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IT & Systems Management

5 budget all-in-one PCs for college students: We name the best values

Laptops are awesome. They're convenient, portable, and relatively powerful: the perfect combination for college. But sometimes you just want the comfort of a display, a full-sized keyboard and mouse, and speakers that don't make every singer sound like a screaming banshee.

Well, you have two choices: You can get a traditional desktop computer and a stand-alone display and speakers, or you can buy an all-in-one that integrates the computer, display, and speakers into a single chassis. A desktop might cost a little less (don't forget to factor in the price of a display and speakers), but it won't move well. All those internal components can be jarred loose in transit, creating major troubleshooting headaches every time you set it up in your next domicile. And if you're a typical college kid, you'll be moving--again and again--for the next several years.

Fortunately, all-in-ones have become more powerful and dropped in price over the past several years. The five all-in-ones we've gathered here are perfect for college students: They have large touchscreens, good speakers, solid media editing and encoding capabilities, and big hard drives. Those are features you'll be thankful for when finals--and parties--come around.

Each of these computers can easily handle productivity tasks--word processing, number crunching, and Web surfing--without breaking a sweat, but they can also deliver excellent audio and video experiences when you're ready to relax. Yes, there are more powerful AIOs on the market, and the ones we've picked might not be the best choice for graphic design or media-production majors, but any one of them will help you manage your school work and watch Netflix.

CPU, memory, and storage specs

Model

CPU

Memory

Storage

Acer Aspire A5600U-UB13(Reference)

Intel Core i5-3230M

6GB DDR3/1600

1TB 5400-rpm

Acer Aspire Z3-605-UR22

Intel Core i3-3227U

4GB DDR3/1600

1TB 7200-rpm

Dell Inspiron One 20 Touch

Intel Core i3-3240T

4GB DDR3/1600

1TB 7200-rpm

HP Pavilion TouchSmart23-f260xt

Intel Core i3-3220T

6GB DDR3/1600

1TB 7200-rpm

Lenovo C540 Touch

Intel Core i3-3240

6GB DDR3/1600

1TB 7200-rpm

Toshiba PX35t-A2210

Intel Core i3-3120M

6GB DDR3/1600

1TB 7200-rpm

I used several criteria to evaluate these all-in-ones, including benchmark performance, multimedia experience, storage capacity, touchscreen quality, overall attractiveness, and price. Each model is based on a third-generation Intel Core processor, but no two have the same CPU. PCWorld uses a Core i5-powered Acer Aspire A5600U-UB13 as its desktop PC performance baseline.

It's true that the cloud offers almost limitless storage, but wouldn't you feel more comfortable keeping your school projects, photos, and videos close at hand, just in case? Keep a backup in the cloud, by all means, but all of these machines provide plenty of local storage. Each of the computers I evaluated came with a 1TB, 7200 rpm hard drive. An SSD--or at least an SSD cache--would deliver even better performance, but that's a feature you won't find in this price range.

Graphics and display specs

Model

Graphics

Display

Acer Aspire A5600U-UB13(Reference)

Intel HD Graphics 4000

23 inches, 1920 by 1080 touch

Acer Aspire Z3-605-UR22

Intel HD Graphics 4000

23 inches, 1920 by 1080 touch

Dell Inspiron One 20 Touch

Intel HD Graphics 2500

20 inches, 1600 by 900 touch

HP Pavilion TouchSmart23-f260xt

Intel HD Graphics 2500

23 inches, 1920 by 1080 touch

Lenovo C540 Touch

Intel HD Graphics 2500

23 inches, 1920 by 1080 touch

Toshiba PX35t-A2210

Intel HD Graphics 4000

23 inches, 1920 by 1080 touch

As with budget notebooks, budget all-in-ones have limited graphics capabilities. None of the AIOs in this roundup, for instance, has a discrete video card, which means none of them excel at graphics-heavy tasks such as video editing and hard-core gaming. That doesn't mean you won't be able to play any games, but you will need to make some resolution and image-quality concessions.

