Dell is the company building the most interesting computers right now. Dell is making computers interesting again, period. Who would have thought?
Feast your eyes on the gorgeous tablet in the picture above. Then take a peek at the sleek laptop below. Those barely-there bezels. That premium ultrathin construction. They came from Dell.
They're not all looks, either: the new XPS 13 laptop and Venue 8 7000 tablet are among the best we've ever reviewed. And not just that. The laptop starts at $US800. The tablet is $US400. Two premium products that you could actually afford to take home.
It's one hell of an achievement, but one that's actually not so far from this:
Remember those ads? The ones where a scruffy dude charmed adults into buying computers by acting like a maniac and spouting ridiculous marketing bullshit? Still, it was hard to argue with what the Dell dude was selling in the early 2000s: Cheap, complete computers that punched above their weight. Dell was cool because you could afford one without having to settle for some half-assed PC.
I bought my dream computer from Dell in 2002, the Inspiron 8200. It had everything I needed: a high-def 1600 x 1200 screen, a powerful Pentium 4 processor, modular batteries for (car) camping, and discrete ATI graphics just good enough to get by at LAN parties. I was able to afford it with wages I'd saved up from a part-time job, and it made me the envy of my friends for at least a short time. Yep, Dell was cool, and it made me cool.
Dell never really stopped building bang-for-the-buck products like my Inspiron 8200. But fandom faded as Dell became just one of many PC companies racing to the bottom with price on traditional PCs... and pushing out half-baked tablets, smartphones, and stylish ultrathin laptops in an attempt to keep pace with the growing popularity of Apple. And then, of course, there was that unfortunate business with the Dell dude.
But it's not like Dell is all about cheap computers, you know. The new Dell XPS 13 is hardly the company's first attempt to build a stunning notebook. It's just the first stunning Dell notebook in recent memory that you'd actually want to buy.
Get a load of this incredible Dell Adamo, circa 2009. We called it "the MacBook Air designed by Batman." It's made of beautiful brushed aluminium, with a pane of tempered glass around back. It also cost over $US2000, weighed a ridiculous four pounds, was dreadfully underpowered, and had under three hours of battery life.
And then there's the Dell Adamo XPS, from later that year. See that keyboard? It folks right up into the computer's impossibly thin chassis. Blow up the picture below and take a good look at that USB port and remember this computer is from 2009. But again, $US1800 for a seriously weak computer that reviewers ultimately called disappointing.
Until today — in my mind, anyhow — the closest Dell ever got to a blend of "a computer you'd actually want to buy" and "a computer you'd like to be seen using" was the Dell XPS M1330 in 2007. It still started at $US1300, with configs ranging up to $US3000. But it set a record for skinny notebooks at just under an inch thick, could come with discrete graphics (which sadly burnt out and sparked a major class-action lawsuit), and it looked pretty damn cool for the time.
So how is Dell suddenly building stylish computers that cost hundreds of dollars less than you'd expect? Dell, now a private company, doesn't have to answer to investors who want to make a quick buck. Dell's now focused on long-term growth — which means the company doesn't have to push out half-baked products to look like they're doing something important.
Dell can take risks now.
"Dell used to discontinue a product if it didn't sell well in 90 days," PC industry analyst Pat Moorhead tells me. "That drove a culture of low or no risk takers and you can't succeed in the PC market with this attitude." Importantly, Moorhead also says that Dell's current executive team now intuitively understands the importance of design.
So I chatted with one of those execs: Frank Azor, who runs the XPS and Alienware businesses for Dell. That lovely carbon fibre and aluminium in the Dell XPS 13? Azor says Dell's been improving yields on those materials for three years now, which naturally brought down the cost. But that wasn't the only factor in making the machine affordable. Dell made a conscious decision to not only make a great laptop, but also make some waves by hitting that unheard-of $US800 price.
"We have been bringing to market some amazing products for years now that most people can't afford," admits Azor. "Quite simply it was just a matter of challenging ourselves, applying all the knowledge we gained from building this class of products for several years now and focusing on the improved goal."
"We have proven a top-quality 13-inch notebook doesn't have to cost a fortune."
Your move, Apple.