Thanks to low prices and a growing profile, not least in schools, Chromebooks are finally beginning to take off. Yet the same can't be said for the desktop equivalent – the Chromebox – even though the idea itself has plenty of appeal.
In theory, a Chromebox gives you all the good stuff you get with a Chromebook – fast start-ups, less management, close integration with Google's own services and access to a growing library of mostly free apps – while minimising one of the big downsides: Reduced functionality without a live web connection. Hook a Chromebox up to your network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi and, bandwidth willing, you're pretty much guaranteed a smooth experience. Plug in a keyboard, mouse and monitor, and you have a cheap, easy-to-manage desktop system which does everything that many people want a desktop system to do.
Samsung was responsible for the first two Chromebox devices to hit the market, but it's this first effort from Asus that marks a turning point. Samsung's Chromeboxes were a little too expensive and underpowered, and arrived before Chrome OS had really hit its stride. Asus, however, turns up at a time when Chrome OS is maturing pretty nicely, and with three models – based on Celeron, Core i3 and Core i7 CPUs – that cover the territory between a bargain basement £169 and a reasonable £599. The pricing alone should make them more attractive to a lot of homes, schools and businesses.
Today we're looking at the Celeron-based M031U, a step-up from the basic M060U model with 4GB instead of 2GB of RAM. It's a compact box, measuring just under 5in along each side and standing just over 40mm (or just under 2in) high. The matt black plastics feel a bit cheap to the touch, especially if you're used to the premium feel of an Intel NUC device or Mac Mini, but it still seems like a robust little unit, particularly if you compare it to many low budget PCs.
The Chromebox partly owes its diminutive size to an external power supply, itself a fairly small unit of the type you'd get with most 13.3in to 15in laptops. This plugs into a socket at the rear. There you'll also find a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs, and a microphone/headphone combo jack. There's further connectivity around the front-left corner, with an SD card reader and two more USB 3.0 ports, plus the power toggle at the front. Bearing in mind the size and 'nickability' of the Chromebox, a Kensington Lock is an inclusion many schools and businesses will welcome.
Businesses and schools are most likely to hook up to the network and then the web through Gigabit Ethernet, but home users may be more reliant on the 802.11n Wi-Fi. Surprisingly, the Chromebox has dual-band 802.11n, so if your router supports the 5GHz band then you should get a faster connection. That's good news if you're planning to use your Chromebox as a Chrome-based media centre rather than a desktop PC; an application where its small size, rapid boot times and support for many online entertainment services all become useful. It also has Bluetooth, so you can easily use Bluetooth headphones or a Bluetooth keyboard and/or mouse.
The Chromebox isn't completely silent, but for the most part it's so close as to make no difference. Occasionally, and usually when it restarts after sleep, we heard the fan kick in, but this isn't a common occurrence by any means. It's also not designed to be upgradable, but in practice you can change the RAM and SSD and even switch to a Linux OS should you desire. Advice on doing so is already freely available online, though the warranty won't cover any damage caused. Proceed entirely at your own risk.
It's certainly no challenge to get the Chromebox up and running. Plug a keyboard and mouse into the USB ports, connect a screen via HDMI or DisplayPort, press the power button and you're away. You'll need to enter network credentials if you're using Wi-Fi, but after that it's just a case of signing in to your Google account. If you've previously used a Chromebook then your Chrome apps, Google Drive content and desktop background will be added automatically, and within a few minutes you're up and ready to go.
We did experience one issue with our first display – an aging Samsung 23in, 1080p monitor. If we connected HDMI to HDMI then the Chromebox desktop was too large for the screen and needed resizing within Chrome OS before we could see the apps launcher, taskbar and system tray. This worked, but left the screen running at an odd, non-standard resolution, resulting in some ugly artefacts around small text. Running HDMI to DVI over an adapter, however, fixed this entirely, so it's likely that this may be a problem for specific monitors over HDMI, and not anything to worry about in general. We certainly didn't find it a problem with other screens.
