All-in-one desktops marry the computer and display into one sleek, attractive unit. They look great on a desk and take up much less space than a traditional tower-based desktop. The downside is that expansion possibilities range from slim to none, and you can generally get more performance for the dollar from conventional desktop systems featuring separate computers and monitors. Some all-in-one PCs are inexpensive systems capable of light-duty tasks such as word processing, reading email and surfing the web but not much more. If that's enough for your needs, those choices are outlined in our report on desktop computers.
At the other end of the spectrum are powerful and pricey all-in-one computers that look great and deliver a ton of power and performance. Although most aren't as powerful as traditional desktop computers, the top all-in-one models have made large strides thanks to discrete graphics cards and speedy processors. The Apple iMac dominates the all-in-one category, earning Editors' Choice awards from CNET, PCMag.com and ComputerShopper.com, as well as high ratings from several other sites.
Reviewers say the iMac blows its competition out of the water. Its impossibly thin design with 5 mm edges means "almost every single person who saw it on my desk started stroking it absent-mindedly," says David Pierce at TheVerge.com, where the iMac outscores nine other all-in-ones. Blistering performance is powered by Intel's latest and greatest quad-core Ivy Bridge processors with optional Hyper-Threading to run eight virtual cores. A stunning 2,560 by 1,440-pixel, 27-inch anti-glare display is gloriously bright and vivid. The new iMacs also boast mighty Nvidia graphics, richer-sounding speakers, better microphones and 720p HD FaceTime webcams.
"The best all-in-one desktop we've ever seen," sums up Brian Westover at PCMag.com. Although several configurations of the new iMac are available, reviewers say the Apple iMac 27-inch 2.9 GHz (*Est. $1,800 to $2,000) represents the best value. It comes with a quad-core, 2.9 GHz Core i5 processor; it also boasts 8 GB of memory and a 1 TB hard drive. Opt for Apple's new Fusion Drive (*Est. $1,800 to $2,000 ) -- a big hard drive and speedy flash storage mashed into a single drive -- and the iMac really cooks. It'll play just about any computer game you can throw at it, although maybe not at max settings.
If you don't need the massive screen, you can get the same setup on the Apple iMac 21.5-inch 2.9 GHz or 2.7 GHz version (*Est. $1,300 and up). Unlike the big iMacs, however, the smaller 21.5-inchers doesn't grant users access to their pre-installed RAM, so upgrades without the help of a Mac repair shop aren't an option for most. For more oomph, you can splash out for a faster processor. A maxed-out small-screen iMac 21.5-inch with 3.1 GHz Core i7 (*Est. $1,700 and up) is "unsurprisingly fantastic," says Pierce, flawlessly playing "Left 4 Dead 2" at the highest settings and "Portal 2" at 60 frames per second (fps) at native resolutions.
For an iMac that "positively screams," Westover says, choose the top-of-the-line iMac 27-inch 3.4 GHz Core i7 (*Est. $2,200 and up). It sails through "Borderlands 2" on max resolution and image quality at CNET, and the demanding "Witcher 2" on full resolution/ultra quality. "I won't say it hit 60 fps, but it was more than playable," says CNET's Rich Brown. Even in virtual Windows, any computer game should play nicely on this pumped-up iMac, he adds.
One glaring absence on all new iMacs is optical drive. Apple killed it to get skinner, so rip all your CDs before you make the switch or get an external optical drive. There's no HDMI jack, either, and no touch screen. You can read more about the Apple iMac in our report on Apple laptops and desktops.
If you want a Windows all-in-one desktop computer, the Dell XPS One 27 Touch (*Est. $1,600 and up) is a clear winner in tests. It has two things the iMac lacks: a touch screen and a CD/DVD burner, plus Blu-ray in the highest-end configuration. And it's the only Windows all-in-one that matches the iMac's incredible 2,560 by 1,440-pixel screen resolution, although the Dell's glossy display produces lots of glare in tests.
"If you have $1,599 to spend on Windows 8, let's stop beating around the bush. The XPS One 27 is what you want," says TheVerge.com's Pierce. It beats every all-in-one desktop computer except the iMac in test after test. Experts ignore the base version with its Core i5 processor and integrated graphics, instead testing the $2,600 top-of-the-line version that boasts Core i7, Nvidia graphics, 16 GB of memory and 2 TB hard drive plus 32 GB solid-state drive.
The Dell XPS One 27 Touch almost matches the iMac's performance, except when playing computer games. The Dell's lesser graphics can play demanding titles, but not at native resolution. Still, "it comes close," Pierce says. "I could play 'Borderlands 2' at 1,080p as long as I turned down a few settings, and 'Battlefield 3' ran comfortably at low settings and 1,680 by 1,050." At CNET, "'Dishonored' was smooth and visually stunning at 2,560 x 1,440 pixels."
The Sony Vaio Tap 20 (*Est. $880 and up) earns kudos for being unique: It's a gigantic 20-inch tablet with a kickstand and a battery. You can plug it in like a regular desktop with its wireless keyboard and mouse, or unplug it and carry it around the house at least for a while; battery life between charges is unimpressive. Experts and owners say it's actually kind of addictive lying on the floor playing "Angry Birds" or "Fruit Ninja" with your kids on a screen that's big enough to share.
But while the Sony Vaio Tap 20 might look like a tablet at first glance, it's very much an all-in-one desktop computer at heart. The component lineup includes a low-voltage Core i5 processor and integrated graphics, so don't expect blazing speed or very much gaming power. Still, testers manage to play simpler games like "Torchlight" and more demanding titles such as "Batman: Arkham City" and "Borderlands 2" on low settings. At more than 11 pounds, the Vaio is also way too awkward and heavy to leave the house. The screen is nice, but not full HD. Still, if you like the idea of a big touch screen computer that you can carry around, experts say the Sony is a solid machine that's really the only one of its kind.