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.
  • Brian Nadel (Computerworld (US))
  • 16 December, 2009 03:29

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. They've also represented some of the computer industry's best bargains, typically selling for about one-third less than a standard desktop PC with a separate monitor. But did you know they can cut your electricity bill significantly compared with a traditional desktop system?

All-in-one PCs are stingy on electricity consumption because many of their parts have a laptop lineage. Some models use notebook-style external AC adapters, low-power processors, and downsized hard drives and DVD drives, all of which use less electricity than traditional desktop components.

Lower energy use means a slashed electricity bill and smaller amounts of greenhouse gases pumped from power plants into the atmosphere. No surprise, then, that some all-in-one manufacturers are marketing the green aspects of their products with phrases such as "achieving the perfect balance between efficiency and power usage."

I decided to put these claims to the test with four of the newest power-saving systems.

Since saving money on electricity bills doesn't do you much good if you paid a lot for the computer in the first place, I looked at four models that cost $US600 or less: the Acer Veriton Z280G, the Averatec D1133, the HP Pavilion MS214 and the MSI Wind Top AE1900. All have approximately 18.5-in. screens and are Energy Star 5.0 certified by the U.S. Department of Energy. While Averatec doesn't actively tout its all-in-one's low energy use like the other manufacturers do, the company readily agreed to be graded on energy consumption for this roundup.

To my delight, I found that all the models I tested consumed about one-quarter to one-third of the 160 watts used by a typical desktop PC and stand-alone monitor, including my Dell Dimension 8500 and other desktop PCs I've tested. The savings add up quickly and could keep as much as $US60 a year in your pocket. (See "How I tested" and the performance results chart for details.) Of course, all-in-one desktops still use about twice as much electricity as a typical laptop, but you're getting a comfortably large screen and a more ergonomic setup in the bargain.

Of course, a low price tag and low energy use inevitably bring some compromises, which means you can forget about luxuries like a high-performance processor, lots of RAM or a Blu-ray drive. The MSI AE1900, for instance, comes with just 1GB of RAM and it can't be upgraded. Clearly, these are meant to be basic PCs that perform on par with a netbook. (The term "net-top" is sometimes bandied about to indicate the desktop equivalent of a netbook.)

But if your computing needs are modest, all-in-ones are well worth a look for the savings they can bring, both at the time of purchase and throughout the years. Keep reading to find out which model struck the best balance among price, performance and power use.

First review: Acer Veriton Z280G

If power bills were all that mattered in choosing an all-in-one PC, I'd run out right now, buy an Acer Veriton Z280G and laugh all the way to the bank. But although it consumed the least amount of power of the group, its performance came up short.

The black and silver system is similar to the MSI AE1900 in that it sits on two front feet and has an adjustable rear leg, but the Z280G feels less sturdy. When set up, the Z280G takes up 19.1 by 8.5 in. of desk space, the most of this group; it's 20 sq. in. larger than HP's MS214.

The monitor case houses the entire system, including the 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive and a Super Multi DVD drive. There's a big power switch up front, and the brightness control on the side is convenient but has only five settings to choose from.

The Z280G's 18.5-in. display is the brightest of the four but lacks the touch capabilities of the MSI AE1900. Its 1366-by-768 native resolution matches that of the HP and MSI models but is bested by the Averatec's 1680-by-945 resolution. The Z280G's Intel GMA 950 graphics engine with 128MB of video memory is on par with the MSI all-in-one's but well behind the Averatec and HP models'. While all the others have built-in webcams, the Z280G does without.

When it comes to ports, the Z280G has an oddity: There are two antiquated PS/2 ports for the (included) keyboard and mouse. There are also five USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, and a flash card reader. Like the others in the roundup, it has wired and wireless (802.11b/g Wi-Fi) networking but lacks the DVI and SATA ports of the Averatec.

The Z280G uses only 37 watts at full power and a downright tightfisted 1 watt -- half as much as the others -- when asleep. It adds up to an annual power bill of just $US20, about $US7 less per year than the Averatec.

At a Glance

Veriton Z280G

Acer Inc.

Price (as tested): $US500

Pros: Great price, lowest power use of group, useful included software

Cons: Poor performance, wobbly stand

What's sacrificed is performance, with the system getting only a 263.8 on the PassMark Performance benchmark, which is below par even for a netbook and nearly 20 per cent off the pace set by the HP MS214. As was the case with the MSI AE1900, which had similar hardware, the Z280G yielded choppy video when running Trainz, although it delivered more background details than the MSI model.

Like the AE1900, the Z280G uses Windows XP, but Acer opted for the Professional version of the operating system. The installed software includes some goodies such as Carbonite's online backup service and an online set of games called Wild Games.

All told, the Z280G defines "economical," and it rivals many laptops in power use. On the other hand, its performance leaves me wanting more.

Next: the Averatec D1133

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Averatec D1133

Rather than building an all-in-one PC around a slightly enlarged monitor case, as is the case with the other systems here, Averatec's D1133 goes its own way. Designers put most of its electronics in a small base, yielding an enviably thin monitor. Available for around $US500, it provides a lot of PC for the money, including the best graphics hardware in the roundup, but with the highest power use of the bunch.