All five of these computers have big, bright, 20- to 23-inch touchscreens. Some are better than others, but none of them are poor. You'll have no problem watching movies, juggling multiple windows, and tapping your way through Windows 8 on any of them.

Your computer will inevitably become the focal point of your dorm room, so industrial design is an important consideration. Unfortunately, some PC-makers have become so obsessed with looks that they've sacrificed usability. The sleek, ultra-modern keyboards and mice that come with some of these systems are beautiful to look at, but not all that comfortable to use. I also encountered I/O ports in locations that were difficult to access.

Each of these all-in-ones has its strengths and weaknesses. Some are prettier, some are more powerful, but each has something unique to offer. Once you've decided where your priorities lie, you'll have a gorgeous AIO sitting on your desk in no time.

Acer Aspire Z3-605-UR22

If you like HP's picture frame design, but you'd prefer something a bit more polished, the Acer Aspire Z3-605-UR22 ($900 as of 8/29/13) is another AIO with a space-saving chassis. The Z3-605 sports an Intel i3-3227U processor; 4GB of DDR3/1600 RAM; and a 1TB, 7200rpm hard drive. It has integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi adapters, a 23-inch touchscreen with a native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, and a wireless mouse and keyboard.

The Aspire Z3-605-UR22 has a frame design similar to the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 23, with a glossy edge-to-edge glass display surrounded by a frame that extends past the bottom of the screen to rest on your desktop. The screen is propped up by an easel-like stand that's very easy to adjust thanks to a spring-loaded hinge.

Unlike the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 23, the Aspire only has one slim bezel under glass. This gives the machine a much more minimalist and streamlined look, though it is slightly disrupted by the system's convenience ports. Instead of being located neatly on the side of the machine or out of sight on the rear panel, the Z3-605's convenience ports--a card reader, a USB 3.0 port, and headphone and microphone jacks--are located right up front, just below the display. The placement sounds convenient, until you plug in an external drive or a headset and end up with cables draped over your keyboard.

Performance-wise, the Aspire is the weakest AIO of this bunch. It scored just 89 in our Desktop WorldBench 8.1 test, which means it's 11 percent slower than our baseline (which happens to be its sibling, Acer's Aspire A5600U-UB13). That also puts it 20 points behind the second-to-last contender, Dell's Inspiron One 20. The Aspire won't have any problem with basic productivity apps, and it will stream HD video, but you might have trouble when you try to multitask.

The Aspire Z3-605-UR22 also delivered an appallingly low score with our suite of media editing and encoding tests (it finished last, and by a very wide margin), so we were surprised that it performed as well as it did in our gaming tests. This AIO managed to produce Dirt Showdown at 33.2 frames per second, and BioShock Infinite at 21.0 frames per second (both games set to a resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels, with visual quality set to Low). It's no gaming powerhouse, but it performed better than most of the PCs in this roundup.

The Aspire Z3-605 does have one of the better-looking touchscreens in our roundup. Its glossy 23-inch touchscreen offers 10-finger multitouch with smooth, accurate gestures; bright, vibrant colors; and crisp, clear text. The only minor issues I saw during my testing was some minor artifacting--even in still or nearly-still images--and softening of details in photos and film. In some shots, people looked a bit featureless and oversaturated.

The Z3-605 has very nice wireless peripherals. Its keyboard is soft and noiseless but still comfortable and easy to type on, and its mouse is just the right size and ergonomically curved to fit your hand. While these peripherals aren't as striking as the Toshiba's silver-accented ones, they are far more usable and comfortable.

Pros

  • Comfortable mouse and keyboard
  • Slim, space-saving design
  • Quick startup time

Cons

  • Weak performance
  • Oversaturated display
  • Poor price/performance ratio  

Bottom line

Acer's Aspire Z3-605-UR22 is an attractive machine, but its performance leaves us wanting.

Rating

2 stars

Dell Inspiron One 20 Touch

I'm a big fan of Dell's Inspiron One lineup of all-in-one PCs. These computers manage to be gorgeous, sturdy, and versatile while remaining relatively budget friendly. The Inspiron One 20 reviewed here has a smaller display than the Toshiba, but it costs more than $300 cheaper ($699 as of 8/29/13). It's equipped with an Intel Core i3-3240T processor; 4GB of DDR3/1600 memory; and a 1TB, 7200rpm hard drive. It also has built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi adapters, and a 20-inch capacitive touchscreen.

