Long considered the bastard child of the PC industry by computing enthusiasts, All-in-One (AiO) computers have recently seen a surge in desktop PC market share, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Apple’s iMac. The popular machine accounted for about 40 percent of AiO sales in 2010, according to Taiwan-based industry publication DigiTimes (no relation to the site you’re currently perusing).
To many observers (and more than a few forum trolls), AiOs represent the unhappy medium between desktop computers and laptops. Why, the rationale goes, would anyone want a machine that’s neither portable like a laptop nor upgradeable and expandable like a desktop?
That’s a perfectly salient point, but the answer is much more nuanced.
Before we delve into the pros and cons of what’s currently available on the market, let’s take a look at for whom these systems are designed, and what they’re intended to do.
Who shouldn’t consider an AiO?
First of all, AiOs are typically not for gamers. If you play anything more graphically intensive than Spider Solitaire, the GPUs of most AiOs will leave you wanting. Very few AiOs have discreet graphics cards, and even those that do generally have only the mobile version and are not upgradeable. Due to form factors restrictions, AiOs just don’t have the interior real estate for the latest full-size PCI cards and the burly power supplies needed to operate them. As a result, the GPUs available even on high-end AiOs tend to fall only in the middle range of the current hardware cycle.
The computer you don’t have to hide
The main draws of AiOs are their limited footprint and aesthetic design. Manufacturers aim AiOs at a target market of people who want something unobtrusive that fits somewhere a full-size desktop would be impractical or an eyesore. The target buyer probably already has a laptop or netbook to use while on the go, so portability is not an issue. AiOs are intended for living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens, not A/V studios or LAN parties. They’re for people that want to surf the web while cooking or want to watch or listen to something more than just what’s on TV while lounging in bed. Furthermore, these buyers want something that will fit with their décor or design aesthetic, and won’t require a rat’s nest of wiring.
One note: Though all-in-ones typically have integrated speakers, they’re generally only on-par with the ones you would find on a laptop, meaning if you plan to use the machine for listening to music or watching movies, you’ll probably want to invest in some good powered desktop speakers or hook it up to your stereo or home-theater system.
With those limitations – and benefits — in mind, here are a few of our favorite AiO systems.
Apple iMac 27” i5 2.7GHz
Also available in a less-expensive 21.1-inch model, the 27-inch iMac starts at $1,699 and has 4GB RAM, a 1TB hard drive, and AMD Radeon HD 6770M (512MB) graphics. Ironically, the iMac is one of the few AiOs with any gaming ability to speak of (and an additional $300 will get you Radeon HD 6970M (1GB) graphics and a 3.1GHz GPU). It’s one of the few (if not, the only) AiOs available with such a large screen.
Though the iMac’s success basically kickstarted the All-in-One trend, it remains one of the most expensive AiOs on the market. Though aesthetic appeal is impossible to quantify, Apple has won numerous design awards and the company’s hardware is immediately identifiable. The iMac is no exception. Much like in the way it’s difficult to complain about a well-tailored suit, the iMac cuts a snazzy profile, and its widescreen, glossy, LED-backlit 2560 x 1440 display provides a sumptuous visual experience.
Whether or not this matters to you probably rests most heavily upon where you come down on the Mac vs. PC debate (really, the OS X vs. Windows debate—it’s all PC hardware inside, and you can run both operating systems on the iMac).
The iMac, however, suffers from limited expandability, even for an AiO. Whereas other AiOs may offer eSATA and USB3.0 connections as a way to add high-speed hard drives or other peripherals, the iMac offers only plain-Jane USB2.0 and FireWire 800. True, while the iMac’s super high-speed Thunderbolt port might soon make those omissions irrelevant, the number of Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals currently on the market is exactly zero.
Like all Macs, there’s no official support for Blu-ray.
Check out our Apple iMac 27-inch (Core i5) Review.
Toshiba recently entered the AiO market with the company’s touch-screen DX1215. Starting at $930, it features a nice complement of modern components and features, including Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs, USB3.0 ports, HDMI, and an optional TV tuner. The system rests on an aluminum foot and, were the case and monitor bezel white instead of black, bears a striking resemblance to the iMac.
