IBM, Compaq/HP, and Dell are generally regarded as the “big three” in Corporate Computing. While there are other players, and delivery may be by a third party like EDS or Decision One, the battle for the Corporate desktop and mobile computing needs is most often played by the “Big 3”. It is for this market that the IBM Think Center is designed, and IBM has generally done a brilliant job in creating this small computer for corporate needs.

IT Professionals have very different concerns than the home computer user or computer enthusiast. They are more concerned with the “cost of ownership” and the related “technology refresh” cycle. Most corporations lease their computer equipment, and they build into their lease/deployment plans when computer equipment will be “refreshed” (replaced). As the pace of innovation in computers accelerates, the refresh cycle has generally become shorter. Most corporations are now working on 2- to 3-year refresh cycles; although, the current recession has lengthened those times for many Corporations, who have been holding onto equipment for a longer time to cut costs.

Once the refresh cycle is plugged into the equation, “cost of ownership” becomes the next consideration. Computers break, they have to be maintained, they sometimes need to be upgraded to meet the requirements of the latest and greatest tools that the Corporation decides to roll-out to their desktop — and all of these cost money. For this reason, IT departments are very concerned about warranties and parts replacement by their computer vendor; and even with the cost of parts covered by warranty, generally on-site service is an additional contracted cost from either the computer vendor or a 3rd party.

The larger the corporation, the more scrutiny these costs are likely to undergo, and the greater the desire to control the costs to an absolutely predictable level. A recent and growing trend is “user-replaceable” parts. Dell was the company that first excluded items like the mouse, keyboard and monitor from technician replacement. They would ship the replacement part to the end-user who would do the replacement themselves. That trend caught on and is growing with all the Corporate vendors, and as a result, the list of items considered “user-replaceable” has been growing — in a effort to cut cost-of-ownership.

Enter the IBM Think Center SFF. As you will see when we delve deeper into the guts of this little PC, IBM has engineered a computer whose main reason for being is to reduce cost of ownership to the absolute minimum. Having come from managing a large National Computer Service organization and a National Help Desk, I could almost hear the scripts that the Help Desk employees would use to guide the end-user through replacing their hard drive or adding memory. IBM certainly is listening to their clients, and the IBM Think Center carries “End-User Replaceable” to heights that a computer technician could only imagine.

System Specifications

 System Specifications
   IBM Think Center S50  Soltek Qubic EQ3401M  Biostar iDEQ 200T  Shuttle SB65G2
Expansion Bays (5.25"/3.5"/Hidden) 1/1/1 2/1/1 1/1/1 1/1/1
Front USB Ports 2 2 2 2
Rear USB Ports 6 4 2 4
Internal USB Ports N/A 2 4 2
Front Firewire Ports None 1 Standard 1 Standard 1 Mini
Rear Firewire Ports None 2 Standard 1 Standard 1 Standard
On-Board Parallel Port Rear Internal Header Internal Header Internal Header
On-Board Game Port None None Internal Header None
On-Board Serial Ports 2 2 Rear 2 — One Rear & One Internal Header 2 Rear
Front Audio Jacks 2 — Mini Mic & Headphone 2 — Mini Mic & Line-In 2 — Mini Mic & Heaphone 3 Mini
Rear Audio Jacks None 3 Mini 3 Mini 3 Mini
SPDIF None One — Front
Optical Out
Two: Rear Optical Out & Front Optical In Two: Rear Optical SPDIF In & Out
Number of Fans (including CPU/chipset) 2 2 2 1
Power Supply 200W 250W Enhance 200W Enhance 220W Enhance

IBM Think Center S50: S50 Chassis
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  • mindless1 - Sunday, February 8, 2004 - link

    It's a shame the article uses proprietary SWF images, instead of the industry standard formats which everyone can use. Is the author getting kickbacks from Macromedia?
  • Budman - Wednesday, November 5, 2003 - link

  • Utterman - Friday, October 24, 2003 - link

    I have deployed around 1500 IBM thinkcentre S50's nationwide and they are really great systems to work with. Out of the 1500 systems that I worked with, I only had problems with 5 of them. This review is pretty dead on with everything about the S50. I find they are great systems to use for an office environment, but anything that needs a lot of performance prob. should look at something higher end.
  • Shalmanese - Thursday, October 23, 2003 - link

    It has always been my private opinion that Content creation is only related to typical buisness usage in that it has the same range of applications. However, saying that a 10% difference in content creation will translate into a 10% difference in real world buisness usage is like saying a 50% increase in memory bandwidth will lead to a correspondingly large increase in bandwidth intensive applications. The dillema is that any benchmarking utility that simulated TRUE desktop performance would be of no use as a benchmarking utility. Over the span of an 8 hour workday, the difference between a fast and slow computer may be 30 seconds worth of extra wait time if that. Also, the S50 is offered at every speed from a 2Ghz Celeron to a 3.2Ghz P4. Obviously, they would ship you the most expensive model to review but the vast majority sold are going to be in the mid range.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - link

    The lack of CPU cooling fan concerns me. I've got a couple hundred SFF Dell OptiPlex machines throughout my office and I sleep better knowing the CPU has its own active cooling. Too many machines are shoved into areas that don't provide enough airflow for effective convection cooling, and we all know what that eventually leads to.

