Find the perfect... All-In-One PC

Our definitive guide to what you should look for when shopping for an All-in-One PC.

The Big Picture

Windows-based all-in-one PCs once got little respect. Today’s AIOs still lack the graphics horsepower for hardcore gaming, but the best models are far removed from the 98-pound weaklings of yore.

Many models use laptop parts, which minimise heat, power consumption, and the need for noisy cooling fans. If you crave more performance, pick a model that uses desktop components. Either way, everything — the CPU, memory, storage, and optical drive — is housed in the same unit as the display, so the computer’s footprint equals that of a monitor. And since most all-in-ones ship with a Wi-Fi adapter as well as a wireless mouse and keyboard, the only cable they require is a power cord.

All-in-one specifications are a blend of what you’ll find in conventional desktop systems and laptop PCs. The thinnest and most compact systems are almost completely built around the same power-efficient technology as laptops. Below is our checklist of what to look for.

The Dell XPS One 27

The Specs Explained

Unlike with traditional desktop PCs, what you see is what you get with an all-in-one — for the life of the PC. You’ll never be able to upgrade without chucking the entire machine, so choose accordingly. In addition to multitouch capabilities (to support Windows 8), you should consider three other key factors: display technology, display resolution, and display size. LCD panels that employ IPS (in-plane switching) or PLS (plane-line switching) technology are vastly superior to those based on TN (twisted nematic) technology. IPS and PLS displays are more expensive, and you might find them only in larger all-in-ones, but they are worth every cent.

The all-in-one you buy should deliver graphics resolution of at least 1920 by 1080 pixels. Movies, digital photos, websites, and productivity apps will look great at this resolution on a 23- or 24-inch display. Move up to a 27-inch model, however, and you’ll be able to make out the individual pixels because they’ll be spaced farther apart to fill the larger area. A few high-end AIO models, such as Dell’s XPS One, provide higher resolution — 2560 by 1440 pixels — on their 27-inch displays.

Desktop or mobile? Choose an AIO with a desktop processor if you intend to perform in-depth photo editing, manipulate complex spreadsheets, or engage in other computing-intensive tasks. If your work is less demanding, an AIO built on a mobile CPU will be thinner and quieter, and will consume less power. Faster CPU clock speeds buy incremental performance within a particular class, but your desktop-versus-mobile decision affects performance the most.

Look for systems with at least 6GB to 8GB of memory. Most AIOs offer relatively straightforward memory expansion, so you can add more if you need it; but you might discover that a limited number of memory slots will force you to replace existing memory modules with higher-capacity ones, rather than add to existing DRAM.

Buy an AIO with discrete graphics if you plan on any serious gaming; models with integrated graphics hardware won’t be up to the task. Note, however, that the limited airflow in an AIO design typically restricts the manufacturer to using a mobile graphics processing unit. Such GPUs can run 3D games, but you will need to dial down the resolution and detail levels to achieve acceptable frame rates.

Most AIOs use mobile hard drives, which trade capacity and performance for a smaller size and cooler operating temperatures compared to desktop models. You’ll want at least 1TB of storage. We’ve seen only a few AIO PCs outfitted with solid-state drives, but some higher-end models use small SSDs as a persistent cache for higher-capacity mechanical drives.

Entry-level AIOs come with DVD burners/players. Upscale models should come with at least a Blu-ray player (if not a Blu-ray burner).

Only the most basic AIO won’t have an integrated Wi-Fi adapter. If the machine you choose lacks one, you can add it by plugging in an aftermarket USB adapter. Bluetooth support is convenient for connecting Bluetooth printers, tablets, and smartphones.

The AIO you select should have at least two USB 3.0 ports, but the more the better (either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0). A card reader (SD, Memory Stick, and the like) is another welcome feature.

An HDMI input lets you connect a gaming console, a camcorder, or another digital source to your AIO to take advantage of the computer’s display. Models that allow you to use the display without turning on the computer will consume less power. HDMI-out is a less common feature on AIOs, but you could use it to drive a second display.

An on-board TV tuner lets you watch over-the-air broadcasts on the AIO’s display. If you subscribe to My Sky, however, you’ll be much happier plugging a set-top box into the machine’s HDMI input.

The Asus ET2300 All-in-One PC

Buying Tips

Although you can score a big discount on an older model, buying an outdated AIO is problematic. It probably won’t have Windows 8 or a multitouch display (should you decide to upgrade to Windows 8 later).

Upgrading a desktop PC is easy, particularly if you want to improve its graphics, storage, display, or optical drive. Upgrading an all-in-one is at least as difficult as upgrading a laptop is. The key is to buy as much computer as you can afford, so that you won’t outgrow it too quickly.

You’ll never regret buying a display that’s too big — unless you lack the room to accommodate it. If you plan to put the AIO in a computer hutch, measure the space before you bring it home.

As with any PC purchase, unpack and set up your AIO immediately. Make sure you have all its accessories, and that the entire system is working as it should.

Harley Ogier will be reviewing the latest and greatest Windows 8 All-In-One machines, including the models pictured, in the February issue of PC World.

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