Dell is also the only top PC maker with a gaming console, the Alienware Alpha Steam Machine, which will compete against Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4. The Steam Machine taps into the growing excitement around PC gaming, and will ship in November with Windows 8.1 as the default OS. Users in the future will have the option to install the Linux-based SteamOS, which is being developed by Valve, the world's largest independent game distributor.
Another innovation is Dell Cast, a USB adapter that can mirror images from Android-based Venue tablets on high-definition screens. The thumb drive-size adapter is thinner than Google's Chromecast, which also mirrors movies and Android screens. But Dell is bringing the technology to Windows as well.
Over the years, Dell laptops have become thinner and lighter, but also more robust thanks to use of materials like carbon fiber. Not every product — like the XPS 10 tablet with Windows RT — has succeeded, but the company appears to understand the value of diversifying its product lineup.
However, while the technologies and designs may add a wow factor, there's no guarantee of success in a competitive PC market, Kay said.
"I don't see it as a competitive advantage, I see it as a distinction," Kay said.
Meanwhile, Dell is likely to continue making low-cost PCs, Kay said. And as long as the low-margin PC business can foot some bills, Dell will also continue investing in design and innovation, he added.
As it has changed its philosophy in building PCs over the past few years, emphasizing innovation, Dell has learned a lot about product specifications, testing and materials, Schell said.
He gave the example of Corning's Gorilla Glass screen, which the company has customized to fit on its laptop screens.
"We're investing in architects, human factor engineers, material scientists, software people. You can and should differentiate, and we are," Schell said.
Dell in the 1990s grew at a fast pace with a business model resting on building PCs to order and shipping them directly to customers. Dell became the world's top PC maker in 2001, but the quality of its PCs suffered after the company reverted to low-cost production methods to keep up with HP and IBM, whose PC division was bought by Lenovo in 2005. Dell eventually lost its top ranking to HP in 2006, and Michael Dell returned to his post as CEO in 2007 after a spell away from the job.
In 2009, Dell caught headlines with its premium Adamo slim laptop, which was considered a competitor to the MacBook Air at the time. The brand was eventually merged into the XPS line. Many innovations followed, such as a wireless charging dock for PCs in 2009 and a WiGig dock in 2013.
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