An attractive option for schools and businesses that don't need heavyweight computing devices
- Relatively quiet
- Good value
- Effective for basic programs
Chromebooks have obvious appeal. Secure, cheap and portable, they’re a compelling alternative to Windows laptops. They also suffer from none of those annoying Windows Update problems: you can pick one up after months and it will just work.
Chromeboxes, though, have never had the same X factor. They’ve only found a niche in schools and colleges, where the ability for students to log in to their account with an email and password, combined with their ease of management, make them an attractive choice. But Asus believes the Chromebox 3 has appeal to home users, too, thanks to a combination of Intel silicon, low prices and built-in support for Google Play.
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We tried the very cheapest version, based on an Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD, but you can buy a higher-end unit with a Core i3-7100U, 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD – the obvious drawback being that this almost doubles the cost to £450.
I’d love to say that the Celeron version is so spritely there’s no point in spending more, but sadly “laggy” is a more fitting description. If you’re used to a Windows PC where Chrome windows launch in an instant, you’ll find the Chromebox 3 irritating at first; even the mouse seems a little sluggish. This subjective feeling was backed up by its scores in the Android version of Geekbench 4: 2,323 single-core and, oddly, a lower multi-core result of 2,206.
Still, I soon got used to this machine taking a millisecond or two longer than my Windows laptop. Sure, websites don’t always spring instantly to life, but if all you want to do is respond to emails, tap reports into Google Docs and watch Netflix then this machine is more than capable. Indeed, I hooked it up to a 4K screen using the HDMI output and for 80% of the time it was exactly like using a Windows machine.
You get jolted back to Chrome OS reality when something doesn’t work – or at least, not like you expect it to. For instance, I decided to use the Outlook app to handle email rather than the web interface. It seemed to install fine, but then said I needed to install a browser. A tad ironic when Chrome OS is basically a browser.
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Happily, the Word Android app works beautifully, allowing you to access all your files saved on OneDrive with a single click. You can resize the window to work, say, with the browser open on the left and Word on the right, with the only major difference compared to the Windows-based experience being the stripped-down ribbon.
I had less success with the Netflix app. It allowed me to listen to shows but not actually watch the action, which I see as a drawback in a video-based medium. Luckily, the Netflix Chrome add-on works fine, and you have the choice of listening via your screen or using the 3.5mm audio output for hooking up speakers or earphones.
If all else is still in your office, the only noise you’ll notice emanating from the Chromebox is a faint whirr from the fans inside, but this fades into the background. Fix it onto the rear of your screen using VESA fittings (not supplied in the box) and you won’t even notice it’s there.
Asus Chromebox 3 review: Other features
It helps that this is a well-equipped PC for wireless comms. There’s Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, so you could get away with wires just for HDMI and power. Thanks to a USB-C 3.1 port that supports power input, if you have a suitably equipped monitor then you don’t even need the external power brick. It essentially turns your monitor into an all-in-one PC.
This isn’t to suggest the box lacks ports. There are two Type-A USB 3.1 ports at the front, along with a microSD slot; this Celeron-equipped version includes another Type-A USB 3.1 and two USB 2 ports at the rear, while its Core brethren benefit from faster USB 3.1 connections all round. In addition, there’s a USB Type-C 3.1 port for speedy data transfer, power delivery and hooking up a screen via a DisplayPort adapter (not included). You can even use the Chromebox to power two 4K displays at once.
All of this adds up to a surprisingly versatile computer. Would I want it as my main system? No, because it doesn’t have enough power and I want full-fat programs, not lightweight apps designed for Android. Would it work as a secondary all-purpose system for guests, or for businesses where demands are less intense? Undoubtedly. Indeed, its inherent security and ease of management make it much more appealing than a traditional Windows system. Especially when it costs just £250.