Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/7850/asus-chromebox-review



I see a lot of potential in Google’s Chrome OS. Even today, I have no issues recommending the platform to friends and family with basic computing needs but who want something more traditional than a smartphone or tablet.

Once you get beyond its somewhat awkward learning curve (e.g. there is no traditional Office, you can’t run most of what you download from the web/email attachments, etc...), it’s an OS that is incredibly easy to support if you’re the appointed IT-person in your family/friend group. Sandboxing and automatic updates keep the platform secure. The inability to run most things outside of a web browser keeps clueless users from getting themselves into trouble by running things they shouldn’t. Then there’s the fact that many devices running Chrome OS tend to deliver better user experiences, at least as far as browsing is concerned, compared to similarly priced entry level Windows PCs. HP’s Chromebook 11 is a great example of what can be done. Although HP fumbled its SoC choice, the display, keyboard, storage and chassis in the Chromebook 11 were expertly chosen. For basic web use, I’ve found myself recommending Chromebooks over traditional notebooks more often than not.

I don’t appear to be an outlier in my recommending Chromebooks. Amazon’s top two best selling notebooks are both Chromebooks, and Google’s presence on that list is nothing new. The big question is whether or not the same success at the entry level of the notebook market can apply to desktops running Chrome OS. To find out Google partnered up with a number of OEMs, including ASUS, to go after the entry level Windows desktop market.

ASUS’ first desktop Chrome OS device is simply called the Chromebox. From a distance it looks like a somewhat larger Intel NUC. The low profile, square form factor has become the shape of choice for bringing Ultrabook CPUs to desktops. ASUS’ take on the design is matte plastic on all faces, with a glossy plastic trim around the top. There’s a single white LED above the power button on the unit. Google’s Chrome logo and brand integrate nicely on the top of the box. Google appears to be learning from the mistakes of its predecessors - logos are ok, as long as they don’t clutter up the design.

More expensive materials would be nice but for $179, I’m not complaining. In a world where small dimensions usually come at a premium, ASUS and Google continue the Chrome OS trend of delivering a better than expected experience at a given price point.

ASUS Chromebox
  ASUS Chromebox Intel Haswell NUC
OS Preloaded Google Chrome OS None
CPU Intel Celeron 2955U (2C/2T 1.4GHz 2MB L3)
Intel Core i3-4010U (2C/4T 1.7GHz 3MB L3)
Intel Core i7-4600U (2C/4T 2.1/3.3GHz 4MB L3)
Intel Core i3-4010U (2C/4T 1.7GHz 3MB L3)
Intel Core i5-4250U (2C/4T 1.3/2.6GHz 3MB L3)
GPU Celeron: Intel HD (200/1000MHz)
Core i3: Intel HD 4400 (200/1000MHz)
Core i7: Intel HD 4400 (200/1100MHz)
Core i3: Intel HD 4400 (200/1000MHz)
Core i5: Intel HD 5000 (200/1000MHz)
Memory 2GB/4GB configs, 2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM Slots 2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM Slots
Storage 16GB M.2 SSD + 100GB Google Drive for 2 years 1 x mini PCIe (full length)
LAN 10/100/1000 Ethernet 10/100/1000 Ethernet
Wireless dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n, BT 4.0 1 x mini PCIe (half length)
External I/O SD card reader
4 x USB 3.0
1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
1 x Audio Jack (mic-in/speaker out)
4 x USB 3.0
1 x mini HDMI
1 x mini DisplayPort
1 x Audio Jack (mic-in/speaker out)
Power Supply 65W 65W
Dimensions 4.88" x 4.88" x 1.65" 4.59" x 4.41" x 1.36"
Starting Price $179 $285

The Chromebox has four USB 3.0 ports. Two are located on the front, and two more around back. On the back side there’s also a Gigabit Ethernet port, DisplayPort and HDMI outputs as well as a 1/8" audio out.

There’s an SD card reader on the left side of the unit, along with a Kensington security slot. The recovery switch is just above the security slot. To enter recovery mode use a pin or paperclip to keep the switch pressed down while powering up the unit. Hit CTRL+D to boot into dev mode once at the recovery screen.