Chrome OS took a while finding its feet, but it now feels mature and easy to use. In fact, with the Aura UI it's a very usable desktop OS. The bigger screen means you can have more apps and browser windows open at once, making it easier to switch from email to word processing to image editing, and generally get some serious work done.
Google has also made some intelligent moves over the last few years, softening the entirely web-focused approach of the original Chrome OS to take in apps that run from the desktop, offline and outside the browser, plus apps that work more intelligently with Google Drive (or with other cloud services). Using Pixlr Touch Up to edit photos or Writebox for Chrome to write feels slicker and more natural than using purely web-based apps, though Google's own Docs, Presentation and Spreadsheet apps continue to work very well. If you have relatively basic needs and don't need guaranteed Microsoft Office compatibility and support for macros, they may be all the office apps you ever need.
Chrome OS is now also happier to work with local files, so you can store some vital files on the 16GB SSD, and keep the rest in your Google Drive. Google's apps, along with many other apps, will store and work with files offline should you lose connectivity then sync with Drive later, though that's less of an issue with a Chromebox than a portable Chrome OS device. Printing can be a pain to setup, but if you have a Google Cloud-ready printer you can still sort it out in minutes, and once up and running it all works very well.
There are still things Chrome OS can't do, and still a few things – like high-end image editing, games, video editing or 3D modelling – where you would still be better served by a more traditional OS. However, these user cases are becoming fewer all the time. Using the Chromebox, I'm beginning to think I could do all – or at least more – of my everyday work on a Chrome OS machine. I can even use Office 365, Outlook and OneDrive if I need to, though they're not quite as good a fit as the Google equivalents. Weirdly, the longer I use the Chromebox, the less I'm aware that I'm not using my normal Windows PC. The main exceptions to this rule are that I notice when it boots faster, and also when it leaves me waiting while saving, loading or syncing larger files.
Our unit came with a dual-core 1.4GHz Celeron 2955U and 4GB of RAM. The cheapest model has the same processor but just 2GB, while the higher-end models are destined to arrive with 1.7GHz Core i3 4010U or a 2.1Ghz Core i7 4600U. Chrome OS is relatively light on system resources, so even this Celeron model feels snappy, and the sort of lightweight apps the OS specialises in will run perfectly well on the dual-core chip. It managed the Sunspider 1.0.2 benchmark in 342.5ms, so it's pretty fast by Chromebook standards. Apples to apples comparisons with Windows laptops are, unfortunately, pretty much impossible.
If you're more interested in entertainment than productivity, it will happily stream HD video from Netflix or Google Play, and run the few decent games that are present on Chrome OS, such as Bastion. WebGL demos, like Google's Aquarium, also run at a decent lick. Given that Chrome OS's web-based apps aren't particularly CPU or GPU intensive, it's a little questionable what benefit you'd get from the faster models – though I suspect we may see more demanding apps as the new generation of Haswell Chromebooks kicks into life. This isn't really a power user's primary PC in any case. For lighter users it's going to feel very snappy and responsive, with Internet rather than CPU bandwidth likely to be the major bottleneck.
And did we mention start-up speeds? The little Chromebox is up and ready to login in under ten seconds. What's more, once you've logged in it's ready to work; a situation that doesn't hold true for many Windows 8 devices I use regularly.
The first Chromebox from Asus is a solid, compact, quiet and most of all inexpensive desktop PC. As long as you play to Chrome OS's strengths and are aware of its limitations, it's a steal. Chrome OS actually works brilliantly on a big-screen monitor with a mouse and keyboard, and there are enough great Chrome OS apps out there to cover the needs of most businesses and individuals. The big caveat is that you have to be willing to live without the likes of Photoshop, Lightroom, Excel or Word.
It's a versatile box for the living room, a cheap and cheerful office workhorse and a great second system for the home. Sure, you can get a compact Windows or OS X system and have the option of more traditional desktop software, but can you get one at anywhere near this price? We think not.
Manufacturer and Model
Asus Chromebox M039U
1.4GHz Intel Celeron 2955U
Intel HD Graphics
SD Memory Card/USB 3.0 Hard Disk
4x USB 3.0, HDMI, DisplayPort, headphone
124 x 124 x 42mm