on October 20, 2012
For the past few months, I'd been looking for a new home computer to replace my aging MacBook Pro. As I began to consider my options and take an inventory of how me and my wife were using our home computer, I began to realize that a Chromebox might be a good option for us. I bought one (with an i5 processor) off ebay for $300 a couple of weeks ago (as opposed to the $329 retail models that come with a Celeron processor), and now that I've had it up and running for a few days I can give a report. I think for a lot of people, it might be a good alternative to a Windows or Mac PC.
In considering whether to get a Chromebox, I read a lot of commentary about them, most of it negative. The main argument against them makes a lot of sense: why would you buy a computer that only runs the Chrome browser and nothing else, when for more or less the same price you could buy a PC that will also run the Chrome browser, but in addition has the potential to do a million and one other things as well? If you really like Chrome so much, just buy a cheap PC and download the Chrome browser.
I think it's a good argument, but it was ultimately unpersuasive to me.
Let me start by describing what me and my wife actually use our home computer for. When I started to think about the idea of a web-only computer, I realized that we are actually Google's target customers: we spend nearly all of our computer time in the cloud. Surfing the net is of course the main activity, but after that it's pretty much email, Facebook, Youtube, uploading and sharing photos, and Pandora, in more or less that order. The only major sort of higher-level activity that I (aspired to) do is access my corporate server through a remote desktop application. One of the things that drove me to upgrade my home computer was that my Power PC-era MacBook was no longer able to access my corporate server remotely because my OS was too old for the current remote desktop applications. I have used Mac's proprietary desktop software to edit photos and record music over the years, so that's was maybe the one area of hesitation.
So to review the other options, starting with Windows PC's, after decades of using them at work, I've always been basically of the opinion that I would never lay down my own hard earned money to buy one for myself. I've just always found Windows PC's to be buggy, clunky, noisy, slow, apt to crash, etc., and this is based on thousands of hours of use. They also come bundled new with a lot of weird software that you can't fully use unless you pay for it, corporate stickers all over the place. Yuck.
Now, I hear Windows 7 has solved a lot of that, but even then, Microsoft is not gearing up to release Windows 8, and I'll tell you right now, I have no interest in a touch screen desktop. That's just idiocy, IMHO, although knowing my record on stuff like that, everyone will have one in five years or so (along with back problems). So, did I really want to invest in a soon to be obsolete Windows system, when they are in the process of "upgrading" everyone to a new system that I have no interest in using? Just starting the process of thinking about that is enough to make me revert to my default position which is, "no Windows PC's in my house".
The other thing is that yes, I could probably buy a cheap Windows desktop for something close to $300, but to actually utilize any of that additional non-Chrome browser functionality would require me to start purchasing software. MS Office alone can run to $500. Furthermore, if you look at the Chromebox's [URL="(...)"]benchmarks[/URL] (especially the i5, but even the Celeron-based one), you would almost need to buy an i7 Windows PC to significantly match the speed of the Chrome browser running on the i5 Chromebox, and i5 Windows PC to beat the Celeron, in both cases spending way more than $300. There are also not too many Windows desktops that are going to look good in a living room, where I currently have my desk set up.
Next there's Mac OS. I've had a succession of Mac's as my home computers continuously for the past 25 years, and they are good computers, no question. But I don't like how Apple tries to route everything through iTunes, increasing the complexity and difficulty of accessing your files in the process (even limiting your access to your files in some ways), and I don't want to be locked into iTunes for all of my media. I'd also prefer to stay out of Apple's "walled garden" as much as possible, because it just means spending more $$ on everything, especially hardware.
Speaking of $$, to get a basic iMac with minimal third party software and an Apple Care contract, etc., runs close to $2000. My dad just laid down $4K for a MacBook Pro. Those figures are definitely in a different category entirely from a $300 Chromebox with no need to buy any software. And the thing is that I did pay $2000 for my MacBook Pro and software several years ago, and then the optical drive broke, and then the OS went out of date and my processor didn't accommodate the new OS, and etc., etc. Mac OS is a great operating system, but the plain physical realities of computing still apply, and no matter how much you spend, it will become obsolete in a matter of time. Given that my main computing is done at work, the idea of having an expensive machine sitting idle on my desk all day, losing value just through the passage of time, is not appealing. Mac Mini is a little cheaper, but still twice the cost of the Chromebox.
