Save Some Space
So the 15-inch display on your laptop is starting to feel cramped, and you work mainly in one location. Yes, you could attach an additional screen to your notebook, or opt for a desktop tower with a separate monitor, but another option is an all-in-one (AIO) desktop. For about the same amount you would spend on a midrange-to-high-end laptop with a 17-inch screen (or more likely less), you can get an AIO desktop PC with a 23-inch-or-larger screen. Here's what to consider when shopping for an all-in-one PC.
Focus on the Screen
The first thing to look at (no pun intended) is the screen. While less expensive AIO PCs will come with 20-inch screens, those are better suited to cramped spaces like classroom labs or dorm rooms. What you really want is a display at least 23 inches on the diagonal—and larger is better if you can do it. (The biggest all-in-ones we've seen to date have had curved 34-inch screens.) You're almost guaranteed a 1,920-by-1,080-resolution (full HD) screen at this size, and larger screens will go even higher (up to 4K in many cases, or 3,440 by 1,440 on an ultra-wide display). That gives you the ability to view multiple windows side by side, or view a three- to four-page-wide spreadsheet; and if you're a multitasker, the more screen room the better. Though it's not a concern to those with 20/10 or better vision, a larger screen and higher resolution will let you increase the font size on your Word documents or Excel spreadsheets while still keeping a lot of information on the screen. Desktop screens are brighter than laptop displays in general, as well. Look for In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology for the best screen quality. IPS screens are inherently better at off-axis viewing, which means you won't have to be sitting perfectly centered to see accurate colors and all the detail in your images.
To touch screen or not to touch screen—that is the question. The tiled Start interface in Windows 10 was designed with touch screens in mind, and makes interacting with your various applications as easy as it's ever been. But although these can be fun and functional for families, a touch screen isn't 100 percent necessary yet, especially if you plan to use the all-in-one like a traditional computer, in which case you're better off using a keyboard and mouse. There are some touch gestures in macOS as well that could take advantage of a touch screen, but for Macs it's (also) not yet a necessity. Scrolling with a mouse or a touchpad will still be as quick or quicker than on a touch screen. Selecting text for copy and paste is easier with a mouse. If you fill out forms online and switch between text-entry boxes, pull-down menus, and check boxes, then it's likely that you'll be able to enter data quicker with a keyboard and mouse or touchpad.
If you're planning on using the touch screen at least 50 percent of the time, look for systems with screens that can recline down to horizontal (90 degrees) or almost horizontal. This lets you use the system like a large tablet, so you don't have to hold your arm out constantly to use the touch screen. Think about using an ATM: The vertical screen is fine for a 90-second transaction, but will become tiring after 10 minutes or more. It's the same reason why piano keyboards are still horizontal after hundreds of years, even though piano makers could easily situate the keys vertically. It's simple ergonomics.
Speaking of vertical orientation, some AIO stands let you pivot the screen into a portrait orientation. Portrait mode lets you view content like webpages and some pictures without wasted space to the sides of the screen. It's a boon for Web developers and layout artists still working on print publications. If Portrait mode is something you'd be interested in, make sure the system features auto-rotate; without it, you'll need to switch display settings every time you pivot the display.
Power and Connections
While you can get a dual-core processor in a base configuration, look for a true quad-core processor on a large-screen AIO PC. It will help with editing photos or videos, or playing music in the background while you work on several tasks in the foreground. About 6GB to 8GB should be the minimum system memory you should accept. Although 4GB will work fine for basic users, you're going to feel the limits of such a system quicker. That said, 8GB or 16GB will let you keep dozens of tabs open on your browser and still have room left over for Photoshop.
As far as storage, look for a hard drive of at least 1TB capacity if you're going to store any video on your PC. Videos tend to clog up hard drives faster than just about any other type of file. If you're a heavy download fan, then by all means grab a 2TB drive. The only issue is that a traditional spinning hard drive is relatively slow booting and loading apps. If you'd rather have a system that's more a speed demon than a file storage unit, look for an AIO that uses a solid-state drive (SSD) as the boot drive. If you keep all your files on a central network-attached storage (NAS) device or stored on in the cloud, just about any SSD or hard drive larger than 128GB will be sufficient for most users. That's enough for the operating system and a handful of frequently used programs. You can have the best of both worlds with an all-in-one PC that boots from a SSD but has an additional spinning hard drive for storage. Look for a 128GB boot drive and at least 1TB of hard drive storage if you're a power user. You'll need more storage (2TB to 4TB) if you plan on keeping your entire video, music, and photo collection on your AIO.
Adding an extra 1TB or so is also easy with an external drive. SSDs cost more per gigabyte than regular spinning hard drives, but SSDs boot up and wake from sleep so much faster than regular drives. Adding a 32GB cache SSD can speed up some tasks like loading apps, but for true speed, get a "real" SSD as your primary (C:) drive. Unfortunately, some of the new AIO PCs are harder to upgrade after checkout, so make sure you get what you need at the start.
See How We Test Desktops
Because an all-in-one is, at its heart, a computer, it should have all the ports you expect to need during your day-to-day activities, particularly USB (in easy-to-access places, if at all possible). You may also want an Ethernet port, though most all-in-ones today come with Wi-Fi support built in, so you can easily hook it up to the wireless network you already have in your home. Also handy is an HDMI input port, which gives you the flexibility to use the all-in-one as a display for a separate PC or other device.
You'll want a system with a wireless keyboard and mouse or touchpad. Although you could theoretically use the on-screen equivalents on a touch screen, using a touch screen for everything can get tiring, especially when you're typing for more than a minute or two. A few dozen words are easy to type on a touch screen, while 3,000 words in a single session will be a challenge. It's also arguably easier to use a mouse or touchpad than a touch screen when selecting large blocks of text for cut/paste operations.
A couple of new subcategories of AIOs have appeared within the last couple of years. The first is the battery-equipped, portable all-in-one desktop. It uses mobile components, including ultraportable-class processors, low-power storage devices like SSDs, and touch screens to give users a tablet-like experience. These PCs run full versions of Windows and Windows-compatible software, so they're more capable than the mobile device you probably carry in your pocket. A built-in battery pack will give you a few hours of unplugged computing, but their 18- to 27-inch screens are way too large to use on an airline tray table. Think of them as portable PCs that you can move from room to room easily.
The other newcomer on the scene moves in the opposite direction. These much larger machines use desktop-caliber parts (such as processors and graphics cards) to offer you just as much power as you'd get in a full-size tower PC. In many cases, you might even be able to upgrade this type of all-in-one yourself, which would help future-proof it against improvements in technology over the years you own it.
The Pros of AIOs
Even if you can afford a 20-inch or larger laptop, you wouldn't be able to carry it around much without looking ridiculous. You'll also need strong arms to move a 17-inch-or-larger laptop, and be a blood relation to a WWE wrestler to have a lap that will accommodate one. Since AIO desktops are plugged in, you can rest assured that you won't ever run out of battery power, even when you leave your system in sleep mode for months. Some AIO systems with SSDs can update while sleeping, like newer ultraportable laptops. Since they use more powerful processors, all-in-one PCs will take care of your tasks quicker. Some 3D games are also smoother, thanks to discrete graphics cards in some AIO PCs.
You can share the PC among the members of a family, and use it to store centrally accessible photos, music, and videos. A large widescreen AIO PC makes for a fine video conferencing system. Rather than having the family crowd around your 7-inch tablet or 11-inch laptop, seat them in front of a 27- or 34-inch AIO desktop so you're not subconsciously squeezing together to "fit on the screen." Plus, a large screen is good for watching a movie from 10 feet away, so a few people can use it as a HDTV in your den equipped with a small sofa or loveseat. If you place the system in a central location, such as your kitchen counter, you can monitor your children when they're online.
But these PCs aren't just good for play. Apple has brought the AIO further into workstation territory with the iMac Pro, which will be available in December. The starting price for this monster machine is high at $5,000, but it packs a jaw-dropping amount of muscle: It has a 27-inch 5K screen and is configurable with up to 18-core processors, 128GB of memory, and 4TB of SSD storage. Apple also announced refreshes to its base-model 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs with significantly more power under the hood than the previous generation. We'll put the new family of iMacs though their paces in our labs soon.
Since they have bigger screens, AIO PCs are physically larger than laptops. Of course, you give up the ability to easily move them from room to room, but AIOs are still more portable than tower PCs. All-in-one PCs don't have the expandability that you're going to find in most towers, but towers lack the sleekness factor. That said, towers are still better than all-in-one PCs when you need to do intensive work like CAD/CAM or scientific exploration, and most of them are expandable in ways well beyond even the most generous AIO on the market.
The next time you're online and thinking that you really need a bigger screen than the one on your current laptop or tablet, take a look at an all-in-one desktop. Be sure to also check out our top picks overall for desktops, as well as our favorites for work or play.
Featured All-in-One Computer Reviews:
Dell OptiPlex 7450 All-in-One Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Dell OptiPlex 7450 All-in-One is a powerful business desktop with a brilliant 4K screen, plenty of power, and excellent connectivity. Read the full review
HP Envy 34 Curved All-in-One (2017) Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The latest HP Envy 34 Curved All-in-One desktop PC mates an outstanding 34-inch widescreen display with impressive processing power. It's a terrific combination for hard-core multitasking, gaming, or simply kicking back and watching the latest blockbusters. Read the full review
Apple iMac 21.5-Inch With 4K Retina Display (2017) Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Design unchanged, the latest 21.5-inch Apple iMac with 4K Retina display packs an updated CPU, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, VR-ready graphics, and a brighter display. Despite these minor updates, it's the midrange all-in-one to beat. Read the full review
Digital Storm Aura Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Though pricey, the Digital Storm Aura is an innovative all-in-one PC for gamers that delivers excellent performance, many customization options, and full upgradability Read the full review
Microsoft Surface Studio Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Microsoft Surface Studio is a gorgeous desktop PC and a capable digital creation tool in a single package. It brings innovation to a relatively stagnant space and provides an elegant solution to multi-product work for artists and designers. Read the full review
Acer Veriton Z4820G-I5650TZ Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Veriton Z4820G-I5650TZ is a versatile business all-in-one that marries good performance with ample storage, lots of I/O ports, and a touch screen. Read the full review
Apple iMac 27-Inch With 5K Retina Display (2017) Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The newest 27-inch Apple iMac is a gorgeous machine with a brilliant display and a handful of modern upgrades at an appealing price. It's not revolutionary, but it's the best version of the iMac to date. Read the full review
Dell XPS 27 (7760) Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% With a beautiful 4K touch screen, an adjustable stand, and 10 speakers, the Dell XPS 27 (7760) is a multimedia powerhouse masquerading as an all-in-one desktop. You may want to invest in some noise-canceling headphones for your family or roommates, though. Read the full review
HP Envy All-in-One (27-b010) Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The HP Envy All-in-One is built for enjoying multimedia like movies and music, but its speedy processor and discrete graphics card make it powerful enough to create media and play games, too. Read the full review
Lenovo ThinkCentre X1 Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The thin, aluminum alloy Lenovo ThinkCentre X1 all-in-one is a little more stylish than your average business PC. If you need good looks along with capability in the office, it's worth considering. Read the full review