Google's Web-based operating system still isn't for everyone, but if you're curious, the Samsung Chromebox offers an affordable, attractive entry point with some useful features.
Editors' note: In January 2013, Samsung updated the Chromebox reviewed here with a new casing. Aside from the cosmetic change, the 2013 model is identical to the older one reviewed below.
I can think of a few customers who might consider the attractive, Google Chrome OS-powered Samsung Chromebox desktop. Schools, libraries, Internet cafes, even a parent shopping for a child's first computer might reasonably look into this $329 PC and its locked-down, almost entirely Web-dependent operating system.
I would not recommend the Chromebox for general-purpose budget computing due to occasional issues with general hardware and software compatibility. Its minuscule local storage also prevents the Chromebox from working well as a small home theater PC. If you follow either Google or operating system news, you will know that this PC represents Google's first attempt at expanding its Chrome operating system to the desktop. Given that the Chromebox's laptop counterpart, the Chromebook, is such a difficult proposition, I was surprised by how much I actually liked this computer.
Google's Chrome operating system is the search giant's grand system software experiment, played out in public since last year's launch of the
Staying online all the time can be a challenge for a laptop computer that's supposed to be mobile. Those devices accompany us during air travel, business meetings and conferences, and other circumstances with no guarantee of a reliable connection. Google tries to offset this difficulty by building in cellular data network support with its laptops. That, of course, comes with an added fee, throwing off the already dicey Chromebook value proposition.
Desktops, though, tend to stay put. Service interruptions happen, but in general, if you can maintain a more-or-less persistent connection to the Web, you take away one of the big question marks hanging over the Chrome OS.
Samsung released this PC and a new Chromebook laptop to coincide with a new, public version of Chrome OS. Rather than turn this into a review of both the computer and the operating system, I'll refer you to our standalone review of the Chrome OS. You can also read our review of the new
Among the most important things to know about the updated Chrome OS is that it has expanded support for offline document and media files. While most of your activities with the Chromebook will take place online in either the Chrome Web browser or through a Chrome-specific application, the operating system does let you see local files. The Chromebook comes with a 16GB solid-state hard drive (booting up happens in seconds), and it also supports USB keys and flash media cards (the latter if you connect a USB card reader). If you have any compatible files on either the local or connected storage, the Chromebook can open them.
Supported file types include most Microsoft Office formats (DOC and DOCX, for example), as well as PDF files, JPEG, GIF, and other common image files, and also various audio and video types (complete list here). You can't edit those media files, save for some basic photo manipulation tools, but the fact that you can consume them offline is a marked improvement over the previous-generation Chrome operating system.
Otherwise, the Chrome OS lives on as essentially an expanded version of Google's Chrome Web browser. The system boots into a familiar log-in screen and desktop environment, but once you start playing around with the included applications, or downloading new ones, you will most often find yourself operating within a traditional Chrome browser.
|Samsung Chromebox Series 3|
|CPU||1.9GHz Intel Celeron B840|
|Memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||Embedded Intel HD Graphics 1000|
|Hard drives||16GB solid-state hard drive|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g/n|
|Operating system||Google Chrome OS (M19)|
|Display outputs||DisplayPort (2), DVI|
Even though most people will have little interest in Google's Chrome OS, for its hardware, the Samsung Chromebox is a reasonably priced budget computer. The 1.9GHz Intel Celeron B840 is an up-to-date, dual-core budget CPU. 4GB of system memory is also appropriate for this price range.
For those of you looking askance at the Celeron processor (yes, Intel still makes them), remember that this is a $330 computer that is almost entirely Web-driven. That doesn't mean the CPU makes no contribution to system performance, but most of Chrome OS's browser-based interactions are computationally lightweight. Except for certain downloadable games, which I'll address below, I found no apparent bottlenecks while using the system. It played 1080p video files from YouTube and elsewhere with no performance issues. It also opened a large spreadsheet in Google Docs with no trouble. For basic productivity tasks, general Web browsing, and light-duty multimedia consumption, the Celeron chip is adequate.
File storage is a known weakness of Chrome-based PCs, and the Chromebox's 16GB of local storage capacity is well below the 500GB drives you'll find in most traditional budget PCs. Then again, those other systems all use standard mechanical hard drives. The Chromebox comes with a solid-state drive.
Combined with the lightweight operating system, the solid-state hard drive makes turning the machine on and off incredibly fast. You arrive at the Chrome OS log-in screen about 10 seconds after you push the power button.
