All-in-one (AIO) desktop computers are a ubiquitous sighting in any computer superstore, actual or virtual. One of the most popular and iconic is Apple’s 5K-screened iMac $1,899.00 at Amazon, which always seems to occupy a spot at the top of our ratings charts.
On the Windows-PC side, we’ve seen lots of models of late with slick designs, such as Lenovo’s Ideacentre AIO 700 $1,379.00 at Amazon. But those are mainstream models, with silicon guts that are meant for casual and multimedia use. For gamers, the AIO selection is a lot less robust.
MSI’s Gaming 27 6QE $2,499.99 at Amazon is one of the few game-capable models that recently passed through our hands. One of the most potent AIOs we’ve ever tested, it packed a desktop-grade Intel Core i7-6700 quad-core processor and Nvidia GeForce GTX 980M graphics. We considered it mighty fast for an AIO, but its notebook-class graphics processor isn’t upgradable. And while a GeForce GTX 980M is no slouch, it is well short of the performance tier offered by desktop-class cards in traditional mid-ATX towers and some small form factor (SFF) systems.
So what happens when you want an AIO with desktop graphics and upgradability? Your options have generally involved rocks and hard places, but Digital Storm is changing that with its new Aura AIO. The big differentiating point for this model isn’t its stunningly curved 34-inch WQHD (3,440×1,440-pixel) display, though it certainly is the most obvious attraction. (We’ve seen one like it in HP’s equally mesmerizing Envy 34 Curved All-in-One $1,899.99 at HP.) What’s game-changing about the Aura is the fact it uses standard desktop-PC components, not laptop-style mobile ones.
Our $3,389 review unit included an Intel Core i7-6700K quad-core processor (overclocked to 4.4GHz), and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition graphics card. Both were connected on the back side of the monitor via a Gigabyte Z170N Mini-ITX motherboard, along with 16GB of DDR4-3000 RAM, a 512GB Samsung SSD 950 Pro solid-state drive, and a 1TB hard drive. The Aura’s back view, with its access panel removed, is almost as impressive as its huge display.
In essence, this is a giant-screened AIO with all the power of an SFF desktop built in. The Aura still has limitations next to a traditional desktop, namely in storage. But for AIO gaming, this is the height of luxury. Let’s take a deeper dive.
To the casual eye, the Digital Storm Aura looks like a big 34-inch monitor. A passerby might easily mistake it for just that, without realizing there’s a high-powered desktop integrated in the back.
The unit’s curvature and sheer size make it an impressive sight. It measures 33 inches wide, 18 inches tall, and 4 inches deep. It rests on a heavy-duty, all-metal forked display stand, which connects midway up the rear and offers a small range of tilt adjustment. The Aura also includes a VESA mount, should you decide to go aftermarket and put it on a wall. (Use a stud finder, for sure!)
The whole setup is quite heavy, ranging between 45 and 55 pounds depending on the loadout. It’s quite unwieldy to move about. The exterior construction is predominantly plastic, though the display stand, its connection point, and some of the internals are metal. The plastics used on the back made a relatively hollow sound when we tapped it with a fingernail, but those around the display itself were solid.
The Aura’s backside has ventilation holes over strategic areas, notably the graphics card and the motherboard. The top of the unit is perforated the entire way across, much like a TV. To turn the unit on, press the power button under the right side of the display. A display-menu option button is to its immediate left. A faint blue light shines directly under the power button when the unit is running.
A stubby Webcam sticks out the top of the Aura, connected via the sole USB Type-A 3.0 port residing there…
It has usable quality for casual video chats. It can be disconnected, should you wish to use the port for something else.
The 34-inch display is the Aura’s key selling point. Needless to say, it’s gigantic. It positively dwarfs typical 24- and even 27-inch desktop monitors. Its 21:9 aspect ratio also makes it much more elongated than the 16:9 aspect ratios of most computer displays. Video content on YouTube, Netflix, and elsewhere is generally formatted for 16:9, instead of 21:9. As a result, videos may show with a black border around the edges, simply because they don’t go wide enough. It doesn’t compromise the media quality, but just realize that not everything will make use of a screen this wide.
