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.
Parts and labor
Intel provided all the parts we needed to complete our assembly. There was the chassis itself, of course, which shipped without its metal stand attached.
Then, there were the other bits and pieces required: Intel’s HTS1155LP cooler, some thermal compound, a pair of 4GB SO-DIMMs, a 2.5″ 320 Series 300GB solid-state drive, a Mini PCI Express 310 Series 80GB SSD, a Centrino Advanced-N 6230 Wi-Fi card, and some miscellaneous cables and screws.
The rest of the necessary hardware was already pre-installed. Accessing it was simply a matter of unfastening five Philips-head screws and popping off the rear lid, which is essentially a thin plastic shell.
The motherboard hiding inside was Intel’s own DH61AG. That mobo features an H61 Express chipset and a standard LGA1155 socket, which can accommodate Core i3, i5, and i7 processors with thermal envelopes up to 65W. It also has a pair of SO-DIMM slots, a Mini PCI Express slot, a half-size Mini PCIe slot, a regular PCIe 2.0 x4 slot, two internal 3Gbps Serial ATA ports, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and one 3Gbps eSATA port. You’ll find a DVI connector in the port cluster, in addition to the onboard LVDS and Embedded DisplayPort headers.
Our processor, a 65W Core i5-2405S, was already mounted in the socket with the cooler’s backplate fitted beneath it. The chip is a 32-nm Sandy Bridge with four cores and as many threads. It has a base clock speed of 2.5GHz, a top Turbo Boost speed of 3.3GHz, and 6MB of L3 cache. Intel lists a price tag of $212 for the retail-boxed model.
Intel had taken care of most of the wiring before shipping the chassis to us. Note the headers on the motherboard. According to the interactive layout page for the DH61AG, the pre-connected headers included the LVDS display interface, the flat-panel brightness control, the front-panel USB 2.0 ports (two of ’em), HD audio, the CPU fan, the internal stereo speaker, and the front-panel button and LED hookups.
To get a feel for the installation process from scratch, we removed the motherboard, disconnected all of the headers, and then attempted to put everything back together again. Our verdict? It’s a piece of cake. The motherboard is held in place by only four screws, and the various headers are hard to mix up. The Loop chassis even has a pre-baked connector for the front-panel hookups, so you don’t need to connect each wire individually.
Fitting the cooler was child’s play. We applied thermal paste, lined up the mounting holes around the socket with the four screws, and tightened everything into place with our trusty screwdriver. The heatsink’s fins, which sit at the other end of the heat pipes, lined up perfectly with the pre-installed fan. The last step was to anchor the heatsink’s fin array to the chassis using a pair of small screws.
If you’ve ever upgraded the memory on a laptop, then SO-DIMMs should be no mystery to you. Ours snapped in with ease.
We carefully connected the Mini PCIe solid-state drive and the half-size Mini PCIe Wi-Fi card, fastening a pair of screws to keep each one steady. With the Wi-Fi card, we also had to hook up the chassis’ built-in antenna—a simple matter of connecting a wire to one of the small, gilded sockets near the edge of the card.
Oddly enough, installing the 2.5″ SSD involved the most work. We had to start by mounting the drive on a sled, but it wasn’t clear which type of screw we were supposed to use—and some of the screws had rounded heads that kept the sled from sliding back into its rails properly. We figured it out after a while, though.
Labor, part deux
Here’s everything all snug and ready to go. Well, except for one little detail.
There’s an extra fan attached to the lid. The cable is a little short, so we had to hold the lid over the motherboard while plugging it into the header.
After that, we simply lowered the lid, pushed down to make sure it snapped into place, and fastened it using the same five black screws we removed before. We then mounted the stand. That step involved the installation of four stainless steel, partially threaded screws, under whose heads the stand slid into place. Finally, we tightened a thumbscrew in the middle to keep the stand from sliding off.
Looks pretty slick, doesn’t it? Just remember to keep a microfiber cloth handy. The back of the system is clad almost entirely in glossy plastic, and the front is covered in glass. Both of those materials beckon dust and fingerprints.
We had to compromise some of the enclosure’s slickness to plug in the external power supply. The 150W power brick measures about 6.7″ x 2.8″ x 1.6″, so it’s not exactly inconspicuous. You should be able to tuck it away under a desk or table, though; the main cord is just under six feet long, and the detachable AC cable adds nearly five feet of slack.
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 1920×1080 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.
Intel makes no secret about its intentions with Thin Mini-ITX. The chipmaker wants the market for all-in-one PCs to “mirror the tower desktop market as much as possible.” The advent of Thin Mini-ITX and compatible all-in-one enclosures, like the Loop chassis we tested, are part of that strategy.
For the most part, I think we can say Intel has the hardware part of the equation down. Building a Thin Mini-ITX all-in-one is clearly quite different from building a tower desktop, but in our experience, it’s not substantially more difficult. The use of standard components also promises future upgradability. Despite all of that, the resulting all-in-one system can be slim, slick, and fast, so the open nature of the system doesn’t appear to involve serious compromises—awkward port cluster positioning excepted. The lack of space for a game-worthy graphics card is a downside, too, but it’s forgivable enough considering the likely target market for all-in-ones. True gamers will no doubt want a proper desktop with a discrete display.
As for product availability, well, Intel still has some work to do in that area. Intel Product Marketing Engineer Rob L’Heureux told us pre-built Thin Mini-ITX all-in-ones are available at Newegg and Amazon right now, but he couldn’t name specific models, and our search didn’t yield any machines that were clearly identifiable as Thin Mini-ITX offerings. Intel’s Thin Mini-ITX portal is also frustratingly bereft of product links.
Thin Mini-ITX parts and enclosures for home builders are available at retail, but not in great quantities. We found Amazon Marketplace listings for both the Loop chassis we reviewed (asking price: $264.60) and Intel’s DH61AG motherboard (sold for $109.46). Amazon sells Intel’s BXHTS1155LP cooler directly for $25, too. However, none of those parts are listed at Newegg, and Amazon says there’s only one Loop chassis, three DH61AG boards, and 16 coolers in stock right now.
Still, there’s no question the Thin Mini-ITX platform, whether in all-in-ones or small-form-factor desktops, is a positive thing for the PC industry. The PC owes much of its success to openness, and any efforts to maintain or expand that openness warrant praise. I think Intel deserves particular commendation, given that its hardware already powers the top-selling all-in-ones on the market right now: Apple’s iMacs. Intel doesn’t have to embrace openness, but it seems to have done so anyway.