Over the past few years, almost every major PC maker has released a low-cost laptop or two running Google’s Chrome operating system. But Asus is taking a slightly different approach: its first Chrome OS is a desktop.
How good can a desktop computer that costs about as much as a Nintendo 3DS be? That depends on how you plan to use it. But it turns out you get a lot of machine for your money.
Asus loaned me an Asus Chromebox to take for a test drive, and just like most Chromebooks I’ve reviewed recently, it offers decent performance, excellent value… and a user experience that may not necessarily be right for everyone. The good news is that folks who aren’t thrilled with Chrome OS can relatively easily install Ubuntu or other operating systems.
The Asus Chromebox measures just 4.9″ x 4.9″ x 1.7″ and it’s small enough to hold in one hand. It takes up less space than a CD case.
But Asus manages to pack a lot into this little system including a decent x86 processor, two memory slots, and a solid state drive. That’s hardly surprising — Intel and Gigabyte have been doing it with their NUC and Brix mini-computers for the past year or two.
Still, it’s pretty impressive to see a PC that’s this small, this cheap, and which comes with memory, storage, and an operating system pre-loaded. While you can find other low cost tiny desktops, the Asus Chromebox is one of the few that you can pop out of the box, plug in, and start using within moments.
The system Asus sent me features an Intel Celeron 2955U Haswell processor and 16GB of storage. It’s supposed to have 2GB of RAM, but I accidentally received a developer unit with 4GB.
Good news: The Asus Chromebox works with 4GB of RAM… and it can even support up to 8GB! It’s also fairly easy to upgrade the memory since there’s room for 2 SODIMM sticks inside the case.
You can open the case by removing the rubber feet on the bottom of the Chromebox to reveal screws. Take them out and you can get at the memory and storage, making upgrades relatively painless.
Asus says opening the case won’t void the warranty (even if the screws are kind of hidden). But the warranty won’t be honored if the Chromebox has been “tampered with or damaged after opening,” so proceed with caution.
Simply upgrading the RAM should be pretty safe, but you might not want to try installing a liquid cooling system if you care about the warranty (You probably wouldn’t need one anyway, the system doesn’t run very hot and it’s pretty quiet).
The Chromebox ships with a 16GB SanDisk M.2 SATA solid state drive. It’s one of the tiniest solid state drives I’ve held in my hands, and while it’s not the fastest SSD on the market, it’s zippy enough to help keep the Asus Chromebox booting quickly and running smoothly.
If 16GB isn’t enough disk space for you, all you need to do is open the case and remove the screws holding the wireless card and SSD in place and pop out the storage for a higher capacity SSD. You’ll have to copy your disk image or install a new operating system.
While it’s possible that the extra memory skewed some of my test results, I recently reviewed an Acer C720p Chromebook with the same processor, similar storage, and 2GB of RAM and it jumped through hoops just about as well as this model.
Asus also plans to offer models with Intel Core i3 and Core i7 Haswell processors at higher prices.
Each model has dual-band 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI and DisplayPort, 4 USB 3.0 ports (2 on the front and 2 on the back), a headset jack, and a full-sized SD card slot.
While the 16GB of built-in storage isn’t a lot of space for music, movies, photos, or other files, it’s plenty of space for the Chrome operating system and some Chrome Packaged apps and cached data for offline use. Customers who buy an Asus Chromebox also get 100GB of free cloud storage with Google Drive for 2 years, as well as a 60-day free trial of Google Play Music All Access.
Since the Chromebox is so tiny it wouldn’t look out of place next to your TV and you’d barely notice it next to a PC monitor. But Asus also includes a VESA mount in the box. Just screw the mount into the back of your monitor or TV, add a few screws to the bottom of the Chromebox, and you can slide it into the mount so that it hangs out behind your display.
This turns any old display into a sort of all-in-one desktop PC… with a few extra cables running around. You’ll still need to hook up the Chromebox to your display with an HDMI or DisplayPort cable and plug in separate power cables for both your TV and the Chromebox.
Asus included a wireless mouse and keyboard with my demo unit, but they’ll be sold separately at retail. You can either supply your own keyboard and mouse or buy the Asus models (which are designed for use with Chrome OS) for $50.
Just plug the included USB dongle into one of the ports on the Asus Chromebox, make sure there are batteries in the keyboard and mouse, and you can type and scroll away.
Like most Chromebooks, the Asus Chromebox has a special keyboard. Instead of Fn keys at the top, there are dedicated forward and back buttons, a refresh key, brightness and volume keys, and a power button (which looks like a lock).
For the most part I don’t have any problems with the keyboard layout — I never use the Caps Lock key, so it’s OK if I never use the Search button that replaces it on Chrome devices. But I really wish someone would ship a Chrome OS device that actually has Home, End, PgUp and PgDn keys.