Despite ASUS’ initial claims that its Chromebox would be fanless, there is a single fan inside the machine. Air is brought in through the bottom and vented through the back of the chassis. Fan noise is minimal, and it is entirely possible to run the machine without the fan spinning up but open up enough tabs and you’ll find the fan humming away all the time. My review unit was a development unit, which ASUS claims was a bit louder than final retail units will be. Given the low performance requirements of Chrome OS and the low thermal footprint of the Haswell based Celeron inside, noise isn’t an issue with the ASUS Chromebox.

As with anything this size, the power supply is external. In this case ASUS uses an AC adapter that looks a lot like what you get with one of its Ultrabooks. The external power supply can deliver up to 65W, although I never saw power consumption above 15W.

Hardware & Configurations

The Chromebox will be available in three different configurations. Each configuration is a fully functional PC with DRAM, storage and WiFi already configured. Chrome OS comes preloaded on all systems.

In the US you’ll only find the Celeron 2955U and Core i3 models. ASUS sampled me the $179 Celeron 2955U but upgraded to 4GB of RAM instead of the default 2GB.

ASUS Chromebox Configurations
  Chromebox-M004U Chromebox-M025U Chromebox-M020U
OS Preloaded Google Chrome OS Google Chrome OS Google Chrome OS
CPU Intel Celeron 2955U (2C/2T 1.4GHz 2MB L3) Intel Core i3-4010U (2C/4T 1.7GHz 3MB L3) Intel Core i7-4600U (2C/4T 2.1/3.3GHz 4MB L3)
GPU Intel HD (200/1000MHz)

Intel HD 4400 (200/1000MHz)

4K Video Support

Intel HD 4400 (200/1100MHz)

4K Video Support

Memory 1 x 2GB DDR3-1600 1 x 4GB DDR3-1600 2 x 2GB DDR3-1600
Storage 16GB M.2 SSD + 100GB Google Drive for 2 years 16GB M.2 SSD + 100GB Google Drive for 2 years 16GB M.2 SSD + 100GB Google Drive for 2 years
LAN 10/100/1000 Ethernet 10/100/1000 Ethernet 10/100/1000 Ethernet
Wireless dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n, BT 4.0 dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n, BT 4.0 dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n, BT 4.0
External I/O SD card reader
4 x USB 3.0
1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
1 x Audio Jack (mic-in/speaker out)
SD card reader
4 x USB 3.0
1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
1 x Audio Jack (mic-in/speaker out)
SD card reader
4 x USB 3.0
1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
1 x Audio Jack (mic-in/speaker out)
       
Power Supply 65W 65W 65W
Dimensions 4.88" x 4.88" x 1.65" 4.88" x 4.88" x 1.65" 4.88" x 4.88" x 1.65"
MSRP $179 $369 ?

The Core i3 model ships with an ASUS Chromebox wireless keyboard and mouse (available for $50 separately). The Core i7 model, which isn't available in the US, features a remote control with QWERTY keyboard, external speaker and 1080p webcam.

The $179 configuration is clearly the sweet spot for ASUS’ Chromebox. While the Core i3 model does increase memory capacity and improves performance, unless you have a real need for 4K video out the savings offered by the entry level Celeron model are hard to beat.

Storage

One of the biggest problems with entry level PCs is they ship with a mechanical hard drive rather than solid state storage. The result is very high latency IO and a user experience that can be substantially worse than using a smartphone or tablet when it comes to launching apps. Many Chrome OS devices instead opt for shipping higher performance eMMC solutions or low end SSDs; ASUS’ Chromebox is no exception. All ASUS Chromebox models ship with a 16GB SanDisk U110 M.2 (SATA) SSD. ASUS isn’t multi-sourcing the drives, this should be the only thing you find if you crack open one of the boxes.

We’ve seen the U110 before. I’ve seen it in a lot of the early Ultrabooks as well as caching solutions in other notebooks. The drive features a SATA interface and a 22mm x 42mm M.2 form factor. The architecture is pretty simple. We’re not talking about the high-end stuff from SanDisk here but a more traditional looking SSD without any external DRAM cache. For a full blown Windows PC I’d argue that the U110 isn’t enough, but for a Chromebox where the primary use case is reading and writing to the browser’s cache it’s totally fine. I didn’t try torturing the drive, but TRIM is supported by the U110.

