When a Chromebook Isn’t Big Enough – Review Geek


Rating:
7.5/10
?

  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $489

The ASUS Chromebox 4 and all included hardware
ASUS

Chromebooks are terrific, and their numbers have exploded during the pandemic with many schools and offices requiring them. With a plethora of browser-based applications, they serve as the perfect devices for anyone who needs to work or study from anywhere.

Here’s What We Like

  • Supports up to three 4K monitors
  • More RAM and SSD capacity than many Chromebooks
  • Lots of ports
  • Base model is expandable to 16GB of RAM

And What We Don’t

  • Need to add keyboard, mouse, and monitor
  • Expensive when fully configured

But they have their downsides as well. The most obvious one is the small screen and keyboard when compared to most desktop PCs. Spending hours on end looking at an 11- to 14-inch screen and typing on a laptop-size keyboard is physically exhausting,

That’s where a Chromebox fits in. A Chromebox is essentially a desktop that’s designed to run the Chrome OS (which is built on top of Linux) rather than Windows, and operate completely in an internet browser, generally running applications in the cloud, rather than locally on the device.

Table of Contents

When You Need More Than a Chromebook

Physically, the Chromebox 4 is a very-small-form-factor desktop PC, measuring only 5.75 inches square and 1.5 inches high.

Image of a mouse laying on top of the Chromebox
The Chromebox 4 isn’t much larger than the mouse you’ll use with it. Ted Needleman

The particular model I received for review has an Intel Core i3 processor, but the unit can be configured with CPUs ranging from a Celeron to a Core i7, depending on your needs. For most users, the Core i3 model I reviewed will be fine, balancing good performance against reasonable cost. My review unit also came configured with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB M.2 SSD. You can also buy one with 16GB RAM and a 256GB SSD installed. That’s as much memory as you’ll get in many Chromebooks, and should be enough to let you run most applications you could run on a Chromebook.

That’s especially true given that you can run many Android apps available in the Google Play store as well as the Google Chrome store. Again, if you feel you want or need more capability and power, the Chromebox 4 is available with a Core i5 or i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a removable 256GB M.2 SSD. You can also go down to a Celeron CPU if you don’t plan on really running the Chromebox hard.

Specs As Reviewed:

  • CPU: 10th Gen Intel Core™ i3-10110U Processor, (2 cores, 4 threads,  2.1 GHz (4M Cache, up to 4.1 GHz with TurboBoost)
  • Graphics: Integrated Intel HD Graphics
  • Memory: 8GB (in 4GB SO-DIMMs)
  • Storage: 128G M.2 SATA SSD
  • Wireless Data Network: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0
  • LAN: Gigabit LAN, Realtek® RTL8111H-CG
  • I/O Ports: 5 x USB 3.2 Gen2,  2 x USB 3.2 Gen1, 1 x USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-C (PowerDelivery/DisplayPort 1.4),  2 x HDMI 2.0, 1 x LAN (RJ45) Port, 1 x Audio Jack (Combo Mic/Headphone Jack), 1x Micro SD card slot, Kensington Lock slot
  • Power Supply: 19Vdc, 4.74A, 90W Power Adapter
  • Dimensions (W x D x H): 148.5 x 148.5 x 40 mm
  • Weight: 1.0KG

If you seem to be running out of steam with a dozen tabs open and running three or four Android apps on top of it (which I didn’t experience in my testing), you can open the unit (four tiny screws on the bottom are covered with pasted-on rubber bumper), and once open, perform a quick and easy memory upgrade.

Photo of bottom of Chromebox with arrows pointing out where case screws are located
To open the Chromebox 4, there are four tiny screws beneath the rubber feet on the bottom panel. Ted Needleman

The Chromebox 4 has two SO-DIMM sockets. In the model I reviewed, both were filled by 4GB SO-DIMMs. Swapping out the two 4GB SO-DIMMs for two 8GB SO-DIMMs should cost about $80.

Image of two SO-DIMM sockets on motherboard
There are two SO-DIMM sockets on the motherboard, currently filled with 4GB RAM chips, that can be swapped out with two 8GB SO-DIMMs.Ted Needleman

Ports o’ Plenty

One real benefit of a Chromebox, and the Asus Chromebox 4 in particular, is the availability of lots of ports. The rear panel of the Chromebox has dual HDMI ports, each capable of driving a 4K display. And if you need more than two monitors, the USB-C port, also on the rear panel, lets you drive an additional display when used in DisplayPort mode or can operate in power delivery mode, delivering up to 15 watts to charge a phone. It also works just fine with USB-C hubs and external disk drives and Thunderbolt devices.

Two of these ports, USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A, are located on the Chromebox’s front panel along with a microSD slot and headphone/mic jack. The power switch is also on the front panel, all the way on the right-hand side. The front-mounted USB ports can also be used to charge devices, such as a phone or tablet, or even connect a USB printer.

Photo of Chromebox 4's front panel showing ports, SD Card slot and headphone/mic jack
The Chromebox 4’s front panel. Ted Needleman

The rear panel is where the majority of the ports reside. In addition to an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, there are three USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A ports, two standard HDMI ports, and a USB-C port which supports power delivery. The power supply plugs in directly beneath the USB-C port, and there’s even a slot for a Kensington lock cable so no one can move the Chromebox from your desk. With the two HDMI ports and the USB-C port, which also works as a DisplayPort, you can run up to three 4K displays if you have the room (and the budget) for them.

