December 15, 2019

State of the Art: All-in-One PCs From Vizio, H.P. and Apple

Right. Nobody knows.

And nobody cares. Today, it’s all about phones and tablets, baby. Nobody buzzes about the PC anymore. Innovation is dead. Sales are down, right?

Actually, there’s one pocket of surging sales and innovation in PC land: the luxury all-in-one computer, of the type made famous by the iMac.

I took a look at three silver, high-design, screen-on-a-stalk competitors: Apple’s new iMac ($1,300 and up), Hewlett-Packard’s SpectreOne ($1,300 and up), and the Vizio All-in-One Touch PC ($1,000 and up). (Lenovo, Dell, Samsung and Acer also offer, or soon will offer, very similar all-in-ones.)

What characterizes these computers? First, an emphasis on looks. They’re shiny, sleek, futuristic, uncluttered and cordless (they come with Bluetooth wireless keyboard and trackpad or mouse). They’re sculpture. In your kitchen or on your desk, they contribute to the décor even when they’re turned off.

The usual box of innards is missing. In the iMac, the guts are concealed behind the screen. In the Vizio, they’re in the foot of the monitor. In the H.P., they’re inside the stalk that supports the screen.

The second common trait is state-of-the-art components. These computers offer gorgeous, vivid, high-definition screens. And they’re fast; they’re powered by the latest Intel chips and lots of memory.

Third characteristic: no DVD drive.

What? Do these companies really think that the era of the disc is over? That nobody will ever again want to digitize music from a CD? Or burn some files to a disc to hand to a colleague? Or borrow a DVD from the library?

Apple, H.P. and Vizio seem to believe that everything is online now. Well, it’s not. Want to rent an Indiana Jones movie, “Jurassic Park” or “Schindler’s List”? How about “Star Wars,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? Too bad; they’re not available to rent online.

You can, of course, buy an external DVD drive. But aren’t these called “all in ones”? A drive just looks stupid.

Now, on a laptop, eliminating the DVD drive is understandable. You carry laptops. Weight matters. Bulk matters. But why eliminate DVD drives on computers that stay in one place?

All right, end of rant.

The new iMac, clad in its traditional aluminum, is stunning. The stand is still a thin, curved L of metal — but now, the screen appears to be just as thin (0. 2 inches). Where are the guts?

Turns out it’s a trick — an illusion. Behind the screen, you see a substantial bulge; Apple tapered the aluminum as it approaches the screen, so that from front angles it seems that the whole screen is razor thin. Apple has also eliminated much of the glare that has long dogged today’s glossy screens. Viewed side-by-side with its rivals, the iMac is a lot less reflective.

There are two iMac sizes: 21.5 and 27 inches. The $1,300 and $1,800 base models come with a 1-terabyte hard drive, 8 gigabytes of memory and an i5 Intel processor. Each has four USB 3.0 jacks, two Thunderbolt jacks (for video input or output or external hard drives), and camera memory-card slot, awkwardly positioned on the back. Apple has ditched the FireWire jack it spent so many years promoting.

On the 21.5-incher, you can’t upgrade the memory yourself; what you buy is what you’ll have forever, unless you take it into the shop.

On the 27-inch model, you can install as much as 32 gigabytes yourself, through an easily opened door. (That, for the record, is about 262,144 times the memory as the original Macintosh.) Online, you can order your iMac with a 3-terabyte hard drive, 32 gigabytes of memory, a 768-gigabyte flash-memory drive and a $3,700 invoice.

Vizio isn’t a company you expect to be in the PC business; it made its mark selling high-quality, low-price TV sets. And sure enough, by far the best part of the All-in-One Touch PC is its lovely touch screen, available in 24- and 27-inch versions.

A nontouch version is also available, but the Vizio comes with Windows 8, which is far more pleasant to use with a touch screen.


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State of the Art: OnStar FMV Offers Premium but Costly Service

OnStar is a seamless brew of cellular, Bluetooth, GPS, microphone, speakers and human operators. Its feature list includes both safety and convenience elements. For example, if you crash, sensors wirelessly alert a 24-hour call center staffed by 2,000 OnStar operators. They immediately talk to you over the built-in speaker. If you don’t respond, or if you say something like, “My legs are broken in six places,” they automatically send an ambulance. They know exactly where to send it; they can see where you are, and they know what kind of car you’re driving.

According to OnStar, 4.5 million G.M. owners so far have liked their free six-month OnStar trial so much, they signed up to pay for it.

For 15 years, you could get OnStar only in a G.M. car. Now, however, OnStar is available as a rearview mirror that goes into almost any car.

It’s called the OnStar FMV, which, we’re told, stands for “for my vehicle.”

The OnStar FMV may be the world’s most useful rearview mirror, but it’s probably also the most expensive: $300 plus installation. Best Buy, for example, will sell you the mirror and install it for $374 complete.

For my testing, OnStar lent me a Toyota Camry with the mirror installed. (That’s right. G.M. gave me a Toyota.)

After the installation, an unobtrusive wire runs up the windshield from the mirror, around the door molding and down to a control box in the footwell. The mirror itself looks great, at least from the front; only a few nicely integrated buttons distinguish it from the original mirror. From the back or the side, you see that it’s chunked up with internal components.

You also have to sign up for the service, which costs $200 or $300 a year, depending on the features you want (more on this in a moment). You can also pay monthly: $19 or $29 a month.

Clearly, OnStar imposes what you might call a superdeluxe, premium fee.

Fortunately, for that, you get a superdeluxe, premium product.

Every plan includes the famous automatic crash response — that business about OnStar reps calling you when you’re in an accident. The sole difference is that the “embedded” OnStar system (built right into G.M. cars) also knows if your air bag went off, if your car flipped over, how fast you were going and which way, and whether or not the car got hit more than once.

FMV, on the other hand, knows about your crash solely from the motion sensor in the mirror. That doesn’t seem as good, but what do I know? The company refused to let me crash the Camry to try it out (killjoys!).

What I could test was the human operator function. As you’re driving along, you can press the OnStar button for an immediate connection to a live operator. These operators are awesome: well trained, personable and very sensitive to the fact that you’re probably in a car and in a hurry.

You can ask them all kinds of things. You can ask for the nearest gas or cash machine, a weather report, an address or a phone number. You can get AAA-style roadside assistance when you run out of gas, get a flat tire or need a tow. (That feature helps take the sting out of OnStar’s price.)

But best of all, you can ask for directions. It’s amazing.

You press the OnStar button. You hear a couple of rings on the speaker, and then your call is answered in 15 or 30 seconds. “Hi, this is Phoebe. Where can OnStar take you today?”

“Oh, hi. I need directions to La Guardia Airport.”

“All right, sir, I’m looking that up for you. Got it. O.K., I’m sending those instructions to your vehicle.”

“O.K., great! Thanks.”

“Thank you, sir. Have a great day, O.K.? And drive safe!”

(Clearly, OnStar’s specialty is safety, not grammar.)


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