Clothed in shiny black plastic with silver accents, the D1133 has an elegant appearance and takes up 17.5 by 8.5 in. of desk space, about average for the group. Its monitor is only two-thirds of an inch thick -- easily the thinnest of the group -- and is connected to the base with an arm that looks like a modernist sculpture.

The arm allows the monitor to not only pivot in and out but to move up and down for more flexible positioning than any of the others. Unfortunately, the monitor wobbles when bumped into.

The base has a convenient power switch up front, along with volume and brightness controls. Inside, its configuration mirrors the HP MS214's, with a 1.5-GHz dual-core AMD Athlon X2 processor, 2GB of RAM and a DVD Super Multi drive. Its 250GB hard drive is slower and has less capacity than that of the MS214. The D1133 has a basic wired keyboard and mouse -- much less impressive than the MSI AE1900's keyboard with its instant-access buttons, media controls and volume keys.

The D1133 is equipped with the best graphics of this gang of four all-in-ones, with an ATI Radeon HD 3200 accelerator and 512MB of video memory, twice the level of the HP MS214's similar video hardware. As a result, its 18.4-in. display runs at a 1680-by-945 native resolution, 60 per cent sharper than any of the other all-in-ones here.

On the other hand, its screen is the shiniest and picks up more reflections than the others. There's a webcam above the monitor, but the system's speakers sound tinny and distorted.

At a Glance

Averatec D1133

TriGem Computer Inc.

Price (as tested): $US500

Pros: Excellent price, variety of ports, swivel monitor stand, high-resolution graphics

Cons: Unimpressive power use, inconvenient audio jacks, basic keyboard, wobbly screen

To make connections, the D1133 has four USB ports (two fewer than the HP MS214), an Ethernet port and a flash card reader, and it supports 802.11g Wi-Fi networking. The headphone and microphone jacks are inconveniently located on the side, but the D1133 has the bonus of SATA and DVI ports for connecting with a hard drive and a second monitor.

It all adds up to a competent PC that was slightly behind the HP MS214 in performance, with a PassMark Performance 7.0 score of 320.7. The Trainz simulation ran smoothly, with a good degree of background detail. On the other hand, it had unimpressive energy use, consuming 48 watts of power, the highest of the group. It's still one-third the power draw of a traditional desktop PC, but expect to spend about $US27 a year on electricity.

The D1133 is inexpensive but doesn't include much in the way of software other than Windows Vista Home Premium. It is easily the coolest-looking all-in-one of the lot and should satisfy most users, but it uses much more power than the rest.

HP Pavilion MS214

It's ironic that one of the smallest all-in-one PCs available is also a top performer. HP's Pavilion MS214 does a lot with a little, packing in a high-performance hard drive and Windows 7, but it looks bulky and is the most expensive of the group.

The black and silver system occupies just 18.2 by 8 in. of desk space, the smallest of the four all-in-one PCs that I looked at. On the other hand, its monitor has a wider bezel that includes speakers below the screen, making it look bulky. There's a webcam above the display.

As with the Acer Z280G and MSI AE1900, all the MS214's working parts are housed inside the monitor case. There's a curved arm that holds the display up and allows the screen to be pivoted up and down, but it's not as flexible as the D1133's stand.

The MS214's 18.5-in. screen uses the same ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics processor as the Averatec D1133 but has 256MB of video memory versus the D1133's 512MB. As a result, it displays at a native 1366-by-768 resolution, not the D1133's sharper 1680-by-945 resolution. The MS214 also lacks the touch-screen capabilities of the MSI AE1900.

Inside the MS214 is a 1.5-GHz dual-core AMD Athlon X2 processor (the same chip used by the Averatec D1133), 2GB of RAM, a DVD Super Multi drive and a 320GB high-performance hard drive, the only one of the bunch that spins at 7,200 rpm. The system comes with a wired optical mouse and a keyboard with buttons for volume and mute. Its built-in speakers get quite loud and sound great compared with the others.

While the other all-in-ones get by with four or five USB ports, the MS214 delivers six, so you probably won't need a USB hub to connect all your gizmos and gadgets. On top of wired and wireless (802.11g Wi-Fi) networking connections, the system has a flash card reader, microphone and headphone jacks, and an SPDIF port for a set of digital speakers. The MS214 doesn't have a DVI port for a second monitor as the Averatec D1133 does.

At a Glance

HP Pavilion MS214

Hewlett-Packard Development Company LP

Price (as tested): $US600

Pros: Best performance of the bunch, 6 USB ports, great audio, 7,200 rpm hard drive, Windows 7

Cons: Looks bulky, most expensive of group

It won't set any records, but the MS214 outperformed the others in the PassMark Performance 7.0 benchmark with a score of 366.6. It is a midrange consumer of power for this group, using 44 watts. That adds up to an electric bill of around $US23 per year, about one quarter that of a traditional desktop PC.

The only all-in-one of the four to come with Windows 7, the MS214 comes with lots of software, including Microsoft Works 9 and HP's MediaSmart suite for managing all your photos, videos and digital tracks. My favorite is HP's Total Care Advisor diagnostic program that interrogates every major system and reports on the results.

All told, HP's Pavilion MS214 is balanced between power use and performance, but at $US600, it costs $US100 more than the others. Still, it's worth it for a PC that can get the job done while saving money and the environment at the same time.

Next: MSI Wind Top AE1900-01SUS

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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.