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Hands on with Intel's open all-in-one platform

Mini-ITX goes on the Weight Watchers plan

After many years of arousing little more than indifference among PC buyers, all-in-one systems are enjoying a surprising surge in popularity. If you read our news section, you might have seen our coverage of a recent IHS report on the subject. IHS said all-in-one shipments are growing at a considerably faster rate than desktop PC shipments—by about 20% to 0.2%, according to the firm's forecast for this year.

Perhaps users think desktop towers are old hat. Maybe they feel that, if they're going to have a non-portable computer at all, that system should have as small a footprint as possible. And what has a smaller footprint than an all-in-one? With their PC guts tucked away behind the LCD panel, most of those machines resemble chubby monitors or diminutive TVs. Looking at them, you might never think there's a fully functional PC hiding inside.

The downside is that, traditionally, all-in-ones have been as closed-off as your typical laptop. Changing the motherboard or processor, replacing the display, or performing routine upgrades can be an iffy proposition, if not prohibitively difficult. Should one part break down after the warranty expires, you might find yourself forced to toss out the entire machine, monitor and all. That proposition isn't just wasteful; it can be expensive.

Ah, if only all-in-ones mirrored desktops in their use of interchangeable components. If only they were as easy to build and take apart as modern desktops.

That may sound like a pipe dream, but it's essentially what Intel is pushing. The company's Thin Mini-ITX platform comprises a motherboard form factor and a cooler design that can be paired with other, standard components to enable both uncannily thin desktop PCs and modular all-in-ones.

Intel first unveiled Thin Mini-ITX at Computex 2011 a little over a year ago. As its name suggests, the standard calls for motherboards with the same 6.7" x 6.7" footprint as regular Mini-ITX offerings, but with a thinner port cluster and horizontally stacked SO-DIMM memory slots. The idea is to keep the I/O shield—and the other components—from protruding by more than 25 mm (0.98") vertically. Thin Mini-ITX systems accommodate standard desktop processors, but Intel has designed a flat, laptop-style heatsink and fan with copper pipes that transfer heat to a slim array of fins sitting next to the motherboard. The cooler can handle desktop chips rated up to 65W without poking beyond the sacred 25-mm height limit.

Users and system builders are free to complement the motherboard and cooler with SO-DIMMs, 2.5" hard drives or SSDs, slim optical drives, and Mini PCI Express cards as they see fit. The resulting systems can be incredibly thin and still offer some of the benefits of full-fledged PCs. For example, Lian Li offers a stand-alone Thin Mini-ITX enclosure, the PC-Q05, that's only 47 mm tall—about 1.85", or roughly the same height as a pizza box.

A system built inside that sort of enclosure would fit comfortably in a home-theater environment. Of course, Thin Mini-ITX is about more than just ultra-slim HTPCs. Because the components occupy such little vertical space, they can easily be tucked away behind a monitor to create an ersatz iMac. Behold!

What you see above is an all-in-one Loop chassis, which is designed to accommodate a Thin Mini-ITX motherboard and Intel's matching cooling solution. We supplied the keyboard and mouse, so forgive us if those don't quite match. The Loop AIO Chassis has a 21.5" LCD panel—without touch-screen capability, by the way—and is suspended atop a metal stand not unlike those that bolster Apple's iMacs and Cinema Displays. The panel and bezel are covered by a single pane of glass, and they're bordered by a rim of either brushed aluminum or a convincing plastic facsimile.

It all looks rather elegant. The enclosure that houses the display and PC guts is barely 2.2" thick, which gives the system a very streamlined appearance. The stand does add a few inches of extra depth at the back, but it's a curved piece of metal only 5 mm thick, so it almost blends into the background.

This specimen is but one of many all-in-one Thin Mini-ITX enclosures listed in Intel's component catalog. Firms like ECS, Gigabyte, MiTac, Shuttle, and Wibtek all offer similar enclosures, with display sizes ranging from 18.5" to 24". Some of them eschew Intel's cooler in favor of custom solutions, but all of the enclosures can accommodate Thin Mini-ITX motherboards, making them easy to assemble and upgrade. System builders are the prime targets for such designs, but Intel also wants to service consumers and enthusiasts.

Today, we're going to be spending a little quality time with the Loop chassis and a set of matching Thin Mini-ITX components. We'll get a feel for what it's like to build an open all-in-one PC, and for just how usable and convenient that system can be.