bySean Hollister||January 2nd 2011 at 12:30pmJanuary 2nd 2011 12:30 pm
When MSI builds an "all-in-one" PC, it doesn't mess around -- the MSI Wind Top AE2420 3D has everything but the kitchen sink ensconced in a plastic frame. Where most consolidated computers aim for the lowest common denominator with low-power components, MSI's dropped a high-end multimedia bomb here -- a 23.6-inch, 120Hz, 1080p, LED-backlit touchscreen LCD panel paired with a desktop-grade 2.53GHz Core i7-860S processor, Mobility Radeon HD 5730 graphics, a Blu-ray drive, 4GB of RAM, and a terabyte of storage. Active shutter glasses spit out 3D images to your eyes while THX speakers (and a built-in subwoofer) pump out jams, and 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth and USB 3.0 sockets round out a connectivity laundry list. It's got a spec sheet to die for and an equally lethal $1,800 price -- but is the AE2420 3D more than a bucket of primo parts? Is it worth your cash?
Wind Top AE2420 3D
Does it all: gaming, movies, productivity
Beautiful 1080p screen
Integrated Blu-ray and WiFi
3D relies on iffy third-party software
Low quality mouse, keyboard and glasses
Touchscreen impractical for regular use
Hardware and Construction
If you've seen one MSI Wind Top, you've pretty much seen them all -- it's a stout plastic monolith with a glossy black bezel, a translucent plastic border and an adjustable kickstand that the entire machine stably sits on. If you're used to aluminum for your money, MSI's rig won't look quite as sleek, but the plastics do pick up ambient light quite nicely, and give off a pleasant sheen (they're even better at picking up fingerprints, so do watch your digits). From bottom to top, there's a pair of decent in-built speakers behind that swirly grille, a set of capacitive touch buttons immediately above, a giant screen, and a webcam and microphone up top. The main connectivity panel's on the back, and it's a minor pain to reach around the unit to plug in headphones and the occasional eSATA drive, but the left side does house the items you'll probably need most often: a tray-loading Blu-ray drive, an SD card slot, and a pair of powder-blue USB 3.0 sockets.
The highlight of the machine is that sizable screen, of course, and we're pleased to say it's a treat for both eyes and fingers, with a solid sheet of glass separating your haphazard attempts to touch Windows 7 from the precious LCD display beneath. Some will no doubt take issue with MSI's promise of a multitouch screen, as the capacitive digitizer here only detects two points of contact and is fairly easy to confuse, but single-finger gestures were very responsive, and with two digits we were able to scroll through webpages and pinch-to-zoom without much difficulty. More importantly, the 1080p panel itself is surprisingly good for a built-in display, with vivid colors, wide viewing angles and a crisp picture that justifies its multimedia leanings. At 24 inches, it's not going to replace your HDTV, but it's a fantastic bedroom Blu-ray machine with THX speakers that pump out surprisingly decent virtual surround sound. It's also unfortunately as glossy as a new automobile, which can drastically limit the places it can be comfortably used -- don't angle it towards a light source or place it directly across from an open window unless you need an extra mirror in the room.
You'll find practically every port you'll need on the back panel, including a pair of 3.5mm jacks for audio, optical S/PDIF out, HDMI, VGA, eSATA, Gigabit Ethernet and four USB 2.0 ports -- there's also a Kensington lock slot -- but we were slightly disappointed to find no easy access bays in the plastic shell to swap out any of the components. Mind you, the AE2420 has some pretty decent specs, but as you'll see shortly, we would have appreciated a way to get at the hard drive. While we were perusing the back, we also were happy to note the computer has plenty of airflow, with vents on the bottom, side and back, and a sizable one on top for heat to escape directly upwards. As you'd expect from an all-in-one, the AE2420's a breeze to set up -- just find a spot, plug in the power, and boot, and the integrated 802.11 b/g/n wireless is much appreciated there, as we didn't need to plug in an ethernet cord either.
Compared to the mostly impressive all-in-one itself, the bundled wireless peripherals look and feel cheap as dirt, and you'll probably want to replace them straight away -- the infrared mouse, while passable, is made of brittle plastic, and the MSI StarType ES500W keyboard flexes and creaks enough to make a senior citizen jealous and edgy respectively. To add insult to injury, these both connect via a laggy, chunky USB dongle that didn't always recognize the peripherals after a reboot. There's also your standard Windows Media Center infrared remote, which works well enough, but only when pointed directly at that MSI logo on the front. At least the company provides free batteries for all your peripheral troubles.
As we alluded to earlier, MSI pieced together quite a set of components here, and they all work fairly well. The AE2420's not a purpose-built video editing workhorse, media center or gaming rig, but it does all of these things just fine -- though we did notice that it's held back a tad by its 5400RPM hard drive. That's not only evidenced in the Windows Experience Index chart above, but in every single load, from the short delay it took to launch a variety of applications to the often 60+ second boot times we noticed. We'd love to swap it out for a 7200RPM model, or perhaps a sizable solid state drive, but it looks like we'd have to void our warranty to try.
