Ports and buttons
The Loop chassis' streamlined appearance, coupled with its use of a Thin Mini-ITX motherboard, comes at a cost. The main port cluster is perpendicular to the motherboard, which means it's hidden away at the back and pointed downward. You know how annoying it is to plug a DVI cable into your monitor? The Loop all-in-one chassis is just like that, only for almost everything you'll need to plug into your PC.
The easiest way to access the port cluster is to rotate the machine 90 degrees on its stand, so the display points straight up. Even then, you've got to hunch over and try to find the right port in that murky, recessed nook. And plugging in anything with the least bit of force threatens to tip the machine over. Hardly the most convenient design.
Apple solved this problems on its iMacs by making the port cluster parallel to the display and flush with the rear of the system. Plugging something into an iMac is a mere matter of craning your neck to look behind the thing and locating the right port. Of course, Apple doesn't have to accommodate the Thin Mini-ITX form factor; it uses proprietary motherboards and a custom internal layout.
Luckily, the Loop chassis makes some ports easily accessible. The left edge of the machine plays host to a microSD card slot, a stereo output, a mic input, and a pair of USB 2.0 ports. Hooking up your keyboard and mouse to these would be a little awkward, though. Also, since the system's only USB 3.0 ports are in the main cluster, connecting a high-speed storage device will involve the same awkward mating dance.
There are no connectors on right side of the machine, only brightness controls, the main power button, and power and storage activity lights. Above those lies the covered opening to the system's slim-line optical drive bay. We didn't have any slim optical drives on hand, so we left that bay unpopulated. Optical storage is starting to get a little old-fashioned, anyhow.
With the assembly complete, we copied the Windows 8 Release Preview onto a USB thumb drive and installed it on our brand-new all-in-one. Everything went seemingly without a hitch from setup to first boot. Windows 8 automatically detected all of our hardware, including the Wi-Fi adapter, webcam, and integrated audio. It even applied the panel's maximum 1920x1080 resolution without prompting us.
Intel told us that, with the DH61AG motherboard's former BIOS version, setup would have involved the use of an auxiliary display. That's because the system had to be configured manually to use an integrated LCD instead of one connected through the DVI output. However, Intel removed that particular hurdle with the latest BIOS release, which went up on its website a couple of months ago. Currently shipping DH61AG boards should all feature the newer BIOS.
Not surprisingly for a system with a quad-core processor and solid-state storage, the Loop all-in-one feels incredibly snappy and responsive. Apps launch quickly, animations are fluid and rapid, and boot times are very short. (I timed 22.9 seconds from the power button being pressed to the logon screen appearing.)
The 21.5" panel is, as you might expect, of the TN variety. Colors are bright and vivid, but we wouldn't put much stock in their accuracy. Viewing angles are unsurprisingly limited. You'll probably want to look elsewhere for a professional photo editing rig. If you're only concerned about watching movies and surfing the web, though, the screen is just fine—just remember this is an all-in-one chassis, so there's no way to swap out the panel for something nicer. We do wish Loop had invested in some beefier speakers. Audio comes out muffled and sounds generally awful. That headphone output on the side isn't much help, either. It's poorly insulated, so it translates on-screen activity to an endless succession of beeps and chirps. The only road to passable analog audio quality is through the stereo output in the main port cluster.
If you're not blasting music through the lackluster speakers, the system is quiet, with no fan noise to speak of at idle. We could hear a constant, high-pitched electrical whine just within our range of hearing, however. Intel's cooling solution seems to prioritize low noise over low temperatures. With Prime95 running on all four cores, the CPU's temperature got up to around 80°C before the fan really kicked in. Even then, the noise produced was more of a low whoosh, and temperatures only dropped by a few degrees.
Our only real regret is that the enclosure lacks room for a good discrete graphics card. We were stuck with the Core i5 processor's HD 3000 integrated graphics, which lacks the horsepower to run newer games. Skyrim, for example, was too choppy and laggy to be playable at the native 1080p resolution. That's despite the fact that we used the lowest detail preset and installed the latest Windows 8 graphics drivers from Intel's website.