Design-wise, the Inspiron One 20 Touch is tough to beat, though the Toshiba PX35t-A2210 has a slightly more premium look. This all-black AIO features an edge-to-edge glass screen, which gives it a bezel-less appearance and also makes for easy swiping when performing common Windows 8 gestures (such as swiping from the side to pull up the charms bar). The minimalist bezel sports a small, mirrored Dell logo at the bottom and a built-in webcam at the top. The system's speakers are just below the screen. There are no buttons or ports on the front of the One 20 Touch, these are all relegated to the system's sides and back.

The One 20 Touch's great-looking design is slightly marred by its below-average peripherals. The system comes with a wired mouse and keyboard, both of which are utterly basic (though mostly comfortable to use). The keyboard offers very light tactile feedback, which can make accurate typing difficult. The mouse is large but comfortable, and offers an average input experience.

As for performance, the Inspiron One 20 Touch is good, but not great. It will get you through schoolwork and basic entertainment, such as streaming HD movies and playing music, but it won't handle PC games or media-editing software very well. This Inspiron scores a very average 109 on WorldBench 8.1, which means it's just nine percent faster than our Acer baseline model . Compared with the other AIOs in this roundup, the One 20 Touch is solidly in the middle -- it comes in fourth, but it's just one point below our third-ranked HP Pavilion TouchSmart 23 (110).

In our graphics tests, the One 20 Touch performed as expected: It managed a playable, if far from excellent, 30.7 frames per second on our Dirt Showdown test, and but only 14.8 fps with the more demanding BioShock Infinite (with both games, resolution was set to 1024 by 768 pixels, and image quality was set to Low). In other words, it can handle low-end PC games at an acceptable frame rate, but it's about as far from a gaming powerhouse as a Commodore 64. HD video looks just okay--there's quite a bit of artifacting and foreign objects in scenes with a medium amount of motion--and skin tones have a tendency to look burnt and oversaturated. Audio is also somewhat disappointing: The speakers aren't very loud, and music lacks depth, even when all the software enhancements are turned on.

The Dell Inspiron One 20 Touch is a nice starter machine for those who like the Inspiron One look and feel. The touchscreen remains one of the better touchscreens that I've used, with smooth, accurate touch and a nice glidey feel to the glossy display. I especially like the adjustable stand, the minimalist design, and the overall sturdiness of the chassis. But it has its issues, including cheap, basic peripherals; mediocre performance; and weak speakers.

Pros

  • Attractive, sturdy design
  • Accurate, smooth touchscreen
  • Minimalist bezel/face

Cons

  • Mediocre performance
  • Low-volume speakers with little depth
  • Very basic, wired peripherals

Bottom line

The Dell Inspiron One is a sturdy, no-nonsense all-in-one. But Dell's ho-hum component choices deliver equally ho-hum benchmark performance.

Rating

3.5 stars

On the next page: Reviews of HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 23, Lenovo's C540 Touch, and Toshiba's PX35t-A2210

HP Pavilion TouchSmart 23-f260xt

I love the sturdy, rectangular stands on the Toshiba and Dell all-in-ones, but I must admit they're not exactly space efficient. HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 23, which costs $800 as of 8/29/13, might not be the most attractive AIO of the bunch, but its signature picture-frame design certainly helps it take up less desktop real estate, which is always a plus if you're trying to fit a 23-inch TouchScreen AIO on a cramped dorm-room desk.

The HP Pavilion TouchSmart 23's design is functional, if not very sexy. The system has a glossy 23-inch touchscreen, which is surrounded by a slim bezel under edge-to-edge glass. Around this bezel is another bezel that's thicker and fabricated from matte-black plastic. A silver metal frame is wrapped around this, extending past the bottom of the screen (where the speakers are located) to rest on your desktop. The entire system is propped up via an easel-like stand, which is sturdy, space-efficient, and easy to adjust.

