Acer recently sent me one of their ultra-compact Veriton L460 to evaluate as part of the Educational seed program (the same one that scored me a much-loved Aspire One, currently ready to begin the second semester and all new classes in my 15-year old's backpack).
I replaced the family computer with it; although we have four other laptops floating around the house (if you include the Classmate), the desktop that sits in our study always gets heavy usage. It is the study, after all, and is usually humming before and after school with everything from last-minute printouts to games to online banking to email to research. Everyone, from me to my 6-year old, uses it.
So I figured this would be a nice sample of the sort of usage it would get in a school setting as well. There are a couple of real advantages to this computer. The first, obviously, is it's size. It's only 2.4" W x 9.8" D x 7.9" H and sits happily under a flat panel monitor or tucked away discretely somewhere. It's also extremely quiet, rivaling many thin clients. Finally, for a "fat client" it uses very little power; it only comes with a 135W power supply and the processor (an Intel E5200 dual core) and chipset support some fairly low-power modes.
It isn't as cheap as some of its direct competitors (in terms of features and performance, not in terms of form factor), running about $470 on GovConnection without a monitor, but does what it needs to do without fuss. The slot-loading Super-Multi drive is a nice touch, as are the VGA and DVI ports (both are active). A variety of audio ports could make this a decent home theater machine, but are fairly useless in the classroom (integrated graphics preclude it's use in a multimedia setting).
My test unit came with Windows Vista Business installed (although you can downgrade it to Windows XP Pro), but only 1GB of RAM. This makes for pretty sluggish multi-tasking of the sort one might expect in the classroom (web browser, a couple of productivity applications, and TweetDeck). Memory is cheap and 1GB just doesn't make sense with Vista, so this seems to be a fairly glaring oversight.
So what's the bottom line? It works quietly, efficiently, compactly, and pretty well. Ubuntu's going on it next to test performance outside of Vista, but I'm having trouble with the idea of paying a premium for a very compact desktop when some really good all-in-one computers are priced competitively. Understand that my wife hates cords and all things electronic, so she's fairly biased against anything other than a laptop (wireless and fully-charged, so she doesn't have to see the power cord). However, she made a good point when she asked what I'd rather see in a computer lab: a monitor, a desktop, and the associated cables or a neat, trim, all-in-one, like an iMac or Sony's Vaio JS?
Yes, the all-in-ones are more expensive, but with the Acer, I still have to buy a monitor. The Acer is also not mountable on the back of LCDs like many thin clients. It is wireless, which is an advantage in many classrooms, but in a lab setting doesn't make a lot of sense.
If you already have monitors that you want to use and space/noise/energy consumption are major concerns, then the Veriton is well worth a look. Outside of this narrow set of circumstances, though, the Acer is squeezed by cheap standard desktops, classy all-in-ones, and cheap laptops, including Acer's own excellent Aspire One.