- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2000

I have seen the future of desktop computers and it's about the size of a big-city Yellow Pages directory. That's roughly one-fourth or one-fifth the size of a traditional desktop, and that shrinking could mean a lot to both users and information technology managers.

This vision of the future arrived the other day in the form of Hewlett Packard Co.'s "e-Vectra" desktop personal computer, announced in February and to be available in April. With a retail price starting at $549, and topping out at $1,199, these PCs are not positioned as high-end workstations for engineers or architects. Rather, they're designed for those of us who have more mundane tasks to perform: write or answer letters or e-mail, do research on the Internet, crunch numbers and enter information into databases.

Such tasks could be handled by the ultimate "thin client" computer, a "network computer" which has no hard disk, no CD-ROM drive and little more than a direct hookup to a network server or Internet applications server somewhere in the clouds of cyberspace. But many people among them this writer firmly believe in a "one processor per person" rule; in fact, it's called "Pournelle's Law," since pioneering computer (and sci-fi) author Jerry Pournelle came up with the expression. Why? Because having a real, live functioning computer on the desk allows people to be more creative.

The problem, however, is that real, live functioning PCs are too big, too costly to maintain and offer too many opportunities for people to sneak things into computers that gunk up their workings, or migrate onto a network or just mess up established processes. A lot of information technology support time is burned away by people's tweaks of their computers for good or ill.

The HP e-Vectra is designed to minimize that in several ways. One, the computer is very compact, with no card slots or drive bays to which devices can be added. Second, both the Windows 2000 operating system (shipping as standard on two of the models HP is offering) and HP's own Top Tools client management software let an administrator lock out various ports and features on a system. If you don't want Bob in accounting plugging in a game joystick on the serial port, he can be barred.

Finally, there's a key lock that'll shut down any external connections that are open once a machine has been installed, again, keeping n'er-do-wells away.

What you're left with is a somewhat-powerful system: my test unit, an "early production" model listing for $999, had 128 megabytes of random access memory, an 8.4-gigabyte hard disk drive and a CD-ROM drive, as well as legacy ports such as one for a parallel printer, a serial communications port and a VGA monitor connection. There were also two Universal Serial Bus ports, as well as standard keyboard and mouse connectors. The central processing unit in the computer was a 667 megahertz Intel Pentium III; a 3Com 10/100-Base-T local area network connector is built in, but there's no internal modem.

One might wish for a larger hard disk drive 15 gigabytes or more would be nice. And some might complain about the Intel graphics video chipset, which provides a decent display but not a gamer's high-resolution dream. But this is not a machine for storing your library of 2,000 MP3 music files, or for playing the latest version of Tomb Rader. It's designed, as mentioned, for getting down to business.

About the only feature I hope HP will consider for the future is some implementation of wireless networking, which I believe will be important and useful in many situations.

This the computer does remarkably well. Once I'd set it up with the applications I use (Microsoft Office 2000, a printer, some Internet software), there were no problems in operation. The machine is quiet, small and very unobtrusive measuring 3.5 inches by 9 by 10.9 inches with an 8.4-pound case.

Having been, once upon a time, an IT manager, the e-Vectra struck me as an administrator's dream: super-easy to set up and configure, with controlling software that makes customization very efficient. HP is so confident that its combo of few parts, few ports and the Windows 2000 operating system is very close to rock solid that it's willing to offer what it calls a lifetime service contract for $99. I have the feeling, though, that given the performance of the computer, there won't be that many service calls.

If you're buying PCs for an office or even a campus, and if you want a bunch of systems that are easy to configure and manage, it will be very difficult to top the e-Vectra from Hewlett Packard. Those of us who want to burn CDs, or run extravagant graphics-hungry programs, or do other esoteric tasks might want another computer. But if I were buying 100 PCs for an office staff, I don't believe I'd have to look much further. This is a computer that many people will want to examine, buy and use happily. More information on the product is available on line at www.hp.com/desktops/epc/.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page(www.markkellner.com).



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