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Slim pickings

How do you get rid of the perpherel clutter of desktop PCs without spending a fortune? George Cole finds out

Even with a super-slim LCD monitor, a desktop computer can be a bulky beast. There's the huge box that houses the processor, hard disk and devices like a DVD-Rom player for a start. One solution is to use a well-specified laptop PC instead. Years ago, I abandoned my enormous desktop for a laptop with a large separate monitor and full-size keyboard.

As a result I can work from almost anywhere at home I fancy.

But portable products command a price premium and if you're a school with hundreds of desktop PCs that premium can be huge. Another solution could be to opt for a desk with a built-in PC, so the computer can be tucked away when not in use. These products are excellent, but they, too, come at a premium price.

But anyone who had time to explore the exhibits at this year's BETT show would have found a third solution to the bulky PC problem - the integrated PC, AKA the all-in-one. "Say goodbye to the two boxes and the clutter of cables!" screamed one ad. And it is certainly an appealing prospect for classrooms where space is at a premium. One thing is clear though: not all integrated PCs are the same and schools considering this route should ask questions before spending their cash.

Pelham Sloane's PS1500 has literally packed everything into a monitor. The processor, memory, hard drive, CD-Rom or DVD-Rom and other components are all packed into a case less than three inches thick. The 15-inch LCD houses a Pentium processor and 256Mb of memory. It uses standard desktop components, except for the hard drive and optical disc drive, which are laptop parts. There is no floppy drive, but you can connect an external floppy disk via standard USB ports.

RM's all-in-one PC takes a different approach. Instead of putting everything into the screen, RM has gone for a miniaturised box half the depth of a standard PC. It houses all the components, including the power supply. You can opt for a hard drive ranging from 20Gb to 120Gb, and the memory configuration starts at 128Mb.

Time and Elonex have adopted yet another approach; they have turned their integrated PCs into entertainment devices that put a computer, TV, DVD player and more into an LCD.

Time's all-in-one PC has a whopping 30-inch widescreen LCD, a Pentium 4 chip, 512Mb of memory, 200Gb hard drive, DVD-Rom player, CD burner, multimedia sound system, 125-channel TV tuner plus connections for a cable TV or satellite box, and a VCR. There is also a wireless keyboard and mouse. Time says it's ideal for an ICT suite, a school foyer (it can be wall-mounted) or even as a home entertainment system.

When I first glanced at Elonex's stand, I thought I was in a TV showroom.

The company has introduced a range of integrated computers that look more like a TV than a PC. The ProSential 1050 combines a PC with a TV, DVD player and digital surround sound system. It can also be used with Microsoft's XP Media Center PC operating system, Media Center converts your PC into a home entertainment system.

The Qsentia is another XP Media Center model, as is the eXentia, which gives you a combined PC, DVD player, hi-fi system, VCR, radio, web browser, MP3 player and games machine.

You have to admire the technological developments that have made such products possible, but are integrated PCs worth considering?

The answer is yes, but whether you should buy one depends on your circumstances. If space is tight an integrated PC can help solve the problem. Today's PCs are far more reliable than those of just a couple of years ago, but computers can and do break down. If your PC monitor goes down, you can substitute it for another, but you can't with an integrated PC. Certainly any school thinking of investing in a classroom-full of all-in-ones should first make sure they have excellent technical support on hand.

Another question to ask is: how easy is it to upgrade the integrated PC, for example, with more memory or a better graphics card? Most integrated PCs use standard PC components, although in order to save space, many use miniature plug-in cards. These can carry a price premium over standard-sized cards. Sensibly, all the manufacturers of integrated PCs seem to have designed their products so you can install extra bits and pieces without having to send the unit back to the factory.

However, one thing I have noticed about many of these products is that the connecting sockets and ports are often shoe-horned into places that are difficult to access. Full marks then to RM, which has put USB ports at the front of their all-in-one, making it easy to connect extra devices.

The key is to make sure you know exactly what you are getting for your money - many integrated PCs for example, don't have a floppy disk.

Throughout the years, computers have become more integrated devices. The all-in-one PC is a logical extension to this trend, but the jury is out on whether it's a revolution in design or a step too far.

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