IBM ThinkCentre A50 SFF VZF74UK review

Price when reviewed

In a world where the paperless office isn’t yet a reality, we all need plenty of space to spread books, documents and other forms of sliced tree. And it doesn’t help when a cumbersome desktop PC takes up most of what little workspace is available.

IBM ThinkCentre A50 SFF VZF74UK review

If this rings true in your office, a small-form-factor PC could be the answer. The squat black 276 x 272 x 89mm (WDH) box of the A50 isn’t particularly attractive, but it takes up little room under a monitor, or on its side in the supplied plastic stand.

The honeycomb fascia is also the air intake, with the fan exposed to the front. The variable speed fan isn’t noticeably noisy for the most part, but its positioning means you’ll hear it when it switches to fast speed, either in a warm room or when the PC is working hard. Air is sucked straight over the heatsink of the 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor – a Prescott chip with 1MB Level 2 cache.

Directly above this assembly sits the 40GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard disk – should the fan fail, there’s potential for some serious heat build up. Under normal circumstances the airflow keeps everything at a reasonable level and the hard disk doesn’t get excessively warm.

To save space, the DVD-ROM drive in the Ultra Bay Enhanced slot comes from the ThinkPad laptop range, and so could be used in compatible ThinkPads or swapped with a CD or DVD writer.

Investigating the layout and fixing problems is simple, thanks to the clever fold-out case design. You won’t need any tools to lift the lid, remove both drives, take out the single-slot PCI card assembly and finally take out the motherboard. The free memory slot is easy to access so you can quickly expand on the 256MB of PC2700 DDR SDRAM already supplied. The only disappointment is that there isn’t enough clearance below the recessed USB ports at the front, and only the thinnest USB flash drives will plug in.

Graphics performance isn’t high on the list of priorities for a business desktop, and the integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 will supply all that’s needed for office duties. More important is the processing power, and the result of 1.32 was lower than we were expecting; despite our best efforts, our review sample had difficulty with the strenuous Excel and Word portion of the benchmarks.

IBM supplies a comfortable keyboard and optical mouse (you buy a monitor separately) and there’s a mono speaker in the case. There’s no dial-up modem though, with IBM favouring gigabit Ethernet instead. Such a small machine might be a candidate for wireless, but you’d need to add it using the single free PCI slot.

Where IBM differentiates its systems is the inclusion of ThinkVantage and this model includes IBM’s Embedded Security Subsystem 2. Downloading additional (free) software gives secure password management and on-the-fly encryption.

We were impressed by the design of this tool-free compact PC, and IT departments will appreciate the ease with which it can be serviced or upgraded. The disappointing performance with key office applications takes away some of its charm, but it’s a secure and well-built space-saver.

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