As if the size and aspect ratio weren’t crazy enough, the whole display is curved. If you haven’t used a curved screen this big before, it’s quite the experience. The curvature adds to the immersive feeling in games, since it literally wraps the picture around the edges of your vision. The same goes for movies and pictures.
The picture quality is stunning. According to Digital Storm, it’s an IPS panel with nearly unlimited viewing angles. It appears as bright as most high-end TVs, with a brightness range of 280 to 350cd/m. The high contrast, coupled with the 99 percent sRGB gamut coverage, equates to a lively image in just about any situation.
For productivity purposes, there are highly practical advantages to a display like this. The extra-wide WQHD (3,440×1,440-pixel) resolution means you can stack three, four, or even five windows side-by-side with minimal resizing. A standard FHD (1,920×1,080) display would generally allow for only two windows side-by-side. In essence, this single display is like having multiple displays, except it’s one seamless panel. Thanks to the size of the monitor, we were able to see text and icons in Windows just fine without having to use its scaling feature to magnify everything.
As we’ll see in the benchmarking section, graphics horsepower is very important for driving today’s games at the Aura’s sky-high resolution. All we can complain about on this display is its lack ofNvidia G-Sync support, which could help smooth out the gaming experience even more.
We were expecting the Aura to include a more usable set of speakers, though. They’re rearward-facing, located in the upper corners behind the display panel. The sound performance is on the underwhelming side, with little bass and a compressed sound stage. The volume is lacking, too, not much better than a notebook with decent-quality speakers.
Port selection isn’t something the Aura lacks on paper, but does in practical fact. There are no front-mounted ports at all. Behind the back right side of the panel are two USB Type-A 3.0 ports, separate headphone and microphone jacks, and the full-size SD/MMC card reader…
The remaining ports face out the underside of the Aura, where the back of the motherboard is aimed…
As you can see, these ports are implemented through a standard PC I/O shield. Problem is, there seemed to be no safe or practical way to tilt the Aura forward or backward on its stand enough to ease the access to these ports. We moreover found it all but impossible to identify the ports by feel, and didn’t dare try to plug something in blind. The only way to connect something underneath here was to disconnect the Aura from its stand, then wrestle the nearly 50-pound unit onto its face. You’ll want to do that exactly once!
Access to the ports is otherwise unobstructed. This situation has the potential to improve if you use a VESA mount, depending on where you mount the unit and the amount of adjustment allowed by the aftermarket hardware. But you’ll want to use these ports for more or less permanent connections, such as those for keyboards and mice.
The Aura’s Gigabyte Z170N-Gaming 5 motherboard offered respectable connectivity through this panel. At its upper left is a legacy PS/2 port, with two USB Type-A 3.0 ports underneath. The wireless antenna connectors are to its right. The antenna unit was included (not shown in most of our pictures), and it was required to achieve wireless range beyond a few feet. (Just remember to connect them before you mount the Aura in its stand!)
Under and to the right of the wireless antenna connectors were two inactive video-outs: legacy DVI-D, and HDMI. (They were inactive because a dedicated graphics card was installed.) To the right of the HDMI port was one USB Type-C 3.1 (no Thunderbolt 3 support on that). Further right was Gigabit Ethernet, the last USB Type-A 3.0, a USB Type-A 3.1, and a cluster of audio ports (S/PDIF, line-in, headphone, mic, and surround jacks).
The GTX 1080 Founders Edition graphics card in our review unit had DVI, HDMI, and three DisplayPorts. All were blocked off by rubber stoppers, or otherwise made inaccessible by a right-angle HDMI connector hooked into the display unit itself, via a physical HDMI-in…
It’s an uncanny situation. You probably could connect another, external monitor to the Aura if youwanted, but we didn’t try.
The Aura’s power connector is horizontal, located to the left of the motherboard…
Like with the other bottom-mounted ports, we found it quite difficult to connect a power cable without taking the Aura off its stand. Take our word for it: connect everything you want to connect to those bottom ports before you mount the Aura on its stand.