Then there's Linux. Perusing the various forums that talk about Linux, the problem seems to be that there are all kinds of versions out there, and the various open source software that you find may or may not be compatible with the particular version that you're running. And even if it's compatible today, it may not be tomorrow when both sides of the equation are updated. More fundamentally, however, I'm not tech-savvy (facing a command prompt would stop me dead in my tracks in whatever I was trying to do), and I hear that you end up needing to tweak around on Linux a lot to make it work right, no matter the version.
So . . . my Chromebox. The first thing is that it's a nice looking, small form factor. It's very small, about the size of a wireless router, and it looks great in my living room, where I have my desk set up. It's got plenty of in's and out's, with six USB's (two on the front and four in the back), a DVI, two Display Ports, and an audio jack. I flipped it on and it recognized my display immediately, updated itself to the latest Chrome OS and browser in a couple of minutes and asked for my Gmail password. I put that in, and in a couple of more seconds, and I was on a desktop with one-click access to the Chrome browser, Gmail, whatever doc's I had on Google drive, and Youtube. Nice.
Surfing around the web was of course a pleasure. Very fast. Lightning fast. Downloading Youtube clips, complex web pages, whatever. I would expect that surfing the web on a Chromebox would be great and it absolutely is. Definitely the best I've experienced for myself on any system.
The best thing, though, about the Chromebox so far, however, is the Chrome Web Store. I really don't know how the business model for it is going to ultimately work, but right now, there are thousands of Chrome extensions and applications that are available for free. Because they are not even downloading to your desktop, adding and deleting them from your browser takes seconds. This I think is the most revolutionary part of the Chromebox experience. Whereas on a traditional desktop, adding new functionality means buying potentially expensive software, hoping it's compatible, spending time downloading or uploading it onto your hard drive, hoping that it works as intended, encountering significant hassles many times if it doesn't work, and you need to delete it, and get a refund, hoping you don't overload your hard drive with too much weight, hoping if you downloaded it, that it didn't come with virus, or some other weird program that infects other parts of your system, figuring out what updates you need and which ones you can (or should) ignore, sometimes having to pay for updates, etc., etc., on the Chromebox, if you want a new functionality, search for it in the Web Store, add it to your browser in seconds, and if it doesn't work right or you just don't like it, delete it in even less time. It's similar to Android, except even with Android you still have to download the applications onto your phone.
The other advantage is that all of the extensions and applications that I load into my Chrome browser at home will travel with me wherever I happen to log in to Chrome. So if I need to do something on my work computer, if I log in to the Chrome browser, I will have the same functionality there. If I log in on my dad's MacBook while visiting home, it will be there.
To illustrate how well this works, when I informed my corporate IT that I was planning to access the server remotely using the Chromebox, they asked me to bring it in so they could configure it properly. Generally remote access requires that software be installed on both computers. When I brought it in, he started tweaking around, switched it into developer mode, started using command prompts, etc., and I suggested just checking for an HTML5 remote desktop extension in the Chrome Web Store. Lo and behold, there was a third party one there. We switched the Chromebox back out of developer mode and restored everything and then just added the HTML5 RDP extension, which took five seconds. It took another 30 seconds to fill in the required fields (domain, password, etc.) and voila!, I was on the server with a perfectly functioning remote desktop.
IMHO, if Google was smart, they would buy out the best one of the third party HTML5 remote desktop extensions in their Web store and make it a standard part of the browser. A properly functioning remote access capability improves the usefulness of a web-only computer exponentially, for those who have work computers with the full MS Office suite, etc. Google's own Chrome remote desktop application requires that it be installed on both computers, something that my IT department and I suspect many others was not willing to do at this point. But whatever, as I said, it took less than a minute total to configure my Chromebox to allow me to access my corporate server remotely, and it works beautifully.
Another nice feature is that the starting point on the Chromebox is a log-in screen allowing for I assume an unlimited number of users. Once you log-in under your Gmail account, then all of your browser configurations, email accounts, passwords, etc., all set up automatically. When my wife logs in, it's then completely under her settings and configurations. The configurations could be so different, it's like we have two totally different computers. There's also a guest log-in if someone wants to browse, but in doing so, they wouldn't have any idea what you've been doing with your computer. Very nice.
