Chromebox Review: A Ketchup & Salt Affair

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Foreword

I recently had some time to become intimate with everything Chromebox.  Powerbase contributor Sean Catlin was nice enough to surrender the device to me for a while so that I could figure out the absolute best way to rail on it in the span of 2500 words or so.  I’m joking, actually.  My intention was never to rail on the system itself–or the operating system, but what I experienced was so completely polarizing that this review has a hard time finding balance.  At one point I am speaking very highly of the machine and the operating system and at another, I am inconsolable.  The system as a whole certainly has its ups and downs, and each of those are made crystal clear in this review.  Enjoy.

Design

Look & Feel

Arial promo shot. Courtesy of Google.

For starters, it doesn’t resemble anything made from Chrome.  Nor does it in anyway feel like a box.  Once you’ve conquered these two hurdles, you’ll be ready to appreciate the Chromebox for what it is.  A sturdy, attractive, somewhat smallish black and silver package that lets you browse the Internet almost instantaneously.

Ironically, this device looks more like an ice cream sandwich than anything else.  Ironic only because there are no Android devices that I am aware of that resemble the frozen confection.  The sandwich is held together by a black top and bottom with silver ice cream in between.  On the top, you’ll find the Samsung logo draped proudly across the middle, transforming the Chrome emblem on the top-left into a small but attractive accent.

Connections & Expandability

The entire middle of the unit is an attractive and subtle metallic finish all the way around.  In the back you’ll notice that this unit can get a little busy, and that’s fine!  The unit is reasonably ‘expandable’ with 4 USB ports, 2 Display-link ports, ethernet, DVI output and AC power.  These are complimented by compatibility with Kensington locks and a vented heatsink/exhaust combo.

In the front, the unit is nice and simple.  You’ll find 2 USB ports, a combination headphone/microphone mini-jack, and a power button.  The prospect of having a couple USB ports on the front of the unit is exciting.  A Mac Mini might not agree with me, but I don’t think this does anything that diminishes the style of the machine.  They are a welcome addition and you will probably be very grateful that they are there.

Christian Grey might have a field day with this rear-end.

The headphone jack is also a welcome addition, but at the same time it indicates our biggest pain point with the hardware.  While this is very handy for those who plan to use a set of headphones on an as-needed basis, users of desktop speakers will immediately n0tice the omission of a jack on the back.  In our testing of the unit, we attached a set of Harmon/Kardon sound-sticks to the jack on the front.  Two things went wrong with this immediately.  1) The mini-jack used to connect the speakers to the computer is fat and green.  It’s always been this way, as I’ve had these speakers since 2004, though I’ve never had to worry about it until now as they have always been attached to the back of a machine.  Out of sight, out of mind.  So, now what was a reasonably attractive computer has been relegated into something that is immediately and noticeably unsightly.  A permanent wire coming from the front of a machine, lying across my desk, is almost a deal-breaker.  2) I had problems with the mini-jack, aside from appearance.  After hooking the speakers to the unit, I spent some time downstairs eating dinner with my family when all of the sudden I could hear a very violent noise–feedback from the speakers.  The plug had come loose and that was the cause.  I thought perhaps a cat or something in the environment had caused it to be pulled slightly from the jack, or even I had not plugged it in all the way by myself.  This was not the case.  After forcing the cable back in, I heard the same noise 30 minutes later.  I later tried plugging 2 sets of headphones into the unit, only getting a successful, long-term connection with one set.  It seems that, at least on this unit, the jack itself is set in too far and your luck is based solely on your speaker manufacturer’s engineering as it relates to how they design their insulating jackets.

You will notice that there is no HDMI port on the back.  I suppose it would be easy enough to throw a couple of bucks at a DVI-to-HDMI adapter, but even still, the option would have been nice and would have made the Chromebox more complete to more people.


Dean Howell

Dean Howell has over a decade of experience with Linux and nearly 2 decades of experience with computers in general. Currently, Dean is Editor-in-chief of The Powerbase and also works for one of the world's largest providers of Linux-based NVRs.

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  • warcaster

    Still disappointed Google hasn’t launched an ARM-based Chromebook/Chromebox yet. Instead they keep trying to push out these overpriced devices.

    • http://www.digifail.com/ Tom Nardi

      That’s an interesting point, it seems like Chrome OS machines are an excellent vehicle to drive ARM into the laptop/desktop market; it’s not like you will be running any x86 software on these things in the first place.

  • Connie New

    What is disappointing is the price point. All the other complaints you can swallow, this is the ideal demonstration of how domesticated the cloud has become. BUT this is available to all by just downloading Chrome. So all you are really paying for is a quick boot to browser, and end up getting a system that collapses without the net, with no optical drives or significant internal storage

    • Gary Maxwell

      Connie makes the same unfortunate observation about a cloud-based device that others make.

      The Chromebox and its sisters–the Chromebooks–CAN be compared to other computers at the same price point; But, to say you get more for your money at the same price with a fat client computer with a full-blown operating system is to miss the whole point of a ChromeOS device.

      While it is true that you can get a lot of the same experiences and features by just using Chrome, it’s not what you get, it’s what you DON’T get.

      You no longer have to worry about system updates or system security. If you learn about the security model baked into these devices, you may find that this feature alone justifies the price.

      Secondly, these devices are for a specific use case: cloud computing. If you live 95% of the time in a browser, why carry along a bloated desktop with all of the peripherals? With more and more apps going to the cloud, and the increase in ubiquitous, mobile computing form factors, it is only a matter of time before PCs become still-required but less used devices.

      Lastly, while the article hit on some pain points, these will all be eventually addresses as the device gets updated. How coll is that?

      • Connie New

        Well no, it is absolutely necessary to compare price points. The issue is this; the assets that you purchase are 1) the hardware and 2) the software. If the software is largely in the cloud (REGARDLESS of all it’s benefits and disadvantages) and essentially dependant on the freely available browser, then the only asset of value is the hardware. The hardware price therefore should be compared with others that offer similar assets. The chrome book hardware is equivalent to buying a conventional laptop, removing the HD and the optical drive and the PCMIA slot and 3D graphics card and the network card…etc and replacing them with a tiny SSD…while replacing the screen with a smaller one. It SHOULD be cheaper.

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