The all-in-one PC is predicted to be one of the hottest PC form factors over the next few years. That’s great for Joe 12-Pack, but for an enthusiast, an AiO is pretty much as monolithic as you can get. Sure, you might be able to add RAM or swap the HDD, but that’s usually the extent of the average AiO’s upgradeability.
Enter Intel’s new push for the DIY AiO, the ﬁrst serious attempt at building a standard around this practice. All-in-one bare-bones kits have likely been available before, but Intel’s backing formalizes it as a real DIY category. The big change is the Thin MiniITX, which speciﬁes far slimmer mobo proﬁles than regular Mini ITX, as well as ﬁxing a spot where the CPU can be installed. The ﬁxed CPU location enables standard heat pipe–type cooling solutions as an option, whereas Mini ITX allowed vendors to put the CPU anywhere on the board.
To get our feet wet, we decided to build a nicely outﬁtted AiO to see how it would compare spec-wise to a prebuilt peer. The result? You’ll have to read to the end, but we’ll be a clock tease and say that a DIY AiO might be just the way to go.
Choosing the Hardware
The First step of building an AiO is finding the chassis. Since Intel has been the main driver behind a standard, a good place to start is here. The DIY site has numerous resource for builders. We recommend that you start with the Design Component Catalog as well as the Compatibility Matrix. Remember, the standard is evolving and we’re not at the point of desktops, where 98 percent of hardware is compatible. For example, some of the AiO models use proprietary coolers while others can use the standard Intel part. AiO units that don’t use the standard Intel heat pipe should ship with their own. Also keep in mind the thermal constraints of an AiO before you buy the parts.
Our build started with a Loop L5 LP-2150 chassis. The chassis features a 21.5-inch panel and normally comes without the cooler and power brick for about $265. We did find some sites offering it packaged with the Intel cooler and a power brick though, for a small savings. The board we used is an Intel DH61AG. It supports an external power brick–type connector and up to a 65-watt TDP desktop processor. For our build, we tapped the quad-core 3.1GHz Core i5-3570S chip, which is nearly the same as the Core i7-3770S save for the Hyper-Threading. For storage, the board supports Mini PCIe SSDs and standard 2.5-inch drives. For our build, we opted for an Intel 240GB 335 Series SSD. Finally, we went with a pair of Patriot 4GB SO-DIMMs.
Click the next page to see each installation step.
1. Prepare the Chassis
To open the Loop L5, lay it facedown on a clean, nonscratch surface and remove the five screws on back. Now, with the opening for the I/O shield facing you, gently push the tip of your screwdriver on the metal next to the exhaust vent while carefully pulling up on the chassis with your fingers (image A) until the back pops off just a bit. Then, carefully pry off the back, starting at the USB ports and headphone ports (image B). You’ll use this same process to access the guts of the AiO for future upgrades.
2. Install Drives, CPU and RAM
We’ll skip the usual illustration of mounting the optical drive and SSD/HDD in the caddies and screwing them down, as the process is well known to most Maximum PC readers, but you can go ahead and do this now. (For new builders, Intel provides thorough video instructions for building a system in the Loop here). Likewise, you’ve seen us install RAM and the CPU dozens of times; now is a good time to do that, as well. With the board out, you should also slot the Wi-Fi card into the Mini PCIe slot nearest the PCIe slot. Then, install the I/O shield.
3. Install the Backplate
To Use the Stock Intel thermal cooler, you’ll need to install the backplate that comes with the kit. It sticks on withan adhesive pad (image C). The chassis should also have come with a thick thermal pad that gets mounted to the back of the motherboard, under the voltage regulation modules, or, if you can aim properly, to the chassis itself (image D). It mounts using an adhesive, so choose wisely. Now, mount the motherboard and screw it in place. As always, pay special attention to how the openings in the I/O shield line up with the motherboard before you screw it down (i.e., make sure the metal fingers coming off the I/O shield don’t jam into the ports.)
4. Install the Cooler
With the Motherboard in place, it’s time to screw the cooler in place. The cooler should have an Intel thermal pad in place. If yours doesn’t, or you are mounting it for a second time, add a small bit of thermal paste to the CPU and spread it out with a plastic bag across the surface of the heat spreader. Use the four screws to mount the cooler to the backplate (image E), and also screw down the two screws at the end of the heat pipe.
5. Push aside the Speaker
It’s Pretty tight in the AiO, so for removing or installing cables, you’ll have to remove or simply move the speaker on the left side of the machine. Just undo one screw and move the speaker out of the way (image F).
6. Plug in the Panel
The Panel uses a delicate internal LVDS connector. While at first glance it appears to go in either way, the connector is keyed (image G). Carefully insert the cable into the LVDS port and then use a small object, such as a flat-head screwdriver, to carefully push it into place by alternatively nudging on each side of the connector while holding one side with your finger (image H). Once it’s in place, don’t ever remove the LVDS connector by tugging on the ribbon cable. If you have to remove it, use a small flat-head screwdriver to slowly nudge it out from the sides.