    And as for the 2-3 year lease deals, I think one of the good things to come out of the "dot bomb" era is that companies are demanding more from their equipment. Short-term lifespans may be great for the business models of technology companies but those of use in old-economy industries have a different idea of what a machine's expected lifespan should be. Mind you we're not using Commodore 64s for anything, but a four-year-old P3/500 runs Windows 2000 and MS Office just fine for your typical office worker. And that is where a business-oriented machine really shines- it's much easier to keep a fleet of old OptiPlexes or HP Vectras running smoothly than a hodge-podge of no-name machines.
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - link

    The only thing I care about is how a stupid 3.2ghz 82 watt minimum processor can be cooled with such a dinky heatsink and quiet small fans. It like all other OEM cooled processors run at around 80c. They won't let you see the temperature for obvious reasons, since while a processor can run at 80c it will last much longer at cooler temps. And if you want stability you need to keep stuff cool.

    Also a 3db increase in sound is not twice as loud. A 10db increase is. But that doesn't take into perception of how annoying something can sound. For instance, a computer I have at home is just a little wider than a pci slot, so it has it's cd-rw drive vertically. The ps fan on it is on the outside and is only 60mm and 10mm thick. It gets very loud due to it getting rid of the heat in the system. In fact, it's loud whether I have a 800mhz duron or 1800+ Tbred. But then I took it to a reception hall and put it on stage I could barely tell it was on. So while it may sound quiet in a open building in a business, it will sound very loud at home. But that's just me and one observation.

  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - link

    Interesting review. I just picked-up a stack of Small Forms for my company…the IBM small form was one I rejected, basically because it looks so bad….amongst other rejected systems including HP/Compaq, Dell(which is now absolutely prohibited from conducting business with my company – different story) and Micron.

    I ended up, at $600.00 per machine, with Gateway E4100s. Celeron 2.4s with 256 dual-channel DDR, Intel MoBo and basically the same chassis….only not as tacky looking as the IBMs. They’re also completely silent.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - link

    I implement machines for small to mid-size companies in the Pacific Northwest. My recommendation and what I am hearing in the field is that there is very little need to renew leases from 2-3 years ago. User's themselves are seeing little to no benefit for getting the latest and greatest. People want their jobs, not more PC's brought in. There really aren't many apps that take advantage of the speed for most cases. People aren't rendering here or playing games, folks.

    Having said that we buy mostly small form factor PC's, and we buy mosltly HP. We used to buy Dell but saw their support go absolutely downhill in the last 2 years. Without Support why buy from these companies at all? Anyway, now we're just considering getting shuttles or vanilla brand. The only parts that really fail anymore are HDD's (and do they ever fail, the failure rate is about 10% easy across all manufacturer's of IDE, which is a lot)

    We can save a customer roughly $200-$300 by just getting no-name brand boxes like shuttle, etc, over IBM/HP. It's something we're seriously considering.
  • Anonymous User - Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - link

    Regarding the mysterious lower performance of the IBM S50, I think the clue must be the memory speed because 320MHz memory is bizarre when dual 400MHz is the design for this processor. This means one of two things...

    1) Asynchronous mode - if the S50 uses asynchronous memory timing, we all know that this reduces performance. We've seen many tests where 266 MHz synchronous is faster than 333MHz asynchronous. Also, to my knowledge, the P4 3.2 is made for dual channel 400MHz (800MHz effective) so running a 320MHz DIMM in single channel (320MHz) or dual channel (640MHz) mode WILL DEFINITELY hurt performance since the long pipelines in the P4 and the very high 3.2GHz speed are very dependent on avoiding any kind of wait on memory (a lower speed P4 such as 2GHz would be affected less). If true, this would be a double oversight.


    2) Synchronous mode - if the S50 uses dual channel memory in synchronous mode and they limit the speed of each bank to 320 MHz, then the fixed multiplier of the CPU must result in an actual CPU clock speed of 2.56 GHz rather than 3.20 GHz. If true, this is a simple case of underclocking.

    Either way this is a strange decision by IBM.

    --charlesz (waiting on my AnandTech password).
  • Wesley Fink - Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - link

    As stated in the review, stability and trouble-free operation are MUCH more important to IT Departments than performance will ever be. We did not test the IBM S50 as we would an Enthusiast machine since that is not appropriate. In fact, we ONLY ran Content Creation and General Usage benchmarks because these are made up of the kinds of applications Corporations normally use on their desktops. The IBM was at least 10 to 20% slower in those benchmarks than any other 865/865G we have tested. That is significant enough that we think it WILL interest some, if not all, IT departments.

    The IBM deserves the praise we gave on Engineering and low noise levels, but someone should be questioning the dismal performance we found in Corporate applications suites. If my IT department specified 3.2GHz P4s I would certainly expect to see performance in that neighborhood, and not performance more typical of a 2.6GHz CPU.

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