The biggest issue with this design is that it's just not very attractive. While the Toshiba and the Dell look like they're floating in midair, the TouchSmart 23 just looks clunky. And don't even get me started on the bezel-within-a-bezel look.

Design issues aside, the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 23 is a solidly average performer, with a Intel Core i3-3220T processor; 6GB of DDR3/1600 memory; and 1TB, 7200rpm hard drive working together to deliver a Desktop Worldbench 8.1 score of 110. Like the other systems in this roundup, the TouchSmart 23 is good for schoolwork and basic entertainment, but not great for graphics-intensive editing or high-resolution gaming. In our Dirt Showdown graphics test (1024 by 768 pixels, image quality at Low), the TouchSmart 23 managed a barely playable 32.5 frames per second. Its BioShock Infinite performance, at the same settings, was worse: just 15.9 frames per second.

The TouchSmart 23 display resolution is the typical 1920 by 1080 resolution. It looks good: Images and text are crisp and colors are accurate, but I couldn't shake the perception that video looked dull on this machine. Perhaps I'm used to looking at oversaturated, strangely vibrant screens, but the TouchSmart 23 just seemed to lack oomph. It is, on the other hand, a very good touchscreen, with smooth, accurate touch and a slick, sensitive surface.

The system also boasts a very usable wired USB keyboard, with flat, island-style keys, excellent feedback, and a comfortable feel. It's a bit loud, but had no problem typing quickly and accurately on it. The mouse, which is also a wired USB model, felt just a little less comfortable. Its shiny, curved form factor isn't very ergonomically designed, and it felt a bit awkward in my hand.

HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 23 is a sturdy-looking computer with a slim, space-saving design. Although it lacks the minimalist sexiness that many other AIOs boast, it's a solid performer with decent peripherals, a good port selection (including two USB 3.0 ports), and acceptable performance.

Pros

  • Slim, space-saving design
  • Comfortable keyboard

Cons

  • Design looks clunky and dated
  • Mediocre performance

Bottom line

HP resurrected the all-in-one concept many years ago, but there's nothing particularly great about this model. Here's hoping the company shakes the industry up again soon.

Rating

3 stars

Lenovo C540 Touch

Lenovo's C540 Touch is one of the two best all-in-ones in this roundup. And while I have no significant complaints about the quality of its multitouch display, the manner in which the glass is recessed behind the bezel is disconcerting when you're sweeping your finger in from the edge to call up the Windows 8 charms bar. The display measures 23 inches diagonally--just like the Acer, HP, and Toshiba models--but it's mounted to a stand rather than being incorporated into a monolithic frame.

Lenovo pairs the Intel Core i3-3240 CPU with 8GB of DDR3/1600 memory--more than any of the other machines we looked at--and it packs a 1TB, 7200 rpm hard drive inside its somewhat thick chassis. All-in-ones are notoriously difficult to upgrade, so having lots of memory onboard to start is a major benefit.

The C540 Touch's Desktop Worldbench 8.1 score of 129 identifies it as nearly 30-percent faster than our Core i5-powered reference machine, Acer's Aspire A5600U-UB13 , and just a whisker behind the Toshiba PX35t-A2210. The Lenovo has a faster CPU, which helped it deliver very good media editing and encoding scores, but its weak Intel HD Graphics 2500 integrated GPU left it running in the back of the pack on our gaming benchmarks, producing just 16.1 frames per second with BioShock Infinite, even with the game running at resolution of just 1024 by 768 pixels and with its visual quality set to Low. The Toshiba, which features an Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated GPU, produced this game at a much quicker 26.6 frames per second. Neither experience is ideal, but at least the Toshiba won't leave you looking at a slideshow.

Although Lenovo doesn't have any big-name speaker manufacturers to boast of, the C540 Touch produces surprisingly good sound from its down-firing speakers. Lenovo is rather stingy with the USB 3.0 ports, providing just two on the left side of the display (along with mic and headphone jacks). Four USB 2.0 ports, hardwired gigabit ethernet, and an HDMI input are located in the back. You'll use two of those rear USB ports to plug in Lenovo's mouse and keyboard. The mouse is a two-button, bargain-basement cheapie; but the keyboard, while also exceedingly basic, delivers excellent tactile feedback.

