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Buyer’s guide to all-in-one PCs

Buyer’s guide to all-in-one PCs

Posted on 17 Jun 2012 at 16:13

Compact, convenient and powerful, the all-in-one PC is a perfect fit for many classrooms. Jamie Stephens helps you select the right one for your school

In recent years, the desktop PC has undergone a reinvention. It wasn’t long ago that your only choice was whether a beige box sat vertically or horizontally on your desk – but now you can have PCs in a myriad of styles, form-factors and plastic or metallic finishes, ranging from tiny nano-sized systems to mighty, high-performance towers. The all-in-one PC has long been at the forefront of this process. Apple pretty much invented the stylish system with the all-in-one iMac in 1998, and has redefined it with new designs in the years since. Now Sony, Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba and HP have all put their own spin on the one-box formula, with PCs that would be as at home in the living room as in the boardroom.

Yet the growing popularity of the all-in-one PC in the classroom isn’t down to looks. Opting for this type of PC brings many advantages over the traditional desktop, the biggest of which is in saving space. Typically, an all-in-one has a footprint not much different than a standalone monitor, which means you regain the space that was previously taken up by your old desktop PC’s base units. You’ll also notice a reduction in the number of wires: since the monitor is combined with the PC, there’s one less power cable and no signal cable running between the two. This ensures your ICT suite looks tidier, and also gives the kids a few less leads to unplug. Everything being in one box also makes it easier to move equipment between rooms – and all-in- ones are also a lot faster to unbox and install.

On the inside

You may notice that all-in ones share many of their advantages with laptops – and to a large extent the all-in-one is a less portable laptop with a much larger screen. The slimline nature of most all-in-one PCs is largely due to the use of laptop components to save space. This results in an all-in-one typically running cooler, quieter and with better energy efficiency than a regular desktop PC.

Alas, as with laptops this comes with a price premium, and with a drawback in that all-in-ones often offer slightly lower performance than a traditional desktop PC. The laptop components and the nature of the design also make them potentially more difficult to repair if something goes wrong. The ability to upgrade components is rather limited in most all-in-ones and is usually more expensive, too.

When looking at all-in-one PCs, you may notice the very different approaches taken by traditional school suppliers and by the big mainstream PC manufacturers. The mainstream PC manufacturers have all gone down the route popularised by the iMac: a sleek, slimline system, designed to be as thin as possible with the components built into the back of the display. RM has taken a different path, with more emphasis on durability and robust build quality than aesthetics. This typically results in a bulkier chassis but one that’s arguably more suited to being poked and prodded by students for several hours a day. Education systems are also more likely to use desktop components and allow more flexibility in upgrading components further down the line.

As with most other modern PCs, a large proportion of all-in-ones are equipped with Intel’s range of i3/i5/i7 processors – but it isn’t the only option. Although the current-generation Intel chips arguably offer better performance than the AMD equivalents at the higher end of the market, AMD remains competitive at the low to middle-range price points and can provide better value for money.

Intel also produces a range of low-powered processors in its Atom range, and while these are primarily designed to be used in compact and mobile systems, they can be found in lower-end, entry-level all-in-ones as well.

Atom processors are a long way off their Core equivalents for performance, and while an Atom-powered system will be fast enough for day-to-day tasks such as word processing or web browsing, you shouldn’t expect it to cope with video editing or other multimedia-heavy tasks.

Of course, the processor isn’t the only component we should be looking at when purchasing a new PC. While all but the cheapest modern processors are more than capable of powering a system that can cope with day-to-day demands, the modern curriculum is introducing more and more multimedia elements such as video editing, games programming and animation.

A hands-on approach

A growing trend in all-in-ones is to provide a touchscreen display, which allows you to operate the PC in much that same way as you would a tablet such as the iPad. With OS X 10.7 or Windows 7, the value was debatable; the touchscreen experience on Windows-based PCs wasn’t great and there aren’t a huge number of Windows applications available to use the feature. However, this is changing. The Consumer Preview release of Windows 8 is now available, and this features a new interface called “Metro” that’s written specifically for touchscreen and tablet computers, plus an app store that might eventually host a good selection of touchscreen- friendly educational apps.

It’s still too early to say how much the experience will improve and how many apps will follow, but opting for a touchscreen model now could be an effective way of future-proofing your investment should Metro and its apps take off.

If your all-in-one will be used for such tasks, it’s important to opt for a model with a graphics processor. While the processors integrated into the current Sandy Bridge Core i3, i5 and i7 processors are a huge improvement on previous Intel graphics hardware, they still can’t match the performance of even budget Nvidia or AMD graphics processors. What’s more, in an all-in-one this won’t be something you can easily upgrade later.

Maximise memory

Memory is cheap at the moment, so opt for as close to the maximum supported as possible. While you can work with 2GB, going up to 4GB or above will ensure a smoother experience and better performance than going up a class of processor – and the more memory your PC has, the better it will cope with running multiple applications at once. Fortunately, it’s something that can be added to at a later date.

Probably the most important thing to consider in an all-in-one is the screen; after all, this is what users will spend most of their time looking at, and you can’t upgrade it later. Image quality, colour accuracy and brightness are important, but it’s also worth thinking about how robust it feels. An all-in-one screen will have to last the lifetime of the PC, and it will be difficult to replace; the last thing you want is to make a support call because someone has accidentally put a pencil through it.

In an age of dwindling budgets, it’s tempting to make savings when it comes to warranties. On-site and extended warranties can add a significant premium onto the purchase price of a new PC, and there’s a great temptation to scrimp here and reduce the initial outlay. However, we’d strongly advise against this. Since all-in-ones are potentially more difficult to repair and the use of laptop or proprietary parts makes it more difficult to get hold of components, you might end up ruing such a decision. Either opt for a good, long-term on-site warranty or a fast return-to-base option; in practice, and particularly if your school is out of the way, the latter can sometimes be a more rapid solution than the former.

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For more details about purchasing this feature and/or images for editorial usage, please contact Jasmine Samra on pictures@dennis.co.uk

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