Wanted: Cool-looking, cheap PCs

Today's consumers want it all: a sleek, well-designed PC with interesting colours and maybe even a flat-panel display. And they'd like to get all that for about what they pay for today's average beige-box system.

Analyst IDC contacted consumer focus groups to uncover this information, and research manager Roger Kay discussed the consumer PC market during a teleconference last week.

With price and performance becoming standardised across brands, creating a good-looking system that appeals to consumers is one way for vendors to distinguish themselves, Kay says. But people won't buy if vendors jack up the price.

"End users aren't willing to pay much for design," he says. "They like design, they expect design, but they're not willing to pay much for it."The same goes for flat-panel displays. "End users are extremely interested in flat panels," he says. "They love flat panels, they are excited by flat panels, but they have a very unrealistic view of what they have to pay for them."Consumers say they're willing to pay 20 to 30 per cent more for a flat-panel display instead of a traditional desktop monitor, he says. Unfortunately, flat-panel displays cost significantly more than that right now. The cheapest are still close to $US2000, and pricing won't come down much in the near term.

People are also showing a greater preference for smaller desktop systems, Kay says. A smaller footprint "is easier to work with and it's neater".

People are getting comfortable with the idea of buying a smaller system with limited expandability and then "upgrading" later by buying an entirely new system, he says.

To reach these smaller form factors, PC vendors must consider removing more of the legacy parts from today's PCs. Over the next few years, a growing number of systems will ship without once-standard parts such as ISA slots, serial ports, and parallel ports.

Vendors such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard have started down that road with legacy-free and legacy-light systems, Kay says. Expect more to appear in the near future.

PC vendors that distinguish themselves with great system designs could reap massive rewards, as IDC expects consumer PC sales to continue to expand for the next few years. This is true despite the impending emergence of low-cost Internet-access devices.

"[The PC] is still the best way to get onto the Internet," Kay says. And if you want more functionality, such as word processing or personal finance programs, a PC is really the only product that can do it all."