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All-in-one PCs buying advice: guide to buying an all-in-one PC

What to look out for when buying a Windows 8 all-in-one PC

The all-in-one PC is enjoying a return to favour with the arrival of Windows 8. In the Windows world, it’s the only way to get a large-format PC with a decent touchscreen – a feature that greatly enhances the Windows 8 experience.

See also Group test: What is the best all-in-one PC?

An all-in-one also offers great space-saving advantages and has a much bigger screen than you’d find on a laptop. Some also double as entertainment centres capable of playing films, music and sometimes even games.

In choosing an all-in-one PC you should take into account much more than its performance. Sometimes used as family multimedia systems, all-in-ones will be subject to the same aesthetic considerations as any other home-entertainment system. The same goes for their reliability and freedom from technical maintenance.

Many Windows all-in-one PCs incorporate Blu-ray players and TV tuners, and are supplied with a remote control. Each of the Windows PCs reviewed here incorporates a touchscreen interface, freeing you from the keyboard and mouse during some activities.

Other all-in-ones, and most notably the two iMacs reviewed here, don’t bother with the arms-length touch experience. Apple has avoided the technology simply because keeping one’s unsupported arms outstretched for any length of time can be tiresome.

The move to Windows 8 has increased the demands made on touchscreens. Microsoft requests that hardware makers create flush, frameless screens with 10 touch points for a satisfactory experience.

It’s wise to start by considering the screen size you need. Some all-in-one PCs have an HDMI input for plugging in a set-top box or games console, for which you might want a large screen. HDMI outputs let you add another screen or projector. Only the Chillblast is unable to offer a full-HD screen resolution of 1920x1080 pixels, so you might also want a Blu-ray drive to get the best movie experience.

With all their components crammed into a thin housing, an all-in-one system must compromise between performance and noisy cooling. Some use mobile or low-power processors such as the Intel Core i3-3210M or i5-3335S to reduce heat and power consumption. These PCs are generally quieter in use, while third-generation Intel processors pack more than enough power for the vast majority of users. However, we wouldn’t advise trying to save money by opting for processors slower than the ones reviewed here: Windows 8 may start to look rather less smooth.

Due to space and cooling constraints, all-in-one systems rarely offer strong gaming performance. Ivy Bridge processors provide enough graphics power for multimedia and low-level gaming, so for many people there’s now no need to pay for discrete graphics.

However, most of the systems here incorporate a laptop-tuned nVidia processor to boost the graphics. If you really want to enjoy games to the full, the 27in iMac offers by far the quickest graphics of the group – at a price.

Most all-in-ones have flexible configuration options and can be tweaked to fit your requirements and budget. If a PC is too expensive for you, consider cutting back on some of the options. Faster versions of the less-expensive systems are often available by selecting a faster processor at the time of purchase.

Conclusion:

If your budget will be determining your choice of all-in-one then it’s worth looking to see whether you can alter the specification of a top-end system rather than settling for a budget model.

If you need simply the cheapest system you can find, Chillblast’s Flex 18 All in One PC may fit the bill. It offers a small, low-res screen, however, making it little more than a non-portable laptop.

Toshiba and Acer offer reasonably priced all-in-ones that can, with care, be made even cheaper via configuration. They offer larger 23in displays and are preloaded with useful software applications and extras.

The Toshiba system is the only one here to incorporate a Freeview tuner as standard, and it comes with a remote control for use as a TV out of the box. However, it’s neither expensive nor difficult to add an external USB TV tuner to any of the competition.

The Acer and Toshiba aren’t particularly quick, with the Acer’s sluggish performance almost spoiling an otherwise slick and user-friendly all-in-one PC.

A decision you’ll need to make is whether you want to use the Windows or OS X operating system. Whereas the iMac can run Windows 8, albeit without a touchscreen, Windows PCs cannot run OS X.

The iMac is incredibly good-looking, delivers great performance and comes with an excellent colour-accurate display. The 27in model is also the best here for gaming. However, if you demand built-in Blu-ray support, you’ll need to look to one of the other PCs on test. Dell’s XPS One 27 Touch, for example, delivers one of the best Windows 8 experiences we’ve seen.

Both the 27in iMac and Dell’s XPS One are hugely impressive – and hugely expensive. Of the two, the Dell is more likely to come within budget. Thus it wins our Best Buy award, and the iMac scoops our Recommended badge.

How we test:

Application performance

Core system performance is measured using PCMark 7, an industry-recognised test suite that uses 25 different workloads to measure areas such as storage, computation, image- and video manipulation, web browsing and gaming. We understand that results from this benchmark are not absolute, with Intel driver issues in Windows 8 meaning video-transcoding tests can present sub-optimal results. Nevertheless, the results give an idea of the relative performance.

As well as the overall PCMark 7 result, typically a point score between 3,000 and 7,000 with current hardware, we have also published results garnered from some of the suite’s sub-routines. These are designed to gauge performance in, for example, creativity and entertainment scenarios. Another test highlights the difference between storage technologies. This is an area that impacts perceived speed more than ever, now that even the slowest modern CPUs are more than fast enough for everyday PC duties. PCMark also measures multimedia-transcoding performance, which can take advantage of GPU acceleration.

No gaming

Most all-in-ones aren’t designed for gaming, although some do offer powerful discrete graphics chips. We’ve run a single game, Alien Vs Predator, at 720p and 1080p resolutions with High Quality settings enabled. This is enough to reveal
differences in gaming performance.

No overclocking

We allow overclocking of the processor only in dedicated gaming computers. All other components are run at their stock speeds, with the exception of factory-overclocked graphics cards, which are designed and sold at boosted speeds.
Power consumption

We measure the power consumption of each PC while it’s idling at the desktop and has settled down after booting up. We then measure again while pushing each PC to the limit by simultaneously running Prime95 (with the maximum number of available threads) and the storage test from PCMark7. Real-world power consumption will fall somewhere between these two measurements, depending on use.

Both of these tests are carried out with the screen at maximum brightness. Reducing screen brightness can considerably reduce power consumption.

Display quality

We use a Datacolor Spyder4 calibrator to measure colour gamut and accuracy, contrast and uniformity across the surface of the screen. We also take into account the viewing angles afforded by the display technology used by each panel.

Subjective assessment

It’s not all about speed. We also pay close attention to the physical characteristics of each all-in-one PC, its noise output and build quality, and take note of important features such as the quality of components.

Warranty and support

Differences in warranty terms can affect our verdict. Obviously, longer warranties are better, but we also look at the terms and conditions – specifically, whether faulty systems must be returned to the vendor at your own cost, and if both parts and labour are included.

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