In essence just a PC, monitor and speakers in one box, all-in-one computers come in several forms. We’ve reviewed stylish systems running both Windows and Mac over the following pages. See also Group test: what's the best all-in-one PC?
Apple’s 27in iMac is an attractive machine running the company’s own OS X 10.7 Lion operating system. It incorporates some cutting-edge technologies, such as the blisteringly fast Thunderbolt interface, and the highest-quality panel in our group test. However, it’s really just a standard desktop PC in a more convenient form.Buying advice: all-in-one PCs.Visit
The Windows-based PCs we review here take a rather different approach to the all-in-one concept. These systems place a strong emphasis on multimedia, and three of them include a touchscreen interface. You’ll often find TV tuners, Blu-ray drives and HDMI ports included in their spec. This means such systems will likely find a home in your living room, where they could potentially replace your TV.
Chillblast’s Fusion Powerpack represents yet another approach. Its tiny chassis is attached to the Vesa mount on the rear of almost any monitor you choose. It saves space on your desktop and, depending on your chosen monitor, it can create a sleek impression when viewed head-on. But it’s really rather an all-in-two PC, with two separate cables to plug into the mains.
With all their components crammed into a thin housing, all-in-one systems must make compromises between performance and noisy cooling. To cut down on heat and power consumption, some machines use low-power processors such as the Intel Core i5-2400S or slightly faster Core i5-2500S. Slower CPUs such as the Core i3-2100, or mobile chips designed for laptops, might also be fitted by PC vendors.
All these processors are adequate for general computing tasks; for entertainment use, such as flitting between TV, internet, music and gaming, we recommend going for the fastest processor you can afford, and a full complement of system RAM.
Yet the slowest PCs here felt a little tepid and unresponsive at times. Entertainment should be about relaxation and delight, not impatience and frustration.
Many vendors believe the key to such delight is a touchscreen. Don’t expect to have much fun jabbing away at the standard Windows 7 interface, although Windows Media Center is more usable when paired with a finger or remote control than a keyboard and mouse.
Where these touchscreens should really come into their own is with Windows 8 and its ‘Metro’ touch-optimised interface. We’ve tried the Consumer Preview of Microsoft’s forthcoming OS and discovered a far more enjoyable touchscreen experience. You can read our full guide to Windows 8 on page 84.
Until Microsoft’s new OS is released to PC builders, however, look for vendor-specific bundled software that’s designed to bring together the functions of your all-in-one PC within a user-friendly touchscreen interface.
All the systems in our group test include full-HD (1080p) or better screens. You’ll also want a Blu-ray drive to take full advantage of these high-resolution panels for watching movies. If the PC doesn’t have one and you’d like to hook it up a standalone Blu-ray player, check that the spec includes an HDMI input before you buy. It’s also an idea to check what outputs it offers if you plan to connect it to your TV – many all-in-ones lack a generous complement of digital connectors. What audio connectors it offers is important if you plan to add external speakers, too.
Due to space and cooling constraints, all-in-one systems rarely offer strong gaming performance. Windows systems often rely solely on Intel’s integrated graphics, but some include a mobile graphics processor, such as an AMD Radeon HD 6770M or nVidia GeForce GT540M. With the detail settings turned down a notch, these discrete graphics processors can handle any title.
Your choice of all-in-one system is unlikely to come down to price and performance only. You should also consider what screen size is best suited to the room in which it will reside, and how you envisage using the computer. Looks can also be of prime importance.
An all-in-one PC can make an excellent space-saving replacement for a desktop PC: Apple’s iMac, the MSI AE2211G-011EU, and even Chillblast’s external monitor-mounted PC achieve this aim.
In many cases, an all-in-one PC isn’t simply a replacement for a PC, but also a substitute for a TV. In smaller rooms, combining all these functions into one device can be an ideal space-saving solution. Such machines can provide a much bigger screen and better sound quality than a laptop, and are still less hassle to pack up and move than a desktop.
The Asus, Packard Bell and Toshiba offer good multimedia credentials, with built-in TV tuners. The Asus’ 27in screen is well suited to the living room, and its Blu-ray drive means you can remove yet another external box from your home-entertainment setup. The Asus’ subwoofer also enables very good sound quality.
A discrete graphics processor is required if you want to enjoy modern games at reasonably high detail levels. The Asus is a good performer in this regard, but better still is Apple’s iMac. This 27in all-in-one outperformed all challengers in our Stalker and Crysis gaming tests, and was beaten only by the Chillblast in terms of application performance in WorldBench 6.
Look to the systems from Apple, Chillblast or MSI if you want to be able to hook up an external display.
In terms of power, design and sheer awesomeness, the iMac wins our Best Buy award. The Asus is a contender for its versatility and multimedia credentials, and gets our Recommended award.
How we test
Core system performance is measured using WorldBench 6. This customised test suite runs several desktop Windows applications with real-world workloads, mimicking how PCs are used on a daily basis.
These workloads include tasks such as editing documents and images, compressing files, browsing the web and encoding video. Some tasks are then run simultaneously to form an additional test of the PC’s multitasking capabilities.
In total, eight applications are used: Adobe Photoshop Creative Suite 2.0, AutoDesk 3ds Max 8.0, Firefox 2.0, Microsoft Office 2003, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9.0, Nero 7.0 Ultra Edition, Roxio ViewWave Movie Creator 1.5 and WinZip Computing WinZip 10.0.
Results from 10 individual tests are combined and weighted to produce a numerical score relative to a baseline PC.
Our baseline configuration runs a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E6600 processor, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, an nVidia GeForce 7900 GS graphics card, twin Western Digital Caviar WD3200KS hard drives in a striped Raid array, and Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit. This PC scored 100 points in WorldBench 6.
We set each PC the task of converting a batch of 1080p Mpeg4 video clips for use on the iPad 2 and recorded how long it took to complete. We used CyberLink’s MediaEspresso software.
This software is able to make use of hardware-accelerated decoding and encoding built into graphic cards and CPUs with integrated graphics-processing capabilities. These techniques can often shorten conversion times by a factor of 10. Multiple CPU threads are also fully exploited, allowing quad-core CPUs to shine when compared to dual-core versions.
Unlike most desktop machines, all-in-one computers may often be left switched on for extended periods. We measure
power consumption when idle (120cd/m2 brightness) and when running Crysis (maximum brightness).
We use two games to evaluate performance: Stalker: Call of Pripyat, for its DirectX 11.0 support, and Crysis, which still has the power to stretch modern graphics to the limit.
We’ve included a 720p Crysis test to give PCs running integrated graphics processors a chance. For those with discrete chips we crank up the resolution to 1080p, set the quality to Very High and use 16x anti-aliasing.
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 each panel uses.
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.
Differences in warranty terms can have a big effect on our verdict. 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 whether parts, labour or both are included.