Innovation & Design

Dell's Impressive Studio Hybrid PC


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Editor's Rating: star rating

In an effort to lose its reputation as a maker of boring machines, Dell unveils its nicely designed and relatively green Studio Hybrid

As it turns out, Dell's (DELL) new Studio Hybrid PC has little in common with Toyota's (TM) thrifty Prius sedan. No high-end batteries. No carpool lane privileges. And I'm pretty sure it won't do much to improve fuel economy on your daily commute.

Instead, this "hybrid" PC is a small computer that puts a dual emphasis on energy efficiency and design. Dell is trying desperately to break from its past reputation as a maker of mind-numbingly beige PCs. The Studio Hybrid is one of its first products to have been styled by former Nike (NKE) design whiz Ed Boyd. (Read more about Boyd's efforts to make Dell cool (BusinessWeek, 11/6/08).)

Like all Dell computers, the Studio Hybrid is available in a dizzying array of configurations. The most basic model features a zippy Intel Pentium Dual Core processor, DVD burner, generous amounts of RAM and hard drive space, and it costs just $499. But while a wired Ethernet port is standard, that price doesn't include a wireless card, so plan on adding another $70 for that vital accessory.

As with similar small form factor computers such as Apple's (AAPL) Mac mini, ASUS's (AKCPF) Eee Box, and Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) Slimline series, the Studio Hybrid comes without a monitor. Such computers are generally aimed at college dorms, living rooms, or as second family computers. To that end, the Studio Hybrid is small enough to sit on a crowded desk or be tucked underneath a television. Lying flat, it's about the size of a Thomas Pynchon hardback.

Dell vs. Apple?

Still, when I first heard about the Studio Hybrid, I was a bit skeptical. Dell? Design? Yeah, right. But if Dell wants to swim in Apple's pool, so be it. Still, as a pretty dedicated Mac user, I was more than a little shocked to find that the Studio Hybrid gives the Mac a run for its money—both in terms of hardware and industrial design.

For the money, the Dell represents a better value than the Mini with more plentiful and up-to-date features. (Admittedly, the Mini is in desperate need of a refresh.) An HDMI port that allows the computer to plug into a high-definition television is a standard option, as is a 7-in-1 media reader for camera memory cards. Normally, feature-packed PCs like this look more like 80s-era boom boxes, overloaded with blinking lights and buttons. But taking a cue from Apple's design manual, Dell integrated these extra ports so that they disappear seamlessly into the black case.

The model I tested also included a slinky, removable bamboo sleeve, which is a $100 built-to-order option. Bamboo is the green material du jour for consumer electronics and therefore teetering on the brink of cliché. But in this instance the sleeve transforms an otherwise humdrum box into a distinctive, attractive case. Other premium shells made of brown or black leather also cost $100. Six significantly less interesting colored plastic sleeves are available for free.

ENERGY EFFICIENT

Dell says the hybrid moniker comes from the computer's use of some laptop components to help reduce its energy usage (it meets Energy Star 4.0 standard). The company also claims the Studio Hybrid uses about 70% less power than a typical desktop, while the power supply that plugs into the back of the PC is 87% more efficient than is usual. These savings won't really affect your energy bills; they simply help mitigate green guilt and supply bragging rights. What is useful is that Dell designers really thought about the physical design of the power supply too, turning out a slim, flat black box rather than the usual unseemly brick.

One of my favorite things about the Studio Hybrid is likely its least sexy feature, the packaging. Bucking the Apple-led trend to enshrine consumer electronics in intricate packaging, Dell ships the Studio Hybrid in a modest, minimalist brown box that would surely warm Al Gore's heart. Overall, the packaging is 95% recyclable and contains about 75% less printed materials than typical tower desktops. This is a significant feat considering Dell ships most of its PCs through the mail and its packaging meets rigorous standards—computers must survive repeated drops, bumps, and knocks, after all.

It would have been easy for Dell to check off one or two of these boxes and still label Studio Hybrid a green PC. But it really seems the computer maker's designers tried to think through every element of the computer to meet its green mission. For that and an overall handsome design, the Studio Hybrid is a compelling PC for those who must run Windows.

Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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