Click the next page to learn how to plug in the audio, wifi, and for the final stages.
7. Plug in the Inverter
Unlike a Desktop monitor, which is powered by its own power brick or internal AC/DC device, the AiO needs to be powered from the motherboard. To do that you need to plug the 7-pin connector into the red header next to the LVDS connector (image I). This is also keyed to only fit in one way and should snap into place. Once that’s done, follow the cable out to the end where you should find another connector. This gets plugged into the inverter board, which is the small orange, rectangular PCB to the left of the speaker (image J).
8. Bring tht Noise
Again, Everything in the AiO uses internal headers rather than external ports. If you want to use the AiO’s internal speakers, you’ll need to plug them in using the 4-pin header located near the Wi-Fi card and CMOS battery (image K). It’s keyed to only fit in one direction.
9. Connect Wi-Fi
Some AIO units come with multiple antennas, but Loop chose a single antenna for this chassis. We won’t debate the wisdom of a single antenna, but it can create some confusion for newbs. Just look for the small gray antenna lead and plug it into the port labeled “Main 1” on the Wi-Fi card. It should snap into the socket with light pressure (image L).
10. Set the Voltage
You need to configure the motherboard’s headers for the correct voltage. First, check the 3-pin header next to the “FPD Power” inverter header that you plugged in earlier. By default, it should be set to pins 2 and 3, or 19 volts, which is correct for the Loop (image M). You’ll want to check the manuals for your AiO and your motherboard, as setting the voltage incorrectly can damage the inverter. You also need to set a secondary inverter header to the correct voltage. This header is located near the front-panel connector and should be set to pins 4 and 6, for 5 volts (image N). This is the default position for the Intel motherboard and the correct voltage for the Loop.
11. Connect Final Plugs and Button up
You’ll also need to plug in the three USB headers as well as power and data cables for the optical drive and SSD, and you need to plug the SATA power cable into the motherboard. All that needs to be done now is to attach the back cover (while you plug the cover’s auxiliary fan into an open fan header) and attach the stand. Now, just plug in your power brick and fire her up!
12. Well, almost...
Intel’s Motherboard comes in an older rev, the G23736- 503, and a newer rev, the G23736-504. If your board is a 504 or up, drive on. If it’s older, you’ll need to update the BIOS because the older board defaults to external graphics rather than the LVDS connector. No worries, you can update the board by just dropping the latest BIOS from the Intel website in the root of a USB key, removing the jumper from the BIOS_CFG header, and booting the machine. The board should automatically update after two minutes. Once the rig’s blue system LED stops flashing, you can power down, replace the BIOS_CFG header, and move on. Even if you have the newer board, there is one setting you need to change. Go into the BIOS and then into the Video settings, and in the setting for All-in-One Chassis, set it to the chassis in use. In this case, it’s the LP-2150. It’s recommended that you then lock the settings so they can’t be changed without going into maintenance mode.
Click the next page to see the system's benchmarks!
DIY AIO SHOWS A LOT OF PROMISE
Building the average desktop PC has long been a labor of love. Sure, in the old days you could save a serious chunk of change when you built your own rig, but these days it’s pretty hard to get a better price than a large or even medium OEM that buys parts by the container-full. That’s apparently not the case with all-in-ones, where it’s possible for builders to have a price edge. Lenovo, for example, offers a 20-inch AiO with the same CPU, 180GB SSD, and 4GB of RAM for about the same price as our Loop build. Granted, some OEMs offer a feature not available to this platform—a discrete GPU. That’s actually one of the holes we see in the current push for a DIY platform. Why no GPU provision? In the past, graphics vendors haven’t been the greatest at sticking to specs, so that could be the reason, but we think a unified AiO graphics spec is necessary if this category is really going to take off.
As to how our AiO performed—not bad. Our zero-point AiO is an Asus ET2701 INKI-B046C with a Core i7-3770S and GeForce GT 640M. Naturally, the $1,500 Asus, with its 27-inch panel, pricier CPU, and discrete graphics outshines our Loop build, but it’s a good reference for what our DIY AiO can do. Clearly, that extra $400 on the zero-point gets you more performance. Our DIY AiO performed respectably though, except in gaming. Intel HD4000 graphics are probably best suited for Portal 2–level and lower gaming. For today’s integrated graphics, Metro 2033 is way beyond its pay grade.
Overall, we’re pretty happy with the brave new world of DIY AiOs. Yes, it has some maturing to do, but giving enthusiasts the ability to customize an AiO to their own needs (or a parent’s needs) is a pretty strong argument for doing it yourself.
Asus ET2701 INKI-B046C
Metro 2033 (fps)
Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)
ProShow Producer 3.0 (sec)
Best scores are bolded. Our zero-point AiO features a Core i7-3770S, 8GB of DDR3/1600, a GeForce GT 640M, and a 2TB 7,200rpm HDD. Metro 2033 is run at 1280x720, medium quality, DX10 mode, with 4x AA and 4x MSAA.