When we think of Chrome OS, most of us think of the Chromebook -- the custom laptop built to run Google's cloud-centric platform. Now, though, the Chromebook has a new friend: the Chromebox, Google's first attempt at bringing cloud computing into the world of desktop PCs.
The Chromebox, manufactured by Samsung and available for $329, is exactly what you'd expect: Chrome OS in a box. A small box, too: The Chromebox is a square 7.6 inches that sits just 1.3 inches tall. But inside that box sits a large amount of power.
Chromebox and Chrome OS: The need for speed
In case you haven't been following along, I've been using Chrome OS for the bulk of my computing needs these past several days. It's part of my two-week Chrome OS experiment; I wanted to immerse myself in Google's latest hardware and software advances in order to get the full experience of what it's like to use Chrome OS in the real world.
The Chromebox is an important part of that experience. While most users veer toward the portable Chrome OS configuration, the Chromebox is a natural step forward from there -- for business and education users, for sure, but also for more casual Chrome OS converts who are ready to ditch their old operating systems and move completely into Google's cloud-centric universe.
Like with the Chromebook, the first thing you notice about the Chromebox is how fast and simple it is to use. The Chromebox powers up in about four to five seconds; once you type in your Google credentials, it's literally another second or two until you're sitting in a browser window, online and ready to go -- no cumbersome setup required. If you use Chrome (the browser) anywhere else, all of your bookmarks, settings, and extensions will automatically be synced and waiting for you. You'll even see your most recent open tabs from other Chrome-connected devices -- both PCs and Android phones/tablets.
The Chromebox runs on a dual-core 1.9GHz Intel Celeron processor along with 4GB of RAM, giving it more than enough horsepower to keep up with your tasks. The lag and sluggishness we saw with the first generation of Chrome OS devices is gone; the Chromebox is as snappy and speedy as the latest Chromebook, and even with dozens of tabs open, I didn't encounter a single stutter or slowdown.
Samsung's Chromebox has six (!) USB 2.0 ports -- four on the back and two on the front -- along with two DisplayPort++ connectors and a DVI output. It's lacking a regular VGA monitor port, however, which could give you trouble if you're using that type of cable -- even with an adaptor. Chrome OS automatically detects and adjusts your screen resolution, and at this point, there's no way to manually tweak that setting. When I tried connecting a monitor using a VGA cable with a VGA-to-DVI adaptor, the system failed to get the resolution right and gave me a blown-up, low-res display. When I switched to a straight DVI cable, everything worked correctly.
The Chromebox can connect to your TV via HDMI; you'll just need the right cable to make it work. The device has no standard HDMI outport, so you'll have to use either the DVI or DisplayPort connector to set things up.
One beef I have with the current Chrome OS display situation is the lack of support for a dual-monitor, extended-desktop configuration. Particularly on the desktop PC front, I like working with two monitors. The Chromebox can support multiple monitors, but right now, it only allows you to duplicate your display on the second monitor -- which isn't terribly useful. A Google rep tells me extended-desktop functionality is on the way, but there's no definite time frame for its arrival just yet.
The Chromebox doesn't come with any special accessories, so you'll supply your own keyboard and mouse. (The system is Bluetooth 3.0 compatible, so you can go wireless if you want.) Google has confirmed to me that a Chrome OS-specific keyboard -- known for its unique layout and style -- will be sold as a separate accessory, but there's no word yet when it'll become available.
With the desktop setup, though, having a Chrome OS-specific keyboard isn't really necessary. Any regular keyboard works fine, and most of the Chrome OS-specific functions map over to the standard layout seamlessly: The F1 key acts as a "back" button, for example, while F4 toggles windows from full-screen to partial-screen mode.
The Chromebox experience
In general, I've found it quite pleasant to use Google's Chromebox computer. Chrome OS translates nicely into the desktop environment, and for the most part, it's been a novel and refreshing change from my typical Windows 7 desktop environment.
In the morning, for example, the Chromebox has me online in about 10 seconds flat; three or four minutes later, my Windows system is almost booted up and done loading its numerous drivers and background processes. Chrome OS does away with all the hassles of the traditional operating system, from drivers and complicated compatibility issues to cumbersome software updates and virus infection worries. And thanks to the nature of the system, it doesn't get progressively slower and more bogged down over time. I don't know about you, but that's all very welcome news to me.
(For much more on the software side of the experience, see my in-depth look at the latest incarnation of Chrome OS.)
Still, the setup isn't perfect -- and it certainly isn't for everyone. In the final chapter of my Chrome OS experiment, I'll wrap up my two weeks living with Chrome OS and attempt to reach some final conclusions. I'll bring together the good and the bad of both Google's new hardware and evolved software and weigh it all out with the prices of the devices.
The Chrome OS experiment ends in two days. You can catch up on my entire journey in the box below: