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9 Jun 2020

Are all-in-one PCs a false economy?

Should you buy an all-in-one or a desktop PC? We take a look at the things you need to consider

As their name suggests, all-in-one computers (AIOs) are designed to be a complete computing package.

They come with a built-in screen and speakers, plus a keyboard and mouse. And while are lots of attractive reasons to choose one, including a more compact design compared with traditional desktop PCs, there are also some limitations to beware of.

Read on to learn about the pros and cons of AIOs and read reviews of the latest models on test.

Ready to buy? See our full index of desktop PC reviews.

The pros of picking an all-in-one: clutter-free home working

There are plenty of advantages to picking an all-in-one computer. The most obvious, especially with new designs launched in 2020, is that plenty of all-in-ones look really nifty on the desk.

The Lenovo IdeaCenter A340 (below) we tested in May, for example, has an almost architectural stand design that not only looks cool, but also takes up less space on your desk than a conventional AIO and most monitors.

Lenovo IdeCentre A340
The Lenovo IdeaCentre has a quirky design that sets it apart

Some higher-end all-in-one PCs also come with a wireless keyboard and mouse, meaning that aside from the power cable, your AIO won't produce any cable mess on your desk. For many, this will be the biggest selling point of all.

All in all, the main advantages to AIO computers is that they are completely fuss-free and can be set up in a matter of minutes, and will look much tidier than any standard desktop computer hooked up to a monitor using wires.

The cons of picking an AIO: value and performance

The first downside to picking an AIO is a pair of related compromises. The price of an all-in-one compared with a similarly-specified tower desktop is normally far higher than the cost of simply buying a desktop and a monitor separately. That's not to say it's a mistake to do so because the decision to choose an AIO isn't simply one that is down to cost.

But it is worth remembering that if you're not fussed about the form factor of your next computer, a tower desktop connected to a monitor is undoubtedly a better-value approach.

The table below shows two recently tested computers with near-identical specifications.

HP Pavilion 24-f0054naAcer XC-885
ProcessorIntel Core i5-9400T
Intel Core i5 9400
Processor speed1.8-3.4GHz2.9-4.1GHz
Screen23.8-inch Full HDNone

In fact, the only tech spec difference is that the HP all-in-one has a processor that is slightly more limited in its performance (denoted by the 'T' on the end of the model name), which is due to the computer having less capacity to cool its components. This means, overall, it will be slower than the Acer. That's not to say that it will be slow, but if you're looking for performance-per-pound, the Acer will be a better bet. This comparison is the same across the board; most AIOs will be slightly slower than their big tower desktop counterparts for this exact reason.

Of course, you will see that you're going to have to spend some extra money on a monitor and speakers. Our experts reckon a perfectly serviceable 24-inch monitor shouldn't cost any more than £120, and a basic pair of desktop speakers will set you back about £30, saving you at least £49 all-in. Even better, though, is the ability to choose the kit yourself. When you buy an AIO, you're effectively stuck with the screen and speakers the manufacturer has chosen to supply.

This is key, because in our latest round of testing, all-in-one computers scored poorly (1.8 out of 5) for their speaker quality and only modestly, (2.5 out of 5) on average, for their screen quality. By picking a monitor and speakers yourself, you can guarantee you'll get exactly what you want. It also means you can either upgrade the computer or the monitor at a later date without having to replace everything.

Read our advice on buying a monitor to see what considerations you need to make when looking for a screen.

Does this mean you shouldn't buy an all-in-one?

Not at all. Their virtues are strong and if you pick a good'un, you'll have a great PC without the clutter. But to get perfection when it comes to screen and sound, you have to spend quite a lot. Buying a separate tower desktop and then adding accessories lets you mix and match.