If you're a punter buying a piece of technology these days, the chances of finding something that is pleasing to the eye as well as functional have never been better. The amount of work put into ergonomics and industrial design has increased exponentially over the past couple of years, to the point where some devices look truly gorgeous. How on earth has this come about in an industry populated by geeks?
Cast your mind back, if you will, to the days when Dell was first starting to rise to dominance, in the early noughties.Its systems were all beige and chunky, and looked pretty much like every other system box sold by every other system integrator. It was the day of the cookie-cutter PC, and it was pretty bland.
There has always been a parallel counter-movement, a group of people out to prove that PC design doesn't have to be boring. Collectively termed the 'modding' community, the possibilities for PC construction can be seen over on TR's sister site, www.bit-tech.net. Want your PC in a bomb case, or a guitar amplifier? Want it spray painted military colours and decorate it with bullet casings? Hell yeah, why not!
In its own way, the underground modding community is responsible for Dell's PC design today. Modding has become a small industry, a little ecosystem within the computing market. Modders invented tweaks, ideas, custom parts - things like the fanbus, which allowed manual control over noisy system fans, and interior lights, designed to show off the components installed in a high-end system.
Those ideas, and many more, were knocked off by the Taiwanese manufacturing companies and delivered into the PC mainstream. As quickly as modders could invent new circuitboards, mass-manufacturered versions appeared on the shelves of PC World. The net conclusion was that, as people saw that there was more to PC design than just shades of yellow, they began to expect more. System integrators began to use cases that appealed visually, more akin to the types of cases that modders had been using for years. As Dell realised that it had to differentiate to continue to grow its goliath-like business, it switched to black and silver PC designs that utilised all manner of technology to keep noise down to a minimum. Today, Dell's systems all look pretty good, without a hint of beige in sight.
There are a couple of factors which are now pushing the PC industry further in terms of industrial design. The first is the trend towards home cinema PCs. These PCs are designed to sit underneath your TV, along with your other A/V equipment, and can be used for TV recording, music playing and film playback on DVD (or even HD-DVD and Blu-ray, now). It's no good putting a massive tower case in the middle of your living room - that would look awful. So, manufacturers are having to come up with ways of making PCs look more like the desirable home theatre kit they are now sitting next to. Possibly the best example we've seen of this is the new Sony Blu-ray Media Centre, which we reviewed herelast week. Looking at it, you wouldn't know that it wasn't a high-end Sony receiver, with a piano black and brushed metal front finish. It's quiet and relatively small for a PC. The chassis design builds on work that more niche manufacturers like Zalman and Ahanix have been doing, but takes it to a level that requires the Sony touch.
The second vector is, without a doubt, Apple. When it released the iPod to popular and critical acclaim, it proved that industrial design can be the making or breaking of a product. Simply put, the iPod wouldn't work without the extraordinary design work done by Apple's ID guru, Jonathan Ive, who also came up with the design for the original iMac, the computer that rejuvenated Apple. It was the release of the iPod though that really shook the industry up and made executives around the world realise that looks were important if they were to grow sales. Apple has built on its success with the iPod and has gone on to design what is widely recognised as the most desirable line of computers on the planet. This has been reflected in its sales: since the launch of the MacBook Pro in January and the MacBook (amateur?) in May, it has seen its laptop market share double from 6 per cent to 12 per cent in the US. Since the transition to industry-standard x86 components, Apple has distinguished its products not just on the OS, but on the fact that nothing can touch its designers' work - witness the new 24in iMac.
And so we see PC firms attempting to shore up against the Apple onslaught. Microsoft recently announced that it was working on a series of high-class 'reference' designs for Windows Vista based PCs, in a bid to provide inspiration for system designers. Intel is offering a $1m bounty in a competition to find a living room PC to compete with Apple's Mac Mini. Dell has acquired Alienware, a maker of funky-looking gaming systems and has bolstered its gaming line of systems with the XPS 700, an aluminium monster appealing to all the modder's favourite traits. HP has recently bought Voodoo PC, a boutique manufacturer of sweet-looking machines.
And as these brands and images become more high profile, so our computing kit will again get sleeker and more desirable. As manufacturing technology moves on, it will also get smaller - and smaller is always sexier (well, almost always, as FHM would no doubt have us remember). We will see more firms competing with Apple, and Apple will no doubt go on to raise the bar further in response. When it comes to any market, competition always drives innovation, and that's great for the consumer - you and me. In the mean time, I'm off to go stroke my MacBook. Mmm, shiny.