Cons: No touchscreen option, no cable raceway for the front ports of a mated Tiny Desktop
In the Tiny-in-One 23 and its companion Tiny Desktops, Lenovo has created a viable modular system that will fill IT hearts with joy—and one of the nicest, sanest, all-in-ones on the market.
The $279 Lenovo Tiny-in-One 23 is a cleverly designed display/docking system that marries with any of Lenovo’s Tiny Desktop small-form-factor computers. Combining the two is a simple, tool-less process that takes less than a minute, including cable hookups. Both are also perfectly useable as discrete entities.
There are currently four of the approximately 3-pound, 7-inch square, 1.35-inch thick Tiny Desktops available: the M53, M73, M83, and M93P. The latter three come with a variety of processors, storage devices, and up to 16GB of memory. The M53 maxes out at 8GB. Pricing starts at approximately $450 and tops out at over $1100. All carry a three-year warranty with Lenovo’s usual variety of extended service and support options available. All, of course, may be used with the Tiny-in-One 23.
The main distinction between the four Tiny Desktop models is the Intel chipset and associated technology they employ: Bay Trail (the latest Atom) for the M53, the H81 for the M73, the Q85 with the M83, and the Q87 with vPro remote management for the M93P. As of this writing, the M53 utilizes an Atom J2900 CPU, while the others can be configured with up to Haswell Core i7s. My only minor complaint is that the most capacious SSD option is only 256GB—adequate for most business purposes, but odd considering that 2.5-inch SSDs now top out at 1TB.
The docking setup is pretty clever: You remove the plastic insert from the top of the Tiny-in-One 23’s back-mounted bay; unlatch a cover and the docking connector (standard male power, DisplayPort, and USB 3.0 ports on a sled); slide the Tiny module down into the bay; then slide the docking connector/lock back into place and close the cover. The entire process, once you’re used to it, takes less than a minute—including the time it takes to attach an ethernet cable and Wi-Fi antenna.
The Tiny-in-One 23 sports four USB 3.0 connectors (two on the front, two on the left side), and there’s an additional USB port exposed on any docked Tiny Desktop. There’s also a headset jack on the right side and a mini-USB port of undefined purpose on top of the display. An upstream USB 3.0 port and full-size DisplayPort jack are provided for connecting the Tiny-in-One 23 to other computers.
An optical drive module is available for the Tiny-in-One 23. It mates to the front of a docked Tiny Desktop on the back right of the display. When there’s no optical drive attached, there are two additional USB ports available on the front of a docked Tiny Desktop. However, there’s no opening to run cables to them. For that, you must flip open the cover on that side. Hardly the end of the world, but a puzzler given the overall ingenuity of the design. Most users will be served adequately by the five always-exposed USB ports, but you never know.
What makes the Tiny-in-One 23/Tiny Desktop ecosystem work is the quality of the 23-inch, 1920×1080-pixel display. The backlighting is exceptionally even, with no “spotlight” flare along the edges. There’s a good amount of usable brightness, and colors are vivid. While glare-prone glossy surfaces are the norm even on non-touch displays these days, Lenovo opts for matte. A wide, matte-black bezel sets the whole deal off nicely. The wide bezel isn’t suitable for dual-display setups, but that’s not part of the mission.
Before quoting numbers, I must say that it wasn’t easy to tell the M53 and M83 apart during everyday use. Both of our test units featured 7200-rpm hard drives. Once Windows 7 (8.1 is available) has finished caching things, feel is affected greatly by how fast data comes off your storage medium.
That said, while the M53’s Pentium J2900/Atom technology motherboard is more parsimonious in its power consumption, it proved distinctly inferior in objective testing. Most notably, it took 3 hours, 12 minutes to transcode a 30GB MKV file to an Android tablet format, compared to the M83’s Core i5 4590’s 1 hour, 16 minutes. The M53 scored 1130 and 1769 respectively in PCMark’s Creative and Work tests, about half the M83’s 2322 and 2811. Similarly, the M83’s HD 4600 graphics were two to five times faster than the Bay Trail’s HD graphics. Neither is for gaming, but the M83 will work at very low detail and resolutions for modest-aspiration gaming.
Even without a Tiny-in-One 23 to cocoon in, the Tiny Desktops are capable small-form-factor computers. Though not as small as Intel’s NUC, they come fully populated with drives, memory, and Wi-Fi, and have a wider array of ports. On the front of each are microphone and headset jacks, plus two USB 3.0 ports, one of which is always on for charging mobile devices. The back is home to three more USB 3.0 ports, a dual-mode DisplayPort connector, VGA out, as well as an ethernet and a Wi-Fi antenna post. The M83 and M93P also have a second DisplayPort.
As to which Tiny Desktop to buy… Go for the M53 if you’re concerned about being green and have very basic computing needs, and the M93p if you need remote management. The sweet spot for most users will be around $550 for the M73 with a Core i5. Note that Lenovo charges a pretty penny for the SSD option. If you’ve got the chops (seven screws total and a connector), save a couple hundred bucks by upgrading the Tiny Desktop with your own SSD. Get an external enclosure and resuse the replaced hard drive for backup.
Lenovo’s Tiny product line creates one of the nicer all-in-one selections on the market. The company wisely avoided the all-too-common A-wedge design that blocks the space around the unit, the display is first-rate, and you can take the computing portion with you or lock it away for safekeeping. What’s not to like? The whole deal is even relatively affordable.
Jon Jacobi is a musician, former x86/6800 programmer, and long-time computer enthusiast. He writes reviews on TVs, SSDs, dash cams, remote access software, Bluetooth speakers, and sundry other consumer-tech hardware and software.