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There are many who believe that even though we are only in the first quarter of 2014, the desktop computer industry is dying. Rest assured, even with declining sales and the intrusion of better mobile processing options aside, the desktop industry is safe—for now. But there is the definite smell of wood burning as traditional desktop manufacturers struggle to reinvent themselves.
ASUS has never shied away from innovation and experimentation in their computer lineups. The company has assessed the future on a few fronts, and has come up with mobile platforms that remain traditional while staying portable (the Transformer series) and desktops that bring new life to old form factors (the NFC-enabled M70AD).
Now ASUS is getting into the Chrome corner. It is backing the Chrome interface with two exciting new ventures. One is a dedicated Chrome-enabled small-form-factor computer, and the other a rumored new Chrome portable laptop, tentatively dubbed the ASUS C200.
For this review, we’re focusing on the ASUS Chromebox M004U Desktop Computer. The Chromebox is an inconspicuous, square portable computer that will allow any monitor or HDTV with an HDMI connector and a household with Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. It turns a TV into a “smart” TV, and turns a monitor into a fairly complete Web-enhanced computer. This portable powerhouse comes with a list of impressive specs, but even with high-end specs, does it live up to the ASUS standard of innovation and functionality? The answer is a mix of “oh, yeah,” “mmm…maybe,” and “no.”
"Setup of the Chromebox took approximately 90 seconds. You plug in the box, make the monitor connection, and turn the box on."
Let’s start with the specs. The Chrome Box is configured with a 1.4GHz Intel® Celeron™ 2955U dual-core processor, which is where the “mmm…maybe” comes in. For those users who want power and performance, and are accusotmed to a robust and stable processor, a Celeron processor raises a red flag. It shouldn’t. While certainly not benchmarked to match the specs of an Intel Core™ i3 or Core i5 processor, the Celeron does show speed ratings just below the speeds of the Intel Core i3 3217u. Two things an Intel Celeron processor doesn’t have over an Intel Core processor is the ability to over-clock the 1.4GHz base clock speed, or Intel Hyperthreading technology, which allows multiple “threads” to run on each core.
But because the Intel Celeron 2995U processor is a 4th-generation Haswell processor, it does run with a reduced heat index, and it’s also the engine for Chrome laptops, such as the Acer C720 Chromebook, because of its ability to expand battery life (an Intel Core i3 version of the Chromebox is reportedly in the works for those who want a more dedicated and heavier-duty processor in their machine). But for our money, this unit with the Celeron processor experienced no hitches in accessing, surfing, or delving into the Internet. To back up the processor, ASUS adds 2GB of non-user replaceable 1600MHz DDR3 RAM.
The ASUS Chromebox M004U is also enhanced with a variety of connectors that will make monitor or HDTV attachment simple. It includes a Gigabit Ethernet port, a generous outlay of four USB 3.0 ports, a DisplayPort and HDMI port, a 2-in-1 card reader, combo headphone/microphone jack, and a Kensington lock slot. On a desktop, these would be valued ports—on this portable, they almost seem like overkill. There are more than enough slots for extended peripherals like hard drives or optical drives, and the HDMI port will work with almost any HDMI-enabled TV. It supports dual-display support as well, and it is rumored that the Intel Core i3 version will support 4K UHD displays.
The unit includes a 16GB solid-state drive, but between the card slot and the USB ports, storage shouldn’t be a problem. ASUS also gives you a generous 100GB of cloud storage via Google Drive.
For our “no” vote, we were a little disappointed that the unit doesn’t include the wireless keyboard and mouse that was shipped to us for review. Even though this is one of the most moderately priced desktop units you may buy this year, including a wireless keyboard and mouse sounds like a no-brainer—especially considering that ASUS makes a combo that is designed specifically for the Chromebox. The unit is Bluetooth 4.0 enabled, so you can use any keyboard/mouse combo, but still, it would have been nice.
"Within seconds of signing in to your home network and then accessing your Google account, you are on the Web."
And to keep things even cleaner, the unit contains a dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n card, so you don’t have to rely on the Gigabit Ethernet port. But if you have flaky Wi-Fi in your area, the hardwired port will definitely enhance your overall experience. Want to replicate an All-in-One experience? The included VESA mount will allow you to mount the Chromebox on the back of a monitor or a very slim high-definition television set. We had a little difficulty because of an HDMI cable that was too short—make sure your HDMI connectors are on the side of the TV where you place the box.
