|Introduction and Specifications|
|Google's Chrome OS is an open source operating system that is designed to offer fast, simple, and secure computing for connected devices. That's not to say the Chrome operating system can't function offline, but connected to the cloud is where users can harness the full power of Google's cloud services and storage infrastructure. To date, we've shown you a few versions of chromebooks, like the Acer C720 Chromebook and Google's own Chromebook Pixel. Today, however, we have a look at the very first "official" Chromebox to hit the market and it comes to us by way of ASUS.
The ASUS Chromebox is a tiny palm-sized machine similar in form and footprint to Intel's line of NUC (Next Unit of Computing) mini PCs or the tiny Zotac ZBox Nano. It just so happens that all of these machines are also powered by integrated Intel processors, and the ASUS Chromebox is no different, though it employs Intel's 4th generation Haswell Core series architecture with Integrated HD 4400 graphics.
As you can see, the ASUS Chromebox model M025U that we tested is a tiny little 5-inch brick packed with copious amounts of connectivity such as USB 3.0 SuperSpeed ports, HDMI and DisplayPort output, a microSD Flash card slot, 802.11n dual-band WiFi, and Bluetooth 4.0. It also sports a 1.7GHz dual-core Core i3-4010U processor with Intel Hyper-Threading for four logical processing threads and 4GB of DDR3 1600MHz memory, along with an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400 graphics core. Finally, the onboard 16GB SSD storage might be appear a bit meager, but it's backed up by 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage for 2 years.
will retail for an MSRP of $369, though there are lower cost SKUs as well. Let's take a closer look at what you get...
|Design and Build Quality|
|The ASUS Chromebox is built on a diminutive 5-inch square platform that is sheathed in flat black, matte-finished plastic. It's not particularly high quality in terms of feel nor does it feel flimsy per se; it just gets the job done in a very low-profile, out-of-sight-out-of-mind sort of way. In many ways, the chromebox is the "new thin client," offering a capable computing experience in a no-nonsense, cost-first solution.
The good news is, unlike many previous thin client solutions, you can expand on this Chromebox's somewhat light storage offering with the help of both a microSD card slot and 100GB of free Google Drive storage for 2 years.
You also get the latest in connectivity options here with two USB 3.0 ports on the rear of the device and two on the front, along with HDMI and DisplayPort output, 802.11n WiFi connectivity, and wired 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet. It would have been nice to have Intel's latest 802.11ac MIMO radio technology on board, but in practice we found WiFi performance to be actually pretty robust with the system, streaming 4K video trailers with ease with a reasonable amount of range as well.
ASUS doesn't bundle their wireless Chrome keyboard and mouse with all Chromebox systems, but our Core i3-based unit (model number M025U) comes with both of these standard. The keyboard is actually pretty nice, and though it's quite light weight and easy to handle, it provides a roomy layout, good tactile response, and decent key travel. It actually serves well as a browsing keyboard but we wish there we a few more multimedia controls beyond just the volume, mute, and full screen mode buttons. Play, fast-forward, rewind, pause, and stop would be great, for starters.
One of the nicest features of the ASUS Chromebox is how easy it is to service, at least for the components of the system that are serviceable. Though Intel's Core i3 ULT series processors are a soldered-down affair, you can upgrade the system's DDR3 memory to as much as 16GB. Its SATA Express Flash SSD can be upgraded as well, and though it's a bit more nebulous, you could also try an Intel Wireless-AC 7260 Bluetooth combo Mini PCI Express card upgrade down the road. (A quick search on Google Groups does suggest it is supported in the current Chrome OS kernel release).
When you consider what ASUS was able to pack into the Chromebox M025U, there are really few compromises made for its form factor. Again, more storage would be nice, but when you consider the entire ecosystem model of the device is connected computing, you can begin to justify the need for external storage expansion via SD card or USB by factoring in the relative cost of the system versus similar devices with larger SSDs or HDDs.
|Software and User Experience|
|The Chrome OS itself is about as clean and stripped of clutter as you've ever experienced on any platform. A simple menu on the left bottom corner of the home screen offers you access to all your programs while the task bar can have shortcuts pinned to it for your favorite apps.
The bottom right corner of the screen houses the user control panel where you can access quick preferences for wireless network settings, Bluetooth, volume, main system settings, date and time, and the software power and lock buttons.
In the main settings control panel you can find settings for changing desktop wall paper, date and time, font scaling, wake and sleep control, synch settings, passwords and forms, and a host of other settings, including the ability to reset the system and remove all accounts and data with the “Powerwash” function button.
Google's office apps suite is here with Sheets for Excel-like documents, Docs for word processing, and Slides for PowerPoint-like presentation creation. You also get a host of other Google apps pre-installed like Calendar, Google Maps, and YouTube.
The Files app is where you can browse all the files on the system or in your Google Drive account, with which, again, Google gives you 100 Gigabytes of free cloud storage for 2 years. With the Files app you can browse and access your Drive account data, shared data from Google apps, and offline data and files that are stored locally on the Chromebox itself.
In terms of apps on Google's Chrome store (seen above), there are two general classes of apps you’ll find: Online apps, which are essentially just internet shortcuts to online third party apps, games, and utilities that have been qualified to work with Chrome OS and the Chrome browser, and offline apps, which actually install on the machine and do not need an internet connection to run (even though they also run in the Chrome browser). The Google office apps suite of Docs, Sheets, and Slides are examples of apps that can run in offline mode. Pandora, Spotify, and Netflix are a few of our favorites that are present here as well, but in reality they're nothing more than internet shortcuts that take you to these respective services online. That said, we had no problem running any of them quickly and easily, logging in via the Chrome web browser and streaming music or HD video.
