I’ve written before about the explosive growth of Google’s (GOOG) Chromebook laptops. The educational market has been especially enamored with the cheap laptops that run Google’s Chrome operating system and use Google Docs instead of the traditional Microsoft (MSFT) Windows and Office combination.
With new mini-PCs like the subject of this Asus Chromebox review, Microsoft has another reason to be worried.
Chromebooks have managed triple-digit growth over the past year, and their popularity with educators has made Apple (AAPL) nervous about this incursion into a market where its products have long been a favorite.
With manufacturers now producing inexpensive Chromebox PCs — cheap PCs running Chrome that can cost under $200 — Apple made the move of introducing a cheaper iMac (reviewed here).
In my Asus Chromebox review, I’ll show that these cheap PCs pose a credible threat to Windows PCs and Macs, offering home users, students, educators and businesses a workable (and upgradable) PC for under $200.
Asus Chromebox Review – Mighty Mini
Mini-PCs are popular with many people. Compared to traditional desktop PCs, they take up a fraction of the space and they’re less expensive. They’re great as the hidden digital media center of a home theater system, they make a compact home PC and their cost makes them attractive as general-use business machines.
However, the Asus Chromebox is small enough to fit in a hand and starts at $179.
Small doesn’t mean anemic, as Google Chromebooks have already proved. With the low hardware requirements of Chrome OS, even hardware intended for a smartphone can be sufficient to power Chromebooks or a Chromebox.
In the case of the Asus Chromebox, an Intel (INTC) Celeron CPU is used in the base model (with Core i3 and Core i7 options) and its Flash storage means near instant on.
And while you might expect a cheap little box like this (my tester was the base model Celeron with only 2 GB of RAM) would struggle to drive even a HD monitor, in reality the $179 Asus Chromebox was able to drive a 28-inch 4K UltraHD monitor at full resolution — something my year-old $1,800 MacBook Air with a Core i7 CPU couldn’t manage.
Despite the compact package, it was relatively easy to crack open the Chromebox. Peel off four adhesive feet, remove the four standard Phillips screws hidden beneath, and you have full access. This makes upgrading the RAM or SSD a fairly simple exercise.
Asus Chromebox Review – The Chrome Compromise
The big advantage of a Chromebox is that by running Google’s Chrome OS, it can make modest hardware punch far above its weight. This makes a cheap PC feel a lot less like a compromise.
The downside is that Chrome is nowhere near as full-featured an operating system as Windows or OSX.
Everything you do is within a browser tab, Internet connectivity is practically a requirement (although you can work offline using Google Docs and Google Sheet apps) and peripheral support is spotty. You can’t run Windows software — although Google does a decent job of Office compatibility with its apps — and when it comes to uses that require horsepower like video games or video editing, forget it.
For example, the Asus Chromebox had no problem displaying browser windows or photos at full 4K resolution. That looked amazing, especially considering the price and lack of a graphics card. But, when I tried running full-screen 4K video (that had been cached, so the network latency wasn’t an issue), the Chromebox struggled.
Upgrade the CPU to a Core version and add more RAM, and it would probably have performed like a champ … but then you’re getting into Mini PC price territory and lose the cheap PC advantage.
Asus Chromebox Review – Specs
- Intel Celeron 9955U CPU (Core i3 and Core i7 optional)
- 2GB or 4GB RAM (two slots, user upgradable)
- 16GB SSD
- 4x USB 3.0 ports
- Gigabit ethernet
- 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
- HDMI out, DisplayPort out
- 2-in-1 card reader, audio jack, Kensington lock, audio jack
- 4.88 inches square, 1.65 inches high
- VESA mountable
- Runs Google Chrome OS
Note: As mentioned earlier, the Asus Chromebox review unit I was sent was the $179 base model.
Asus Chromebox Review – Conclusion
If you use a PC for editing video, playing games, running specialized software or using a peripheral like a stylus pen or a trackpad, then you should stick with a Windows or Mac PC. These traditional computers offer the raw power, software compatibility and peripheral support you need.
But there’s a big demographic that uses a PC primarily for surfing the web, watching streaming video and light-duty work like word processing, spreadsheets or working using apps hosted online.
This segment — students, educators, home users and many businesses — often relies on cheap PCs. Chromebooks have eaten into that market by seriously undercutting Windows on price and simplifying maintenance and security (something education and business IT staff appreciate).
However, many people prefer a box they plug a monitor into or tuck out of sight. That’s where the Chromebox comes in. During the course of my Asus Chromebox review, I quickly came to appreciate the tiny box that covers my web browsing and basic productivity needs.
So long as you can accept the limitations of Chrome OS itself, this $179 Chromebox is a bargain.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities