4 all-in-one PCs sip energy, save money

All-in-one desktop PCs have long been touted as space-saving wonders, squeezing an entire computer into a frame that's only slightly bigger than the monitor itself.

MSI Wind Top AE1900-01SUS

Despite having an innovative touch screen, enviable power use and some cool software, all packaged at an unbelievable price, the MSI Wind Top AE1900 falls short. Its performance, lack of ports and inability to go beyond the 1GB of RAM that comes with the machine all disappoint.

Like the Acer Veriton Z280G, the AE1900 has a monolithic design that can be tilted with a single rear leg. It's sturdy but not as easy to adjust as Averatec's D1133. It does have a cool clear plastic frame around its white case that makes it look like it's floating. The system takes up 19 by 8 in. of desk space, putting it right in the middle of the four all-in-one systems.

What the others don't have is the AE1900's touch-screen display, which responds to the lightest finger pressure to move items around or draw things. A tap on a large icon launches major applications such as Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word and so on. The calibration isn't always exact, however, so it can take a couple of tries to do precise work like starting an application from the program list. Above the screen is a webcam.

When it comes to configuration, the AE1900 doesn't measure up to the others. Its Intel Atom 230 processor may be comparable to that of the Acer Veriton Z280G, but it's limited to 1GB of RAM -- half what the others have. Even worse, it can't be upgraded. Although the specifications on MSI's Web site say the model has an Intel GMA950 video engine, the unit I was sent had an Intel 82945G engine with 128MB of memory. The system comes with a 160GB hard drive and a DVD Super Multi drive.

The AE1900's keyboard has a set of silver buttons across the top for apps, volume and playing movies or music, and stands in stark contrast to the basic keyboards provided with the Acer and Averatec models. On the other hand, its assortment of ports is basic at best, with just four USB connections (two fewer than the HP MS214). There are also wired and wireless (802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi) networking, headphone and microphone jacks and a flash card reader. It lacks the DVI and SATA connections of the Averatec D1133.

At a Glance

Wind Top AE1900-01SUS

Micro-Star Int'l Co.

Price (as tested): $US500

Pros: Touch screen, great price, low power use, multimedia keyboard, sleek design

Cons: Poor performance, short on ports, lacks upgradability

At a maximum of 38 watts, the AE1900's power use is less than one quarter that of the typical desktop PC and a smidge higher than the Acer Z280G's. It has an estimated annual power bill of only $US21, a couple of dollars less than the HP MS214.

But with a PassMark Performance score of 270.3, some 25 per cent less than that of the MS214, the AE1900 outperforms only the tightfisted Z280G. More to the point, the system could not keep up with the resource-heavy Trainz game, with choppy video and incomplete background rendering. Clearly, it has been held back by its 1GB of RAM.

It uses Windows XP Home and includes MSI's Wind Touch interface, which is perfect for computer novices. It places large icons of the top apps in your face when the system starts up, which can simplify getting a job done.

At $US500, the AE1900 looks like a bargain, but its second-rate performance is a compromise I'm not willing to make.

How I tested

To see how these all-in-one desktops compare with each other, I examined all their components and features, then put them through their paces with a series of tests, including typical home and office tasks.

After setting them up and measuring how much desk space each occupied, I ran PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, software that pushes each component and subsystem and records the system's overall performance. I also used each system to work with complex spreadsheets, write and give presentations, watch online TV shows, listen to Internet radio stations and play DVD movies.

Finally, I ran a copy of Auran's Trainz Simulator 2009, a resource-heavy game that simulates a working railroad. With the train running at full speed, I checked for video choppiness and which background details were present.

Along the way, I measured how much electricity these systems use with a Kill A Watt P4400 power meter. On top of peak power consumption (while the benchmark was running), I looked at its sleep-mode use.

Using this data, I estimated how much each system costs to operate over a year, assuming that the system will be on for 12 hours a day and that electricity costs 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, approximately the current national average, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Conclusions

These all-in-one PCs succeed beyond my wildest dreams in terms of power use, with each using less electricity than a 60-watt reading light. It's truly amazing that even the most expensive of the computers can save more than $US60 a year compared with a traditional desktop PC.

These systems certainly take up less space and do the basics adequately, but the two Intel Atom systems -- the MSI Wind Top AE1900 and Acer Veriton Z280G -- just can't keep up with the needs of most users. They're fine for things like writing, online wandering, and watching streaming video or DVDs, but as soon as the system is stressed, such as with a resource-hungry game, they can't keep up.

While Averatec's D1133 did well in graphics and system performance, it uses too much power. Overall, I really like the design of this system, but the screen wobbles too much.

Of the four all-in-one PCs reviewed, the one for me is HP's Pavilion MS214. Not only did it outperform the others, but it did so within a reasonable energy budget. It costs $US100 more than the others, but it is money well spent for the hardware and software you get. And the savings in electricity costs you'll earn over time put it ahead of traditional desktops that may cost less at the outset. In other words, it's an energy-saving bargain.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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