Room for One?

The 17-inch Apple iMac, priced at $1,799, has a 1.25-GHz Power PC G4, an active-matrix LCD and a DVD-CD combo drive. The iMac also comes with a 15- or 20-inch screen.

The $1,049 Gateway Profile 5M1 has a 2.6-GHz Celeron, a 15-inch LCD screen and a CD-ROM drive.

The Sony VAIO V310P, priced at $1,500, has a 2.8-GHz Pentium 4, a 15-inch LCD and a keyboard that folds up.

With space-saving designs and replacement options, all-in-one PCs just might find a place on the desktop

Like a casting call, the realm of all-in-one personal computers used to be a crowded field.

IBM Corp., NEC Technologies Inc., Hitachi Data Systems Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. (before its merger with Hewlett-Packard Co.) were among the companies with at least one such model. Now, none of those four companies has all-in-one products, despite the touted space-saving advantages of such setups.

One plus for users is having a computer that doesn't look like a desktop PC or like a notebook in a docking station. Part of the all-in-one's appeal is that it looks like a smaller version of a flat-screen television; in fact, both Sony and Gateway offer TV tuner card options for their all-in-one models. It's great for a reception area, executive's office, classroom or nurse's station.

It might also be useful in other situations: Many enterprises'and soon, perhaps, government agencies'are allotting less and less office or cubicle room for employees. The 'corner office' is now becoming a meeting room, while executives have more compact spaces. The need for more compact computers, then, would seem apparent.

Yet skeptics say a space-conscious all-in-one device is already available: the notebook PC. And besides, they say, the all-in-one, which combines monitor, CPU, drives and RAM into one unit, represents a 'single point of failure' for technology managers: If the screen goes or the system board dies, you're stuck.

Mike Flannery, a vice president at Gateway, says that's a misconception. Gateway's Profile 5 all-in-ones'used in the Office of the President as well as at Tinker Air Force Base'can be serviced deskside, he said. All of its components are replaceable; even LCD panels can be swapped out.

Flannery said there are 1,000 Gateway Profile PCs at Tinker and that the Air Force wouldn't buy a PC that couldn't be maintained easily.
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MPC Computers takes a different approach, said Paul Petersen, vice president of product marketing and development. If a machine fails, they'll send a replacement unit.

A sliver

The other chief criticism is cost. Roger Kay, vice president of client computing for International Data Corp., a market analysis firm in Framingham, Mass., said melding the compactness of a portable with the stability of a desktop has its price. As a result, all-in-ones are 'just a sliver' of the overall desktop PC market.

'Another issue has to do with component costs,' Kay said. 'Depending on the package it is, you've got some mix of mobile parts in there, which are inevitably more expensive than desktop parts.'

Desktop hard-disk drives are considerably larger than portable hard drives'about 3.5 inches versus two inches'Kay noted, and users pay extra for such miniaturization on notebook PCs.
But a mix of desktop and notebook PC parts also has its advantages, said Todd Titera, a product manager for Sony.

All-in-one desktop PCs can use some technologies that are unavailable for notebooks, or at least that cannot be included in the same price range. For example, Sony uses a technology called Xbrite to make the full-size LCD screens on its all-in-one units sharper, but the company doesn't use it on notebooks.

Prices down
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Meanwhile, several company officials said, the increase in supply of LCD panels reduces those costs, while increasing demand in key markets'including government, education and health care'is also driving prices down.

The least expensive all-in-ones are two eMac devices from Apple featuring CRT displays'and 50-pound weight totals to boot.

But prices for the LCD machines aren't that high, with a 15-inch basic Gateway Profile 5 model priced at $1,049. The two most expensive models in the roundup'again from Apple and Gateway'are both less than $2,200. They feature a fair amount of power, memory and optical options and also have 20- and 19-inch LCDs, rather impressive displays for desktop use.

Newer chip sets and processors from Intel'details of which were under embargo at our press deadline'will lead to expansion of the Dell OptiPlex line, company officials said, although the current SX270 model will stay in the production pipeline for a while.

New technology also will likely inspire other manufacturers to refresh their current models; Sony is promising new all-in-one models in January, Titera said.

Expandability options are limited'none of the models in the chart have as many RAM expansion options as traditional desktop PCs, for example, and Sony's units are notable for having as much as 200 G of hard-disk storage capacity available standard. Yet these PCs could be a good choice for many needs.

Gateway's Flannery said the Tinker AFB deployment put the computers alongside mechanics servicing aircraft: The design and small size work in such situations. MPC's Petersen, meanwhile, said the company's all-in-ones have been its fastest-selling products.

Mark A. Kellner is a freelance technology writer in Rockville, Md. E-mail him at :mark@kellner.us.

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