Pretty PCs - the quest continues

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I don't know diddly about industrial design, but apparently it's hard.

Really, really hard.

Only one personal computer company has ever managed to get it even fairly consistently right.

IBM got "square, black and serious" down pat with the ThinkPads. Their consumer line isn't even made by IBM any more, but IBM stuff from six years ago looks just like stuff from last week. Heck, it's arguable that they did their best work in 1995.

Only people with a Darth Vader fetish want to fondle a ThinkPad, though. Sony have made a few spiffy looking Vaios (though the steak seldom lives up to the sizzle), and there are some pretty decent Small Form Factor boxes. The current efforts from Lian Li and their imitators aren't too bad, either, particularly when compared with those ridiculous air-dam cases that Alienware keep using.

Oh, and not to forget the fashion-forward designs from the masters at Liebermann, whose fashion has always been so very forward that they didn't have time to actually make any of their marvellous products.

But everybody knows that all of the other companies are just playing catch-up with Apple.

I've babbled on about how much I'd like to see techno-gadgetry that's lovely to hold (or just behold) before, but I ran up hard against the issue when I bought a Mac a while ago.

This Mac was for my mother, because she cares not what operating system she uses, as long as it makes sense. Mac OS has always made more sense than the contemporaneous versions of Windows, and it makes her pretty much virus and spyware proof into the bargain.

This Mac is the third one I've bought for my mum. But it's the first new one, and the first shiny-shiny one too.

The other two were a glacially slow 117MHz PowerBook 1400cs for which my mother really should have disowned me, followed by a perfectly serviceable beige G3 whose hard drive eventually died in the most gradual, genteel, go-ahead-and-make-your-backups-I'll-wait way I've ever witnessed.

I seized the opportunity to hurl my mother headlong into the world of DVD burners, FireWire and OS X, and so the new box was, of course, an eMac.

For people who haven't been keeping up, the eMac's a G4 box built like the original iMacs, except with a 16-viewable-inch flat-screen CRT instead of the CRT iMacs' curvy 13.8 incher, and a choice of any colour you like as long as it's white.

Apple originally made the eMac for the education market, hence the name. They then consented to sell the thing to anybody who wanted it. If you think this sounds like a pretty obvious course of action, then you don't think like Apple; they've made a few super-cool devices in the past that normal consumers were not allowed to buy. And now the whole switching-to-Intel thing would appear to have resulted in Apple going back to only selling eMacs to edumacational types, but I think you've actually missed your chance; the eMac page directs you to their education sales site, makes you tell them what school you represent, then doesn't actually let you buy an eMac at all.

This isn't to say you can't still find new eMacs here and there, and there are of course used ones on eBay as well. But I'm still glad I bought one when I did.

Anyway. I realise that this is The Outside Scoop, but have you looked at one of these things lately?

The back of the eMac could just have ordinary cooling grilles for its old-tech monitor, but no. It looks like The Rocketeer's new improved backpack.

The front's so frippery-free that the power LED just glows whitely straight through the uninterrupted plastic panel. The power button hides flushly down the side.

And, summing up the whole philosophy, you even get a special IEC lead with a collar that neatly plugs into a round recessed hole around the eMac power socket. Any normal power lead will work, but the Apple one's cooler.

The optical drive's an ordinary tray-load unit whose black tongue spoils the Mac's visage somewhat when it's ejected, but at least there's a keyboard key to do it.

Oh, yeah, the keyboard. I don't want to use it, especially, since its key-feel is only average, but the current frameless USB Apple Pro Keyboard (which looks the same as the fancy wireless version, except, you know, with a wire) is definitely the input device of choice for all Pan American Space Clipper pilots. The zero-button mouse is a neat hack, sure, but I want to hold that keyboard like a teddy while I sleep.

(You can, by the way, plug any USB Apple keyboard into a PC, but you'll have to do a bit of registry tweaking if you want to turn the Apple F13 to F15 keys into Print Screen, Scroll Lock and Pause.)

But Macs are expensive, I hear you all say. They keep improving the base spec levels, of course, but the current 17 inch Intel-powered iMac is still about $US1500 with a decent spec level, as I write this. Add another $US700 to get the slowest dual G5 without monitor, unless you want Not Enough Memory (512Mb's enough for my mum for now, but not for most of this site's readership...) and a mere 160Gb hard drive.

I only paid $AU1499 delivered (about $US1100 at the moment) for a 512Mb eMac with DVD burner, and that was in the middle of 2005. US shoppers would appear to be able to get one with the same specs for less than $US850.

The standard Dipping Your Toe In The Mac Waters option for the last year has been the Mac Mini, but one of those with input devices and a pokey 40Gb hard drive (the Minis are so small because they use laptop components) is around $US680 at the moment. $US780 if you get it with its single memory slot filled with a 1Gb module. It's great that the Mini's so small, and all, but if you're not going to KVM-switch it to your existing monitor and input devices, there's really a great deal to be said for getting an eMac instead.

And if you get the eMac, you not only get a cheap computer, but a gorgeous one too.

So, finally getting to my point, there's room for PC gear to be this nice, without carrying a stupid price premium that'll make it unsellable.

PC makers have been racing to the bottom of the price scale for years now, leaving no margin at all to make their products - hardware or software - pleasing to live with. That's not altogether a bad thing; I'm glad that a person of limited means can buy an awful Dell desktop for $US349 (or, theoretically, $US299, After $50 Mail-In Rebate!). It's the Kia of computers, sure, but it's a computer, and it's new. Fair enough.

But it's not as if Apple has special magic factories that lucky consumers who find a Golden Ticket in with their iPod get to visit. Unless I'm very much mistaken, Apple laptops have been and/or are made by Quanta, Compal, ECS and Asustek (just like half of the stuff on the motherboard shelf at your local PC shop), and iMac and eMac manufacturing's been handled over the years by LG and Hon Hai Precision, who strangely like to be known by a different name.

So c'mon, Asus, or any other PC parts juggernaut with some money in the bank. Hire some design students, set up a usability testing lab, and turn out a moderately powerful PC that's as tasty, and as generally useful, as an eMac.

Perhaps, in a year or two, we'll all be running Windows on Intel-based Macs and Mac OS on clone PCs and dogs and cats will be living together and there'll be mass hysteria. That'd solve the pretty-PC problem.

But is it really that hard for some other company to just... make one?

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