The DX1215 boasts premium audio processing and playback thanks to a partnership among Toshiba, Onkyo, and Waves, though we haven’t heard the results in person yet. We have a difficult time imagining that you’d get the same sound quality from any integrated speakers as you would from a good, powered 2.1 desktop package.
The touch-screen feature makes it an intriguing choice for Media Center duties, and the DX1215 would look good as a media hub or controller in any modern living room.
The DX1215 also includes Toshiba’s unique “Sleep & Charge” functionality, which allows you to charge devices like cell phones and music players with the system’s USB ports even with the computer asleep.
Dell Inspiron One 2305
The Inspiron One 2305 eschews Intel Core processors for a dual-core 2.8GHz AMD Athlon II X2 240e. The line starts at $599, but an extra Benjamin will get you touch-screen functionality, Adobe Photoshop Elements 9, and a wireless keyboard and mouse — well worth the added cost, in our opinion. To get a quad-core processor, you’ll need to upgrade to the $899 model, and there’s no Blu-ray drive, integrated TV tuner, USB3.0 support or remote control available at any level.
Touch-screen functionality again makes it an interesting candidate for a Media Center controller, and Dell also includes its own media management software called Stage.
The 2305’s three-point stance isn’t nearly as attractive as the mono-foot design of the iMac and Toshiba, but it does allow room to tuck the keyboard away underneath the monitor when you’re using it in touch-screen mode. The 2305 complies with Energy Star 5.0 specifications.
Sony VAIO Signature Collection L Series
Part of Sony’s “Signature” line of artfully designed PCs, the L Series AiO carries a starting price of $1,999, a full $300 more than the 27” iMac base price. Though the VIAO AiO only has a 24-inch screen (albeit multi-touch enabled), it does include a Blu-ray drive, integrated TV tuner, and a pair of USB3.0 ports.
Sony’s component choice for the L Series AiO reveals its laptop pedigree (the VAIO line lacks any full-size desktop PCs): a 5400RPM hard drive, Nvidia GeForce GT 540M graphics, and the mobile variety of the Intel i7 CPU.
Is Sony going after some of the premium market share currently dominated by Apple? If so, Sony will have to step up its game in terms of designing an AiO unique enough to distinguish itself from the other AiO PCs on the market, as well as offer consistently higher-end internal components than the current mixed bag to justify the price premium.
Gateway One ZX Series
Gateway’s All-in-One line offers one of the widest ranges of options among AiOs currently on the market — an echo of the Spotted Cow’s roots as a build-to-order outfit. That said, is there really that much difference among a 20”, 21.5”, and 23” to justify offering all three?
Gateway also offers the ZX in two slightly different form factors: a straight-edged model that rests on two front feet with a smaller kickstand in back, and one with a curved panel below the monitor bezel and rear kickstand that run the length of the chassis. Again, we question what real benefit such a choice really offers to the consumer, but it’s one more choice.
Speaking of choices, the pickier amongst us will certainly appreciate the gamut of component choices Gateway offers in the ZX Series, including dual- and quad-core processors from both Intel and AMD in a variety of clock speeds.
The ZX Series is also one of the lone AiOs to offer solid-state hard drive options.
The base model ZX4931-31e starts at $599.
Check out our Gateway One ZX Series Review.
HP TouchSmart 310z
Though HP’s Omni line is comprised of non-touchscreen All-in-Ones, the real fun lies with the TouchSmart series. In addition to the multi-gesture touch control features, the 310z and 610z feature a stand that allows for easy positioning of the screen from nearly upright to just below 45 degrees (roughly the angle one would hold a magazine to read in one’s lap). This feature alone makes it a choice worth considering for a whole-house media controller or other application where you might want to use the touch-screen features while standing.
The 310z starts at $599 for the base configuration, and features an AMD Athlon II 245e dual-core processor running at 2.9GHz.
However, it lacks the option to add a Blu-ray drive or integrated tuner, thereby diminishing its usefulness as a stand-alone media center.
What do you think of our take on the Best All-in-One PCs? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments below.