The Chromebox ships with an SD card reader and four USB 3.0 ports so you can obviously get media onto the device, there’s just not much space to store it. Also keep in mind that as with (almost) all SSDs you’ll want to keep a substantial amount of free space on the drive to avoid ruining the user experience. In the case of the U110 you have around 12GB free by default, and I wouldn’t drop below 3GB - 4GB free on the drive.

Given the small size of the internal SSD, I don’t expect we’ll see a lot of users pulling large files off of the drive. As there’s no support for network share access under Chrome OS, if you want to play an offline video you’ll have to either stream it off an attached USB/SD card or copy it locally from external storage. Although the Chromebox features four USB 3.0 ports, I measured max sequential write speed at around 42MB/s (copying from a USB 3.0 Patriot Supersonic Magnum SSD). I suspect we’re limited by the write speed to the single NAND device (likely two NAND die) on the U110.

All Chromebox owners receive 100GB of free Google Drive space for 2 years - an attempt to offset the limited local storage.

Memory

ASUS offers three different configurations of the Chromebox. The entry level $179 configuration ships with a single 2GB DDR3-1600 SO-DIMM. Even the upgraded Core i3 model ($369) only ships with a single 4GB DDR3-1600 SO-DIMM. It’s only the fully upgraded Chromebox M020U (Chrome for Meetings) that ships with two SO-DIMMs (2 x 2GB).

ASUS shipped me the $179 system upgraded with two 2GB DDR3-1600 SO-DIMMs (4GB total up from the 2GB base). For light usage I didn’t see DRAM usage exceed 2GB, however when I really started heavy multitasking with the machine I can see 2GB being a bit of a limit. I’m pretty confident that the $179 configuration will make for a good system as is, however it likely wouldn’t hurt to buy another 2GB SO-DIMM ($20 - $25).

Inside the ASUS Chromebox

Like the NUC, it's pretty easy to get inside the Chromebox. Peel off the four rubber feet underneath the box to reveal the four Phillips head screws. Remove the screws and use one of the screw holes to provide leverage to pop the bottom off and you're in.

ASUS' motherboard is slightly rectangular (11.25cm x 10cm) compared to the more square Intel NUC form factor (10cm x 10cm).

There are no real surprises on the inside. The Chromebox features two DDR3 SO-DIMM slots, an M.2 SATA port and a mini-PCIe both of which come populated from the factory.



Chrome OS Update

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I’m a fan of Chrome OS. The OS isn’t flexible enough to function as a replacement for my needs, but for someone who basically needs a terminal to Gmail, Facebook and the internet in general - Chrome OS shows extreme promise.

The learning curve is an issue. As is the fact that there’s no elegant handling for dealing with files you might download. Windows executables obviously won’t run, but things like archives are a mixed bag. Zip files are fine, but if you come across a 7zip archive you’re out of luck. Google has been slowly improving Chrome’s thick client, offline app story but there’s still room to grow. What Chrome OS really needs is the equivalent of the Play Store to fill in the gaps where running something in a browser doesn’t make the most sense.

Unlike most platforms with promise, Chrome OS is quite usable today. Assuming everything you need is available through a web browser (without any OS specific plugins), Chrome OS delivers an excellent, albeit limited, experience.

Recovery/Dev Mode & Crouton

Just like mobile Chromebooks, ASUS’ Chromebox features a recovery mode button. Above the Kensington secure slot is a small button. Depress the recovery mode button while powering on the machine and you’ll be presented with the standard Chrome OS recovery screen. Hit CTRL + D at this screen and you’ll wipe the machine and restart with dev mode enabled. For whatever reason, my review sample shipped with dev mode already enabled and I wasn’t able to revert so I can’t really provide screenshots of the process.

