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Chromebook laptops, which run Google's Chrome OS instead of the Windows or OS X operating systems, have an easy to understand pitch. These are generally inexpensive, portable PCs that spend nearly all their time online, and are handy for basic Web surfing and cloud-based tasks. It may not be the solution for everyone, or even most, but a Chromebook is clear about what it does and who it's for.
Take that same Chrome OS, which is essentially Google's own Chrome Web browser and a few wraparound file management features, and turn it into a desktop, and you have a pitch that's a little tougher to make. A Chrome desktop, such as the Lenovo ThinkCentre Chromebox, doesn't try to solve the same problems a Chromebooks does, which is how to give people a low-cost way to connect to the Internet on the go.
Simple desktop PCs, especially for business users, are already inexpensive, starting at under $300 for small towers with Windows 8 or Windows 10, and 500GB or larger hard drives. The ThinkCentre Chromebox undercuts most of them, starting at $199, but that includes only 32GB of SSD storage and a very basic Intel Celeron 3205U CPU.
The model reviewed here is a more expensive configuration that upgrades the CPU to a mainstream Intel Core i3 5005U, but also costs $319. The Chrome OS configuration of the ThinkCentre isn't currently available in the UK or Australia, but you can get a similarly configured Windows 8 system, in the same chassis, starting at £255 in the UK and AU$599 in Australia.
That's still less than you can get a Core i3 desktop for from most PC makers, but you can find a Windows-powered small tower with similar specs, such as the HP Mini for under $450.
Using a Chrome OS desktop can offer some unique advantages. Because users can't download and run new standalone applications, there's little chance of downloading malware or viruses (aside from browser-based threats), and these are great for giving employees limited access to online tools and features, without giving them a full PC.
For using cloud-based tools, such as Google Docs, Office Online, online mail apps and even streaming entertainment services from Netflix to YouTube to Spotify, Chrome OS works fine, and even HD video streaming was no problem.
Lenovo also sells a separate 23-inch monitor designed around the ThinkCentre Chromebox. The entire mini tower slides into a slot on the back of the display, which costs $229 in the US, creating a Chrome OS all-in-one desktop once you add a keyboard and mouse.
For connecting to online services with minimal cost, I could see giving someone a Chromebox instead of a Windows desktop, and this is one of the least expensive ways to get an Intel Core i3 CPU. But outside of businesses looking to keep costs down, it's hard to say spending a little more for a Windows-powered mini desktop with more flexibility and more storage wouldn't be a smart investment.
|Price as reviewed||$319|
|PC CPU||2.0GHz Intel Core i3 5005U|
|PC memory||4GB RAM|
|Networking||802.11ac Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Google Chrome OS ver. 44.0.2403.156|
About 7 inches square, the Chromebox can lie flat, similar to a Mac Mini, or stand upright in an included plastic desktop stand. Either way, it looks more like a nondescript router than a desktop computer, and will pretty easily tuck out of the way.
A colorful Chrome OS logo on one side panel and a lit power button on the front edge are the most eye-catching elements, along with a white ThinkCentre logo at the bottom of the front panel. Actual Lenovo branding is practically invisible, with an embossed black-on-black logo near the rear of the chassis.
Most of the ports are tucked away on the rear panel, making for a clean look, with only a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a headphone/mic jack and the power button on the front. If you connect the included Wi-Fi antenna, its black plastic aerial will stick up several inches past the top of the box.
The included desktop stand isn't necessary; the system stood on its side edge just fine without it, but the stand does lift the front half up slightly, putting the entire Chromebox on an angle. That can make accessing the front ports easier, depending on where you have it set up, and the wide wings on the stand also provide plenty of stability.
A basic black wired keyboard and mouse are included. Both feel cheap, but completely appropriate for a sub-$300 computer. The keyboard at least features wide island-style keys that have a satisfyingly deep click. For a less cluttered workspace, you should seriously consider a wireless upgrade.
|Video||HDMI and DisplayPort|
|Audio||Combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||4 USB 3.0|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Especially compared to mobile Chromebook laptops, the Lenovo Chromebox offers a generous selection of ports and connections, including four USB 3.0 ports, both HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, and a wired Ethernet jack.
Working with a Chrome OS system requires some advance planning, but can also be a very streamlined way to work, depending on your needs. Many people, in both their personal and professional lives, have migrated towards online tools, from Gmail and Netflix to Office Online and Spotify. For those basic tasks, a Chrome OS system works fine, even when it comes to streaming HD video from NetFlix or YouTube. Many businesses use online tools as well, from Web-based email to cloud tools for content creation and customer management, so a Chrome system for work isn't out of the question.
It gets tougher if you're working with media files, such as editing photos and video. Adobe still doesn't have a Chrome OS compatible version of its full Photoshop program, and that can be a non-starter for many people who need it. However, there are some surprisingly good photo editors you can access -- essentially cloud-based tools found either on the Web or in Google's Chrome app store (which is essentially a place to find shortcuts and links to cloud-based tools). Pixlr and Polarr are two popular ones, and the former looks and feels very much like Photoshop.
For gaming, the situation is not quite as rosy. Most games that will play in the Chrome OS browser are basic mobile games, and there's a lot of shovelware to get through to find a handful of decent games.
In hands-on use, the Core i3 processor from Intel made sure that we never ran into any stuttering or slowdown, although with the lightweight tasks most Chrome OS systems are asked to complete, there's little chance of that anyway. In a series of online benchmarks, the system used its mainstream Intel CPU to score higher than Chromebooks with slower Celeron or ARM chips, and even a low-cost 11-inch Windows laptop with an Intel Celeron processor.
Lenovo's ThinkCentre Chromebox does what it sets out to, which is to offer low-cost online access in a compact package. It's not the type of computer anyone is likely to be excited about getting -- if you're assigned one at your office, it's probably safe to say you're not in the c-suite.
But it's also one of the least expensive ways to get an Intel Core i3 CPU, and having that mainstream processor means it performs well when it comes to handling multiple browser windows, HD video streams and even online photo editing.
|Lenovo ThinkCentre Chromebox||Google Chrome OS; 2GHz Intel Core i3 5005U; 4GB RAM; 16GB SSD|
|Asus Chromebook Flip C100||Google Chrome OS; 1.8GHz Rockchip 3288-C Quad-Core; 2GB RAM; 16GB SSD|
|Acer Chromebook 13||Google Chrome OS; 2.1GHz Nvidia Tegra K1 (arm7); 2GB RAM; 16GB SSD|
|Toshiba Chromebook 2||Google Chrome OS; 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM; 16GB SSD|
|HP Stream 11||Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|
|Dell Chromebook 11||Google Chrome OS; 1.7GHz Intel Core i3 4005U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM; 16GB SSD|