SAN FRANCISCO (03/21/2000) - Think small and simple: A new type of miniature desktop system is here. Maybe you've seen these PCs on TV or in magazine ads:
They stand less than half as tall as a standard tower, weigh as little as 8.5 pounds, and have a minuscule footprint. Some vendors describe them as "legacy-light" or "legacy-free"--euphemisms for stripped down.
In fact, these systems dispense with many of the add-in cards and ports (and much of the productivity software) that once came standard on desktop PCs. The positive news: Prices in this system class are usually diminutive, too--as low as $499--and vendors say the simple configuration will help you save on maintenance. We took a close look at three early arrivals: shipping models of Compaq Computer Corp.'s IPaq Legacy-Free and the Micron Electronics Inc.
ClientPro Cf, and a preproduction version of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s E-Vectra.
No Cards, No Bays
These lapdog-size units contain no internal PCI or ISA slots and no empty bays for subsequent expansion. Networking, graphics, and sound are all integrated onto the motherboard. Some models have no parallel or serial connections, no floppy drive, or no CD-ROM drive.
But these machines are far more powerful than both the very limited Internet appliances we're starting to see and last year's terminal-like network PCs.
Designed primarily to populate the desktops of the multitude of users on corporate networks, these systems all come with ethernet ports, a familiar Windows operating system (98 or 2000), and processors and hard drives beefy enough to handle most office applications. On the other hand, they may not please employees who play Doom on their lunch hour.
IPAQ: The Future is Now?
The 11.8-pound, 14-inch-tall IPaq Legacy-Free looks the most futuristic and fun of the three. A silver centerpiece juts like a metallic mohawk from the top of the sleek carbon-black minitower. Instead of containing a floppy drive and a set of standard parallel and serial connections, the IPaq has three USB ports in front and two in back. At upgrade time, you can access the hard drive and memory by sliding off the right panel.
But the IPaq's most remarkable feature is its multibay, a vertical slot situated on the front of the case. Since it's identical to the bay on Compaq's Armada notebooks, you can swap the Armada drives you already own into the IPaq.
On the other hand, if you don't have any, you'll have to buy them individually--at prices that build in the modularity premium. A CD-ROM drive costs $75 extra; a DVD-ROM drive, $175; a SuperDisk LS-120 drive, $99; and a 6GB second hard drive, $219.
The IPaq costs as little as $499 (when it's configured with a Celeron-500 processor, 64MB of RAM, a 4.3GB hard drive, and Windows 2000) or as much as $799 (for a Pentium III-500 with 128MB of RAM and an 8.4GB hard drive). Either way, the price covers a matching black-and-silver USB mouse and USB keyboard with programmable buttons for launching applications or taking you directly to six different Web sites. A monitor in the same color scheme will cost you $299 more (if you opt for a 17-inch CRT) or $1169 (if you select a 15-inch LCD).
Compaq sells a slightly more expensive version of the IPaq that carries parallel and serial ports in addition to the multibay slot.
HP's E-Vectra is even smaller than the IPaq. A tranquil blue-and-tan unit about the size of a shoe box, it stands 9 inches tall and weighs only 8.5 pounds. You can either lay the E-Vectra flat or stand it upright (the latter requires using an included stand). The system owes its diminutive size in part to its notebook-style external AC adapter, which permits easy servicing.
The E-Vectra has no floppy drive, but unlike the IPaq, it retains standard serial, parallel, and PS/2 connections, all crowded onto the back along with two USB ports. The unit's forte is security. System administrators can use a single master key to lock all of the company's E-Vectras, blocking access to the hard drive (which otherwise is easy to remove). Managers can also snap on a plastic attachment that blocks access to the lock and prevents anyone from unplugging the peripherals. E-Vectra prices range from $549 for a Celeron-500-based system with Windows 98 and 64MB of RAM (but no CD-ROM drive) to $1199 for a Pentium III-667-based PC with Windows 2000, 256MB of RAM, and a 10x-24x CD-ROM drive. An 8.4GB hard drive is standard on all models.
Micron's ClientPro Cf, the company's first sub-$1000 PC, is the largest and most expensive of the three here. Its putty-colored box also comes closest to looking like a traditional desktop case. The system carries floppy and CD-ROM drives and all the standard PC connections, plus two USB ports in front and two in back. Like the IPaq and the E-Vectra, the ClientPro eliminates internal slots and bays. It weighs 15 pounds and measures 3.75 inches high by 13 inches wide by 16 inches deep. But it's pricey: A Celeron-433-based unit with Windows 2000, 64MB of RAM, and a 4.3GB hard drive costs $849, not including a monitor.
Legacy-light PCs may omit too many options for some prospective buyers' taste.
CAD and other graphics professionals who need powerful video capabilities, or companies that prefer more configuration control, will want a full-featured computer. Individual or home users are very likely to want a modem, better multimedia hardware, and a stronger software bundle--items that are commonly included with consumer-oriented desktops such as Dell's WebPC (our Best Buy in the budget section of this month's Top 15 Home PCs; see page 224).
Still, corporations looking to save money and space on their Windows network may find that the IPaq or the E-Vectra makes a nice, trim fit on cubicle surfaces. The ClientPro Cf, meanwhile, might appeal to businesses willing to pay a slight premium for a more traditional PC in a reduced form.
Downsized: Compaq's IPaq Legacy-Free (left) and HP's E-Vectra.
Micron's ClientPro Cf has a traditional profile, only smaller.
For more product news and the latest announcements, check the offerings of the PC World Daily News Service at www.pcworld.com/news.
Pro Small, inexpensive tower with flexible multibay slot.
Con: No parallel or serial connections, no floppy drive, CD-ROM and other swappable drives cost extra.
Value: Good choice for companies on a budget that want a cutting-edge, head-turning PC.
Street price (without monitor or CD-ROM drive): $499-$799Compaq800/345-1518www.compaq.comProduct Info No. 712E-VectraPro Shoebox-size PC can sit flat or stand upright, includes all legacy ports, has unique security features.
Con: Cheapest configuration omits CD-ROM drive, includes only two USB ports.
Value: Great choice for companies with severely limited space.
Street price (without monitor or CD-ROM drive): $549-$1199Hewlett-Packard800/752-0900www.hp.com/desktops/epcProduct Info No. 713Micron ClientPro CfPro Smaller than traditional desktop, includes all legacy ports and drives plus four USB ports.
Con: Slightly expensive for the feature set it offers.
Value: Might suit companies looking for a small desktop to put a monitor on.
Street price (without monitor): $849-$1173Micron800/964-2766www.micronpc.com.