Teardown reveals Chromebox Series 3 isn't your average desktop

The Samsung Chromebox Series 3 may look like a Mac Mini, but it's not. Bill Detwiler explains why this Chrome OS machine isn't your typical desktop.

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The Samsung Chromebox Series 3 is the first desktop computer designed specifically for Google's Chrome operating system. And despite its resemblance to Apple's Mac Mini, the Series 3 isn't your average desktop. On this week's episode of Cracking Open, I take you inside the first Chromebox and show you how it's different from a conventional desktop computer.

Given Chrome OS's Web-centric nature (where the heavy lifting is done in the cloud), Chromeboxes don't need a lot of high-end hardware. Our test unit had a 1.9GHz Intel Celeron Processor (B840), Intel HD Graphics 1000, 4GB DDR3 SDRAM, 16GB SanDisk SSD, and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n support.

Full teardown gallery: Cracking Open the Samsung Chromebox Series 3

Bill Detwiler/TechRepublic

Easy to crack open

Getting into the Chromebox is a snap -- just pop off the bottom cover. Once you're inside, you can remove individual components either by hand or with a small Phillips screwdriver. The power supply is located along the side of the case and below it is a small circuit board with the Developer Mode switch. There's a single cooling fan, small I/O board with two USB ports and the Recovery button, of course the motherboard.

Not your average desktop

  • Limited local storage: Given the machine's $329 price tag, the Chromebox's processor and RAM are on par with other budget PCs. The 16GB SSD is another matter. And, it's the first way in which the Chromebox isn't your average desktop. To be fair, Google doesn't expect users to store much data on the Chromebox, thus the small SSD. And if you're wondering if you can swap out the factory SSD for a larger one, the answer is maybe. I've read of people trying it, but with different levels of success -- depending on the make and model of the replacement drive, whether they replace the RAM or not, and if they were trying to run Chrome on the new drive or replace it with Linux.

  • Removable RAM (possibly upgradable): The second difference between the Chromebox and your average desktop computer is RAM. The Series 3's motherboard can handle two DDR3 SODIMMs, and the unit comes with 4GB RAM (2 x 2GB modules). On most desktops, you can replace the stock chips with higher-capacity ones. This isn't necessarily the case on the Chromebox. As the chips are removable, you could theoretically swap them out for two 4GB chips or even two 8GB ones (for a total of 8GB or 16GB of RAM respectively). I've read of people doing this, but with limited success. I haven't tried it myself, so I can't confirm that it will work. In fact, I've read conflicting reports of Chrome OS actually being able to support that much memory.
    (Credit: Bill Detwiler/TechRepublic)

  • Empty mini PCI-e slot: Another interesting feature on the motherboard is the empty mini PCIe slot next to the mSATA slot used by the SSD drive. I've seen reports of people trying, without success, to put a second SSD drive in this slot -- thus the theory that's it's a mini PCIe slot and not mSATA. It's possible that this slot was intended for use with a cellular modem card, but that's just speculation.
  • Developer Mode switch: The last interesting hardware characteristic is the Developer Mode switch. Flipping it allows you to modify the existing Chrome OS or even replace it with a different one. And if you make a mistake during your tinkering, you can use the Recovery Mode button and a recovery USB drive to return the machine to a factory-fresh state.

A more detailed version of this story was first published on TechRepublic's Cracking Open.