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With all the gaming laptops and desktops we review, it's surprising that we don't see many all-in-one desktops (computers with built-in big-screen displays, such as Apple's iMac ) geared toward PC game-playing. After all, you've got a built-in screen, and often a large 27-inch one at that, plus a space-saving design, adjustable kickstand or neck for optimal viewing angles, and a desktop-sized keyboard and mouse. In short, a gaming all-in-one could potentially combine the best qualities of a gaming laptop and a gaming desktop.
But, on closer examination, there are a few holes in our theory. As one of our colleagues put it, you're basically buying a gaming desktop that you can never upgrade. And, despite the hulking desktop footprint, most all-in-ones default to mobile parts for their processors, graphics cards, and storage. That's especially important for gaming, as there's a world of difference between the laptop version, say an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M, and the desktop version, the GTX 980 (without the "M") in terms of performance.
This may explain why the MSI AG270 is the first gaming all-in-one we've tested in years. In one sense, this is essentially a high-end gaming laptop crammed behind a 27-inch monitor, with a laptop-level Nvidia 980M graphics card, at a premium price. But even taking the quirky mashup of categories into account, the AG270 comes off surprisingly well in our hands-on testing, acting as a kind of big-screen personal gaming station with more a bit more portability than lugging a desktop and monitor around.
Also working in the AG270's favor are a few features that are hard, if not impossible, to find paired together anywhere else. The 27-inch display here has a matte coating as opposed to the overly glossy screens on most all-in-ones, as well as a touchscreen, which is rare in any gaming system, and something we have yet to see in any laptop with the GeForce 980M graphics card.
But, these unique charms don't come cheap. The specific configuration we tested, the MSI AG270 2QE-037US, costs $2,699. This is a US-only version, although we've seen similar configurations in the UK for £1,849, and in Australia for AUS$3,399. Our high-end build included a 2TB hard drive, 256GB SSD, 16GB of RAM, and a Blu-ray burner, all of which can drive up the price. You can also find more stripped-down configurations for about $2,000.
It's not for everyone, and impractical if you want a true upgradable desktop or a more portable laptop, but we found the MSI AG270 to be powerful, fun to use, very capable for gaming, and something just a bit different than other gaming PCs.
|Price as reviewed||$2,699|
|Display size/resolution||27-inch 1,920x1,800 touchscreen|
|PC CPU||2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4870HQ|
|PC Memory||16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||8GB (dedicated) Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M|
|Storage||(2) 128GB SSD + 2TB 7,200rpm HDD|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
Many new all-in-one PCs aim to be as thin and high-design as possible, putting paper-thin displays on top of spindly flexible arms, hiding the actual PC components in bases or behind elegant curves.
The MSI AG270 in unapologetically thick and bulky, propping a hefty rectangular body up with a clear plastic kickstand. The entire bottom edge of the system rests against the desk, so your only viewing angle adjustments are to tilt the body slightly backward or forward on the stiff kickstand hinge. The system can also be wall-mounted, thanks to standard VESA mount screws on the back.
The mostly black body is framed by red on the front, plus a dragon-like MSI logo sitting in the middle of a set of large speakers built into the base, pointing directly at the user. It's more dorm room than high design, but we also saw HP recently go the red all-in-one route (to better effect) with its Beats Edition Envy 23xt computer.
This is no svelte iMac, but on the other hand, the few all-in-one PCs we've seen with dedicated graphics cards, including Dell and Lenovo models, have also been on the bulky side, and none of those other models sell themselves primarily as gaming systems.
On the recessed left edge you'll find input and menu controls for the display, plus a couple of USB ports and the connector for the large external power brick; on the right edge, a sideways tray loading optical drive. The rest of the ports and connections are on the back panel, which could make them hard to get to, depending on where the system is set up.
You'll need a couple of the USB ports for the included wired keyboard and mouse. Wireless models would have been nice, especially for over $2,000, but some gamers prefer wired versions to eliminate any possible input lag. The keyboard, similarly black and red, looks the part of a gamer's keyboard, and was decent for gaming, but drove me crazy when typing. The painfully shallow, clacky keys led to many typos and the space bar and other keys sometimes failed to register clicks while typing. The mouse, packed with multiple side buttons that even gamers may never use, was better.
The display, arguable the most important part of an all-in-one desktop, has a lot going on. The native resolution is 1,920x1,080, which is fine for most purposes, but many smaller gaming (and non-gaming) laptops blow past that, all the way to 4K, and with much less powerful hardware. The anti-glare coating was welcome, it mutes the pop of colors and contrast a little but I think the tradeoff is worth it to eliminate screen glare. MSI says this display also reduces the amount of blue light emitted. That's not to say images have less blue in them, but that a range of light wavelengths sometimes called "blue light" have been reduced, which is purportedly better for your eyes (the science behind this is inconclusive).
Audio, from a pair of 5W speakers paired with a Yamaha-branded amplifier along the bottom front edge, is better than in most all-in-ones and gaming laptops we've tested. Good headphones, or dedicated external speakers and a subwoofer, are obviously still the most immersive option, but we could see this being used to fill a room at (relatively calm) house party.
|Video||HDMI in, HDMI out, VGA out|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray burner|
The system includes a decent set of ports and connections, including an HDMI-in, so you can use the display with a cable box, game console or other device. Plenty of USB ports are included, but only a standard 1/8-inch audio out jack, not the optical or multi-speaker outs some gaming systems include.
This high-end configuration includes an Intel Core i7-4870HQ processor, part of the fourth-generation Intel Core i-series CPUs, which are slowly being replaced by new fifth-gen parts, but not in high-performance systems such as this just yet. It also packs in 16GB of RAM, 2TB of 7200rpm hard drive space, and a pair of 128GB SSD drives in a RAID array.
All that adds up to performance that closely matches up with any high-end gaming laptop we've tested recently, and even many higher-end desktops. It did fall a little behind in our multi-tasking benchmark, compared to high-end laptops with similar components from Asus, Origin PC and others, but not to a serious degree. Single-app tests let the MSI stand out a little more.
In gaming, the MSI felt very similar to laptops we've tested with the same Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics card. That part is especially impressive for a laptop GPU, although in this desk-bound form, you may expect even more bells and whistles. Still, at 1,920x1,080 resolution and high detail settings in Metro: Last Light, the MSI AG270 ran at 45 frames per second, within the few frames of both the Asus G751 and the Origin Eon17-S. In BioShock Infinite, at similar settings, the MSI ran at 111 frames per second, again nearly tied with the other two systems with 980M cards.
In newer games, from Dying Light to Shadow of Mordor, we were able to play at 1080p resolutions and high (but not "ultra") detail settings with very good frame rates. For the next year or so, this system should be able to play new PC games at high to very high settings, although its lack of upgradability may eventually disappoint.
The MSI AG270 scores by being both unique and useful, filling a market niche for all-in-one desktops with serious gaming chops. Despite the laptop-level parts, it runs current games very nicely at high detail levels, and having a display that's both a touchscreen and has a matte finish is a welcome combination of features.
But, unlike more traditional gaming desktops, you won't be swapping in a new graphics card in a year or two, and unlike gaming laptops, even carting this from room to room is a hassle. Add in the $2,699 price for this high-end configuration, and you have a system that's fun to use, but is probably the exact right product for a very small number of people.