Following on from the success of the netbook, PC and notebook manufacturers are now turning their attention to low-cost PCs — enter the net-top. The net-top is an all-in-one PC that requires minimal effort to set up and which is designed to perform simple, everyday computing tasks. BenQ's nScreen i91 is the second net-top we've seen to date (the ASUS Eee Top ET1602 was the first). It has a very basic design and is reasonably stylish.
The BenQ nScreen i91 is basically an 18.5in widescreen monitor with built-in PC components. It's not much thicker than a traditional monitor so it won't take up a lot of space on a desk. On the inside it has an AMD Sempron 210U CPU (a single-core CPU with a 1.5GHz clock speed), 1GB of RAM and a 160GB, 5400rpm hard drive. This isn't a powerful configuration, but it runs Windows XP adequately and it's fine for everyday tasks such as browsing the Web, watching videos, listening to music and viewing and editing pictures.
It's a self-contained unit, which means there aren't any access panels for you to easily get to the RAM slots and hard drive bay; this means it's not the ideal unit for enthusiasts wishing to upgrade at a later date. The AMD CPU and 1GB of RAM give the BenQ nScreen i91 better performance than a PC based on the 1.6GHz Intel Atom. In our Blender 3D test, it was able to render a 3D image in 4min 39sec, while in iTunes it was able to convert 53min worth of WAV files into 192Kbps MP3s in 4min 16sec. Compared to the ASUS Eee Top ET1602, it was almost twice as fast at encoding MP3s.
The BenQ nScreen i91's hard drive recorded a transfer rate of 16.65 megabytes per second, which is approximately 5MBps slower than a 5400rpm hard drive in an AMD-based laptop such as the HP TouchSmart tx2-1000.
The nScreen i91 doesn't have an expansion slot (an ExpressCard/54 slot, for example), but you can add more storage or a TV tuner via its USB 2.0 ports. It has six USB 2.0 ports, two of which are located on the left side and four which are located on the underside of the rear lip. They are next to the 10/100 Ethernet port and are hard to access. We'd prefer more of them to be located on the sides. You don't get much more in the way of connectivity apart from that; there is an SD card slot for quickly loading photos, a webcam, 802.11g wireless networking, and microphone and headphone ports.
The PC lacks any type of video out port, so you can't hook up a second monitor; then again, it's not designed for people who would even think of using a second monitor. It would still have been a nice option to have.
It uses an integrated ATI Radeon X1200 graphics card, which is a low-end model. It has 64MB of RAM, but also uses some of the main system memory. You won't be able to play any current games on the nScreen i91, but games from a few years ago might work. The native resolution of the nScreen i91 is 1366x768 and the screen is vibrant. It displays photos nicely and it isn't glossy, so reflections from room lights won't be a problem.
Using the nScreen i91 is simple: you just plug in the USB-based keyboard and mouse and press the large power button on the front bezel. It has a nice green LED instead of the super-bright blue LED found on many other PCs, and the power button is also the volume knob. When you change the volume, it adjusts Windows XP's master volume control, but annoyingly there is no on-screen indication that it is doing this. There is a built-in speaker, but it is not really suitable for listening to music or videos. You're much better off plugging in a set of speakers.
BenQ has supplied a lot of preinstalled software with the nScreen i91, a lot of which is bloatware. For example, you get a 60-day trial version of Microsoft Office, and Norton Internet Security. Some of the software provided is useful, such as the webcam and Skype utilities, and there is also a seniors mode, which softens high frequency audio to make it easier to listen to, and it also includes an on-screen magnifying glass to make it easier to read things on the screen.
A lot of people who saw this net-top PC wrote it off as an iMac wannabe. It seems inevitable that every all-in-one PC gets compared to the iMac, but the BenQ nScreen i91 isn't even competing in the same league as the iMac. It's for the user who wants a basic, low-cost PC and monitor that won't take up much space, and which will be able to run the majority of software thrown on it, as long as it's not video editing or high-end photo editing software.