While it’s not too hard to remember to hit Alt + up arrow for page down and Alt + down arrow for page down, I also have issues remember that Ctrl + Alt + Up is Home while Ctrl + Alt + Down is End. I can’t count the number of times I’ve used a left or right arrow key and exited a web page when I meant to go to the start or end of a line of text that I was typing.
A Del key would also be nice, but Alt + Backspace works too, I guess.
Chrome OS notes
Chrome OS is an operating system based around the Chrome web browser and it’s designed to access web sites, stream online music and movies, run web apps, play online games, and maybe run some Chrome Packaged apps which can download data to your system and run like native apps (which can offer improved performance and the ability to use your Chromebox even when you don’t have an internet connection).
In the early days of Chrome OS it was easy to dismiss the operating system as little more than a web browser. “Why buy a device that just runs a browser when I could buy a Windows, OS X, or Linux machine that runs a browser and much more?” was a pretty frequent question… and to be honest, it probably still is.
But Chrome OS has a way of growing on you… and growing as a platform. Chrome OS isn’t just a full-screen browser window anymore. There’s a taskbar, a desktop, and an app launcher. You can resize and rearrange windows on your screen. And there are apps that let you do many of the most common tasks you’d perform on a Windows machine.
Want to create a spreadsheet? There’s Google Drive and Google Sheets for that. Need a distraction? There are thousands of online games and video sites. Want to manage your finances? Mint could be your Quicken replacement, or QuickBooks Online your… QuickBooks replacement.
There are still some things that are tougher to do in Chrome OS than in a desktop operating system. I have yet to find a simple image editing app that’s as fast and easy to use as Irfanview for Windows. And while there are some ways to edit videos using web apps, the idea of shooting a video, uploading it to the web, editing it, downloading it, and then uploading it to the site where you want to host it… well, it just gives me a headache.
Chrome OS could be the only operating system you need… depending on what you need to do with a computer. If you absolutely need Microsoft Office and can’t get by with Google Docs, Microsoft Office Web Apps, or another online alternative, you’re going to be better off with Windows or OS X. If you absolutely must store your entire music and video collection on a hard drive, you’ll probably either want an enormous USB hard drive or another operating system.
But I don’t think Chrome OS is supposed to replace Windows for most users… at least not yet. At this point, a Chromebook is a laptop that offers ease of use, speed, and security at a low price. And the Asus Chromebox shows that Google’s operating system can bring the same experience to desktops… for an even lower price (monitor not included).
I suspect Asus and other Chromebox makers expect to sell most of their devices to business and education customers. Chromeboxes provide a cheap, easy, and relatively secure way to allow students, employees, digital kiosk visitors, and others to get online. But Chrome OS is also a surprisingly usable platform for that second or third computer in your house.
Not convinced? No problem. Installing an alternate operating system on the Asus Chromebox is pretty easy… as long as that alternate OS isn’t Windows. It’s probably not impossible to install Windows on the Asus Chromebox, but it’s not exactly easy at this point… and if you really want a Windows machine you’d probably be better off just buying one.
There are a few ways to install Ubuntu, Debian, or other Linux-based operating systems. They all involve entering developer mode.
Here are the steps for doing that:
- Turn off the Chromebox.
- Find the tiny hole near the Kensington lock slot.
- Stick a paperclip in that slot and press down until you feel a button click.
- Hold the paperclip down while pressing the power button to turn on the device.
- When the device boots into the scary white screen, press Ctrl + D on your keyboard and then follow the on-screen directions.
That’s pretty much it. Note that this process will wipe any data on your device and basically present you with a factory-fresh version of Chrome. But once you login with your username and password again, it’ll automatically grab your settings from the internet and you’ll be pretty much back where you were in no time.
Just make sure to hit Ctrl+D whenever you reboot your device from now on so you’re not stuck staring at the recovery screen.
Now that OS verification is turned off you could theoretically wipe Chrome OS off the device and install a different operating system. I prefer to use a tool called Crouton which installs Ubuntu or Debian side-by-side with Chrome OS.
This lets you run both operating systems at the same time, and Ubuntu uses the same Linux kernel as Chrome. That means you don’t have to worry about installing drivers for WiFi or any other hardware. It also means that you can literally flip back and forth between Chrome and Ubuntu with just a few key-presses.
Want to wipe Crouton, free up the disk space it was using, and go back to a Chrome-only device? Just reboot your machine and follow the steps for re-enabling OS verification and the Chromebox will delete all your data again and return you to the factory settings.
