Lost amid all the hoopla over Ultra-Low-Cost PCs (ULCPCs), Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), Netbooks, and Netdesks is Lenovo's small form factor line of ThinkCentre PCs. And that's too bad, because Lenovo has been working this market for quite some time, and what they're delivering is an excellent combination of ThinkPad looks and reliability with the eco-friendly footprint one expects from this type of PC.

I've been using a ThinkCentre A61e for several months now, and while I had originally hoped to utilize the machine for a long-overdue series on green computing, the recent industry fascination with small form factor PCs made me realize that this was a perfect contender for my "Attack of the Small PCs" series. Indeed, while Lenovo refers to this unique and often overlook little box as an "ultrasmall" form factor PC, most people who encounter it are simply be taken by its understated good looks and elegance. If you're familiar with (and respect, as I do) the ThinkPad line of notebook computers, drop what you're doing for a moment and check this out.

First, yes, the ThinkCentre A61e is aimed at businesses. So what? No, you're never going to play any high power action games on this thing, but that's equally true--actually, even more so--of the Shuttle KPC I recently reviewed. What you get with the A61e is a machine that's optimized for Windows Vista out of the box, and not some older OS or a version of Linux. It features modern, dual-core AMD microprocessors, a desktop-class DVD writer and hard drive (up to 750 GB), and up to 4 GB of RAM. Yep, this is a real computer, not an overpriced glorified notebook like a Mac mini.

Buying a ThinkCentre

While Lenovo has succeeded in getting its machines into far more retailers than did its IBM predecessor, the company still has a long way to go before ThinkPads, ThinkCentres, and the company's other products are as common as, say, HP machines are in Best Buy and other mass market retailers. As is the case with the ThinkPad line, your best bet for finding a ThinkCentre will generally be online.

Prices start at $579, which is a bit high for the ULCPC market, but I think most people would agree that the extra cost is worth it, given how much more capable these systems are. A base ThinkCentre A61e features a 2.1 GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 BE 2350 processor, 1G of RAM, a 160 GB hard drive, a real video card with 512 MB of dedicated memory, and an 8X recordable DVD drive. It also includes Windows Vista Business. You'll want to bump that up to 2 GB to run Vista effectively (at a cost of less than $50), but that's about it.

The hardware

The ThinkCentre A61e is surprisingly small, silent, and professional looking. (Again: Think ThinkPad and you've got the right idea). The tiny system unit can lay flat on a desk and support a monitor, or you can prop it up on its side and use it vertically like a very-mini-tower.

Unlike so-called ULCPCs, the A61e provides virtually everything you'll need out of the box, with a decent ThinkPad-style keyboard, a utilitarian Lenovo mouse, and every feature and expansion port imaginable. Up front is the full-sized optical drive, two USB 2.0 ports, and mic and headphone jacks. Look around the back and you'll find four more USB 2.0 ports, a VGA port, a gigabit Ethernet port, and a few more audio jacks. All you need is a display and you're good to go.

Real world A61e

The ThinkCentre A61e is a productivity workhorse, and while the inclusion of Windows Vista--and a decent, business-oriented version of Vista at that--should clue you into the fact that this isn't a bare-bones stripper PC, consider a few other facts. First, the A61e is capable of driving a very high resolution display effectively. My primary monitor runs at 1920 x 1200 and the ThinkCentre had no problem using it at its full resolution.

Second, unlike virtually every other computer I've had through my home office, the A61e is almost completely silent. In fact, the only time I was able to get more than a soft purr out of the thing was during some heavy duty video encoding. That caused the AMD processor to run flat-out, kicking on the fan.

Upgraded to 2 GB of RAM, the A61e made short work the modern applications I use regularly, such as Office 2007, Visual Studio 2008, and even Adobe Photoshop Elements. There were times I simply shut down my main PC and moved over to the A61e in order to enjoy the sudden quietness of my office. It was really a revelation. Whereas the other small PCs I've been looking at are clearly targeting the market for second PCs, the A61e could very well be your only PC.

This sort of efficiency will make the A61e an ideal addition to any small- or medium-sized business, of course, but I also feel that this machine is ideally suited for virtually any general purpose computing scenario, so unless gaming or video work are in the cards, this is a machine to consider. The price is right, and unlike the Mac mini, which costs more, delivers less, and is far less expandable, Lenovo doesn't skimp on necessities.

Problems?

If I were to quibble over the A61e, I'd point out that the inclusion of AMD microprocessors is a small step back when compared to what Intel's offering. Indeed, an Intel-based A61e would really round out this package. (Update: Lenovo actually does sell an Intel-based line of small form factor PCs, the ThinkCentre M-series. They're aimed at large businesses and are a bit more expensive than the A61e.--Paul) And what's up with the branding? A61e? Really?

But that's about it: As-is, the A61e is a great combination of capability, silence, and energy efficiency.

Final thoughts

Yes, the Lenovo A61e costs almost twice the asking price for a Shuttle KPC, but it delivers a far more usable and expandable computing experience. In fact, I'd argue that the Lenovo is the far better deal because you'll never need to fight with the built-in constraints of a true stripper PC. When looked in this light, the A61e is clearly the standard for small form factor machines. It's small, attractive, and almost always silent, all while being capable of running Windows Vista and whatever productivity applications you care to throw at it. This is a machine I'm betting few people have even heard of, and that's a shame. When it comes to small form factor PCs, the Lenovo ThinkCentre A61e is the one to beat. Highly recommended.