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Can the all-in-one claw back desktop PC market share?

If you can believe the stats, laptops are outselling desktop PCs. The portable has been catching up for a few years, but new figures from analyst iSuppli suggest that in the third quarter of 2008, laptops finally took the lead, with worldwide sales of 38.6 million units, against 38.5 million for desktops.

It's still a close call, and these figures may be skewed a little by the back-to-school market, yet they underline what we all now know: the laptop is no longer the preserve of businessmen and poseurs, but an everyday tool for all of us. It's not hard to see why. A laptop can be readily moved from room to room, doesn't require knowledge of plugs and cables to assemble, and ?is often quieter than the fan heaters that sit under office and home desks. It's all about making technology more comfortable for everyone to use. And now, even the hitherto high price of a laptop is no longer a barrier to ownership - particularly if you figure in the rise of the circa-£280 netbook.

Given the evident appeal of the laptop, it should come as little surprise that the all-in-one desktop PC, which shares some of its benefits, is also gaining in popularity. Many of the earliest mass-market desktops were one-box systems. It's a formula that Apple successfully revived in 1998 with the blue iMac, and has continued by making variously shaped iMacs ever since.

The latest single-stop PC solutions we see are often based on the same theme as Apple's iMac, putting the processor and electronics behind the display panel so the user sees only a screen, keyboard and mouse.

The move from one box to several boxes, then back to an all-in-one, has also been witnessed in the world of specialised hi-fi. When music systems became commercially popular in the 1950s, they were typically monolithic radiograms containing a turntable, radio, amplifier and even speakers.

As the specialist market developed, separates became the order of the day. But now, the market for enthusiast-level hi-fi equipment has become relatively small - most people are happy with the compromise of an integrated CD/radio/amp system.

It's the same in computer technology. Enthusiasts who work with video or enjoy realistic games will still be building up bespoke systems. For everyone else, it's all about usability and simplicity - the sweet spot of the all-in-one.

We've seen HP develop its touchscreen TouchSmart PC and Asus follow suit with its Eee Top. Now Sony and Advent are dipping their toes in the water with two new one-box systems. This month we test the Advent AIO200, an iMac wannabe with quad-core processor. Who knows? Maybe one day the all-in-one PC will be the new paradigm, with the market clout to claw back ground from the laptop scene.

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