Dell Year-End Report Card: BS

Following an utterly abysmal 2006—exploding battery, anyone?—Dell's 2007 was more of a mixed bag. Its products were sharper than ever: gorgeous new notebooks, formidable gaming desktops and great values in large monitors (often found on sale). But at the same time, production issues and lingering organizational problems brought the company down from its comfortable perch as the world's number-one PC manufacturer. Let's take a close-up look at what kind of year Dell had, its triumphs and its losses. At the end we'll give the mighty Round Rock, Texas company a letter grade just like in the old-school days.

Open to New Ideas: A

Dell shipped PCs with the easy-to-use Linux operating system Ubuntu, and although all the included drivers weren't open-source, the move pushed more developers to create drivers that were.

Keeps Workspace Neat and Clean/Green: A

Dell agrees to recycle your old PC/monitor free if you buy one of its PCs, even if your old rig isn't a Dell. Bravo.

Obeys the Honor Code: F

Dell admitted to four years of cooking the books, falsifying quarterly financial returns from 2003 to 2006. Oops. "You know that extra $150 million we said we earned?," Dell might have said. "Disregard that, but still, our net income for those years was $12 billion."

Keeps Hands to Itself: B

The company eliminated almost all crapware, that is, free-trial junk software, from its Dimension and Inspiron notebooks and high-end XPS systems.

Helpful to Those in Trouble: C

Dell's tech support isn't too good these days. The State of New York filed suit against the company because the company's "exasperated consumers, fed up with the endless runaround and ineffective technical support, resort to paying a third party to fix their equipment...even though it is covered by a Dell warranty or service contract." But then again, a Consumer Reports survey reported even more problems with other computer manufacturers, including HP and Compaq laptops, which had "significantly lower satisfaction scores than Dell in our ratings."

Respects Tradition: B Reintroduced Windows XP for all the Windows Vista whiners.

Competes Well With Others: C Dell lost ground on the business front this year. PC-making rival HP widened its lead over Dell in worldwide sales. According to market research firm iSuppli, HP had a market share of 19.1% to Dell's 14.6% at the end of this year's third quarter. HP's market share moved up from 16.5% last year while Dell's moved down from 16.3% last year. Even in the face of that stiff competition, Dell's earnings were up 26% from a year ago.

Good Values: A For example, get an excellent 24-inch widescreen LCD display for $399.

Personal Appearance: A Dell's marketing push this year started including gorgeous babes, a big plus in our book. The gear itself wasn't so shabby either; in all, perhaps Dell's best-looking products yet.

FINAL EXAM GRADE (Theme: New Products): A-

B-: Latitude XT Tablet

Long awaited, much ballyhooed, but still no haps yet. Available next month. The 3.57-pounder will start at $2499 with Core 2 Solo or Duo options and the choice of a sweet 64GB SSD or 120GB HDD, and a capactitive touchscreen. But it's still, in the end, an expensive tablet without fully operational multitouch software. Maybe we'll change our mind when we play with it.

A: Precision Workstations

Excellent. Dell released Quad-Core Penryn T54300 and T7400 workstations, both capable of 8-core configurations.

A-: The gorgeous XPS M1330

A 13-inch laptop with an LED-backlit screen, SSD, Consumer Reports rated it higher (67 to 59) than the soon-to-be-replaced Apple MacBook 13-inch. The Dell cost $130 more but has a faster processor. Only real prob with the thing was that it sold out quickly and Dell couldn't keep up with the demand at first.

B: Dell XPS M1530

The 1530s are now available for order, but when will they ship? Specs include a 15.4-inch fairly low-rez 1280x800 screen that's not LED-backlit (m1330 is), optional 64GB SSD, 6 lb. weight. Looks purdy with that red top, though you can get it in black or white for $25 less. Even has optional Blu-ray and superfast 200GB 7200rpm drive. Total package: $2929, though "preliminary" ship date is showing 1/2/2008.

A-: Dell XPS One

Design is ok, but its ATI Radeon HD 2400 graphics card (same as in the 20" iMac ) sucks. However, according to PC Magazine, the Dell XPS One ($2,399 direct) easily outclasses its all-in-one competitor (and namesake?) the Gateway One, and matches or surpasses the Apple iMac, long the "gold standard" of all-in-ones.

A Open to New Ideas

A Keeps Workspace Neat and Clean/Green

F Obeys the Honor Code

B Keeps Hands to Itself

C Helpful to Those in Trouble

B Respects Tradition

C Competes Well With Others

A Good Values

A Personal Appearance

A- Final Exam

Final Grade: B