Image of Chromebox 4's rear panel showing USB-A and USB-C ports, Ethernet port, and Kensington lock port
The rear panel is loaded with ports and a Kensington lock as well as an Ethernet jack. Ted Needleman

Plenty of Power, Too

While a 10th generation Core i3 processor running at 2.1 GHz doesn’t sound all that powerful, I had no trouble running four Android apps with eight open tabs on the browser.

One real plus in using a Chromebox (or Chromebook) is that they can run many Android apps as well as Chrome apps and browser extensions. Just sign into the Google Play Store or the Chrome store, and there are literally thousands of apps of all kinds available for free or just a few bucks.

Why Not Just Buy a Cheap Windows Machine?

Given that the Asus Chromebox 4 costs about the same thing as an equivalently configured i3 Windows-based desktop, why go the Chrome OS route rather than staying with the Windows that many of us are already familiar with? One reason is size—an equivalently priced and configured i3 desktop is generally going to be a mid-tower model, rather than the compact size of the Chromebox 4. If you don’t have much desktop real estate, a similarly sized and configured Windows machine is often going to cost significantly more than the Chromebox. For example, the MSI Cubi 5 10M Desktop is roughly the same size as the Asus Chromebox 4, with the same amount of RAM and same SSD, but costs almost $50 more. And the Chromebox is small enough to use with the included VESA adapter and mount on the rear of most monitors, freeing up even more desk space if needed.

Other reasons to go with the Chrome OS over Windows are stability, usability, and availability of numerous Android apps. Windows, especially as of late, tends to need frequent updates, and there are plenty of horror stories of Windows updates causing data loss and other problems. Chrome OS gets updated frequently, too, but it’s a fast seamless process.

Chrome OS also tends to be a bit easier for many users to operate. Power on, open the Chrome browser, and get to work. There’s a myth that you can’t use a Chromebook (or Chromebox) if the internet goes down. While that’s somewhat true if you are running cloud-based apps, other apps (notably Google Docs) run just fine locally.

Additionally, many apps run faster on the Chrome OS simply because there are fewer background processes taking up machine resources. And Windows can’t take advantage of the thousands of Android apps that run on Chrome OS … though Chrome OS can’t natively run Windows applications, either.

Finally, one last reason to consider a move to a Chrome OS device is that many schools and colleges are using apps that run on a Chrome browser. In lots of cases, these will run better on a Chrome OS machine rather than in a Chrome browser in Windows.

Perfect for the Whole Family

Students may be a prime market for Chrome-based PCs, whether in laptop form or, as with the Chromebox 4, desktop format. But with more and more other family and business applications running in the cloud, browser-based computing, such as those available with Chromebooks or the Chromebox 4 I reviewed, make more and more sense. Add to that the availability of thousands of Android and Chrome apps, and it’s a sure bet you and your family will find plenty of places to use the Chromebox 4.

Keep in mind that many Android apps were designed to be used with a touch screen. In many cases, these will work just fine, and I had no trouble using a mouse with the half-dozen assorted Android apps I ran, but your mileage (and experience) may be different. So, you’ll want to take a close look at what you are running and what apps you think you might want to run to determine if you’ll miss having a touch screen.

Of course, if you’re used to working on the kitchen table, this micro desktop is probably not the best choice. In that situation, a regular Chromebook or laptop would be a better choice. A decent i3 or i5-based Chromebook will run about the same price as the $449 Chromebox 4. And adding a large display, large keyboard, and mouse to a Chromebook will cost the same as adding them to the Chromebox 4. You’re not really saving much, if anything, by going the Chromebox route rather than hanging full-size peripherals on a Chromebook. The true benefits are ease of use, user-expandability, and a ton of ports–more than you’ll find in most Chromebooks.

Showing the Chromebox 4's vesa mount on a monitor
ASUS

If you’ve been using a Chromebook that works well with the applications you need but you’re just tired of squinting at the screen (and/or if you have big fat fingers like I do), the Chromebox 4 and a decent keyboard mouse, and display will make things a lot less stressful. And if space on your desk is at a premium, consider mounting the Chromebox 4 to the back of the monitor using the included VESA mount. It’s less convenient than having all the ports available right there on your desk, but it’s a lot like having an all-in-one that runs Chrome OS.

With either approach, for about the same price as a premium Chromebook, you get the benefits of a high-end Chrome-based laptop (lots of RAM and SSD storage), along with the better usability of a desktop. And while a Chromebook or Chromebox like the Asus Chromebox 4 isn’t perfect for every user, it’s very much worth considering if it’s time to upgrade or add a new machine to your inventory.

Rating: 7.5/10

Price: $489

Here’s What We Like

  • Supports up to three 4K monitors
  • More RAM and SSD capacity than many Chromebooks
  • Lots of ports
  • Base model is expandable to 16GB of RAM

And What We Don’t

  • Need to add keyboard, mouse, and monitor
  • Expensive when fully configured





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