Small Is The New Big In Desktops

Rethink the desktop.

After years of data showing that the world was switching to laptops, tablets and Blackberries to take their work with them, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard are providing new reasons to just stay in the office.

The two rivals exchanged announcements earlier this month on separate, ultra-small form factor desktops -- Lenovo with the ThinkCentre A61e and Hewlett-Packard with the HP Compaq dc7800 Business PC -- that could very well kick start a segment that some have even written off for dead.

To be sure, there are differences between the Lenovo and HP desktops. And neither company has integrated wireless connectivity -- very available technology -- into the desktops, which means they have not eliminated the aggravating and unsightly nest of wires needed to get them networked. But they have appeared to have at least shrunk that nest a little, and the benefits they have added tend to overshadow some of the obvious shortcomings.

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Lenovo ThinkCentre A61e: sturdy enough

A look at both systems, unboxed, booted and attached to the Internet via wired Ethernet connections shows the following:

* Both the Lenovo and HP ultra-smalls have absolutely silent cooling systems and operation;

* Neither desktop warms up even slightly while running graphics, multi-media and office productivity applications for an hour or more;

* The Lenovo A61e is shorter than the keyboard and its tower stands no taller than the length of a credit card;

* The HP Compaq dc7800 has a unique, space-saving design that allows for the PC unit to be attached to the LCD panel or, if preferred, to sit on the side next to the monitor;

* Both are more energy-efficient than earlier desktop versions.

HP Compaq dc7800: easy deployment

Both companies are making a significant play to win business in small and midsized accounts by working with solution providers, and both appear to have tailored their new form factors and offerings to the SMB space. In the case of Lenovo, the Raleigh, N.C.-based PC maker has made SMB a key focus of its growth strategy in North America. To execute, it is incorporating aspects of design made popular in China, where Lenovo is the market leader.

Next: Chinese market looms large for small PCs

The Chinese PC market has grown in large measure around crowded Internet cafes where space can be a premium and where desktops are often shared between dozens, if not hundreds, of users in any given week. That created the need for small, efficient desktops that can be easily set up, maintained, managed and repaired. The A61e enables that through its dimensions and its simplicity of design.

The HP Compaq dc7800 allows for the PC unit to attach to the LCD. That doesn't mean it's easy. You'll need a screwdriver and nimble fingers to do it, but you can maneuver it together in about ten minutes. Attaching the PC to the LCD cable, and the cable to the monitor requires perhaps the most patience in what might be the most awkward part of the design. With this unit, the PC can also sit on a stand apart from the monitor.

The Lenovo ThinkCentre A61e: easy-to-reach slots

While the Lenovo and HP units were released about the same time, and both were evaluated at at the same time, a complete, apples-to-apples comparison is difficult because each unit is built with a different processor, different memory and slightly different design at different price points (See below for product specs.) Sound quality from the front speaker in the A61e was better than the dc7800, but the dc7800 and LCD appeared to do a better job of displaying graphics and video.

But the bottom line: both PC makers have delivered systems that offer a vastly improved desktop experience than the last refresh cycle. These desktops fit much easier into a workspace without becoming the workspace.

Next: ultra-smalls pay off

Joe Vaught, chief operating officer of PCPC Direct, a Houston-based solution provider with an office in the land-locked state of Hawaii, said his employees in The Aloha State have immediately recognized benefits from the ultra-smalls.

"You would not believe the noise coming out of my Hawaii office on these small PCs," Vaught said. "I guess when you only have X-number of feet out there, and this will save on space, it will drive some excitement.

"It's intriguing to me to see everything is smaller, faster and cheaper," Vaught said. "It's been that way for 20 years, but they're doing a lot with them. They're so much cheaper than a laptop. I think it's a wise thing."

The HP Compaq dc7800: saves space


HP Compaq dc7800 Business PC

Intel Core 2 Duo CPU E6750 2.66 GHz; 1 GB of memory; Windows Vista; Entry list price: $695; 9.9 inches wide by 10 inches deep by 2.6 inches high; 7 lb (18.75 lb with attached monitor)

Lenovo ThinkCentre A61e

AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core Processor BE-2325 2.10 GHz; 2 GB of Memory; Windows Vista; Entry list price: $399; 10.83 inches wide by 9.53 inches deep by 3.19 inches high; 7.2 lb - 8.2 lb, depending on configuration