Dell has been so successful at supply-line management over the past 20 years that it has been credited with driving Compaq into the arms of HP, and IBM out of the desktop computer business altogether. Its innovative and efficient build-to-order system, and the fact that it has little retail presence, has helped Dell keep its inventory costs under control in this fast-paced industry. That’s tough to compete with.
The hard part of a Dell strategy is maintaining consistency in components. If they get a better deal on a graphics card, they can switch suppliers quickly. Good for the consumer. But for the volume business buyer, it can be harder to do maintenance when components change each time you buy another computer. To address this, Dell (like some other vendors) offers businesses a special program — the Dell Stable Image — that promises to keep all the components the same for a period of time. But most small and medium-sized businesses don’t have enough computers for this to be a big enough problem to warrant spending the extra bucks.
Another problem can be support. Like its rivals trying to cut costs, Dell’s tech support organization has struggled to maintain quality in recent years. Outsourcing tech support to overseas suppliers has generated a lot of complaints, with Dell — as the biggest player in the market — getting the loudest complaints. Interestingly, our business readers themselves rate Dell support in the middle of the pack compared.
Regardless of the trade-offs, Dell has won a lot of loyal buyers over the years with the flexibility of its configurator, which makes it so easy to tweak your computer purchase (and run up the price). The industry press reviews are pretty respectful of Dell systems, and Dell is by far the most widely bought — and pretty well regarded — computer maker among AllBusiness.com readers. See “AllBusiness.com Readers Rate the Vendors!”
Which Dell Is Which?
Dell produces a number of product lines. The OptiPlex is the business line, with features aimed at the business user. (Exactly what features are unique to the OptiPlex that don’t get on the Dimension isn’t clear.) The Dimension is the general-purpose system, and a good deal for businesses too. (It’s the model we have here at AllBusiness.com.)
The XPS line is aimed at gamers, or graphics professionals, so we’ll skip that line. It starts as high as $1,500 with a dual-core Pentium processor, two gigs of RAM, and a souped-up NVIDIA GeForce graphics card, not to mention up to three 500-gig internal drives. Needless to say, it isn’t going to be a volume purchase for most businesses.
As with all vendors, Dell’s product lines and numbering schemes shift from season to season, so product reviews in the industry press are trying to hit a moving target. But some patterns are discernable.
The Dimension 1000/2000 is the budget PC line, described by reviewers as “adequate” and a “cheap but good-quality computer for beginners with basic tasks.” Mainly, the Dimension is this big box with computer stuff in it — it ain’t sexy, but it works.
Next up the line is the Dimension 3000, also a budget PC but one that’s a bit more configurable, though it’s still no powerhouse. But then, you might not need a powerhouse sitting on your administrative desks.
The Dimension 4000 and 5000 lines offer faster processors; these are good all-around systems starting at about a thousand dollars fully configured — PC World said of a model it reviewed that it “does hit a sweet spot in balancing price with performance.” PC Magazine called it a good entry-level Media Center computer, so look at this line if you’re doing multimedia/graphics tasks. Dell added slick white panels to the 5150 lately so it’s not just another dark gray box like the other Dimensions. Isn’t that nice?
The Dell Dimension 9000 line is aimed at “power performers,” with prices starting at around $800 but quickly heading north as you add features.
The Dell OptiPlex Line
The Dell OptiPlex is the product line to look at when you are buying systems by the dozens, because they are built to be easier to service, and Dell offers software for network administration with this line — OpenManage Client Administrator — which costs an extra $50. Dell suggests them for “the business with 10 employees or more.”
The line comes in three main types. The “L” line is entry-level, the “SX” line is next up in price, and the “GX” is top dollar. Unlike the Dimensions, the OptiPlex models come in various sizes, from regular “tower” and “minitower” to slimline versions half as thick. As with everything in this business, there’s a lot of confusing overlap in features, prices, and performance among the OptiPlex systems, as well as when attempting to compare them to the Dimension line.
Here are two examples of the OptiPlex:
The Dell OptiPlex SX200 line is a compact model designed for tight spaces. As PC World says of the SX260, “Not much expansion capability, but that doesn’t matter as much in most office environments.” Network admins will like them because of the remote management tools, including, for example, the ability to disable USB ports remotely for security purposes.
The Dell OptiPlex GX200 line is designed to be the archetype of the standard corporate desktop: good performance, easy to service, and loaded with IT management tools and the Dell Stable Image support option. The GX600 line comes in four sizes — not just the regular Dimension box, but also a half-sized box, a one-third-sized box, and a cute silver slimline dealie.
Dell’s Dynamite Deals (Or Not)
Dell’s main distinction is a total mix-and-match approach to thing — you can take almost any product they sell, and add or swap almost anything that will fit into the box, thanks to Dell’s advanced inventory and on-demand assembly system, built up over the past 20 years. Rivals, by contrast, tend to encourage buyers to pick from among a series of more or less fixed configurations to control their costs.
The main downside mix-and-match is the breathtaking markups you often run into when you do that mixing and matching. You quickly figure out that those Dell ads trumpeting “from only $XXX!” are like the base price for automobiles — you won’t pay anything near that little. Dell deals come with an insufficient 256 megs of RAM and paltry 40-gig hard drives and no monitors. Upgrade to a usable system and you’ve quickly doubled the price. “Oh, you wanted wheels with that?”
So get used to the fact that, for your corporate desktop system, whether from Dell or from anybody else, you’ll be paying close to $1,000, and blaring advertising to the contrary won’t change that.
One area where you can often get a good deal from these vendors is in the bundled software. Microsoft Office suite can cost half of retail, for example. So that’s something to consider when you’re configuring your next system.