What Are All-In-One Personal Computers?

How all-in-one PCs compare to traditional laptops and desktops

All-in-one computers are just like traditional desktop computer systems in terms of features and functionality. The only difference is the number of components: While desktops are comprised of the computer case plus a separate monitor, all-in-ones combine the display and the computer itself into one package. This consolidation gives the all-in-one computer system a smaller overall profile than a desktop computer system.

Apple iMac with Retina 5K Display
Apple iMac with Retina 5K Display. Apple Inc

Information in this article applies broadly to a wide range of devices. Check the specifications of individual products for a more direct comparison.

What Are All-In-One PCs?

The earliest form of computer displays were large cathode-ray tubes. Because of 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 all-in-one designs. These first all-in-one computer systems were still quite large and cost more than a standard desktop 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. 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

Buying a desktop has some distinct advantages over purchasing an all-in-one PC. Many all-in-one PCs feature components designed for laptops including processors, memory, and drives. Such architecture helps make the all-in-one compact, but they also hinder the overall performance of the system. Typically, these laptop components will not perform as well as a desktop benchmark. For the average user, all-in-ones will usually be fast enough, but if you're a PC gamer, then you might prefer the extra power of a traditional gaming desktop PC.

Another challenge with all-in-one computers is the lack of upgrade options. While most desktop computer cases can be easily opened to install and replace components, all-in-one systems feature a more closed designed. This design approach typically limits the systems to having just 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 they still make a huge difference for some components such as the graphics processor.

All-In-Ones vs. Laptops

The all-in-one is smaller than a desktop, but it still is tethered to a desktop space. Laptops, conversely, can easily move between locations and even supply power through their battery packs. This portability makes them much more flexible than the all-in-one.

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 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.

All-in-one systems used to be less expensive than laptops, but thanks to technological advancements, the tables are now almost turned. You'll find many laptop computers for less than $500 while the typical all-in-one system now costs roughly $750 or more.