Dell's Vostro is dream PC for businesses

Looking for a turnaround, Dell is courting small companies - and our tech columnist likes what he sees.

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Dell's Vostro is no iMac, but it has the style and specs to do businesses proud, Blum says.

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Want a sleeper of a holiday small-business tip? Dell (DELL, Fortune 500) is in a whole heap of trouble - which makes this the perfect time to shamelessly move in and take advantage.

The once-venerable leader in the direct-to-consumer computer market has fallen on hard times: Dell's dominant position in the PC market has faded to rivals such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500) and Acer. The grim performance forced Michael Dell off the lecture circuit and back to the helm of the company. One of his first moves: a once-unimaginable jump into the brutal retail computer market. Dell machines are now available through Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500), Staples (SPLS, Fortune 500), Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) and many others.

Dell is betting that innovation and breathtaking pricing will be the secret to its turnaround. The company has always sold effective - if a bit bland - office computers. But it recently rolled out a sexy new line of office machines meant to warm the small-business waters: The Vostro Slim Tower.

I spent a day giving this new desktop machine a thorough test drive. I must say, Dell clearly is showing the stuff to elbow its way big time into the small-biz PC market.

The Vostro Slim Tower 200 is unbelievably cheap. It starts at $299 - no, that is not a misprint. But that gets you an already-obsolete, entry-level machine with a single Celeron processor running Windows XP at about 1.6 gigahertz (GHz). Please, spare yourself the trouble nickel-and-diming can get you into here. Buy this device and you buy the past, which makes little sense considering how far your dollars can go if you are willing to upgrade to proper components.

Step up to a dual-core Pentium running the Windows Vista Business operating system at 1.8 GHz with 2 GB of RAM. List price off the Dell website is in the low $600s, but I am seeing very aggressive pricing at stores, so shop around.

Beyond price, Dell has finally done the right thing and stripped away the trial software that clogs most new computer installations. Installation on this Vostro was like a throwback to 1989: Plug the thing in. Turn it on. The operating system boots up. And, voila, you're working. There was no attempt to sell me support, extraneous security software, hardware, printers and so on. Bravo, Mr. Dell. Bravo!

Once you get all booted up and working, you'll appreciate that the Dell looks like somebody actually put some thought into the design of the thing. The Vostro is done in a flat, easy-to-maintain black. The form factor is about the size of the original, large-format Joy of Cooking - not too big.

The PC comes with lots of nifty design touches - I dug the spiffy Dell Logo and the swinging door that hid the connectors in the front, and the keyboard was very well done for such an inexpensive computer. If you turn the unit on its side, it makes a perfect monitor stand. Yes, the Vostro is no iMac, but putting this machine in your office sends the right message about quality and value to clients and employees.

Most importantly, Dell has finally engineered the slim tower properly. Usually I run from these units like the plague, as the small desktop PC pioneered a specific form of multi-uselessness: PCs that were too big to carry yet too small to properly service or upgrade.

No more. Today's Vostro supports the new generation of low-profile graphics and expansion cards. Adding video, USB slots, audio cards and other peripherals is simple. But you may not need to do much adding-on: Dell has done a simply excellent job packing a ton of multimedia value into this Vostro. The unit I tested comes fully enabled with almost every type of media support, including eight - count 'em, eight! - USB connections, compact flash support, other media card readers and, get a load of this, support for a full terabyte of storage over its several drives. Not too shabby.

Obviously, the Vostro is a price play rather than a performance play. It simply cannot keep up with pricier rivals in terms of processing power or other advanced features. Though the unit I tested certainly had enough oomph to run Microsoft Office 2007, if you run data-intensive customer relationship management (CRM) tools you should consider upgrading to a higher processor and more RAM. That would make the Vostro very expensive very quickly, and probably position other computers as better deals.

And alas, upgrading is still the same old pain it always was. Dell does not want you messing with the guts of this thing. So swapping out a processor to get more performance is a struggle, if it's even possible.

The bottom line: If you are looking for a cheap, well-appointed, flexible computer for your office, you would be foolish to ignore Dell's offerings.

It's too bad Dell didn't get into trouble a whole lot sooner. We would have gotten the excellent Vostro that much earlier.  To top of page

See the Vostro in action: Watch Blum take it through its paces.

Forget the new PC, get a second monitor

What do you think of Dell's turnaround plans? Have you tried out a Vostro? Tell us about it.
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