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Dell's Product Design Improves, But PC Notebooks Are Still Blah

Dell CEO Michael Dell mentioned the product lust mantra last year and has come back to it repeatedly in conference calls and analyst meetings. Dell's message: The company needs to improve design and inspire a few 'gotta have that' moments from technology buyers.
lust1.png How is Dell doing?

There's no coolness metric so these observations are totally subjective. But appears that Dell has definitely improved its product design capabilities and can generate some product lust. I'm presently window shopping for a laptop so I've been paying more attention to design and what company delivers the goods. I've been a Dell customer in the past and unlike some of you I haven't had a bad experience. My last three PCs have been Dells. I've also purchased a few Apples.

This time around my shopping is more wide open. I'm forcing myself to consider a wide range of options and checking out Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo and others. I've been focusing on Windows laptops for my shopping experiment because I already know what I'll get from Apple. The choice is Apple or other PC makers. Besides the design equation is more muddled on the Windows laptop front so it's more interesting lust2.pngas an exercise.

Also see: Gallery: Dell's designs on product lust
Let's face it: Most Windows laptops are the same with few exceptions. How important is design? For me it's probably a close second behind price. For others, design is everything. In fact, it's probably the only thing that will get you to move up the price scale all other things equal. A few thoughts about Dell's product lust standing against others as I work through my options:

Does color really matter? Am I really so superficial that I care whether a laptop is red, blue or espresso brown. Yeah. Perhaps it's because I'm tapping this post out on a boring blackâ€"yet very reliable ThinkPadâ€"but I do look at Dell's color pallet and am drawn to it. Feel free to mock meâ€"I mock myself. But Dell's color choicesâ€"which looked totally cliclust3.pnghe when it launched a year agoâ€"matters a bit. In fact, I take back my initial skepticism. There's something to be said for a Flamingo Pink laptopâ€"although I won't be ordering one. Oddly enough other vendors haven't gone color happy. HP sticks with a brushed metallic look on its latest line of notebooks. And last word on the color as design thing. You could do worse. Acer has a laptop with a Ferrari logoâ€"puhleeze.

Is Dell pushing the envelope? Dell is also going beyond mere colors (it is offering prints too) but is also playing with the form factorsâ€"targeting the Eee PC and MacBook Air. According to Engadget, Dell is playing with netbooks and other small devices. However, every other vendor is also targeting this netbook market, but this category is something that Dell would have brushed off a few years ago.

Perception matters. I haven't gotten into little things like port placement, webcams and other items (largely because it's all the same to me). What's left is perception in this comparison shopping is perception. Design matters, but so does vendor perception. Overall, I feel better about Dell. Financially, the company's prospects haven't improved all that much but things are looking up. In addition, Dell is more open to customers now and its blogging efforts and engagement has paid off. And Dell's anti-crapware comments a year ago have stuck with me. Dell was anti-crapware for business PCs but there's an easy opt-out for consumer PCs too. Crapware isn't a design element but not having it is a big win. And if you're pondering a Vista machine the last thing you need is crapware gumming up the works.

Bottom line: While Dell hasn't inspired an overwhelming bout of product lust it is comparableâ€"if not ahead ofâ€"its rivals. Overall though the design chops for all the PC manufacturers could improve dramatically.

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and Editorial Director of ZDNet sister site TechRepublic. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.
Credit: ZDNet