Getting to the Aura’s internals means first dismounting it from its stand, and laying it face-down. The stand arm comes out with two screws. Ten more hold in the one-piece back plastic panel. It did take a bit of gentle fingernail prying to nudge the whole piece loose. You’ll want to disconnect the slim 120mm exhaust fan attached to the plastic panel prior to fully lifting it away.
The Aura’s exposed backside is an impressive sight. All of the components are carefully placed, and no bit of space is wasted…
The speakers reside at the upper corners…
The CPU liquid cooling unit, radiator, and cylindrical fan unit all sit at the upper left…
The server-style power supply takes care of powering the computer itself, while the power brick to its left (blissfully, integrated into the unit) powers the display…
To the right of the motherboard is the graphics card, connected via a PCI Express x16 ribbon extender…
Removing the graphics card entails taking off a thumbscrew holding it in via a bracket on its aft end.
To the right of the graphics card is a 2.5-inch drive bay. Two drives can fit here, one atop the other. Our review unit had a single mechanical hard drive…
Putting back the rear plastic panel required a bit of finesse. You’ll need to fit the panel by hand, ensuring it’s snug on all sides. The five bottom screws go in easily, but the five along the top require intense eyeballing to line up with their holes. Then, it’s a matter of wrestling the Aura back onto its display stand (or VESA mount).
An M.2 slot is on the motherboard, holding the boot drive, the Samsung SSD 950 Pro we mentioned earlier on. But we weren’t able to tell that from looking at the top of the board. The slot is on the underside, meaning complete removal of the motherboard is required to access it. That’s far from a five-minute task. Fortunately, the Samsung SSD 950 Pro in our Aura was 512GB, which should be roomy enough for some time, and is one of the fastest consumer drives available, thanks to its support of the NVMe protocol. You’d be hard-pressed to improve on it.
The almost-top-tier Aura we’re reviewing had a loadout summing up to $3,389 at the time of this review. The 34-inch display is the same across models, so the differences mostly lie in the internal components.
The heart of our Aura is Intel’s flagship quad-core, the Core i7-6700K. It was overclocked to 4.4GHz (8-44x multiplier), and connected to Digital Storm’s Vortex liquid cooler. The overclocking was $49 extra. Considering the “K” series processors are unlocked, you could do the overclocking yourself. The BIOS of our unit’s Gigabyte Z170N-Gaming 5 Mini-ITX motherboard was fully unlocked. 4.4GHz is a respectable number, considering the base Core i7-6700K runs at 4GHz even. Digital Storm also offered the Aura with Intel X99-based motherboards for Broadwell-E support, in case you want a processor with more than four cores, such as the eight-core/16-thread Core i7-6900K, or even the wildly expensive 10-core/20-thread Core i7-6950X Extreme Edition$1,649.99 at Amazon. For gaming, though, the Core i7-6700K in our review unit is the best all-around choice. The processors with six cores or more may actually have worse performance for gaming, since their cores typically run at lesser frequencies next to the quad-core.
The Aura accepts one double-wide, standard length PCI Express x16 graphics card. As mentioned, the slot was populated in our review unit by Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition, the fastest single card available as of early August 2016 beside, perhaps, the just-announced Nvidia Titan X…
Digital Storm offered Nvidia cards starting with the relatively anemic GeForce GTX 950$144.99 at Amazon. Given the 34-inch display panel’s 3,440×1,440-pixel resolution, which has 60 percent of the pixels of a 4K (3,840×2,160) display, the very minimum card you’d want for gaming is an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060. Given that even the GTX 1080 in our review unit wasn’t hitting 60fps in some games at this resolution, we’d strongly recommend at least a GeForce GTX 1070 for a bit of future-proofing. (Digital Storm didn’t offer AMD cards in the Aura as of this writing, such as the new Radeon RX 480$299.99 at Amazon or older Fury-series cards.)
