TRY this simple test at home: What's the name of Dell's best-selling PC? Anybody? Anybody?
Right. Nobody knows.
And nobody cares. Today, it's all about phones and tablets, baby. Nobody buzzes about the PC anymore. Innovation is dead. Sales are down, right?
Actually, there's one pocket of surging sales and innovation in PC land: the luxury all-in-one computer, of the type made famous by the iMac. I took a look at three silver, high-design, screen-on-a-stalk competitors: Apple's new iMac ($1,300 and up), Hewlett-Packard's SpectreOne ($1,300 and up) and the Vizio All-in-One Touch PC ($1,000 and up). (Lenovo, Dell, Samsung and Acer also offer, or soon will offer, similar all-in-ones.)
What characterises these computers? First, a tremendous emphasis on looks. They're shiny, sleek, futuristic, uncluttered and cordless (they come with a Bluetooth wireless keyboard and trackpad or mouse). They're sculpture. In your kitchen or on your desk, they contribute to the decor even when they're turned off.
The usual box of innards is missing. In the iMac, the guts are concealed behind the screen. In the Vizio, they're in the foot of the monitor. In the HP, they're inside the stalk that supports the screen.
The second common trait is state-of-the-art components. These computers offer gorgeous, vivid, high-definition screens. And they're fast; they're powered by the latest Intel chips and lots of memory.
Third characteristic: no DVD drive.
What? Do these companies really think that the era of the disc is over? That nobody will ever again want to digitise music from a CD? Or burn some files to a disc to hand to a colleague? Or borrow a DVD from the library?
Apple, HP and Vizio seem to believe that everything is online now. Well, it's not. Want to rent an Indiana Jones movie, "Jurassic Park" or "Schindler's List"? How about "Star Wars," "A Beautiful Mind," "Bridget Jones's Diary" or "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"? Too bad; they're not available to rent online.
You can, of course, buy an external DVD drive. But aren't these called "all in ones"? An external drive just looks stupid.
Now, on a laptop, eliminating the DVD drive is understandable. You carry laptops. Weight matters. Bulk matters. But why eliminate DVD drives on computers that stay in one place?
All right, end of rant.
The new iMac, clad in its traditional aluminium, is stunning. The stand is still a thin, curved L of metal but now, the screen appears to be just as thin (0. 2 inches). Where are the guts?
Turns out it's a trick an illusion. Behind the screen, you see a substantial bulge; Apple tapered the aluminum as it approaches the screen, so that from front angles it seems that the whole screen is razor thin.
Apple has also eliminated much of the glare that has long dogged today's glossy screens. Viewed side-by-side with its rivals, the iMac is a lot less reflective.
There are two iMac sizes: 21.5 and 27 inches. The $1,300 and $1,800 base models come with a 1-terabyte hard drive, 8 gigabytes of memory and an i5 Intel processor. Each has four USB 3.0 jacks, two Thunderbolt jacks (for video input or output or external hard drives), and a camera memory-card slot, awkwardly positioned on the back. Apple has ditched the FireWire jack it spent so many years promoting.
On the 21.5-incher, you can't upgrade the memory yourself; what you buy is what you'll have forever, unless you take it into the shop.
On the 27-inch model, you can install as much as 32 gigabytes yourself, through an easily opened door. (That, for the record, is about 262,144 times the memory as the original Macintosh.) Online, you can order your iMac with a 3-terabyte hard drive, 32 gigabytes of memory, a 768-gigabyte flash-memory drive and a $3,700 invoice.
Vizio isn't a company you expect to be in the PC business; it made its mark selling high-quality, low-price TV sets. And sure enough, by far the best part of the All-in-One Touch PC is its lovely touch screen, available in 24- and 27-inch versions.
A non-touch version is also available, but the Vizio comes with Windows 8, which is far more pleasant to use with a touch screen.
(Microsoft is pushing computer makers to add touch screens to ordinary desktop computers, but I have my doubts. A phone or tablet is nearly horizontal and close to your body, but a desktop screen is far away and vertical, which makes precision finger movements awkward. And then there's the unattractive matter of finger-grease buildup.)
The rest of the Vizio isn't quite as dazzling. The body, the keyboard and the large trackpad feel plasticky. You're supposed to plug the PC into the subwoofer, and then the subwoofer plugs into a power outlet; oddly, though, the sound isn't half as crisp or rich as the iMac's subwooferless speakers.
Otherwise, this Vizio makes a fine home-entertainment PC; in addition to its four USB 3.0 jacks, it has a remote control and two HDMI inputs for Blu-ray players, game consoles or cable boxes. (It can display their output even when the PC is turned off.)
Vizio should also be praised for resisting the urge to clutter your new computer with trialware and other third-party junk. It's a clean Windows installation.
The 27-inch Vizio starts at $1,300 $500 less than the iMac but of course you're not getting as much. You get less memory, a slower processor, an audible fan, a lower-resolution screen (1920 by 1080 pixels; the iMac is a razor-sharp 2560 by 1440) and a lot more plastic.
HP is asking $1,300 for its SpectreOne. That's pretty costly for a 23.6-inch PC without a touch screen, only two USB jacks (plus an HDMI input) and only 6 gigabytes of memory; as with the iMac, you're paying a lot for style. This machine looks terrific. It, too, feels like silver-painted plastic, but it's the most compact PC among these three.
It comes with the full versions of Photoshop Elements 10 and Premiere Elements 10, which saves you about $150 and, with a current promotion, a free $100 Nook e-reader.
You also get both a cordless mouse and a trackpad, as well as NFC near-field communications. This feature lets you exchange information (a map, a photo, an address) from an NFC-equipped Android phone with your PC. Or, after some programming setup, you can log onto your SpectreOne just by tapping your phone to it an ordinary phone to which you've attached one of the two included NFC stickers.
Some models of these three computers incorporate a solid-state drive (SSD), a chunk of superfast flash memory. It speeds overall operation by copying (caching) frequently used bits of data onto the SSD. On the Vizio and HP, it's a 32-gigabyte cache. Apple's Fusion drive, a $250 option, is much bigger (128 gigabytes) and works differently. Apple says that instead of just caching (duplicating) frequently used data, the SSD actually stores important files, like Mac OS X itself, your programs, maybe the video scene you're editing.
Whatever; it works. The SSD-equipped iMac is crazy fast: 15 seconds to start up; one second to open a browser; two seconds for iPhoto; two for Final Cut. It's fast.
All these machines are successful in their goals. The iMac has the best screen you've ever seen on a computer, the finest craftsmanship and ridiculously fast response.
The Vizio's touch screen and low price give it a charm all its own. And the HP is competent, tidy and unimposing.
All of them represent ingenious steps forward in miniaturising and hiding the innards of a computer. Each costs more than your standard plastic black box, of course. But sometimes, beauty, elegance and satisfaction are worth a few bucks. (DAVID POGUE/The New York Times News Service)