All-in-One PCs Take Aim at the Kitchen

Makers hope cheaper desktops become the new calendar and organizer for busy families.

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Most PC-savvy Americans keep their address books, calendars, and notes on computers. But not the family address book and calendar, which stick stubbornly to corkboard and paper in a corner of a busy kitchen.

PC makers are sensing an opportunity in what amounts to a rush to grab granite. Manufacturers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Averatec, Asus, Acer, and others are aiming new desktop models at the kitchen, or whichever crowded room is the center of a busy household. They're pitching relatively inexpensive all-in-one computers that bring added power to Mom's calendar while not taking much more space than the paper version. "We see this as the family hub, a friendly design that's at home in the kitchen or wherever the family gathers," Dell's Josh Duncan says of his company's Studio One 19, a line of compact computers touted as particularly easy to set up and use.

[Read more about the Dell Studio One 19.]

Like other models of its ilk, the Studio models are one-piece PCs that typically pack the guts of a desktop computer onto the back of an LCD screen. That makes for sleek designs and few, if any, cables. It's a concept that was first popularized by Apple with its iMac computers. But iMacs remained too expensive for most consumers to buy as a second or third computer.

The new all-in-ones, some of which run free software called Linux, could drop below $400 by year's end, analysts predict. That will make them an affordable competitor in the kitchen, where they can replace a CD player, radio, and maybe even a TV. They also can connect to Web calendars and messaging services and run software in what becomes a new and powerful organizer for busy parents and kids.

In some ways, it's surprising that PCs haven't already found a home in the kitchen. The center of home life is already chock-full of electronics, from radios to the chips and touch pads that run the stove, dishwasher, and microwave. But desktop PCs have been comparatively bulky, expensive, and difficult to use. Computers have at best landed a temporary toehold in kitchens with the rise of consumer laptops that often float from room to room.

Now the rise of netbooks is fueling a proliferation of new PC forms. Netbooks are cheap and superlight notebooks that are underpowered, compared with conventional laptops. But they pack enough oomph for E-mail, Web surfing, and other light computing tasks. New "nettop" all-in-ones are essentially netbooks turned on their sides and attached to bigger monitors.

[See our guide to choosing the perfect netbook.] 

PC makers are scratching for new hits wherever they can—in the kitchen, bedroom, and other corners of the home, says Roger Kay, an industry analyst with Endpoint Technologies. "The computer industry won't stop until it has turned over each stone to see whether any gold coins are lying under it," he recently wrote. "Beneath the netbook rock was a rather surprising pot of gold."

The nettops still face formidable challenges, not the least of which is the complexity of PCs and conventional organizing software. None can match the ease of pen and paper. "When it comes to simplicity, they're virtually impossible to beat," says Robbie Cape, cofounder of a company that is trying to do just that. Available at Cozi.com, the Web-based service offers a calendar, to-do lists, and a journal that focuses entirely on the family, which Cape says makes Cozi unique.

It's also promising in its simplicity. Mom can use natural language to fill the calendar, such as "dinner with the Capes tomorrow at 8," and the site does a good job at getting it right. Meanwhile, it adds new capability to the home calendar, such as allowing a user to see it from any Web-connected device. It also sends reminders via E-mail and text messages. Families can import holiday calendars and even schedules from a growing number of schools that are posting them online.

The latter is so crucial to households that Cozi invested considerable time and money to make it easier to find school listings. The company also built an interface and Internet infrastructure to import them into a family calendar. Otherwise, says Cape, "I'd guess that fewer than 1 percent of Americans could figure it out." Cozi comes as a featured service on the Dell Studio all-in-ones, and the combination actually works. After a couple of weeks, a kitchen PC and Cozi start to feel like an integral part of daily planning.


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