Dull desktops need feature facelift

Dell’s announcement of its Vostro line of computers for the SMB market got me thinking about how long it had been since something new and interesting in an enterprise machine had hit the market.

Yes, there have been regular infusions of speed for the megahertz-hungry. (Oops — I forgot — since the advent of Core 2 Duo, they say megahertz as a power differentiator is dead. Whatever.) Standard configurations have definitely been increasing, driven in large part by Windows Vista, whose RAM and hard drive needs are significant. But we’re not really gaining more computing power, we’re just maintaining the status-quo, performance-wise.

Let’s face it, new enterprise laptop models (or, for that matter, desktops), unlike their consumer and SMB counterparts, tend to be, well, dull. However, speaking as a corporate IT geek, that’s the way we like them. Predictable. With backwards compatible accessories so we don’t need to keep buying separate spare components for each new model. An A/C adapter should be usable on a multitude of machines so we’re not accumulating drawers full of the darned things to accommodate our absent-minded users who keep leaving their adapters on the kitchen table.

Dull, however, doesn’t mean the system should lack features. Corporate users like their toys too, and so do corporate techies, as long as they’re supportable and useful toys. For example, the latest crop of laptops sports biometric readers, adding an additional layer of security. The humble CD writer is being supplanted by DVD writers. The number of USB ports has increased from one or two to three or four (and Vostro laptops trump that, with four or five). Wireless keeps advancing — even business laptops today are including an option for 802.11n (draft), something that would have been unthought of a few years ago. Consumers may play with draft standards, but corporations — not likely!

However, corporate systems usually tend to err on the side of conservative and reliable, and they certainly perch firmly on the side of lack of style! You won’t find any hot pink laptops in most enterprises. Even Vostros are basic black.

The big problem with style is that it’s a matter of taste, and tastes differ. Corporate systems have to blend in to the many decors and office layouts they will live in. Yet in the consumer world, to many people style is all-important; a colleague who was helping a friend configure a new Dell Inspiron laptop said the toughest decision was choosing the colour. And the style often tells you the brand (red trackstick = ThinkPad, for example), so a vendor like Dell who wants to spiff up the look of its hardware has to work within its branding parameters.

Corporate desktops, to me, should be unobtrusive. They’re tools, not fashion statements (Macs notwithstanding). That means as small and as quiet as possible (Dell even has a monitor stand that lets you mount the CPU behind the screen). They should be energy-efficient and easy to use, with most USB ports on the front where you can get at them. They should be durable, affordable and maintainable, with solid warranties — the dream is of a three-year replacement cycle, but many companies use desktops for much longer. And, of course, they should have sufficient computing power to do their jobs.

Dull? Yes. But perhaps we don’t need designer PCs any more than we need designer telephones on our desks.

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