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Selling Computers Without Performance Anxiety?

Something odd is happening in the personal-computer business: While a lot of manufacturers still lead off their ads with the usual blizzard of numbers -- processor speed, installed RAM, hard-drive capacity -- some new models come with sales pitches that largely ignore those traditional performance metrics.

Apple's new MacBook and MacBook Pro may be the most public example of this -- the company's presentations for each model lead off with a loving description of the new manufacturing process used for each.

But Apple has prominent company in this marketing approach. Dell touts the compact size and environmental appeal of its Studio Hybrid desktop, not how fast it can crunch through an Excel spreadsheet. And this morning, HP announced two new desktops and a monitor, all designed to have a "reduced impact on the environment"; the clock speeds of these PCs' processors was saved for a footnote in the press release.

For several years, I've been arguing that raw measures of performance like processor clock speeds don't matter much in everyday home use, so I'm happy to see the industry starting to recognize that. But I'm not sure what ought to become the new primary selling point for PC vendors -- a stylish design, a smart software bundle, energy efficiency just a low price or something else. Give me your $.02 worth on this: What previously un-advertised feature or trait would you most like to see manufacturers compete over?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 20, 2008; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Computers , Digital culture , Mac  
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I believe the guts of a computer are still important to the average computer user that has been using them for a few years.Just looking pretty will not get the work done if the computer is under powered and slow.

Posted by: syzito | October 20, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

The main difference among pc manufacturers is life expectancy of the components. Think about whenever you hear somebody say "I will never buy another pc from X." The reason is almost always b/c of a hardware failure. So maybe talk about life expectancy of the monitor or the hard drive etc.

I don't know how this idea would work b/c many of the manufacturers (especially the low end ones) just won't release that kind of data (if they even have it). So a comparison would be hard for consumers.

Posted by: ugh | October 20, 2008 1:11 PM | Report abuse

The hard and truthful answer is: nothing.

Once computers had enough power to surf the web, do e-mail and play video at decent resolutions without choking, the raw horsepower of a computer becomes a factor only to a few niche audiences like hardcore gamers, economists running spreadsheet models, etc. That happened about 4 years ago, but people are just now realizing that a modern computer running Vista and a 4 year old computer running XP have no effective differences for most users.

Also, more and more tasks that were once relegated to computers are being handed off to dedicated appliances. NAS storage, Slingbox, XBox, AppleTV, etc. This is happening because a dedicated device, designed from the ground up to perform just one basic function is likely going to do it more reliably and simply than a computer, which is necessarily a jack-of-all-trades filled with compromises and complexity that most people don't want to deal with.

Finally, there is "cloud" computing, or shifting tasks from the local PC out onto the web where they can be handled more reliably and cheaply for individual users.

So what we have happening is a declining role for the traditional PC. That's what is behind the "netbook" phenomenon and the netbook thing is just one part of a broader trend.

All this is bad news for computer makers, because without compelling new features or capabilities, the PC industry is going to go through something like what the auto industry did, once people stopped buying new cars every year.

Dell et al. can stick as many fins as they like on their new notebooks, but if it doesn't offer any material advantages in the user experience over what I already have, just why am I going to part with $1,200 in a down economy?

Posted by: BigW | October 20, 2008 1:42 PM | Report abuse

It seems that the vendors of Windoze PCs have come to understand that, other than the Intel processor, everyone is basically selling the same Taiwanese components inside the box. With computers commoditized, then vendors have to differentiate on other qualities, such as brand name, color, size, noise, and warranty. As more people notice how many of our consumer dollars are sent overseas, I wouldn't be surprised to see Dell and HP begin to mention their American ownership, a possible advantage for them against Sony and Toshiba (Japanese), Lenovo (Chinese government), Samsung and LG (Korean) and Acer and Asus (Taiwan).