I also really like the idea of automatic and frequent updates. I've always been very confused about updates on a home computer. Is it really something I need to spend time dealing with? Is it going to improve my performance, or degrade it? Is it really some third-party trying to install a virus or malware or phish me? Is my computer even compatible with it? It's a pain and hassle, and the upshot is that I was never fully updated on my MacBook. I like that Google is just going to keep my computer continually up to date in all aspects without my even thinking about. Yes, they may install something that will snoop on me or whatever, but I just can't worry about that right now. I need my computer to be working, and I don't need to be spending my time and even sometimes money keeping up with nothing other than the passage of time.
The unit is very quiet. The only time the fan has come on was when I was uploading loads of photos. Otherwise, the processor seems to be able to handle the duties without getting too hot. The audio coming out of the 3.5 mm jack sounds good so far. I've heard there are issues with getting audio out of the DisplayPort outputs, but I haven't tried that yet, so I don't know. I think it's software-related though, so hopefully Google has it under control.
There is a basic file system in the OS itself to allow you to see files on the various drives inside and outside of the computer. I like it better than freakin' iTunes. It's very simple, but the files are there, easy to access, properly identified. What else do you need? I spent a couple of hours today uploading months of photos from my camera to Shutterfly, and it worked great.
If anyone is interested in buying one, the one recommendation I would make is to NOT buy the Samsung Chromebox keyboard and mouse. The mouse is nice, but the keyboard is inferior to a decent standard Windows keyboard (and it doesn't come in wireless). The Chrome-specific functionality would still be there on a Windows keyboard, it's just that the F keys won't be labelled correctly. You could either memorize the functions, or maybe get little stickers and put them on as reminders until you did. The Chrome-specific keys are basic anyways -- back, forward, full screen, brightness, volume, etc. If I had to do it again, I would buy a nice wireless Windows keyboard and mouse combo, especially one where they both can use just one USB port, in order to save them for other purposes.
A lot of reviewers have mentioned, and I would probably agree, that it would've been nice if Samsung had included a USB 3.0 port or two, since with only 16GB onboard, it seems inevitable that at some point you may want to have a big external drive connected to it. I also can't speak to any differences between my unit and the Celeron Chromebox, though I suspect that it's not a big deal. It would have to be much, much slower for it to not still be a very fast slick system.
So, there you have it. There's at least one family out there for whom the Chromebox seems to be a viable alternative to a Windows or Mac desktop computer.
on August 28, 2012
*A Samsung Series 3 Chromebox Gets Me Past My PC's Limitations*
After an evening of unboxing, cording and oohing and aahing, my new desktop Chrome OS computer is up, running and keeping me fully productive. The Samsung Series 3 Chromebox is a compact unit that now fits in a corner in my desk, freeing up a wide swath of space on top of my desk where my largely deskbound Dell Latitiude laptop had been sitting. With a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook as my "go-to" road warrior and around-home computer, rare are the times when I even unplug the laptop, with almost all of my productivity tools living in the cloud of Internet services like Google Drive, Zoho Writer and other great tools powered by browser technologies. Add in the increasing instability of any Windows PC after more than a few moments of newness and it was time to get back to a sane desktop.
Sanity was very easy to come by in this instance. Unbox the tiny Chromebox - no larger than a Macbook mini (for half the price) - cord up your USB peripherals and monitor, hit the power button and away you go. The first screen helps you set up your network - essential for a cloud computer - then you log in (I did so with two-step authentication) and it updates the unit with the latest Chrome OS software and all of your Chrome OS settings.
The initial update process took several minutes for me, since I make heavy use of Chrome extensions, bookmarks and Google Drive, but when that was done I rebooted to a normal login prompt and was looking immediately at my full complement of Chrome tools already installed. No hours/days of software installation, no fussing with CDs, drivers or downloads - everything was there, my plug-and-play webcam and headset worked flawlessly and I was immediately productive.