You can find instructions at the Crouton page for installing Ubuntu or Debian. For example, I used the installation script to load Ubuntu 13.10 with the LXDE desktop environment by running the command “sudo sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -r saucy -t lxde” without quotes.
With Ubuntu running, I was able to install GIMP for editing images, Audacity for editing audio files, and the Firefox web browser, because I get a kick out of running Firefox on a Chrome device. You could also install Chrome or Chromium.
I also loaded XBMC with mixed results. While it was easy to install and run the full-screen media center software, only a few of the plugins I tried worked properly, I wasn’t able to connect to my Windows network to stream videos stored on another PC, and I had some audio glitches when trying to watch online videos.
I doubt any of those problems are insurmountable, but I didn’t spend a lot of time tinkering with XBMC settings.
Intel’s Celeron 2955U chip is a 1.4 GHz dual-core processor based on the same architecture as the company’s 4th generation Core chips, code-named “Haswell.” It has Intel HD graphics, and the 64-bit chip has a TDP of 15 watts.
The chip is more commonly found in laptops than desktops, but the Celeron 2955U is a relatively inexpensive chip that offers a decent balance of power, performance, and price. Since it’s designed to play nicely with laptops, it fits pretty nicely into the tiny Asus Chromebox case, and while there is a fan in the case, you won’t hear it running very often… the chip runs cool enough to keep the fan paused most of the time.
Not surprisingly, the Asus Chromebox performed a lot like the Acer C720p in most benchmarks I ran. The Acer laptop has the same Celeron processor.
What’s interesting is that both machines ran circles around the HP Chromebook 11, a Chrome OS laptop with a Samsung Exynos 5 dual-core ARM Cortex-A15 processor.
The Asus Chromebox scored twice as high as the HP Chromebook 11 in the Google Octane HTML5 benchmark and nearly three times as high in the FutureMark Peacekeeper benchmark.
All told, the benchmarks suggest the new Celeron-powered Chrome OS devices come closer to Google’s $1299 Chromebook Pixel than they do to the HP Chromebook 11.
That’s not to say that any of these devices feel sluggish… but the dual-core Celeron processor is clearly faster than the dual-core Exynos chip.
What does that mean in terms of real-world performance? Here are a few different things I was able to do without the system slowing down to any noticeable degree:
- Open well over a dozen web browser tabs to research various topics while typing blog posts in a second browser window
- Stream HD video in full screen
- Stream video from Netflix and Hulu at the same time in side-by-side windows
- Play a bit of Extreme Tux Racer in Ubuntu
All told, as long as you have reasonable expectations for what you can do with a Chrome OS desktop (or a Linux desktop with 16GB of storage), the Asus Chromebox seems to have plenty of power for day-to-day tasks.
It’s not a high-end gaming machine. It’s not a speed demon. And it might not be the best system for folks who have spent the last 20 years getting addicted to specific apps that’ll only run on Windows or OS X. But as Chrome OS devices go, it’s pretty good… especially for the price.
I wrote almost all of this review on the Chromebox.
Google has made a pretty compelling case for Chrome OS as a laptop operating system. Chromebooks are basically laptops that run Chrome instead of Windows. But they’re cheaper, easy to use, and relatively secure thanks to the way Chrome downloads updates automatically and sandboxes apps to make it difficult to load malware.
Since your data’s stored in the cloud, it’s also easy to switch from device to device, picking up where you left off, whether you’re using another Chrome OS device or a different machine altogether.
I’m not convinced Chromebooks are full-fledged laptop replacements for everyone… but they’re certainly interesting alternatives to tablets or other portable devices. Priced around $300 or less, it makes at least as much sense to pick up a Chromebook for surfing the web while watching TV or while on vacation as it does to grab a tablet.
But does Chrome OS make as much sense for desktop computers? The Asus Chromebox helps make the case that the answer is yes… Chrome OS in a box seems to have earned a place in the computer world.
Again, I’m not sure I’d replace a Mac or Windows PC with a Chromebox as my only desktop. But a Chromebox could make a good second or third PC.
Need a simple machine your kids can use to watch YouTube? Why give them a Windows PC when a cheap Chromebox will do? Have an older relative who just wants to read the daily news and send email? A Chromebox could fit the bill. Want to watch Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu content on your TV and also have the option of surfing the web? An Asus Chromebox may be more expensive than a $50 Roku or $35 Google Chromecast, but it’s also a lot more versatile.
But even if you’re not sold on Chrome OS as an operating system, the Asus Chromebox isn’t just a device that runs Google’s browser-based operating system. It’s one of the cheapest small form-factor desktops available which also includes some memory and storage.
Sure, the $179 model doesn’t include a lot of memory or storage, but it’s got everything you need to set up Ubuntu or another Linux-based operating systems.