Dell is both profitable and well regarded, thanks to its habit of delivering serviceable but unexciting products at good prices and supporting them well enough to keep buyers coming back.
But our experience with Dell has been uneven, and the two Dell PCs we checked out for this report reflected that.
The Dimension 4700 media-oriented desktop combines good specs -- for instance, a CD/DVD burner, a decent subwoofer speaker system and a 17-inch flat-panel display -- with Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
But the rest of the software bundle is mediocre. Microsoft Money 2005, Works 8.0 and Word 2002 are fine but unremarkable, while Musicmatch Jukebox repeatedly pitches you to buy a $20 Plus version, and two Jasc digital-photo programs are only demos.
We were horrified to see this machine shipped without any antivirus or spyware protection, an inexcusable oversight.
The second Dell, an Inspiron 8600 desktop-replacement notebook, offered reasonable power but, at seven pounds, weighed more than we'd prefer. Its array of third-party software improved on the Dimension 4700's in two ways: the WordPerfect Office 12 suite and Norton Internet Security 2004, which includes virus protection and a robust firewall.
The lesson: If you buy one of Dell's "recommended configurations," read the fine print. Better still, custom-configure your own system on Dell's site. One could spend a fair amount of time there just designing Dimension 4700 systems at prices from $698 up, picking options that range from upgraded memory to two-, three- and four-year warranties.
Dell's system of tracking machine configurations through service tags works well, but it took us 18 telephone key-presses and two transfers during a 15-minute call to get some solid technical advice. -- Alan S. Kay
Dimension 4700 desktop, $1,246 with 17-inch E173FP LCD monitor.
3 GHz Pentium 4, 145 GB hard drive, 512 MB memory, no separate graphics memory, CD-RW/DVD+/-RW drive (speeds not available), multi-format card reader, 100-Mbps Ethernet, v.92 modem, three PCI slots open, seven USB 2.0, one serial, one parallel and one PS/2 ports available. One-year warranty. One year of 24-hour, toll-free phone tech support; $39 per-call fee afterward.
Inspiron 8600 laptop, $1,304.
Seven pounds, 15.4-inch widescreen LCD, 1.4 GHz Pentium M, 512 MB memory, 32 MB graphics memory, 80 GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD+/-RW drive (speeds not available), multi-format card reader, 100-Mbps Ethernet, v.92 modem, one PC Card slot, two USB 2.0, one FireWire port available. One-year warranty. One year of 24-hour, toll-free phone tech support; $39 per-call fee afterward.