designs in general, Dell recently took the step of looking to Apple for direct inspiration. Dell, which has significantly increased its design staff, has also given that staff an interesting directive. Specifically, that is, to build products that make Apple’s signature wares look bad in comparison.

The first product out that was designed to meet this goal was the XPS M1330. (And if you get a chance to put it next to an Apple notebook, you’ll see that it does make the machine look old-hat.) But the new Dell One, to my eye, goes much further, and it is a clear indication that PC vendors are starting to push on Apple hard. 


This particular class of computer, outside of Apple’s category offerings, has really only been a hit up until now in Japan where space is incredibly tight, and the top product there has not been an iMac, but rather a Sony historically. However, we spoke of all-in-ones a few weeks ago and how I thought they were becoming more standard across the globe. More recently, we chatted about how I’d taken so strongly to the Gateway One (note the oddly common naming theme) as well.

The historic problem with these systems has been the unwillingness of everyday buyers to tie the monitor and the PC together into a single package. However, the advantage of creating a system that is incredibly easy to setup and, if needed, be moved about one’s living space or office, make these things ideal for areas where the complexity of a traditional desktop gets in the way. Kids’ rooms, kitchens, even office environments (they look wonderful on contemporary glass desks) and guest rooms are all ideal locations for an all-in-one system, which nicely marries various forms of media and components into one very simple to use and configure product.

Bearing this in mind, I believe it is really time to look at an all-in-one device to meet your needs, whether it is from Apple, Dell, Acer/Gateway or HP. And thankfully, none of these systems is that similar to the other, so the choice isn’t all that difficult.

The Dell One vs. the iMac

For starters, realize that the Dell One doesn’t run Leopard and the iMac isn’t the best place to run Windows (though some of the changes in Vista SP1 may make it vastly better in a few weeks). So instead, we’ll focus on the hardware itself.  

On the iMac side, you’re looking at an aging design that was recently updated with a metal finish. However, the product has always looked rushed to me. Don’t get me wrong – it remains a very attractive box. But the iMac isn’t as current or compelling as the iPod Touch and iPhone, both of which look vastly more advanced.

Cable management is also poorly located (off to the side and difficult to conceal) and the thickness of the device appears to be caused by older processors which have had heat problems; although current Intel parts have addressed this issue. This doesn’t mean iMac units are bad looking – they’re downright iconic, particularly from a head-on perspective. Nonetheless, the system has been around in this format for some time, and there have been a lot of technology changes since the initial design rolled out.

I still think the 3rd generation here was a step back, in terms of engineering leadership, from the 2nd generation iMac, which was more advanced ergonomically and remains one of the most sophisticated products thats ever been built. What’s more, in terms of the iPhone and the iPod Touch, you see a much more current design motif, and I’d actually expected something like what is shown in this video to have made its debut by now.

As for the Dell One, it comes across as being much newer than the iMac – in fact, the one I was shown had a beautiful, automotive-quality paint finish. It further incorporates TV capabilities into the core function set, and you can even get a built-in Blu-ray drive.

Conversely, Apple backs Blu-ray, but has not yet integrated it, probably because the format remains too prohibitively expensive for most. ATI and others do sell a TV tuner for the iMac, and for around $1,000 you can add a Blu-Ray external drive, but seriously… With all of this stuff hanging off that box, you kind of kill the whole idea of an all-in-one unit to begin with. 

The Dell One, on the other hand, is stunning in person and the fact that it ships, as does the Gateway One, with a heavy use of wireless technology, keeps the desktop relatively clutter-free. The base is made of real glass too, which is not only pretty – it also lowers the center of gravity and makes it less of a hazard. Speakers are additionally located at the outside ends of the monitor instead of below it, which typically provides better stereo separation. And the keyboard and mouse are built by Logitech who, in my opinion, does a better job than either Apple or Microsoft and both components are, as I mentioned, wireless standard. 

Overall, it’s safe to say the Dell One is one of the prettiest boxes Dell has ever made. Now, that isn’t to say the iMac doesn’t still have some advantages, i.e. you can get a 24” iMac while the Dell is only 20”, and the Apple comes with a rich consistent software load (why is it that no-one can come up with a strong competitor for iLife?) while the Dell ships with Adobe Elements (it’s a handy package, but most agree that iLife tops it). Granted, the iMac’s out-of-the-box experience remains the industry standard, and while I haven’t yet seen what Dell promises on this front yet, it is hard to believe anyone can outdo Apple in this regard. 

But I digress. Since I don’t truly see a whole lot of point in putting a Blu-ray drive (and what is a huge premium) on either of these machines yet, the best buy for the Dell is towards the bottom of the stack, or around $1,500. So, if the goal is to truly be an all-in-one PC, I’m giving the nod to the Dell One, because it is naturally wireless, comes with built-in tuners (both HD and analog) and you can always grab an integrated Blu-ray drive if desired, making it a better paradigm of the category. In my opinion, the Dell One is sharper-dressed and more up-to-date to boot, though such opinions are clearly subjective, and the iMac is by any measure still a very pretty box.   

Wrapping Up:  Apple Has Driven Dell, Gateway and HP to New Highs 

Anyhow, long story short: I was expecting a major update to the iMac by now. Furthermore, I’m personally hung up on the fact I really thought the 2nd generation product was the best all-in-one system ever made, and that Apple’s current offering isn’t as nearly as good. On the flip side, the Dell offering is one of the best-looking products I’ve ever seen, and you really do need to check it on in person, since pictures don’t do the unit justice. Meanwhile, the current Apple industrial design is aging and due for a significant overhaul.

The reality of the situation simply being as follows… for those of you seriously considering an iMac, the Dell One probably won’t make your short list, because you’re being driven largely by Leopard. However, I’d at least consider that the large number of currently released or soon-to-be-shipping all-in-one computers is likely going to force Apple to significantly redesign its products in the near future, and you may want to factor that in when considering future purchases. It’s about time for the iMac to go through a major update and, I fully expect that by this time next year, Apple will have raised the bar again. 

Therefore for those debating copping a new desktop PC this year, take a moment to check out each of the possible choices including the Gateway One, HP TouchSmart, iMac and the new Dell One. All grumbling aside, I’ve enjoyed every one of them and, at some point, I expect that those of us who continue to use desktop computers will increasingly choose a form of all-in-one. In the end though, like picking a human companion, regardless of how any of these systems looks, it’s bound to be what’s inside that drives you to a particular vendor and model – which, rumor happily has it, is the way things should work anyhow.

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