What Are All-In-One Personal Computers?

How the Integrated Desktop System Compares to Traditional Laptops and Desktops

Apple iMac with Retina 5K Display

The earliest form of computer displays were large cathode ray tubes. Due to the size of the displays, computer systems were comprised of three key components: the monitor, the computer case and the input devices. As the size of the monitors decreased, computer companies started to integrate the computer case into the monitor to create an all-in-one. These first all-in-one computer systems were still quite large and generally cost a fair amount compared to a standard computer setup.

The most successful of the all-in-one personal computers was the Apple iMac. The original design used the cathode ray monitor with the computer boards and components integrated below the tube. Many similar designs were developed by PC manufacturers, but they did not catch on. With the advent of LCD monitors for displays and mobile parts getting smaller and more powerful, the size of the all-in-one computer system has decreased dramatically. Now the computer components can be easily integrated behind the LCD panel or in the base of the display.

All-In-One vs. Desktop PCs

All-in-one computers are really just a style of desktop computer system. They still have the same requirements in terms of features and functionality. The only difference is the number of components. All-in-ones have a single box that is the display and computer versus the desktop that is comprised of the computer case plus a separate monitor. This gives the all-in-one computer system a smaller overall profile than a desktop computer system.

One might counter by bringing up whether it's worth getting the latest small form factor computers such as the Apple Mac Mini. These new class of extremely small computers that can easily sit beneath or behind a standard desktop display. The all-in-one PC still has an advantage over these systems in the number of required cables. Since the monitor is integrated into the system, there is not a need for a monitor cable or separate display power cord. This reduces the clutter on, underneath or behind a desk.

Buying a desktop does have some distinct advantages over an all-in-one PC though. Due to their small sizes and need for lower power and less heat generating components, many all-in-one PCs feature mobile designed components including processors, memory, and drives. All of this help make the all-in-one small but they also hinder the overall performance of the system. Typically these laptop components will not perform as well as a traditional desktop. Of course for the average user, many of these low powered mobile components will often prove to be fast enough.

Another issue that all-in-one computers have is their upgradability. While most desktop computer cases can be easily opened by the consumer to install replacements or upgrades, all-in-one systems tend to restrict access to the components due to their small nature. This typically only limits the systems to having their memory upgraded. With the rise of high speed external peripheral connectors such as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, internal upgrade options are not as critical as they once were but still still make a huge difference when it comes to some components such as the graphics processor although external graphics units could change this.

All-In-Ones vs. Laptops

One of the primary reasons for the all-in-one PC is to conserve space over a desktop computer, but laptops have advanced tremendously over the past couple of years. They have advanced so much that comparing them to an all-in-one is almost one-sided.

Because many all-in-one PCs use all the same components as laptops, the performance levels are pretty much identical between the two types of computers. The only really compelling advantage that an all-in-one PC might hold is the size of the screen. While all-in-one PCs generally come with screen sizes between 20 and 27 inches, laptops are still generally restricted to 17-inch and smaller displays.

The all-in-one is smaller than a traditional desktop, but it still is tethered to a desktop space. Laptops have the ability to be moved between locations and even used away from any power on their battery packs. This makes them much more flexible than the all-in-one. There are a few new tablet-style all-in-one systems that feature built-in touch screens and batteries so that they can be used away from power cords but their running times are generally less than that of a laptop.

The one area that all-in-one systems used to have a huge advantage over laptops was in price. Thanks to technologic advancements, the tables are pretty much almost turned. There are a number of laptop computers that can be found for under $500. The typical all-in-one system now costs roughly $750 or more.


Over time, the role of a desktop computer system has become less and less common thanks to the rise of laptops and now tablets. Their cost and portability give them huge advantages and thus make desktop PCs more niche machines. Desktop sales have slid tremendously in the past couple of years but the all-in-one segment is still doing quite well. This is likely the result of the ability of an all-in-one to act as a central computer for a household while individuals use mobile devices when away from it. They offer as much or more performance than a mobile computer along with a larger screen. They also use standard size keyboards and mouse making them easier to use for certain task that require a lot of input. As a result, this market segment will continue to be viable for some time.