It used to be that I looked askance at "all-in-one" computers—systems that pack a monitor and the guts of a computer into a single device. While they were easier to set upthere were some trade offs.
Especially back when the screen of most computers was a cathode ray tube, all-in-ones tended to be underpowered and hard to maintain. With some, like Apple's first iMacs, you had to take them back to the store to get anything done to them, or risk voiding the warranty. And while they were closer in capability to a notebook computer than a desktop, they were hardly portable—the CRT all-in-ones weighed a ton.
The latest crop of all-in-ones is different. I've been using a flat-screen iMac for several years as a home computer, and I've never felt like it was a compromise.
All-in-ones generally are easier for the technically nervous to deal with, because they don't have as many cables and power plugs to deal with. They take up a lot less space than standard PCs, and use less electricity. And while they're not as compact as a notebook or netbook, they've usually more disk space and faster processors. The latest crop of Windows-based all-in-ones are as powerful as most desktop computers in their price range—and they come with a monitor built-in.
The other thing about newer all-in-ones is that "all-in-one" is a lot more than a monitor and a computer. Like the iMac, most Windows all-in-ones now come with built-in stereo speakers, web cameras and microphones, as well as WiFi networking—so they're instant web-chat machines.
And "all" is starting to encompass even more. HP's new TouchSmart 310 has a 20-inch 1600x1900 touchscreen display, an HDTV tuner, and the kind of graphics and processor performance that used to only come with more expensive desktop computers. That makes it not just an all-in-one computer, but an all-in-one home entertainment system that could be at home either on a desktop or an entertainment center. The Touchsmart 310 will be available in late October.
And some all-in-ones don't even need a desktop. I recently tried out a small-business oriented all-in-one from Lenovo, the ThinkCentre A70z, which has an optional mounting system that allows it to be flush-mounted on a wall.
Here are some things to keep in mind when looking at all-in-ones:
- If you're looking for a computer the whole family can use for entertainment, including computer games like Starcraft 2 or Crysis, make sure you get a system with a graphics card that's up to high-resolution entertainment. Many low-end all-in-ones have graphics chips similar to those in notebook computers, so they lack the graphics guts to handle full high-def and the intense graphics of games.
- Look for a system that supports a wireless keyboard if you really want to get rid of desktop clutter, or are looking to use the system for family room duty as well as on the desktop. Many models offer wireless keyboards and mice as an option, but use a "dongle" in a USB port; others offer wireless built-in without taking up a precious USB slot.
- Look for systems that make it easy to upgrade memory and hard drives. While standard desktop PCs are much more upgradeable, the parts of a system that people usually outgrow the fastest are the hard disk and the computer's memory. While Windows 7 works adequately with 2 gigabytes of RAM, make sure the system you're looking at can be upgraded to at least 4 gigabytes, and that it's easy enough for you to do without having to call a technician—or get it with double the memory to start out with. And while it's easy to plug in a USB hard drive, being able to replace an internal drive when it fails without shipping it back to the manufacturer is a plus.