With dev mode enabled, I had no issues installing Crouton. By default the machine won’t boot off of any external USB devices, however in dev mode you can run crossystem dev_boot_legacy=1 which should enable USB boot to things like Ubuntu. Just hit CTRL + L at the recovery mode screen after you’ve made the change.

The internal EFI doesn’t support booting to Windows, so anyone looking to turn this into a cheap Windows box is likely out of luck. The Windows lockout is likely Google’s doing as the company is specifically looking to replace low end Windows PCs. 

Performance

The entry level $179 Chromebox features a Celeron 2955U. This is a dual-core Haswell based Celeron running at up to 1.4GHz. For an entry level Windows PC I’d argue that the Celeron 2955U isn’t fast enough, but for a machine running Chrome OS it’s actually almost perfect. Heavy multitasking with many Chrome tabs/windows open, even playing multiple YouTube videos at the same time didn’t impact the user experience at all. I can get lazy about managing Chrome tabs, and even without actively closing down things I didn’t need open the machine never slowed down. The Chromebox never felt like it was a $179 machine, it was always fast and snappy during my use.

I ran a bunch of 1080p YouTube playback tests. Hardware acceleration was enabled and I never saw any dropped frames during active playback. YouTube did drop frames if I had a 1080p video running on a hidden tab if I was doing heavy work in foreground Chrome windows/tabs, but never when I was actually watching the video.

I ran through a few web based tests, and obviously the Chromebox’s performance here is great. I included some recent Chromebook numbers as a comparison point, and without a doubt the Chromebox is quick. This data really just validates by user experience anecdotes above - for its intended use, the Chromebox delivers excellent performance.

SunSpider 1.0 Benchmark

Mozilla Kraken Benchmark (Stock Browser)

Google Octane v1

I also tried playing back some offline H.264 content. The experience was remarkably good for most of what I encountered, even high bitrate 1080p content. I did notice some videos had difficulty playing without dropping frames but I couldn’t correlate the issues with video decode bitrate (e.g. high bitrates didn’t necessarily cause dropped frames).

The bigger issue with playing back offline video content ends up being codec support under Chrome OS. Although playing H.264 videos isn’t a problem, Chrome OS doesn’t ship with support for proprietary audio codecs like Dolby Digital (AC3).

Power Consumption

Great performance given the workload is one thing, but we often see inordinately high power consumption from small form factor desktops as many OEMs aren’t as focused on driving low power consumption. Thankfully that isn’t the case for ASUS’ Chromebox. I measured total power consumption of the system at the wall while running a number of workloads. At idle the entire system consumed under 7W, and running any single web workload I didn’t see power consumption beyond 12W. Powering an external USB SSD drove power consumption up a little more but everything was quite sane.

Power Consumption

Final Words

At $179 ASUS’ Chromebox is an excellent entry level, small form factor desktop PC. Unlike other solutions in this new small form factor desktop space, the Chromebox comes fully functional out of the box. You get WiFi, solid state storage, DRAM, CPU and an OS all ready to go. The result is a great balance of price, performance and usability. ASUS' Chromebox is an affordable desktop that feels much faster than its pricetag would otherwise imply.

A huge part of the Chromebox’s success is due to Google’s Chrome OS. Make no mistake, this isn’t a replacement for every single entry level desktop user on the market. You need to have a workload that can live almost exclusively within the confines of a web browser. That means relying on Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office, and Gmail’s web interface instead of Outlook. The good news is that Google’s online services tend to be really good. Google Docs is an excellent alternative to Office, particularly for light use cases, and Gmail’s web interface does better than many offline email clients. Facebook, Twitter and streaming music/video services are all easily accessible from within a Chrome browser window.

You lose out on the ability to open a lot of what you may come across on the web. Windows executables are out, as are some file archives. Downloaded movies may need to be transcoded depending on what codecs they use. The Chromebox and Chrome OS definitely aren't for everyone. More traditional users may find that Chrome OS is simply too limiting. However, those who have limited needs can quickly feel right at home.

What Chrome OS makes you sacrifice in flexibility, you gain in security. The relative immunity to viruses and malware makes the Chromebox an easy platform to recommend to novice users that are up for a somewhat unique learning curve.

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