One of Dell's latest desktop PCs deserves an adjective that has rarely applied to its products: stylish.

Share story

One of Dell’s latest desktop PCs deserves an adjective that has rarely applied to its products: stylish.

The new Studio Hybrid owes nothing to Dell’s other desktops. Instead of the traditional boxy tower case, this $499-and-up design packs its components into a compact, oblong cylinder. Perched on its tiny metal platform, it should fit on any desk — or TV stand.

This little machine marks Dell’s entry into a category of computer that it and most mainstream computer vendors have ignored so far: the small-form-factor (SFF) desktop. These fit-in-a-shoebox models — for example, Apple’s Mac mini and Shuttle’s XPC line — preserve many of the core virtues of desktops, such as easily upgradeable components, but take up a smidgen of the space occupied by traditional designs.

They’re a compelling alternative for people who don’t want to waste space on a massive desktop but don’t want to pay more for a laptop.

Many SFF models can be described with another abbreviation: HTPC, meaning a home theater PC plugged into an HDTV to bring digital music, photos and video to the living room.

True, tiny desktops like the Mac mini, XPC and Studio Hybrid lack the expandability of tower-case systems: You can’t pop in an extra hard drive. But for the many users who never crack open their machines, that’s a meaningless attribute.

The Studio Hybrid doesn’t just look small (at a bit over 8 inches long, under 8 inches tall and less than 3 inches wide, it takes up about a fifth of the space of other Dell desktops), it also looks fairly sharp. Its slot-loading CD/DVD-burner drive and memory-card slot are so well integrated into the front that you might miss their presence at first.

Other less obvious elements show further thoughtfulness on Dell’s part. The Studio Hybrid’s power brick is a thin, flat module, much smaller than those attached to most desktops and laptops. Even the usual, useless Microsoft and Intel stickers have been shrunk to fingernail size and banished to the Hybrid’s metal stand.

One false note comes with the too cleverly hidden eject button for the CD/DVD drive, a touch-sensitive spot on the front of the case that only lights up when you pop in a disc.

As the contrived Hybrid moniker suggests, Dell pitches this as an environmentally sound choice. The Hybrid consumes considerably less juice than any other desktop, clocking in at around 30 watts when powered up (less than half as much as many desktops) and just two when asleep.

Dell also brags about things like the amount of recyclable material in its packaging and the recycling kit inside: pre-addressed, prepaid DHL forms to ship your old computer and monitor back to the company for recycling.

As an everyday home computer, the Hybrid ought to do fine … once you configure it properly at Dell’s site. The entry-level, $499 model only includes a gigabyte of memory — too little for intensive use of Windows Vista. And its 160-gigabyte hard drive will fill up quickly. It also lacks Wi-Fi and bundles the stripped-down Basic edition of Windows Vista.

The rest of the Hybrid’s software setup reflects Dell’s recent, welcome move to rid its computers of trialware junk. The only notable additions to the standard Windows applications are Google Desktop (useful) and the Dell Dock, a floating toolbar that offers shortcuts to some applications (not so useful). Weirdly enough, no anti-virus applications make the standard bundle.

As with any other Dell, you can remedy these oversights by custom-ordering a system at the company’s site. But the costs quickly add up. The souped-up model Dell loaned for this review — with triple the memory, a faster processor, a bigger hard drive, Wi-Fi, and a wireless keyboard and mouse — would have cost $869.

Even then, you’d still have to provide your own monitor. And because the Hybrid only includes digital video outputs — a DVI connector that works with most newer monitors, and an HDMI port that connects to most HDTVs — you’d need to buy an adapter were you to employ an older display.

The Hybrid’s pricing looks even worse compared with the rest of Dell’s desktop lineup. One of its two cheapest models, the $279 Inspiron 530s, may dwarf the Hybrid and won’t win any design awards but is itself considerably smaller than other Dell desktops.

It’s hard to see the Studio Hybrid faring too well among longtime, value-minded Dell customers. This model seems best understood as a little brother of the XPS One that Dell introduced last year — a sleek, all-in-one model clearly inspired by Apple’s iMac. But after so many years building affordable, bland boxes, can Dell pull in new customers by charging a premium for style?

If it doesn’t want to be shut out of a bigger market for smaller computers, it might have to learn how — or be ready to cut the price of this model.