Down the road (pun intended), computers may be marketed similarly to cars. You can find the specs if you look for them, but many buyers are attracted by brand name, styling, and price. Relatively few of us focus on their internals.

Of course, downplaying the specs allows the vendors to save some money, which they can then use to sell their machines to us.

Posted by: Mac1984 | October 20, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see the industry move more toward optimization and customization that is both simpler and easier to compare across brands/lines. For example, allow people to change the amount of ram a machine has without opening up the unit. Need a new piece of software? Let it run from a usb dongle so you don’t have to go through a full install/reboot process. Make programs more modular, so only the portions that a person needs now are using up system space. With the growing popularity of external hard drives, I think this is the direction we’re trending, but I’d like to see someone really run with a full-scall plug-and-play approach, as opposed to Apple’s buy-now-and-replace-in-two-years approach.

Posted by: Don | October 20, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see a feature that pro-actively stops you from making impulse purchases on the internet. Like if you're ready to buy an item on ebay, the computer should automatically generate a pop-up box that queries "Are you really sure you need that? " If you click yes to that, you should still have to go through the "Don't you already have enough useless junk in your house?" screen before it lets you complete the buy. But this would probably require some crazy-advanced AI . . . Maybe in Snow Leopard or Windows 7 . . .

Posted by: Bucky Katt | October 20, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

When was the last time anyone gave much space to discussing spreadsheet recalculation performance?

So, as BigW said, most of us are going to be happy with a netbook. Or, more likely, something like a Mac Mini.

Posted by: wiredog | October 20, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Bucky Katt,
There's some movement on the software front in protecting people from themselves. There was an article in the NYT on 10/17 about a new gmail feature called Mail Goggles. It's designed to keep people from drunk emailing their ex or saying something stupid when drunk. Basically, between 10pm and 4am on weekends, you have to answer a math problem in 60 seconds in order to send the email.

Posted by: ugh | October 20, 2008 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure how new this is, but Apple should focus even more on the relative stability, security, and ease of use of its operating system. Same for manufacturers that dare to sell their machines with Linux or other open-source software pre-installed.

The worst product in the history of personal computers is the Windows operating system. Funny how it's also the most common.

Posted by: Waiting for the Post-Windows World | October 20, 2008 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I wish there was some standardized way of knowing how fast or efficient a computer is at real-life tasks. Currently, consumers can see technical specs, but have no way of comparing real-world speeds, since so many components other than processor speed impact that. For example, my desktop computer has the same amount of RAM and a "faster" processor than my laptop, but my laptop is noticeably quicker when using intensive (graphic/photo) programs.

Posted by: Jerry | October 20, 2008 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Although Apple wasn't touting the CPU performance, it was pushing hard on graphics performance. Preliminary testing shows that the new NVidia chip blows away the previous Intel GMA solution.


Posted by: Fairlington blade | October 20, 2008 9:04 PM | Report abuse

solid state hard drives are what we need in laptops NOW!

I know there are some tiny ones available now (ASUS) but no regular size ones.

Whats the problem??

Posted by: Ralph Parks | October 21, 2008 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Just as with jump drives when they first came out, it is going to take some time to make them affordable. With hard drive capacities being where they are, a comparable solid state drive would simply be impractical to purchase (for most applications). has a 32GB solid state HDD listed for $370! Compare that to the 1.5TB HDD they offer for only $190. It's just not cost effective at this point.

Posted by: Matthew | October 21, 2008 7:10 PM | Report abuse

As a normal computer user and a gamer, I like the ability to customize my computer as with Dell. I also appreciate the ability to choose my operating system within reason, say, for example, between XP and Vista. But the single most important feature for me would be good technical support from the manufacturer and not a telephone nightmare.

Posted by: xatta | October 22, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Software and hardware reliability and flexibility. Some day I would like to buy a computer that does not require constant updating of software to guard against viruses and other predatory moles and that does not require rebooting so often.

Posted by: Edgemoor | October 23, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

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