Since you probably already own a smartphone and a laptop, and maybe even a tablet, is there still room for a desktop in your life? Perhaps, if you’re a dedicated PC gamer. But the average American office worker probably doesn’t want to come home from a long day of sitting at a desk to, well, sit at a desk. So consumer-level desktops have transformed into digital bulletin boards, all-in-one PCs that can sit in the kitchen and let you video chat with grandma, find a chicken parmesan recipe, watch video clips, or play some music. Buying an Apple iMac, the best-known all-in-one, is going to cost you, but there are a handful of capable Windows alternatives that seek to replicate the iMac experience as much as possible for less than $1,000, including the Asus Zen AiO ($999). Be prepared to compromise on computing prowess, however: This system is fine for a kitchen PC, but power users will want to spend a bit more for the Editors’ Choice 21.5-inch iMac.
The design is decidedly iMac-like, but the black, sleek bezel that surrounds the display is even narrower than the one on Apple’s AIO, especially at the bottom. It’s marred only by an Asus logo at the bottom center and a rather cringe-worthy “SonicMaster Premium” moniker at the bottom right. It’s supposed to indicate the prowess of the AiO’s speakers, but it’s an odd thing to highlight since the two stereo speakers delivering a total of six watts of sound are hardly anything to get excited over. They’re loud enough for playing videos or music in a large room, but they’re nowhere near as notable as the incredible speaker array on the Dell XPS 27 all-in-one, which sounds better than many home theater setups.
The display itself is an LED panel with in-plane switching (IPS) technology, which means that the colors and contrast don’t wash out when you view it from an angle. It’s a touch screen, which is perhaps its signature advantage over the non-touch iMac. An all-in-one installed in a central location in your house just begs to be touched, since family members will most likely use it for quick tasks like pausing music or swiping through a photo album. The full HD (1,920 by 1,080) resolution, however, leaves something to be desired. It somehow appears grainier than laptop screens with equivalent resolutions, and is certainly inferior to the gorgeous Retina display on the iMac. The graininess problem is akin to what we’ve experienced while using the Acer Aspire Z3—if you look closely, you’ll see the individual square pixels, which makes text look jagged and images less brilliant.
Standard Port Complement
The keyboard and mouse that come with the Zen AiO are basic wireless models, which connect using a tiny receiver that you plug into one of the USB 2.0 ports at the rear of the unit. They’re fine in a pinch as a backup input method for tasks that can’t be accomplished with the touch screen. The mouse is ambidextrous but on the small side, and it’s not sculpted to fit your hand. The keyboard’s chiclet-style keys are satisfyingly stable, but the board itself is flimsy and you can hear it rattle as you type. If you plan to use the AiO for longer typing sessions, you’ll certainly want to invest in a higher-quality keyboard.
With the receiver for the keyboard and mouse taking up one of the USB ports, that leaves one more USB 2.0 port and a total of four speedier USB 3.1 ports available. It’s a relatively standard complement for an all-in-one, although USB-C ports—now standard on most laptops and desktops—are conspicuously absent, as they are on the Asire Z3. The iMac’s superior I/O complement includes two USB-C ports and four USB 3.0 ports, and although it lacks the two USB 2.0 connectors, its keyboard and mouse connect via Bluetooth, so there’s no dongle to take up an extra port.
The AiO also features an HDMI-out port for connecting to an external monitor (which you probably won’t need to do), a gigabit Ethernet jack, a single audio-out jack, a Kensington-style lock slot, a power button, and an SD card reader. They’re all easily accessible at the rear of the computer, and while the power button and Ethernet port are somewhat hidden by the stand, they’re nowhere near as hard to reach as the ones on the XPS 27. Measuring 18.9 by 25.6 by 2.4 inches (HWD), the unit is relatively light—it only weighs 16 pounds, compared with the 38-pound XPS 27—and the stand design makes it fairly easy to rotate the AiO to access the ports if you need to plug something in. The stand offers fairly limited tilt options, however, which means you’ll want to install it on an elevated surface so you’re not touching your chin to your neck to look at the screen. I prefer the XPS 27’s stand, which supports a completely horizontal orientation that lets you interact with the PC as if it were a large tablet lying on a table.
Adequate for Skype and Streaming Video
One of the most appropriate tasks for a kitchen PC is video conferencing, whether via Skype, Facebook Messenger, or another platform. The Zen AiO’s front-facing camera and built-in microphone is adequate for casual video sessions, although you’ll want to skip taking still photos with its measly 1-megapixel sensor. As an added bonus, there are infrared sensors so that you can log in to your computer using Windows Hello Face Sign-In. That’s a nifty feature for a PC shared among family members, since you can train Windows Hello to recognize a different face for each user account.
Wireless connection options include 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1, and Asus supports the system with a one-year warranty that includes return shipping. If you need to send your AiO in for service, you’ll have to pay for outbound shipping yourself, which is a far more costly proposition than sending a laptop.
Asus offers a few different Zen AiO versions, but they’re not configurable—you’ve got to be satisfied with the components that Asus pre-installs. My configuration of the Zen AiO is decidedly midrange, as its price suggests. In my testing, the Intel Core i5-7200 CPU running at 2.5GHz and the 8GB of memory helped videos stream smoothly and web pages load quickly, which is the bulk of what you’ll likely use this AIO for. Likewise, the storage configuration—a 128GB SSD and a 1TB HDD—results in quick startup times while still providing ample room for your photos and videos. It’s a much better setup than the single 2TB hard drive in the Aspire Z3, which takes an eternity to boot up since it lacks an SSD.
Confirmation of the AiO’s suitability for everyday computing tasks comes in the form of its result on our PCMark 8 benchmark test (3,124), which measures web browsing, video conferencing, word processing, and many other activities that PC users are likely to do every day. Anything higher than 3,000 on this test indicates snappy performance, although the Aspire Z3 scored a bit higher (3,341) thanks to its Core i7, and workstation-class PCs typically score a few hundred points higher.
Unfortunately, you could be disappointed if you plan to use the Zen AiO for anything other than multimedia consumption or web browsing. The Aspire Z3 can edit photos and video much faster, finishing our collection of Photoshop image-manipulation tasks in 3 minutes and 3 seconds, nearly a minute quicker than the Zen AiO. Likewise, the AiO was slower at completing our Handbrake video-editing task (2:14) than both the Aspire Z3 (1:08) and the iMac (1:04). However, the AiO was quicker at both of these tasks than the Lenovo ThinkCentre X1, a business-oriented all-in-one with an older sixth-generation Intel Core i5.
Without a discrete graphics card, the AiO is also unsuitable for playing graphics-intensive games, although at least it’s in good company. None of the comparable all-in-ones was able to generate adequate frame rates on our Heaven and Valley video game simulations at full resoulution and maximum quality settings. Even the iMac, with its superior AMD Radeon Pro 560 graphics card, failed to breach the 30fps threshold that’s commonly regarded as the minimum for enjoyable gameplay. If you plan to use your all-in-one as a gaming rig, you’ll have to significantly increase your budget to purchase a system with a more powerful GPU.
Ready for Your Kitchen
A midrange all-in-one like the Asus Zen AiO can be a useful addition to a busy household, even if every member of it also uses a smartphone. It’s better than an iMac in one very significant way: It has a touch screen, which makes it ideally suited to kitchen computing. Still, if you’re willing to stretch your budget by a few hundred dollars to buy an one of Apple’s AIOs, you’ll be rewarded with an immensely higher quality (if slightly smaller) 4K display, along with more computing power and a better selection of ports. Depending on how you and your family plan to use your new all-in-one, those advantages may outweigh the Apple’s lack of a touch screen.