Mini-ITX motherboards are all that fit in the Aura, though we’re not necessarily calling that a fault. The Gigabyte Z170N-Gaming 5 Mini-ITX model in our review unit had two DIMM slots for desktop DDR4 memory. They were occupied with two 8GB modules of wicked fast DDR4-3000. The maximum amount supported is 32GB, via a 2x 16GB-DIMM configuration. (A standard full-ATX motherboard in a typical desktop would have four or more slots.)
For storage, the Aura has that single (and hidden) M.2 PCI Express slot and two 2.5-inch drive bays. As we noted, the M.2 slot is on the underside of the motherboard, making upgrades complicated and time-consuming. In our review unit, one of the two bays in the 2.5-inch drive cage was populated with a Hitachi 1TB 7,200rpm drive. The 2.5-inch form factor currently limits you to 2TB hard drives. Even SFF desktops tend to have at least one 3.5-inch bay, so being restricted to 2.5-inch drives is a little disappointing. (That’s because 3.5-inch drives can be found in up to 10TB capacities.) Both electronic and physical space are at a premium in the Aura, so you may be looking at the external, network, or cloud route to get more.
Digital Storm’s base Aura config was listed for $2,272, as of this writing, which included a fairly robust amount of power. That price netted a Core i7-6700 (non-K/non-overclockable) processor, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 graphics, 16GB of DDR4-2666 RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. You could actually knock the price lower by selecting lesser components if you wanted. Bumping the graphics to a more capable GeForce GTX 1070 in the base configuration pushed it to $2,640. No matter how we configured it, the Aura always seemed to be right at or north of $2,500 for a setup capable of playing the latest AAA games at the 34-inch display’s native resolution.
In traditional desktop design, air generally gets drawn in through the front, then pushed out the back or sides. The thermal playground is a bit different in the Aura, since its components are attached to the back of a huge 34-inch display. The graphics card, situated to the right of the motherboard, exhausts out the bottom of the display. It gets most of its fresh air through perforations above the entire length of the card…
The processor’s liquid cooling unit exhausts out the top of the Aura, to the left of the motherboard. The remaining active exhaust is provided by a slim 120mm fan, located directly above the motherboard, mounted on the plastic rear cover. Passive airflow is courtesy of numerous perforations on the back cover. As noted previously, the entire top of the Aura is also vented.
The Aura’s fans are audible at all times, though generally unnoticeable in general use. The graphics card was generally silent at idle. The CPU cooler’s cylindrical fan unit, as well as the slim 120mm fan above the motherboard, were both audible, but also hardly noticeable due to their low RPM. Playing games changed the situation a bit, with the GPU fan kicking into high gear, and the CPU cooler working much harder. The single fan in the GTX 1080 Founders Edition had no whine, but the air rushing through its long cooler was hard to ignore. The CPU cooler’s fan had a mechanical whir at its upper RPMs. All the fans combined created an audible hum, which we could hear across a living room. The mid-ATX gaming desktops we test tend to be quieter, though not always. Again, the Aura is a different design, so we’ll chalk up the extra noise as one of the acceptable (and perhaps inevitable) compromises of fitting a full-power gaming PC into the back of a huge display.
We recorded component temperatures while playing Rise of the Tomb Raider for 60 minutes. With GPU-Z, we logged the GTX 1080 topping out at 87 degrees. The log showed its core boost clock fluctuating between 1,607MHz and 1,784MHz once it reached 86 degrees, usually remaining under 1,683MHz from that point forward. In other words, it wasn’t sustaining its maximum boost clock, likely due to thermal conditions. Nonetheless, we can’t necessarily fault the Aura for the GTX 1080’s minor thermal inconsistencies, as the temperatures we observed are normal for a GTX 1080 Founders Edition.
The overclocked Core i7-6700K in our review unit also became quite warm. The maximum temperatures of its cores ranged from 73 to 77 degrees C by the end of our gaming sessions, measured with HWMonitor. We could hear the CPU cooling unit’s fan kick into high gear at that point. These temperatures are well below the thermal shutoff point for the Core i7-6700K, though on the high side, given that the CPU was liquid-cooled. But they’re not a danger, by any means, nor did they negatively affect system performance.