The only two very small wrinkles were screen wallpaper and mouse speed. The stable/production version of Chrome OS now allows you to load in a personal image of your choice as your screen wallpaper image, but for some reason this was not loaded, although I had specified an image on my Google Drive. No worries, loaded in seconds. The default mouse settings for Chrome OS in the stable channel were rather slow for navigating across the HD-resolution 23-inch monitor that I purchased with the Chromebox, so I switched to the Beta channel and discovered that the mouse settings were much more responsive. So hopefully that's a bit of goodness that comes to the stable "Stumpy" version of Chrome OS for Chromeboxes some time soon. In the meantime, this was a true "it just works" product setup.
The rest is pretty much just using Chrome OS, which is a great experience, but the best part is that my plans for turning my PC into a legacy app server seem to work perfectly. One of the really great features available in Chrome is an extension called Remote Desktop Beta. This allows you to access any networked PC from anywhere as a secure desktop emulation. With my new hi-res monitor, my Remote Desktop connection to my Dell Latitude PC enables me to keep my PC as a separate window in Chrome and to access any PC-specific software or functions that I may need as if they were running natively on the Chromebox.
This works very smoothly indeed with a good network connection, so I highly recommend this as a way to go Chrome-first without having to make a large array of choices about leaving things behind on your PC. As it is I had already bought a Cloud Print-compatible all-in-one unit from HP for scanning and printing, so the transition is all that much easier - I don't have to have the PC operating to access my printer from anywhere via a Chrome browser or computer.
The other great bonus of this Remote Desktop setup is that I have a version of Photoshop on my PC that's compatible only with Windows XP and requires me to use Windows XP emulation to run the software. To upgrade that software would cost me $800 - $300 more than my whole new computing rig. So now I use Remote Desktop emulation to access Dell Latitude Windows 7 PC running XP emulation. It's kind of a wild concept, but it works fine.
So now I have a beautiful new setup that just plain works as it should, a reclaimed desktop and my Dell Latitude laptop sequestered under my desk with its cooling fan pad taped to its back and its lip taped closed with a small eraser stuck between the keyboard and the screen to give it a little extra ventilation. I will use it as my server for CDs when I have music to burn, since you need PC software to upload tunes to Google Play Music (ironic, but I get it), and for the time being the PC is also my SD card reader.
That's right, one oddity is that the Series 3 Chromebox does not have an SD card bay. Why? Well, my best guess is that it emphasizes the concept of keeping your content stored in the cloud, rather than pack-ratting it on little drives that are easily lost or broken. However, I wouldn't be surprised if enterprises that are eager to downsize desktop technology for their staffs may have wanted one less way for content to walk away from their offices.
Whatever the reason, all you need is to shell out $5-20 for a good USB plug-and-play card reader and you'll be fine. Perhaps keeping the cost down was also a factor - this is a $329 unit, after all, so it seems to be maximized on great features that provide the greatest amount of value for the greatest number of people - typical Google product strategy. So no SD card reader but two DisplayPort monitor ports for dual-headed monitors, a DVI port, six USB ports (two in front - handy for USB headsets and on-the-go USB drives), a 1 gigabit Ethernet connector and wireless b/g/n network connectivity.
So far the unit's performance has been excellent, fast and highly stable in spite of me pushing it to its limits. Okay, I did get one "he's dead, Jim" browser crash unexpectedly, but that seems to have been a passing thing. An hour-plus Hangout went off flawlessly, even while playing songs on Google Play Music and sharing my desktop to show Remote Desktop - an act of faith, but faith rewarded perfectly. All content comes up crisply, vindicating the Intel Celeron dual-core processor, though I had had my fingers crossed for an i5 Core chip that snuck into Chromeboxes given out at Google I/O. As noted in the packing materials, there is just a touch of lag when you go to full-screen HD video. I assume that the +Google Chrome team is on the case.
The Celeron is more power-thirsty than other processors on the scale of portables, so I am skipping the Series 550 generation of Chromebooks for now, but in a desktop configuration it runs cooly beneath the Chromebox's excellent ventilation system. On a warm, humid summer day it's just sitting there, with not even an audible whisper of fan sound coming from it. So now I am largely future-proof for a good long time. Chrome is in the driver's seat, updating automatically, keeping me insulated from "gotcha" proprietary hardware and software and attached to all of the best goodness that the Web can offer - which covers more than 90 percent of what I need out of a computer for work, and lots for play also.
To me the Samsung Series 3 Chromebox is a "no-brainer" investment. Give yourself the edge of a Web-first view of the world, and the rest falls into place.