Budget laptops and the iPhone have been getting most of the attention in gadget circles lately, but there's another intriguing trend under...

Share story

Budget laptops and the iPhone have been getting most of the attention in gadget circles lately, but there’s another intriguing trend under way.

Believe it or not, the old desktop PC is going through a minirenaissance. This summer, top-tier PC makers are rolling out an array of wild new machines that could have computer shoppers wondering if they’ve stumbled into the wrong aisle at Best Buy.

You could call these new systems crossovers. They use the small-scale hardware developed for laptops in compact and colorful new desktop packages.

They won’t displace laptops, which now account for most PC sales. Nor will they satisfy gamers and enthusiasts who still want big, customizable machines. But they’re jazzing up the options for average users who just want a simple, small and stationary computer.

They’re also cheap enough that people might consider buying one as a second or third PC in the home.

Exotic PCs have been around forever, but the cutting-edge models have mostly been too expensive for mainstream buyers.

This new batch of desktops ranges from about $350 to $1,200 for the base models, making them contenders with budget tower PCs at the lower end and Apple’s iMac at the top.

Several things are happening.

One is that processors with enough oomph to really handle Windows Vista are coming down in price.

Processor prices are always falling as faster models are developed. But this time around, the cost of mobile processors is closer to desktop components, enabling manufacturers to be more creative in the design of lower-end models.

Mobile components have become less expensive because laptop sales volume has become so big, said Bob O’Donnell, vice president of research firm IDC.

“In the past, trying to use notebook parts in desktops jacked up the price of these systems to make them unattractive financially,” he said. “Now you can move to a smaller form factor, and on top of that you can play the green card because these things use a lot less power and energy.”

The new systems also take advantage of new graphics technology. That’s been a challenge for Vista, which needs extra graphics horsepower. After it launched, Vista-capable add-on graphics cards added hundreds of dollars to the cost of a PC. Now those cards can be found for less than $100.

Another cost-cutting option is Intel’s built-in graphics system, which is finally powerful enough to handle Vista’s “Aero” graphics for general usage. That lets PC makers build systems without the bulk and cost of graphics cards.

Finally, Vista has been steadily refined since its release, and Microsoft is launching a big ad campaign to enhance perceptions of the software. That may or may not work, but PC makers will piggyback on the marketing effort and contribute to the “fresh start” with their new models.

Meanwhile Apple’s Mac is steadily expanding its share of the consumer PC market. Macs still account for less than 10 percent of PCs sold in the U.S., but Apple’s gains are significant enough that Microsoft warned investors of the competition in its annual report issued last week.

It’s not all roses for Apple, though. On July 21, the company told its investors to expect narrower margins in the coming year, as a result of upcoming products.

Apple enthusiasts are expecting the company to release new Macs with potentially costly multitouch control pads. Maybe it’s also planning to limit price increases when new models arrive, so Macs remain an attractive alternative to Windows PCs in the mid-to-upper price range (especially if the public warms up to Vista).

“I think that Apple will probably continue to grow share for a while,” O’Donnell said.

Either way, the pressure is pushing Microsoft and the computer industry to spruce up their offerings.

“You will see much nicer-looking PCs [and] more targeted efforts at creating a better experience for people,” O’Donnell said.

Among the major PC makers, Sony’s been one of the most creative when it comes to desktops. It stopped selling desktop towers and now sells only two models: an exotic hatbox-shaped home-theater PC and an all-in-one PC with a built-in TV.

The Mac’s recent success validates Sony’s approach, emphasizing unique designs and solutions, said Xavier Lauwaert, Sony’s U.S. desktop product manager.

“At the same time, the onus is on us to go one step above and tell end-users that the Windows operating system … is not as heavy as you might think,” he said.

Another challenge is the perception that laptops have extra value, because they’re mobile.

PC makers are “saying we agree with you, a mobile platform has a lot of value, but if you consider a new form factor, you will still see that you need not only a mobile platform but a nonmobile one,” Lauwaert said.

He said the wave of new PC designs has just begun:

“Give us another year and a half or two years and you might see even better stuff coming down the pike,” he said.

“I’ve been in the industry for 11 years and never have I seen such a fast pace of change that I’ve seen in the last year and a half.”

Those who can’t wait may be interested in these crossovers.

If it had a slightly smaller display, I’d buy a Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart IQ500. The second generation of HP’s consumer touch PCs can be controlled by tapping the screen, in addition to the mouse and keyboard. They’re a taste of the future, fun to use and irresistible to anyone under 12.

Reviewers harrumphed about the IQ500’s custom touch applications, but they’re optional. I’m more concerned about enthusiastic touchers pushing it over backward.

Even more enthusiastic about the TouchSmart is Dave Fester, marketing manager for Microsoft’s Windows division selling to computer makers.

“You put up an all-in-one — a TouchSmart — next to an iMac, and frankly the iMac looks old, outdated and not as interesting,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum is the new $349 Eee Box that Asus begins selling Friday. It’s a cousin of the bargain Eee PC laptop, based on Intel’s tiny new Atom processor designed for mobile devices.

The Box is simple — it doesn’t have a CD drive and runs only Windows XP Home — but it’s just fine for basic computing. It’s also amazingly small for a full PC — the size of a softcover book. Asus includes a bracket so you can hang it on the back of a monitor or TV.

“It’s really positioned as a college dorm product, something that’s not going to take up too much room,” said Debby Lee, Asus spokeswoman.

I’ll bet it will do better with homeowners looking for a second or third PC that’s cheap and inconspicuous, although Fester cautioned that people may be frustrated if they use a Box for power-intensive tasks like editing video.

Dell’s entry is the Studio Hybrid, a desktop that’s almost as small as the Box but runs Vista and has a CD-DVD drive.

Its $499 starting price undercuts the Mac Mini, but the base model uses an outdated Pentium chip and runs only bare-bones Vista Basic.

The Hybrid’s pandering to the Prius crowd, with eco-friendly packaging and the option of a $130 bamboo case. I’d skip the bamboo and go for the more powerful Core 2 Duo processor.

Either way, the color options and stylish shape will probably appeal to condo-dwellers and others who want a Windows PC that’s small and attractive enough to actually keep on their desktop.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.