The Chromebox is also uncommon among traditional budget PCs for its variety of video outputs. The single DVI port is not unexpected. It works well for traditional monitors, or as a base port to plug in an adapter for a VGA- or HDMI-based display. Few, if any budget PCs offer a DisplayPort output, though, let alone two of them.
The DisplayPort outputs on the Chromebox work similarly to an HDMI-out, transmitting both video and audio signals over a single cable. The Chromebox scales up to a maximum resolution of 2,560x1,440 pixels, although the operating system currently decides on the output resolution via automatic detection, and there's no apparent way to change the resolution manually (the old "/usr/bin/xrandr" terminal command no longer works). A Google spokesperson told me that this auto resolution detection will be in place for "the next couple of versions of Chrome."
The Chromebox does support dual-display output, but right now it will only mirror the desktop image to both displays, rather than extending a single operating environment across multiple screens. Again, the system chooses the output resolution automatically, in this case opting for the highest common resolution between both monitors.
Along with connecting a monitor to the Chromebox, you must also provide your own mouse and keyboard. That opens up a larger discussion about device compatibility, which is less of an issue for the Chromebook considering its built-in Webcam and input devices.
Six USB 2.0 ports on the system (two in front, four in back) imply broad support for the vast ecosystem of USB devices. I did not expect the Chromebox to support every esoteric peripheral, but I was also surprised by how quickly I found devices that didn't work.
With the very first Logitech mouse I connected, the affordable G300, the cursor arrow shot off to the side of the screen every time I moved the mouse or clicked a button. Every input device after that one worked fine. I tried mice and keyboards from Razer, Microsoft, and Logitech. I was even able to use the wireless
I had a harder time using USB Webcams. I tested Webcams from Creative, Logitech, and Microsoft. The Chromebox recognized the camera in all cases with no trouble, but the Chrome OS does not currently support USB-based microphones, which made for some silent video chats (sorry, "Hang-Outs"). Google says USB microphone support is coming in a future release, and that for now you should use the analog microphone/headphone jack on the front of the unit. That works well enough, but it would be preferable to use the Webcam's own microphone.
Connecting a printer to any computer without specific driver software can be difficult, but fortunately Google's Cloud Print software provides an effective network-based workaround. Instead of getting mired in printer testing, I tried connecting an external, USB-based DVD burner and a multiformat USB media card reader. The Chromebox recognized the files on both storage devices. The system does not include DVD player software, so it cannot play DVD-based movies.
I wouldn't call any of the hardware compatibility issues I encountered "show-stopping," but they do add the potential for various levels of inconvenience to using the Chromebox. The mouse problem is easy enough to solve -- buy a new one. But for the Webcam audio, not everyone would willingly endure wearing an analog microphone to video chat. Google says it is working on the problem, but in general it speaks to the fact that the Chrome OS is still very much a work in progress.
With so much activity on the Chromebox taking place online, the impact of the hardware on overall system performance is limited. That said, I still found situations where you might want faster processing or better graphics capability. Gaming, for example. Among the recent additions to the Chrome application store are Bastion and From Dust, two stalwarts of the downloadable game console market. Bastion worked reasonably well, although mouse response felt a bit sluggish. From Dust would not load at all. When I tried to load it, an error message informed me that my graphics chip wasn't powerful enough.
This is an interesting case of two Google initiatives meeting up against each other. From Dust lives on the Google Chrome Web Store thanks to Google's Native Client technology, which effectively creates a browser-based environment in which you can run a piece of software designed for another platform. The game plays just fine on a standard PC with a reasonable graphics chip running the Chrome browser, but there's no way to know that the game won't play on the Chromebox unless you read and understand the recommended system specs on its Web Store listing.
I did not try every single application in the Chrome Web Store, but I expect that From Dust is not the only one that won't work on the Chromebox.
By itself, the Chromebox's Web-focused, Google-centric experience is not necessarily bad, particularly for those who have achieved, or aspire to achieve, a simple cloud-based computing life. The problem is that the Chromebox is a newcomer in a largely Windows-focused world of software and peripherals. Its newness offers would-be buyers the biggest challenges. I felt the absence of some basic features after using the unit for only a few hours. Google says it is addressing some of those things, but I'm sure I haven't uncovered all of them. You or your organization might also have reasonable trepidation about putting your entire computing existence in the hands of Google.
If you're willing to make that leap and endure the growing pains of an operating system in active development, the $329 Samsung Chromebox offers an attractive, low-risk entry point into Google's great Chrome OS experiment. It has pleasing looks in a bleak sea of budget Windows midtowers, and its very nature as a desktop will ease your transition to an operating system that requires a constant Internet connection to be useful.