If you don't mind bringing your own keyboard, mouse, and display, this little black box is an inexpensive way to leave traditional OS computers behind.
The Asus Chromebox is one of those products that does what it says and says what it does: It's a box that runs Chrome OS, Google's Web-based operating system.
The key benefits for Chromeboxes and their mobile counterparts, Chromebooks, are that they boot in seconds; they have built-in virus protection that's automatically updated, as is the whole OS; they're secure and can easily be managed; and there is an ever-growing world of Web apps to use.
That said, using Chrome can be freeing as well as frustrating, so it's really not for everyone. But, if you think you're ready to move on from a traditional OS -- even if it's just as a secondary computer -- the Asus Chromebox is a good place to start.
Measuring only 4.9 inches wide by 4.9 inches deep by 1.65 inches thick, the little box can easily be tucked away behind a display, and a mounting bracket is included. Despite the low starting price, it looks nice and feels solid.
Unlike a Chromebook, you'll need to bring your own keyboard, mouse, and display to this party. This Chromebox has a full-size HDMI port and DisplayPort on its back, as well as four USB 3.0 ports -- two on front and two on back.
Controls for adjusting, rotating, and aligning your display are found inside the Chrome browser settings. I tested it on two different TVs and a computer monitor, and they all worked fine. However, if there's a desktop application you use for adjusting specific monitor settings, you're probably out of luck.
The same goes for mice and keyboards. Windows and Mac USB mice and keyboards are supported and basic functions work without fail. I also connected a Logitech desktop set that uses a Unifying adapter and those worked fine, too, but you'll lose the capability to program them since that requires Logitech's software. As with displays, though, there are basic settings available in Chrome's settings menus.
The Chromebox does have built-in Bluetooth 4.0, which can be used to connect to Bluetooth keyboards and mice. I was able to get a basic mouse working, but couldn't get my keyboard to function, so your mileage may vary. Asus will have a $50 wireless keyboard and mouse set available if you want a keyboard designed for Chrome use.
As for what's inside, you get a 4th-gen 1.4 GHz Intel Celeron 2955U processor, 2GB of memory, integrated Intel HD graphics, and a 16GB M.2 solid-state drive for storage. The system boots in less than 20 seconds, and the combo is powerful enough to efficiently run Chrome and Web apps. Streaming HD video from Hulu Plus or listening to Spotify or Google Play Music while working in other tabs didn't pose any problems, and even under heavy load it stays quiet.
If you're the type to have a couple of dozen tabs going at once, you may want to consider the $370 Intel Core i3 version, which also doubles the RAM and bumps the integrated graphics up to an Intel HD Graphics 4400 chip that can support display resolutions up to 4K. There is a Core i7 version, but that appears to be for Chrome for Meetings only.
Storage space remains 16GB regardless of the model, though. It does support external storage drives, and there's a memory card slot. Two years' use of 100GB on Google Drive storage are included as well, which makes sense, given the cloud-computing nature of the product. And this is a desktop, so you're more likely to always have an Internet connection than with a Chromebook. For doing that, there is dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet.
All in all, the Asus Chromebox does what it's supposed to do, does it well, and looks good doing it. But the key question, as always, is whether what it can do is enough for what you need to do.
The easiest way to figure out if either a Chromebox or Chromebook will meet your needs is to install the Chrome browser on your current computer. If you can accomplish everything you need to do on a daily basis, then there's a good chance that you can get by with a device running Chrome OS as a secondary or even your only computer.
This might mean switching from Microsoft Office to Office Online or Google Drive, or dumping Apple iTunes for Google Play, which, depending on your comfort level learning new things, could take some adjustment. (Chrome does have a free secure Remote Desktop app, so you can help a new user through a tough spot if you're considering this for someone who's less tech savvy.)
Google lists out some common app replacements for desktop software, but you can also search the Chrome Web Store to find solutions. There are Web apps that work offline and outside of the browser, too, and, again, anything that runs in the Chrome browser will work on this box.
For home use, a Chromebox makes a nice family computer. Though you'll likely still need a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer to do some things, the security features and the capability to easily set up and manage supervised users is certainly nice to have.
As for business and enterprise use, I can't really say much beyond that a Chromebox looks like a promising solution. Chromebooks and Chromeboxes can basically be used as thin clients, thanks to a VMWare partnership and a new Google Admin console simplifies management. And just as you can limit what your kids have access to, you can limit what apps employees can install or use, and what sites are accessible.
The Chrome OS has come a long way since it showed up in 2011, and the devices running it have improved quite a bit as well. The Asus Chromebox shows off what the platform can do at an affordable price.