IBM ThinkCentre A50 SFF review

£721
Price when reviewed

IBM is no stranger to winning awards for its service and yet again won the PC Award in our 2004 Service & Reliability survey, albeit jointly with Fujitsu Siemens. When we first saw the ThinkCentre A50 in December (issue 123, p62), we were impressed with its styling and ultra-small form factor. In this Labs, however, the competition was far tougher and the IBM struggled to keep up.

IBM ThinkCentre A50 SFF review

A 2.8GHz Pentium 4 with a front side bus of just 533MHz coupled with 256MB of RAM meant that the IBM was the slowest machine in our test, with an application benchmark score of just 1.24. This was slower than all seven notebooks on test, including IBM’s own T42, which managed 1.71. It’s partly due to the older Intel 865GV chipset, which, like most components on the IBM, is a step behind the other systems on test.

Another blow is that there’s no removable storage on the ThinkCentre – the slimline optical drive is a 24x TEAC CD-ROM drive rather than the CD and DVD writer options found on other models, and the sort of drive you’d expect at this price. The hard disk is a relatively small 40GB Western Digital Caviar, sporting an Ultra ATA/100 interface rather than the Serial ATA interface found on every other system on test. This won’t make a difference in terms of speed, and the data cable is folded to save space and allow for better airflow.

At least you can take for granted IBM’s excellent design and build quality. The ThinkCentre is a testament to IBM’s careful design and manufacture. It measures just 89 x 272 x 276mm (WHD), so will fit in places that others on test won’t. It might not be particularly pretty, but everything about the A50’s chassis is tool-less, and the hard disk and CD drive cage swing up to provide access to the RAM and processor.

We don’t expect many businesses to require much expansion, and IBM has saved space by doing without an AGP slot. Graphics are integrated instead, but as they’re Intel’s Extreme Graphics 2 they’re not much cop for 3D performance and take 64MB from the already limited system RAM. There’s a single, full-height PCI slot, but again this is a limitation that most administrators won’t mind. Sound capabilities are provided by a stereo AC97 chip, while gigabit Ethernet comes courtesy of Intel’s PRO/1000 on-board chip.

Most small-form-factor PCs require several fans to dissipate heat, so we were pleased that the ThinkCentre doesn’t roar like a vacuum cleaner to stay cool. In fact, the A50 was the second-quietest system on test, louder only than the Fujitsu Siemens E620. We measured figures of 27.6dBA at idle and 29.2dBA while searching the hard disk, meaning this PC will be inaudible even if it’s placed at ear-height on the desk in front of you.

BIOS features should help to save wasted electricity. The system can be set to power on either once per day or once per week (say, Monday morning) at a preset time, meaning systems automatically hibernate after a preset period of inactivity when users go home and boot up again in the morning.

In terms of security, the IBM lacks a chassis intrusion detector, but does have ThinkVantage software installed. This includes Embedded Security Subsystem, which combined with a hardware chip to provide on-the-fly encryption among other features. Network administrators can deploy settings remotely and push policy settings from a server.

From an end user’s point of view, the ThinkVision L170 is an excellent TFT. Good looks and an intuitive front panel make setting it up quickly a breeze. We’ve no complaints with image quality, although whites became saturated rather quickly, as with practically every TFT. The black bezel matches the ThinkCentre’s case perfectly and, combined with the keyboard and mouse, the system looks very business-like. The keyboard and mouse themselves are basic, but of decent quality. A neat practical touch is the groove at the top of the keyboard for a pen.

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