Still, with a 2.53GHz Core i7-860S processor, Radeon HD 5730M graphics and 4GB of RAM, we rarely saw so much as a stutter in daily use, and the machine seems to be a capable multitasker too -- we were able to open a dozen tabs, stream Pandora, watch two 1080p Tron: Legacy trailers on YouTube, and play a windowed 720p session of Left 4 Dead 2 on nigh-maximum settings all at the same time (it was only after adding a third full-res Trontrailer that we brought the machine to its knees). If you're looking for some theoretical benchmarks, though, we've got those too: the AE2420 managed a score of 7318 in PCMark Vantage, 7714 3DMarks in 3DMark06, and E2112 / P1242 / X347 in the brand-new 3DMark11.
If you're looking for a machine that magically converts everything it touches into proper three-dee cinema -- like what MSI's marketing materials proudly proclaim -- stop right there. There's no such thing, and regardless, this machine won't meet that lofty expectation. If, however, you've got some games that use 3D engines to begin with, some stray images from a 3D camera, or a desire to watch the stars of your 2D films turn into animated cardboard stand-ups, the AE2420 3D can indeed do all that, with a mildly confusing batch of bundled software and the pictured pair of included shutter glasses. The latter are thick, mediocre pairs of 120Hz specs that you can recharge with a standard mini-USB cable, and provided you're looking at the screen's embedded IR emitter straight-on, they do the job, but also let out an annoying buzz the whole time they're on. Like all shutter glasses, they also dim the screen, but here there's no easy way to adjust the brightness to compensate, as the LCD panel's physical controls are firmly locked when it's in 120Hz mode.
With these specs firmly affixed to your noggin, a program named MSI EasyViewer lets you view 3D photographs, but seemingly only in slideshow mode, and it sometimes gets the left image confused with the right so as to make the 3D effect turn inside out. Then there's Roxio CinePlayer BD, an app that pulls double-duty playing Blu-rays and "converting" 2D footage to what can technically be called 3D, but only when you tick the right boxes in the options menu, and the novelty soon wears off.
Technically, CinePlayer can handle Blu-Ray 3D discs as well, and though those are few and far between enough that neither we nor ASUS had the chance to test a retail disc, they should work soon even if not now. Representatives tell us they're committed to making sure the AE2420 3D can play Blu-Ray 3D, and will issue software updates to make that happen if need be.
For games, there's the trusted and true iZ3D software, which allows you to adjust the stereoscopic separation and convergence of 3D games exactly how you'd like, and with low expectations and a little perseverance, this one actually works quite well. Just like with NVIDIA's 3D Vision, there's a definite dip in framerate when you turn it on, but the added depth can make for a more immersive experience, particularly in games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum where close-quarters combat has a significant role -- Batman's flowing cape and hordes of exploding zombies made for a particularly good show. Sadly, most game engines still don't render distant objects in 3D particularly well.
Software and Touch
As we've discussed time and again, Windows 7 just doesn't work with a touchscreen at the helm. Aside from the occasional browser session or rare finger-friendly app, it's a gimmick, and with the AE2420 only registering two points of touchscreen contact and sporting a thick bezel, it's a rather sizable one here as well. We tried typing a few paragraphs of this review directly on the virtual keyboard -- including this very line -- by tilting the whole machine back on its kickstand, but it was a hefty, mistake-filled chore, and more often than not we ended up brushing the display's capacitive volume buttons in each attempt. Still, that hasn't kept MSI from bundling a variety of lightweight software and a kid-friendly launcher hub, and though we hate bloatware with a passion there seems to be little harm in MSI WindTouch. It's a self-contained app that houses links to common applications, cutesy CyberLink paint, webcam and memo apps, the free Windows 7 Touch Pack and a game or two, and while there's nothing to justify your purchase here, it feels like a nice place to let a child play, and it can also be easily removed. We were actually surprised to find how light the bloatware load was here -- aside from the above apps, Adobe Reader, Windows Live, a trial of Norton Internet Security and the Bing Bar, it's practically a stock Windows 7 install.
When we reviewed MSI's AE2220 -- this machine's smaller brother -- we were thoroughly impressed with the value for money. We can't quite say the same here. On paper, the AE2420 is a no-compromise, mildly future-proof PC, but in reality the headline features (3D, touch) are of little practical use. For $1,800, you could build or buy a substantially more powerful gaming PC -- even one with a 3D monitor, if you know where to look -- and if gaming and Blu-ray are not priorities, you're a stone's throw away from the beauty and brawn of a 27-inch iMac. Still, we have to hand it to MSI for fitting a substantial amount of everything we want into a single shell. There's nothing else quite like it on the market today, and that's saying something.