March 12, 2014, 3:01 PM — Back in May 2012, Samsung introduced the Chromebox, a desktop version of its Chrome OS-based laptop. Samsung's device has pretty much disappeared; however, time, technology and the Chrome OS has marched on, and now Asus has tried its hand: The $179 mini-desktop Chromebox, which goes on sale March 14, is an inexpensive and simpler alternative to a Mac or Windows PC for setting up a stationary system at home or work.
Compared to most desktop computers, the black square Chromebox is tiny -- at 1.7 x 4.9 x 4.9 in., it's closer to the size of an external hard drive. It weighs 1.2 lb. and is 14% smaller than Samsung's Chromebox. As a result, the Asus Chromebox can be easily attached to the back of a monitor or under a desk with Velcro tape or the included plastic bracket.
Inside the Chromebox is Intel's fourth-generation 1.4GHz Celeron 2955U processor and 2GB of 1.6GHz DDR3 memory. It holds up to 8GB of RAM; to add the chips you'll need to remove the unit's four rubber feet and unscrew the case lid.
The system comes a 16GB SSD that can be augmented with an SD card to add up to an additional 32GB of storage. Asus also provides 100GB of Google Drive online storage for two years; after that it costs $5 a month. The system has four USB 3.0 ports, a pair up front and a pair in the back -- less than the six USB 2.0 ports that Samsung's Chromebox provided. The system also comes with Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
In addition to an audio jack, the system offers HDMI and DisplayPort connectors for flexibility in setting up a monitor or projector. I connected it to a legacy Hanns.G 19-inch monitor via a generic DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter and to a Dell M110 projector using an HDMI cable; both worked without issues. The system uses Intel's HD Graphics, can display a resolution of 1920 x 1080 and can drive two displays at once.
The Chromebox certainly isn't a power hog. With the system simultaneously playing an HD video, displaying a presentation on Google Slides and running a science simulation on the University of Colorado's PhET site, it used just 11.2 watts. That's roughly one-tenth the level of a standard desktop system and less than the typical notebook.
So that it keeps its cool, the Chromebox system has a small fan inside and vents underneath. Still, it was surprisingly quiet in day-to-day use, and the system never got more than warm to the touch.
Quick, easy and useful
Getting the Chromebox connected and working is quick and easy, but you'll need to supply a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Asus will sell a matching keyboard and mouse for $50 (for both), but they weren't ready when I looked at the system. You can use a normal keyboard and mouse with the Chromebox, but be aware that Chrome uses the function-key row for its own row of specialty keys -- for example, F1 goes back a page and F8 mutes the audio. As a result, I had a bit of a problem remembering which key did what.
For the week before it went on sale, I used the Chromebox every day for everything from Web browsing and writing emails to watching online videos and editing images. Based on Google's Chrome OS Version 34.0, you use a Google account to sign in, after which you have access to all your applications and other resources in the Google ecosystem. People can also sign on anonymously as a Guest with no strings attached.
For me, Chrome OS was like a breath of fresh air compared to either Microsoft Windows or Apple OS X. A big benefit was the quicker system startup -- instead of waiting a few minutes for the system to boot up, the Chromebox was ready in 17.8 seconds.
At a Glance
AsusPrice: $179Pros: Inexpensive; small enough to mount on the back of a monitor; 4 USB 3.0 ports; quick startup, low power useCons: Limited software choices
Unfortunately, the Chromebox's available software continues to be a drop in the bucket compared to what's available for PCs and Macs. The system comes with Google Docs and QuickOffice for reading and editing Microsoft Office documents as well as a simple file manager and instant access to Google's social networking services. The Chrome Web Store offers an increasing variety of free or low-cost programs available for download.
I used the Chromebox for a variety of tasks and after a week, I am convinced that it could be an effective -- and inexpensive -- replacement for a traditional desktop computer. Of course, it is more useful when it's online, but the Chrome OS offers an increasing number of apps that work without an Internet connection.
The Asus Chromebox comes with a one-year warranty. Asus says that it will ship a higher performance Chromebox in April that will have a 1.7GHz Core i3 4010U processor, 16GB of storage and 4GB of RAM for $369.
In short, the Chromebox shows that less can be more. It is a small and inexpensive general-purpose desktop computer that can inconspicuously fulfill many roles around the house and at work. Just make sure you have a reliable Web connection.
This article, Asus Chromebox review: A simple, inexpensive and unobtrusive desktop, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.
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