The Best All-in-One Desktops for Dorm Rooms and Small Offices

Desktops are dead—we get it—but there’s one subcategory of this oldest-of-old-school computer type where innovation is thriving, because customers are still interested in the unique features these machines have to offer. If you haven’t checked out an all-in-one desktop lately, you might be surprised how much is happening behind that big screen.

All-in-ones have broad market appeal among style- and space-conscious users, but we wanted to look at some specific use cases for the all-in-one. Particularly, we filtered these reviews through the eyes of a few prototypical types of users—those needing a do-it-all device for a dorm room, small apartment, or small office, a single machine that would do double duty for both work and leisure, equally apt at spreadsheets as it is at handling an Xbox.

We asked several manufacturers for all-in-ones and gave them each an extensive wish list. Because these devices wouldn’t just be used as computers but also as television monitors, we wanted 23 inches of screen real estate as a minimum, with the best resolution possible and a touchscreen if available. Audio should be integrated (no room for bulky speakers). Ideally we wanted lots of inputs: multiple HDMI inputs for external consumer electronics equipment, a TV tuner, and an integrated Blu-ray reader would all be ideal. We knew we wouldn’t get every single item on the list—and that some features, like Blu-ray or the TV tuner, may not be critical to every user—but we felt this configuration offered maximum flexibility, literally an “all-in-one” device.

Here’s what we got, and how the machines fared.

Apple essentially invented the all-in-one category (at least as far as the modern era is concerned), and the latest iteration of the iMac—the Apple iMac 27-inch with Retina 5K Display ($2,500; RATING: 7)—is as glorious a machine as you could ask for to sit on your desk. It’s really all about that screen: 5120 x 2880 pixels of the brightest all-in-one display I’ve ever tested—so bright that at its maximum brightness setting, it’s physically painful to look it. Under the hood components like the 3.5GHz Core i5, 8GB RAM, ATI Radeon R9 M290X graphics, and a 1TB hard drive are all acceptable, and upgradeable if needed. There is no touchscreen option, however.

The tiny, chintzy keyboard notwithstanding, as a computer, the machine is tough to beat on its merits. The only noteworthy downside is how closed off this machine is from the rest of the tech universe, which bodes poorly from this comparison’s perspective. Four USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, Ethernet, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports are the only ins and outs, which means you won’t be able to use the iMac as an external display. Why? Because while the iMac technically supports Target Display Mode, the Thunderbolt connection doesn’t support a 5K input, it doesn’t support connections via DVI or HDMI adapters, and TDM only works with other Macs, not consumer electronics devices from other manufacturers. So, put simply, you just can’t use this iMac as a gaming or other CE device monitor at all, and your only option for watching optical media is through a $100 USB player add-on. That price is tough to swallow, too.

Finally, there’s the HP Envy 23xt Beats Special Edition ($1,000; RATING: 7), which is as an audacious a Beats-branded product as I’ve ever seen. Slathered in Beats-red paint, it is so committed to the Beatsiverse that it features a slide-out hanger on which you can drape your Beats headphones and a big, backlit “b” front and center in the speaker grille, below the screen. That red “b” never goes out, even when the computer is asleep, and that’s pretty amazing. What better nightlight could a college kid ask for than one that promises that Dr. Dre is watching over them while they sleep?

Behind the red paint, the 23xt is appointed with a 23-inch touchscreen (offering 1920 x 1080 pixels) 1.9GHz Core i5, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive, and an integrated DVD burner. There are ample USB ports (6 of them, all USB 2.0), plus Ethernet, an SD card slot, and HDMI input. On the left side of the screen is the 23xt’s killer feature, a small button that reads “HDMI IN.” Just punch this button and the 23xt slips—seamlessly—from standard PC to a monitor for your gaming device or other HDMI output. And—praise Jesus!—the volume controls on the keyboard actually work while you’re displaying HDMI video (something termed “game mode” by HP).

There’s only one problem with the 23xt, and that is, sadly, its performance as an actual computer. The 1.9GHz CPU is woefully underpowered and the hard drive is extremely slow—both of which drag this machine down no matter what you’re trying to do. Booting is slow, installing or launching apps is slow, and benchmarks are appropriately awful. On general apps, even the Core i3-powered Acer Aspire Z3 outperformed the HP by up to 60 percent. That’s simply appalling. Graphics are roughly in line with what you can expect from the typical system with integrated graphics—barely acceptable for anything but older games at lower quality settings.

That’s a bummer, because otherwise this is a perfect machine—and really, the only machine we tested—that actually fits the bill of our do-it-all device. The HDMI switching system is perfect. The screen, though a bit on the dim side, looks nice, and the audio quality is phenomenal. I guess this doctor actually knows what he’s doing in the sound department. My best advice is to spring for an upgraded CPU and an SSHD drive, and pass the bill on to mom and dad.

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