It's tough to say which all-in-one is best, the Toshiba TX35t-A2210 or the Lenovo C540 Touch. The Toshiba looks more attractive and performs better with games, but the Lenovo's more-powerful CPU and additional memory delivers better performances on our audio-encoding, video-encoding, and image-editing benchmarks. Their Worldbench scores, meanwhile, leave them essentially tied.

Pros

8GB of memory

Great keyboard

Very good productivity benchmark scores

Cons

Weak integrated graphics

Display recessed deep behind bezel

Bottom line 

Lenovo's C540 Touch isn't the sexiest all-in-one we've seen, but it is an exceptional value at just $719 (as of 8/29/13).

Rating

4.0 stars

Toshiba PX35t-A2210

If looks are your top priority, Toshiba's PX35t-A2210 ($930 as of 8/30/13) will surely woo you with its slim, attractive design. This 23-inch AIO sports a glossy full HD touchscreen, modern-looking wireless peripherals, and a third-generation Intel Core i3-3120M processor. It also boasts 6GB of DDR3/1600 RAM, built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and a roomy 1TB, 7200rpm hard drive.

But looks aren't everything, and the PX35t-A2210 isn't just a pretty centerpiece for your desk, it's also a good all-around performer, delivering a Desktop Worldbench 8.1 score of 131. That means it's nearly one-third faster than our baseline machine, the Acer Aspire A5600U-UB13  . You won't mistake the PX35t-A2210 for a top-of-the-line gaming machine, but it'll do just fine managing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; surfing the Web and checking email; and streaming HD clips from Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

The PX35t-A2210 relies on the Intel HD 4000 Graphics processor integrated into its CPU, rather than a discrete graphics card, but it can still handle many graphics-related tasks without falling over and dying. It outperformed the rest of the field with our BioShock Infinite benchmark, for instance, delivering the game at 26.6 frames per second (albeit with resolution of just 1024 by 768 pixels and image quality at Low). It took a first-place finish with Dirt Showdown, too, delivering the game at 47 frames per second (here again, with resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels and image quality set to low). This PC won't have any problem with less visually intense games, such as MMORPGs. Simpler photo- and video-editing tasks won't be an issue, either.

Toshiba outfitted the PX35t-A2210 with a glossy 23-inch multitouch screen with native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. It's a very good display, but it's not perfect. While it's extremely bright, and images look crisp and clear on it, colors look a little dull and whites have a yellowish tint. It's also not the most accurate touchscreen I've used. There were several moments in my testing when I accidentally hit the link below the one I was trying to tap. Multitouch gestures are smooth and seamless, but the glass has an ever-so-slightly tacky feeling to it, which can make gliding across its surface a little tough. But it's a much better input device than the PX35t-A2210's mouse, which is a modern-looking angular thing that felt uncomfortable and sharp in my hand. The keyboard, meanwhile, delivers shallow tactile feedback but accurate typing.

The Toshiba PX35t-A2210 is attractive, usable, and relatively powerful. It's a great choice for college students looking to balance work and play, since it performs basic administrative tasks with ease and can also play streaming HD video without a hitch. It has excellent Harman/Kardon speakers (with a Sleep and Music feature that lets you play your digital media player through them), and an ample collection of other I/O ports: Four USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, and one HDMI input (so you can plug in a cable/satellite set-top box or a videogame console).

Pros

  • Attractive design
  • Good performance
  • Four USB 3.0 ports 

Cons

  • Screen coloration looks off
  • Uncomfortably angular mouse 

Bottom line

The Toshiba PX35t-A2210 is a relatively powerful all-in-one desktop machine. While it is more expensive than the rest of this field, it delivers the performance and features to back up its price tag.

Rating

4 stars

Think you want a laptop after all? Check our roundup of the top 5 notebooks, here.

Additional reporting by Michael Brown 

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