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Physically setting up the Altos proved no great challenge. We simply plugged in the power cord, the mouse, the keyboard, and the Internet cable, then turned on the power switch. However, the Acer provided only one Ethernet NIC, so we had to install a second NIC to configure the machine as the primary Internet gateway for our network.
But the real source of our setup and usability issues was the OS, Windows Server 2003 (Small Business Server, in this case). Getting the server from its pristine state to a functioning domain controller and file and application server took us a couple of hours--pretty much the same as with other Windows servers we've tested.
Depending on your point of view, the physical design of the Acer's case provides either poor accessibility or good security. The G301's standard-size tower PC has a doorlike cover that keeps the power switch, the floppy drive, and any hot-swappable drives you've installed locked away, safe from wandering hands. But instead of providing easily handled setscrews or an accessible, lockable latch for opening the side panel, Acer makes you remove the front panel before you can open the one on the side. To be sure, that makes it hard for anyone to open the case quickly, but it also represents the least user-friendly design of all the products we've tested.
Our main caveat on physical security: The Acer's 54X CD-ROM drive remains accessible, which means that users could install programs--something you may not want them to do.
The Altos G301 comes well equipped for its server duties: Our test unit featured a 2.8GHz P4 processor, 512MB of ECC memory, and two 120GB ATA hard drives. It also included a RAID-1 controller, allowing the drives to be configured for automatic backup purposes (through mirroring), as well as a three-channel IDE controller for future expansion. The ATI Rage XL video system, with 8MB of video RAM, is integrated into the motherboard, and the system is served by a 300-watt power supply. While the motherboard provides five expansion slots, only one of them is standard PCI, while the rest are 64-bit. Our unit came with a 35GB tape drive as well, which, when combined with the RAID-1 controller and the two hard drives, provided a complete backup solution.
Like all Acer servers, the G301 ships with two impressive management suites, Acer EasyBuild and Acer Server Manager. As its name suggests, EasyBuild helps you build the server from scratch, preparing and configuring it for the installation of the operating system, as well as letting you perform all necessary hardware diagnostics. Acer Server Manager Pro enables you to monitor networked computers remotely, notifying you in case of trouble and allowing you to fix problems. Included with Server Manager are Advanced Web-based Manager, for administration over the Web, and Remote Diagnostic Manager, a full troubleshooting and configuring utility for the server itself, to be used from a client machine when the server fails.
If getting into the chassis was our only concern with the Altos, the usability issue would have been relatively insignificant, especially given the unit's strong feature set. But the Acer server proved quite sluggish at file transfers, so much so that we rebooted the box and retested it three times to see if we could obtain better results. Unfortunately, we didn't; times remained consistently disappointing. Transferring a 1.5GB folder took just a shade less than 11 minutes--a full 3 minutes longer than other, similarly configured servers.
Things got even worse, however, when we had multiple clients performing simultaneous downloads. Uploading 1.5GB folders simultaneously from three separate clients took more than 21 minutes, well over twice as long as it should have. And that didn't change much when we started simultaneously uploading from five clients and downloading large files over the Net. Fortunately, login times from the client PCs (all Windows XP Professional boxes) were just fine.
Acer provides a three-year, limited-warranty service package with the Altos G301, with next-business-day, onsite replacement. You can upgrade the warranty and support with a number of different packages. The support site for the company lists the technical-support phone numbers (toll-free) and provides a Web form for sending in your questions.