If you’re thinking of buying a Chromebox this holiday season, whether as a gift for yourself or a treat for a loved one, let me say that I am not surprised.
Super inexpensive and super versatile, these little PCs cater to casual computing needs with ease, ship with first-class security and should continue to receive free software upgrades, fixes and new features for many, many years to come.
And with Chromeboxes from the likes of HP and ASUS being long-term residents of Amazon’s ‘Top 10 Best Selling PCs‘ list you start to see why I’m “not surprised”.
I’m Thinking Of Buying a Chromebox. What Should I Know?
It doesn’t matter whether you want to buy a Chromebox to replace a wheezing, creaking old Windows tower PC or for use as an energy-efficient ‘kiosk computer’ or signage driver for your business. Chromeboxes are versatile enough to suit most use cases.
I say most because although a fantastic buy they will not be for everyone. Those who do a lot of HD video editing, rely on software not available for Chrome OS, or have poor internet access are better off with a more traditional computer.
But, since you’re reading this, I’m going to wager you know the pros and cons of Chrome OS itself. But on the hardware side there are a few things to consider and make a note of before committing to buy.
You May Need To ‘Bring Your Own Keyboard and Mouse’
Chromeboxes are typically sold on their own. You get the main “PC” unit, a power cable and a manual. Everything else is just packaging.
The reason why they’re sold as such is as much to keep costs down as it is the fact that most of us have a compatible/favourite keyboard and mouse set lying around somewhere in the house.
Obviously, if you don’t, you’ll need to pick a set up from Amazon, Staples, eBay, etc. Most Bluetooth and USB-powered peripherals will work, but those that rely on infrared proprietary dongles or base stations may not.
Not all Chromeboxes are sold alone. Some brands offer ‘bundles’ that add a branded Chrome keyboard and mouse set to the purchase price.
You Will Need To Add A Monitor
Another “BYO” item is a monitor or screen (though depending on the retailer you buy from you may be offered a discount on the price of a monitor if purchased at the same time).
The good news is that, as with keyboard and mice, you probably already have a monitor or small TV you can reuse.
Next step: check that it’s compatible.
All “current generation” Chromeboxes come with both a full-sized HDMI out port and a full-sized DisplayPort out.
If the monitor you plan to use requires a VGA or DVI connection (see graphic above) you can still use it with your Chrome PC but you will need to buy a relevant DisplayPort-to-VGA or HDMI-to-VGA adapter first. These can be picked up fairly cheaply from places like Amazon, eBay and computer stores.
If hunting down/buying monitors, cables and keyboards sounds like too much hassle you might want to consider the LG Chromebase. It’s a cheap all-in-one Chrome OS PC so the computer is built into the monitor. It has built-in speakers, an HDMI in port so you can use it as a DVD player or external monitor for a laptop, and has a wired (if hardly exceptional) keyboard and mouse set.
Explore your Processor Choices
Chromeboxes are similar in many regards but they are not all made equal. Some are faster or have more storage, while others permit you to upgrade components yourself.
Most Chromebox “entry models” come fitted out with a dual-core Intel Celeron (Haswell) 2995U or 2957U processor running at 1.4GHz. These CPUs are speedy enough for most tasks, and paired with integrated graphics, you get a decent balance between performance, cost and energy efficiency.
If you can spend a bit more then a mid-range model sporting an Intel Core i3 processor may be a good bet, while those with top-end tastes can pay for a model with an Intel Core i5 or i7.
But keep in mind your needs: benchmarks show that the Celeron CPUs offer great performance for their cost, so don’t pay over the odds needlessly.
All Chromeboxes offer the same graphics option: integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000. Yeah, I know: it conjures up a mental image of lag and stutter and poor performance.
But forget all that. Integrated Graphics have come a long way since the days of Intel’s GMA offerings, and the Intel HD Graphics 4000 most ‘boxes have handles HD multimedia content, some fairly immersive games and more without breaking a sweat.
Thinking About Memory
In 2012 most Chromeboxes shipped with 4GB RAM installed as standard. 2014 and that has fallen to a more modest 2GB.
There are a number of reasons for this, but the big one is price: profit margins are very tight, and 2GB vs 4GB in Chrome OS doesn’t yield a dramatic performance increase. We’re talking pages loading a few milliseconds quicker and better responsiveness when opening 30 tabs as opposed to 20.
While Windows may lag a little on 2GB RAM, in Chrome OS it’s more than enough memory to cover basic needs with room to spare. 2GB is not as limiting with Chrome OS as it would be with a heavier operating system.
Not that 4GB is pointless. But the price you pay on top for such models is more than it’d cost you to buy a 2GB version and add extra RAM yourself. And memory upgrades aren’t difficult to perform on certain Chromeboxes, like the HP (1 SO-DIMM slot) and ASUS (2 SO-DIMM slots). Just remove the feet, unscrew the base, pop it off, and swap out/add more memory.
Others models, including the Acer CXI and Dell Chromebox, ship with their memory modules soldered onto the motherboard. While theoretically replaceable, unless you’re adept at removing and re-soldering circuits, it’s best avoided.
Another downside is that despite the low cost of RAM upgrades the DIY approach may, depending on manufacturer, void any warranty.
Both ASUS and HP Chromeboxes use 204-pin SODIMM DDR3L modules @ 1600 MHz (also listed as ‘DDR3L PC3-12800’). You can pick up an extra 2GB stick for as little as $18 on Amazon.com, a single 4GB for around $32 and a single 8GB module for $60.
Upgrading Other Components
Memory upgrades aside you’ll find that most Chromeboxes do not let you swap out other parts, and those that do are limited in what they support.
So you can’t add a beefier graphics card or add a FireWire card, and you can’t swap out the processor for a faster, compatible socket sibling.
The ASUS Chromebox allows the built-in ‘eMMC’ flash storage to be swapped out but only for a compatible M2 SATA III SSD. Do some research beforehand as not all makes of SSDs are reported to work.
And don’t forget that while 16GB may sound too small for a desktop you do get 100GB (or, if you buy before the end of December, 1TB) of free online Google Drive storage.
Chrome OS also supports external USB hard drives, thumb drives and SD cards, and can read files mounted via MTP.
There’s no CD or DVD Drive
Most modern computers no longer include a disc drive, and Chromeboxes (and Chromebooks) are no exception: they do not come with a built-in CD or DVD drive.
This is an important consideration if you (or the person you’re buying for) regularly listen to music CDs or watches DVDs on your computer.
And you can’t simply hook up an external CD or DVD drive either, as Chrome OS does not natively support them.
Ports & Connectivity
Chromeboxes offer a huge number of ports for connecting your devices, monitors and extras. All newer models ship with USB 3.0, too.
Expect to find:
- Full-size HDMI Out
- Full-size DisplayPort (the HP model has two)
- 4x USB 3.0
- Full-size SD card slot
- Gigabit Ethernet
- Audio in/out jack
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0 LE
If you’re looking at an older Samsung Chromebox you’ll find a number of differences: no DisplayPort, full-width DVI out, and USB 2.0 rather than 3.0.
Think Chromebox, Think TARDIS
Finally, be prepared for how small these things are. The British science-fiction series Doctor Who features a transdimensional time machine (‘TARDIS’) that is far, far, far bigger on the inside than you’d ever guess from the outside.
Trade physical space for power and possibility, and they’re pretty similar!
If you’re looking for a small, inexpensive but secure PC a Chromebox is well worth considering. While there are “tradeoffs” coming from a more traditional PC, most of these aren’t really negatives, just differences. Progress, even.