Fine. But Where's The Wow?

Gateways desktop lacks Apple's emotional appeal


It's amazing how few PC makers have followed Apple's (AAPL ) lead and built desktops with all the electronics packed right into the back of the flat-panel display. The Gateway One is a good-looking entry in this field. But when I put it next to a new 24-inch iMac from Apple, I realized what's missing from this—and virtually all other non-Apple products—is gut emotional appeal.

As PCs become more like other consumer products, emotional impact is indispensable, especially in upscale markets. Like BMW and other luxury goods makers, Apple understands this. Most cell phones come in ugly packaging that looks like it was designed for maximum shipping efficiency at minimum cost. The iPhone comes in a box that could easily house an expensive watch. You feel good just opening the package.

The high-end, $1,799 Gateway One model I tested is a fine product. In place of the tangle of cables that mars the appearance of most all-in-one desktops—even iMacs—Gateway (GTW ) has come up with a single fat cable running from the display. But after that one nice touch, it feels like the designers ran out of steam. The cable connects to an ugly black metal box, which also brandishes the power cord and network cable. The same box has four eminently useful USB connectors and ports for digital audio cables. And there are three more USB connectors on the display itself, plus a Firewire port, a memory card reader, and standard speaker and microphone jacks. All very utilitarian, but where's the beauty, or the ingenuity?

LITTLE THINGS GO A LONG WAY in making a design exciting, as opposed to merely O.K. Gateway, which is being acquired by Taiwan's Acer, went to some pains with the One's appearance, setting the 19-in. display flush into a shiny black bezel, and matching it with a wireless keyboard and mouse. But where the iMac's monolithic display seems to float above the desktop, the One is solidly earthbound. It's thicker, hotter, and a good bit noisier than the Apple unit. Point by point, such comparisons favor Apple. While the iMac's cooling vents are disguised, with no sign but an inconspicuous slit in the back, the One has an ugly gap in the top, just behind the front glass. The iMac has a built-in video camera hidden in the black frame that surrounds the display. The One's optional camera is a little box on a stalk that plugs into a USB port on the top of the screen. Works fine, looks geeky.

Functionally, the One is a fairly powerful Windows PC. It would make an excellent alternative to those souped-up laptops known as "desktop replacements," which are popular in small businesses and home offices. What the One didn't do was make my heart beat a little faster, a reaction I still get when unpacking an iMac.

A key to Apple's success is the meticulous attention it showers on every detail, from the overall design to the appearance of components such as power cords. I've talked about this with executives of other computer makers, and the most common reaction is that Apple's relatively hefty margins give it the luxury to add expensive details. Others have to squeeze out every penny of cost. But it's those very details that let Apple charge premium prices and claim fatter margins—a thought that doesn't seem to occur to its competitors. (The Gateway One costs about the same as a similarly equipped 20-in. iMac, though Gateway throws in a TV tuner.)

As Dell (DELL ) has learned, trying to compete in the consumer tech market by charging a couple bucks less than the other guy is ultimately a sucker's game. Apple has shown you can conquer the world with an emotional punch. Designing in the wow factor can produce a win-win: better business for the sellers and better products for consumers.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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