The latest selling point in the home-computing world is not a faster processor or 3-D card, but the right hue of polycarbonate plastic. The Dell and Gateway desktops of the world soldier on in their usual beige armor, but others in the industry have discovered the joys of technicolor. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, now offers a choice of "Titanium Gray," "Cobalt Blue," "Krypton Green" or "Xenon Purple" front panels. NEC's new Z1 comes in a snazzy purplish gray. And just last month, eMachines Inc. launched its eOne computer, an all-in-one box in translucent blue and white.
That last computer's choice of color and shape just made it slightly more obvious who's taking inspiration from whom; in the wake of Apple selling more than 2 million iMacs in shades of blue, green, gold, purple and red, the world is now safe for something besides beige or black. This, on balance, is a good thing; it's about time computer designers had some of the artistic freedom accorded to the folks who dream up forks or cell phones.
But the iMac's success isn't just about color, as I realized when eMachines loaned me an eOne to review. Yes, this gumdrop-shaped contraption looks reasonably stylish on a desk, packs an impressive array of features and costs under $800 after a rebate. (The design may be a little too stylish: Apple is suing eMachines for allegedly ripping off the iMac's looks.) But it's got a wretched keyboard, my test unit suffered from a glitchy power supply, and at its plastic-and-metal heart, it's the same old needlessly complex computer that half the United States remains uninterested in.
I realized this when I looked around the side and back of the eOne. An iMac has a grand total of nine holes in its case: one for the power cord, one for the modem, one for an Ethernet jack, two for its universal serial bus (USB) ports, one each for audio input and output, and a pair of headphone jacks. An eOne, by contrast, has 19: power, modem, a second phone-line jack, Ethernet, two USB, one parallel, one serial, two PS/2 mouse/keyboard ports, one game/MIDI port, video-in, two audio-in, one speaker out, one headphone out, one microphone in, plus a pair of Type III PC card slots.
Pop quiz: Where do the printer and scanner go? Digital camera? Joystick?
In the parallel or USB ports, the serial port and the game port, of course. But what if you've never used a computer before? Will you know to look for the parallel port on the back of the eOne, even though everything else is on the side? Will you know that you're supposed to shut down the computer before plugging in that printer? Not if you're used to connecting speakers to a stereo, where things just work.
The eOne is a fine attempt at making a better-looking PC (lawsuits aside), but it fails miserably at making computing less fussy.
But this is not to pick on eMachines; the entire industry seems incapable of deleting features, even if doing so would make life simpler for most users. The USB port, the latest major change, was supposed to replace all of this with an all-purpose, plug-it-in-and-it-works connector for everything from keyboards to scanners, but instead it's just another item on the menu. Computer geeks will also note that this profusion of gizmos eats up a limited supply of system resources, compromising stability and performance.
A little simplification wouldn't hurt. Just ask Intel. "The PC industry has been very good at focusing on new technology; we've never had a concerted effort across the industry to have a sort of phased obsolescence of the older technology," said Steve Whalley, who heads up the manufacturer's ease-of-use initiative. His group's ideal for your next PC sounds suspiciously familiar: "What you'll see is less is more," he said. "No PS/2, no com [serial] ports, no parallel, maybe four to six USB ports . . . you don't have to say 'This is an orange round connector, this is a green square one, let's figure out where it goes.' "
But it may take a while to get there. A few manufacturers will be shipping "legacy-free" (that being a complicated way to say "simpler") PCs this fall; AST's upcoming Century City model, for instance, will reportedly even ditch the floppy disk. Whatever color such a machine comes in, that would be real progress. You could set it up without needing any of these "quick-start" posters or color-coded cables--bringing you that much faster to a screen as cluttered as ever with Microsoft's desktop litter. But that's another column entirely.
Rob Pegoraro will host a live Web discussion on wireless phones today at 1 p.m. with longtime industry analyst Jane Zweig. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.