Because Chrome is dependent on an Internet connection to work effectively, many consumers were initially reluctant to adopt the operating system. But Google, the makers of Chrome, now offer a variety of offline apps and games that can be played without the Internet connection, including Gmail, Docs, and Google Play Books. This could be a game changer, as not everyone has the most reliable Internet service.
Setup of the Chromebox took approximately 90 seconds. You plug in the box, make the monitor connection, and turn the box on. Within seconds of signing in to your home network and then accessing your Google account, you are on the Web. The page loading times are so fast, you’ll often find yourself inadvertently clicking and closing pages because of it.
Once you set up some personal preferences (including the background), you’re presented with a screen that displays six icons in the lower left corner. These are the Apps icon, Google Chrome, Gmail, Google Search, Google Docs, and YouTube. Clicking on any icon takes you immediately to that section.
The first icon we clicked was Google Docs. If you’re not familiar with Google Docs, it’s a Web-based word processing/presentation/spreadsheet program that allows you to create, edit, save documents, and share those documents with others. You can simultaneously edit items in a group setting, or save changes and view on another computer simply by logging in to your account. It worked flawlessly (this article was written, edited, and sent using Google Docs) and would be one of the most used applications on this unit.
"The page loading times are so fast, you’ll often find yourself inadvertently clicking and closing pages because of it."
The next application we clicked on was the game Cut the Rope. The game loaded almost instantly and, fortunately, was one of the games you can access offline. We took the opportunity to disconnect the Internet connection and see how well it performed. It still worked as flawlessly as it did online.
The last application we accessed was YouTube. Normally, on my desktop (which, I admit, is bloated with lots of other resource-hungry programs), YouTube can be hit or miss. Some videos load flawlessly with minimal slowdown or stutter, others take a few seconds. On the ASUS Chromebox, we never experienced the slightest hiccup. We opened several windows, and still no decrease in the onscreen performance.
Finally, we opened all three applications—Google Search across eight windows, YouTube with three videos open and running, Google Docs opening up seven PDFs and three Word docs and Cut the Rope, which we allowed to play in the background. Not a single frame of slowdown, nor any lag. On my Windows desktop, there would have been (at the very least) slowdown on my Internet connection. Not on the Chromebox.
But the tricky part is getting the Chromebox to act as a traditional desktop computer. You are limited to what Chrome offers—and although the offering in the Chrome store is robust, it is still limiting. If you are wedded to your Windows programs, you have to seek out the right alternatives. Google Docs is fantastic, but if you are a die-hard Microsoft Office power user, you will experience a certain level of frustration switching gears on Chrome. Before you ditch your Windows or Mac desktop, do some research and make sure you can mimic the experience with Chrome. If you find you can, then the simple and lightweight Chrome interface will seem like fresh water in the middle of the desert.
So, for whom is the Chromebox built, and what is its role in our everyday, always-on Internet lives? The Chromebox is perfect for those who want an inexpensive (less than $200) and capable desktop computer with a new OS that screams, "speed." It’s also great for turning an ordinary HDMI-enabled television into a “smart” TV (although it does not feature the dedicated channel feature of services like Roku does). This Web-enhanced small-form-factor desktop is a great machine for a college student with space considerations or a home-entertainment enthusiast who’s looking for ways to expand beyond the limitations of a standard cable box. Either way, the ASUS Chromebox does live up to the ASUS standard of pushing the envelope and delivering a functional system in the same box.
|Processor||1.4GHz Intel Celeron 2955U Dual-Core|
|Memory||Slots: 2x SO-DIMM 204-Pin
Type: 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
|Graphics Card||Type: Integrated
Installed: Intel HD Graphics
|Hard Drive||Installed: 16GB SSD|
|Ports||4x USB 3.0 (A) (2 x Front, 2 x Back)|
|Audio||1x 1/8" (3.5mm) Headphone/Microphone Combo Jack|
|Flash Media Slot||1x SD
|Network||10/100/1000Mbps Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45)|
|Operating System||Chrome OS|
|Security||Kensington Lock Slot|
|Dimensions (WxHxD)||4.8 x 1.6 x 4.8" / 12.2 x 4.1 x 12.2 cm|
|Weight||1.32 lb / .60 kg|