The multi-window view seen above is a nice way to leave a few apps or sites running and switch between them quickly while still having access to quick-glance information elsewhere in apps that are in the background on the grid. This view automatically organizes your active apps neatly on the desktop. Let's dig into some offline apps next...
|Online and Offline Apps|
|Probably one of the most popular uses of a device like the Chromebox would be as a Home Theater PC, streaming music, movies, and other media to an HDTV. Intel's integrated HD Graphics engine has come a long way and clean output to an HDTV is a no-fuss no-muss sort of setup. Just plug it in and at 1080p (or 720p if that's your TV's limit) everything just scales correctly and is cleanly centered on the screen--4K too for that matter, via DisplayPort.
So firing up a Chromebox for Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant, Pandora, or what have you, is an excellent way to experience the latest in media services, including 4K media if you can find it.
X-Men: Days of Future Past 4K Ultra-HD Video Trailer - No sweat for the ASUS Chromebox.
Here we're streaming a movie trailer, X-Men: Days of Future Past at 4K resolution. (Granted, the viewing area is scaled down to fit the 1080p desktop for this screen capture.) In full-view mode, the experience is quite good, and the Chromebox didn't break a sweat.
Chrome Calculator, Google Books, and Google Keep
Here you're a looking at the calculator, Google Books, and the Google Keep app, all of which will run in offline mode, provided (in the case of Books) you've already downloaded content. Google's Keep notes app will give you access to any offline files that you might have or can add locally, and of course the Calculator app just works.
Pixlr Image Editing App
However, Pixlr, a really nice photo editing app offers online only functionality. It's a pretty decent alternative to tools like Photoshop, but you need to have an internet connection because the product is completely web-driven.
The ad-supported Mortal Kombat 3D is also a game that you need a full internet connection for. (It was actually kind of fun going back with this arcade classic, by the way). So, while there is a fair degree of offline functionality with the Chromebox, online connectivity is important to capitalize on the full experience.
|Performance and Benchmarks|
The ASUS Chromebox falls in at the top tier of our group of test machines, consisting of both thin and light laptops as well as chromebooks. As you'll note, it's quite a bit faster in most areas versus the Acer C720 Chromebook (powered by a lower-cost Intel Celeron 2955U) but about on par with the Chromebook Pixel (powered by a previous gen Core i5-3427U).
Once again, the ASUS Chromebox makes a strong showing, even edging out the high-end Google Chromebook Pixel. Suffice it to say that the Chromebox is pretty much up for anything you'd ask for in a class of device like this.
|Power Consumption, Noise, And The Wrap-Up|
A Note On Power Consumption and Acoustics:We attempted to load up the ASUS Chromebox M025U with as much media and processing requirement as we could pull down over an 802.11n WiFi connection. We fired up a 4K movie trailer along with Rightware BrowserMark 2.0 and SunSpider 1.02. Though this might not represent a full CPU load, without the means to install our usual suite of benchmark and stress test software it was still a good measure for taxing the system with a reasonably rigorous workload. At its peak, the Chromebox M025U consumed 18 Watts and oscillated around 6.5 - 8 Watts when idle. Under load, the system made the faintest of whirs that was virtually inaudible unless you put your ear right up next to the machine. To say this machine offers a cool and quiet computing experience would be an understatement.
It takes a bit of getting used to running most everything you do in a web browser, but once you've spent time in the Chrome OS, Google's operating system starts to grow on you a bit. Yes, in many cases you're dependent on Internet connectivity, but with more and more ubiquitous connectivity expanding all around us these days with WiFi, cellular data, and even municipal WiFi, that's becoming less and less of a limitation. You are of course also limited to web apps or offline apps that Google offers in the Chrome store.
For the class of device and use case that the Chromebox aspires to cater to, Google has most of what folks look for covered. There's basic office productivity apps, video and media streaming apps, and even a few decent games that you might care to fire up, as well. The ASUS Chromebox handles all of these usage types with ease, and it does so quietly and with absolutely minimal power consumption and heat. Dropping this little box into a home theater living room setup is natural as a Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant, Hulu, Pandora, or similar streamer. We do wish the ASUS wireless Chrome keyboard had a few more multimedia controls, but you can get by with it and the help of a mouse. With the advent of chromebox machines on the market, one would think Google would snap to it with partners as well, offering more multimedia-centric keyboard solutions in the future.
Though we still yearn for more robust offline functionality and software, the ASUS Chromebox represents a solid value us a multimedia server; basic home, office, or classroom computer; or for public kiosk applications. You're limited to what Google and the Internet offers in terms of media players, of course, but with 100 gigabytes of Google Drive storage for 2 years and the ability to expand storage off the Chromebox locally, a relatively low cost device like this can make a lot of sense for the average consumer. ASUS notes the Chromebox M025U model we tested, with it's Intel Haswell Core i3 dual-core CPU, 16GB of internal storage, 4GB of DDR3-1600 memory, and bundled wireless keyboard and mouse, has an MSRP of $369. Street prices may drop in lower with deals or rebates, though that remains to be seen.
Google and its partners have sold a lot of low cost chromebooks lately, and we think the open source community, as well as the mainstream market, will embrace the low cost chromebox model as well. With the Chromebox M025U, ASUS delivers a straightforward solution in a tiny, low-power footprint that gets the job done well.