NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- At this point, a good portion of people are familiar with Google (GOOG) Chromebooks a low-cost, Linux-based laptops/notebook that handle everything from within a Chrome Web browser. Yet, what most people don't know is that there are also Chromeboxes which are small, desktop versions of Chromebooks.
To date, the "boxes" have been overshadowed by the "books". Google wants to change all that. So, with the help of Asus - its partner in creating the super-popular Nexus 7 Android tablet - Google has created a new Chromebox device, which starts at $179.
This "PC-killer" is a lot smaller than a breadbox - but larger than a Roku or Apple (AAPL) TV. It measures only 4.88 x 4.88 x 1.65 inches and can be mounted to the back of desktop monitor or HDTV. An L-shaped mounting bracket is part of the package. So is an AC power adapter. The new Chromebook does not include keyboards or mice, but an optional $50 Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combination is promised for the near future.
With the new computer comes four USB 3.0 ports in the front and back, along with the above mentioned HDMI and a Display Port connection, a Gigabyte Ethernet port, a "2-in-one card reader" and a combination microphone/headset connection. As for wireless connections the Wi-fi is dual-band, 802.11n and the Bluetooth is 4.0.
Asus has designed not one, but three new Chromeboxes. The base unit (our test unit) comes with a fourth-generation Intel (INTC) Celeron processor and 2 GB of RAM. It will retail for $179. Next month, a version with an Intel i3 chip and 4 GB of memory will begin selling for $369, and supports 4K video.
There's also a souped-up Chromebox, with a top-of-the-line i7 processor and 4 GB of RAM which won't be sold separately in the United States. Instead, it will be marketed as part of Google's new "Chromebox for Meetings" - video conferencing system which will retail for $999 and up. This will also support 4K video.
Set up of the Chromebox is simple. Attach the monitor, keyboard, mouse and power cord and turn it on. After that, you log on to your Google account and you're all set. Everything Google that you've been using on other devices is automatically installed on the Chromebox. You can be up, running and computing in as little as five minutes.
You are somewhat limited in what you can do on a Chromebox by what you can do in a Chrome browser. There are the standard operations, including Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Play, News, Google+, Hangouts. The same goes for Google Drive where you can do word processing, spreadsheets and presentations and more. Modern Chrome devices have small amounts of built-in storage but the idea is to keep all your documents, etc. stored in "the cloud". Chromebooks and Chrome boxes do that very well. However, you can only download and use apps available from the Google Play store.
We found the new Asus Chromebox to be a very good performer. Our Celeron-clad test unit was plenty fast and, for the most part, an absolute pleasure to use. It was a stellar performer when it cam to anything you can do in a browser from dealing with spreadsheet calculations to playing media from Spotify, Netflix (NFLX) and YouTube. It even handled navigating Pharrell Williams' wonderful "24HoursofHappy" music site with ease.
However, there is one annoying problem, concerning "timing-out" of the screen. The Chromebox sometimes dimmed the screen after the system hadn't been used for a few hours. Sometimes the screen didn't dim. Sometimes the screen turned itself off and, upon awakening wouldn't allow us to open any Websites. A quick reboot fixed any problem.
Chromeboxes seem perfectly for enterprise use. Despite warnings for employees to "turn-off" computers when they leave work, many forget or just not bother. The test unit needed to be restarted every day to function properly. It's something that Google and Asus may need to address.
There is also the question of price and value. Chromeboxes start at $179. You also need to factor in a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Businesses can use peripherals they may have on hand but that still adds to the overall cost of the system in the long-run.
Chromebooks have built-in displays, keyboards and mice in one, neat package. And some really terrific Chromebooks sell for only slightly more than this new desktop equivalent. Chromebooks can also be easily moved (or taken home) if desired.
The Celeron-based Chromeboxes are available now for pre-orders at Amazon, Newegg and TigerDirect. It will be available at leading resellers beginning March 28.
Written by Gary Krakow in New York.
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