A handful of Windows 10 laptops now cost less than $200. The tiny, an Atom-powered Windows micro-desktop, is down to $119. Where else can computer prices go when the floor is so close? The latest answer can be found in the Asus Chromebit, a stick-shaped Chrome OS desktop that costs just $85 in the US, £90 in the UK and AU$149 in Australia.
When we've seen, Google's PC operating system, presented in a desktop form before, we've called it a . That term applies here, but it's also part of the still-new "stick PC" category.
Despite looking like an oversized USB key, the Chromebit has the DNA of a desktop. It requires constant power, lacking any kind of internal battery. It needs to connect to the HDMI input on a TV or monitor, and it needs a separate keyboard and mouse, connected via Bluetooth or a USB dongle (Bluetooth seems like the better idea, there's only a single USB port, so you'll need a two-in-one USB dongle or else a USB hub to cover both a keyboard and mouse).
Like other Chrome OS laptops and desktops, the system itself is built to run the Google Chrome Web browser and little else. This is a device intended for cloud-based work, although Chrome OS now has some very basic file management features and the Chromebit can store a small amount of music and movie files in its 16GB of internal storage.
Despite the built-in limitations, the argument for the utility of an online-only computer is a persuasive one. Most email is handled through online services such as Gmail, movies stream through Netflix, Amazon or other services, and work happens in Google Docs or Microsoft's free-to-use online Office apps. There's often little reason to download and install third-party software even on a new Windows PC (something I can attest to, breaking open several fresh Windows laptops and desktops every month). In fact, the only must-have program I download immediately onto new Windows and OS X computers is the Google Chrome browser.
Different than most other ultra-budget PCs we've reviewed, including the Intel Compute Stick and HP Stream 11, the Chromebit runs an ARM-based CPU from , a Chinese chip maker. It's cost-cutting move compared to the Intel Atom processors in other low-end computers. We also saw that chip in the earlier this year. But it's still fast enough for basic Web surfing, and didn't feel any slower in hands-on use than those Atom-powered $200-and-less Windows computers.
The only real problem with the Chromebit is figuring out who it's for. If you need a cheap travel computer, this isn't it, as it requires a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and power source (it might work well for a hotel room or conference room, however). If you're just looking to play streaming video or other media on a TV, the $35 Google Chromecast, among other options, can take care of that as well. If you need a small out-of-the-way desktop, it does the trick, but only as long as you can survive using online tools, and won't need to install new non-cloud-based programs.
But for a narrow slice of Web surfers who want basic surfing and cloud computing in a set-it-and-forget-it stick that plugs into the back of nearly any television, this is an acceptably robust, crash-free way to get that for a price that would have seemed unbelievable just a year or so ago.
|Price as reviewed||$85|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Rockchip RK3288-C|
|PC Memory||2GB LPDDR3 RAM|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Chrome OS|
Design and features
As much as we marveled over the tiny Intel Compute Stick and how small it was for a full Windows desktop with an Intel processor inside, the Asus Chromebit is a smaller, slicker-looking stick PC. Its matte plastic body and rounded edges stand in contrast to the squared-off industrial look of the Compute Stick, which is riddled with tiny vent holes. In contrast, the Chromebit has the polished consumer-friendly look of a Roku Stick or Amazon Fire TV Stick.