All-in-one computer makes a comeback
Illustration: Stuart Goldenberg/The New York Times
Try this simple test at home: what's the name of Dell's best-selling PC? Anybody?
Right. Nobody knows – and nobody cares. Today, it's all about phones and tablets, baby. Nobody buzzes about the PC any more. Innovation is dead. Sales are down, right?
Actually, there's one pocket of surging sales and innovation in PC land: the luxury all-in-one computer, of the type the iMac made famous.
I took a look at three silver, high-design, screen-on-a-stalk competitors: Apple's new iMac, Hewlett-Packard's SpectreOne and the Vizio All-in-One Touch PC. Lenovo, Dell, Samsung and Acer also offer, or soon will offer, similar all-in-ones.
These computers all have a tremendous emphasis on looks. They're shiny, sleek, futuristic, uncluttered and cordless (they come with a Bluetooth wireless keyboard and trackpad or mouse). They are pieces of sculpture. In your kitchen or on your desk, they contribute to the decor even when they're turned off.
The usual box of innards is missing. In the iMac, the guts are concealed behind the screen. In the Vizio, they're in the foot of the monitor. In the HP, they're inside the stalk that supports the screen.
They also all feature state-of-the-art components – gorgeous high-definition screens, the latest Intel chips and lots of memory.
And finally, none of them has a DVD drive.
Apple, HP and Vizio seem to believe that everything is online now. But if you want to rent an Indiana Jones movie, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List or even Bridget Jones's Diary, you will find none of them is available online.
You can buy an external DVD drive for these computers, but given they are meant to be all-in-ones, the external drives just look stupid.
Eliminating the DVD drive is understandable on a laptop. You carry laptops. Weight matters. Bulk matters. But there seems to be little sense in eliminating DVD drives on computers that do not move.
End of rant.
Moving on, the new iMac, clad in its traditional aluminum, is stunning. The stand is still a thin, curved L of metal and now the screen appears to be just as skinny (5 millimetres).
But it's an illusion – behind the screen, you see a substantial bulge; Apple tapered the aluminum as it approaches the screen, so that from the front, it seems the whole screen is razor thin.
Apple has also eliminated much of the glare that has long dogged glossy screens. Viewed side-by-side with its rivals, the iMac is a lot less reflective.
There are two iMac sizes: 21.5-inch and 27-inch. The $1429 and $1999 base models come with a 1-terabyte hard drive, 8 gigabytes of memory and an i5 Intel processor. Each has four USB 3.0 jacks, two Thunderbolt jacks (for video input or output or external hard drives) and a camera memory-card slot awkwardly positioned on the back. Apple has ditched the FireWire jack it spent so many years promoting.
On the 21.5-inch, you cannot upgrade the memory yourself – to do so, you must take the machine to a shop.
On the 27-inch model, you can install as much as 32 gigabytes yourself, through an easily opened door. (That, for the record, is about 262,144 times the memory of the original Macintosh.)
Vizio is not a company you expect to be in the PC business. It made its mark selling high-quality, low-price television sets. And sure enough, by far the best part of its All-in-One Touch PC is its lovely touch screen, available in 24- and 27-inch versions.
A non-touch version is also available but the Vizio comes with Windows 8, which is far more pleasant to use with a touch screen.
Microsoft is pushing computer makers to add touch screens to ordinary desktop computers but I have my doubts. A phone or tablet is nearly horizontal and close to your body, but a desktop screen is further away and vertical, which makes precision finger movement difficult. And then there's the finger-grease build-up.
The rest of the Vizio isn't quite as dazzling. The body, the keyboard and the large trackpad feel plasticky. You're supposed to plug the PC into the subwoofer, and then the subwoofer plugs into a power outlet. Oddly, though, the sound is not half as crisp or rich as the iMac's subwooferless speakers.
Otherwise, this Vizio makes a fine home-entertainment PC; in addition to its four USB 3.0 jacks, it has a remote control and two HDMI inputs for Blu-ray players, game consoles or cable boxes. It can display their output even when the PC is turned off.
Vizio should also be praised for resisting the urge to clutter the computer with trialware and other third-party junk. It's a clean Windows installation.
Compared to the iMac, the 27-inch Vizio has less memory, a slower processor, an audible fan, a lower-resolution screen (1920 by 1080 pixels; the iMac is a razor-sharp 2560 by 1440) — and a lot more plastic.
HP's 23.5-inch SpectreOne does not come with a touch screen, only two USB jacks (plus an HDMI input) and only 6 gigabytes of memory. As with the iMac, you're paying a lot for style. This machine looks terrific but it too feels like silver-painted plastic. It's the most compact PC of the three.
It comes with the full versions of Photoshop Elements 10 and Premiere Elements 10.
You also get a cordless mouse and a trackpad, as well as NFC — near-field communications. This feature lets you exchange information (a map, a photo, an address) from an NFC-equipped Android phone with your PC. Or, after some programming set-up, you can log onto your SpectreOne just by tapping your phone to it — an ordinary phone to which you've attached one of the two included NFC stickers.
The three computers incorporate in some models a solid-state drive (SSD) – a chunk of superfast flash memory. It increases the speed of overall operation by copying (caching) frequently used bits of data onto the SSD.
On the Vizio and HP, it's a 32-gigabyte cache. Apple's Fusion drive, a $U300 option, is bigger (128 gigabytes) and works differently. Apple says that instead of just caching frequently used data, the SSD actually stores important files, like Mac OS X itself, your programs, maybe the video scene you're editing.
It works. The SSD-equipped iMac is ridiculously fast: 15 seconds to start up, one second to open a browser, two seconds for iPhoto, two for Final Cut.
All the machines are successful in their goals. The iMac has the best screen you've ever seen on a computer, the finest craftsmanship and very fast response. The Vizio's touch screen and low price give it a charm all its own. And the HP is competent, tidy and unimposing.
All represent ingenious steps forward in miniaturising and hiding the innards of a computer. Each costs more than your standard plastic black box, of course. But sometimes, beauty, elegance and satisfaction are worth a few bucks.
The New York Times