A week ago today, I started an experiment: as much as was possible, I would use the Asus Chromebox 3 as my main system. During the course of my regular work, I would note what I loved and what I hated – and also when I absolutely had to fall back on my Surface Book 2. All this to provide an Asus Chromebox 3 review worthy of the name.
Asus Chromebox 3 review: small thinking
One of the things I love about the Chromebox 3 is its size. I’ve kept the unit on my desk, but it’s small enough to fit onto the VESA housing on a monitor. With the right cables, you wouldn’t even know it was there: a flick of the mouse would wake your monitor, and it would sit there ready to work.
It helps that Asus packs in plenty of connections. There are two standard USB ports at the front, along with a microSD card reader, but round the back you’ll find an Ethernet port, three more USB ports, a modern USB-C 3.1 port and an HDMI output. I’ve used the latter to connect my monitor, but that USB-C port means you could run dual 4K displays.
This is a quiet wee thing too. You can hear the whirr of the fans if you listen for them, but they’re quickly drowned out by everyday noise. With a power draw of 3.6W at idle, and roughly 6W in use, its running costs are miniscule: assuming a 5W average, you could keep it on all day and night and it would only cost you around £4.50 to run per year (excluding the cost of running the screen).
Asus Chromebox 3 review: small price to pay
You can currently buy three different configurations of the Chromebox 3, but Asus sent me the cheapest version to test. This includes a Celeron 3865U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SDD. Asus refers to this spec as the N003U.
If you want more grunt, there’s the N004U. It boosts the processor to a significantly more powerful Core i3-7100U chip, while doubling the SDD to 64GB but keeping the memory at 4GB.
But there’s a big jump in price too: where the Celeron-powered version costs £250, the Core i3 twist will set you back £450. Want even more power? Then the N005U includes a Core i5-8250U, 8GB of RAM and 128GB SDD. It costs £570.
Now I’d be lying if said the Celeron version was fast. At first, I frequently found myself frustrated by Chrome windows taking a fraction of a second longer to load compared to my Surface Book, and there’s a very slight lag if you drag windows around the screen. This is reflected in a humble single-core Geekbench 4 score of 2,304.
However, having used the Chromebox 3 for a week, this isn’t my biggest frustration by a long way. In fact, I soon got used to it. If you’re going with the Chromebox, I recommend the cheaper version.
Asus Chromebox 3 review: the real frustrations
So what were the frustrations? What did I miss, you ask? The biggest question is: where do I start?
The main problem I hit with the Chromebox – by which I really mean switching to Chrome OS as my main operating system – is entirely predictable. You have to use Chrome for pretty much everything. I have a mild addiction to Microsoft Outlook, and with three email accounts to look after found it a right pain to switch between three windows.
I also have three different Slack accounts I need to keep abreast of, so once again the web-based approach (three different windows within Chrome) is much worse than a dedicated app that can handle all three.
While there are web-based tools for editing photos, I confess that I ended up switching back to my Windows laptop when I needed to fiddle with images.
You may be thinking, “Aha, but what about support for Android apps!” And it’s true that this could solve some problems. Unfortunately, though, none of mine. I tried to install Outlook but was told I didn’t have a browser installed. Slack informed me “Your device isn’t compatible with this version.” And Pixlr isn’t worthy of the description “photo editor”.
Asus Chromebox 3 review: missing Windows
Then there are the things you just take for granted in Windows that are tricky to do with Chrome OS. File management sits right at the top of that list. There is a file manager built into Chrome OS, but it’s Heath Robinson-esque compared to Windows 10.
For instance, I hit a slight problem trying to move files from Dropbox to Google Drive. Both of these services integrate with Windows, so moving files is a simple case of drag and drop. With the Chromebox, I had to log into Dropbox via Chrome, download the various files I was interested in, then upload them to the right folder using the Files app. All doable; but a pain.
I’m also a keen user of Windows shortcuts, with my favourite being Windows + left cursor to snap a window the left of a screen. Windows then prompts me to select what I’d like to snap to the right, so within a second I can be working on two documents side by side.
In Chrome OS, you have to manually resize and reposition windows to make them sit kind-of-vaguely next to one another. Not nearly so satisfying. (Update 11 July 2018: You can almost do the same thing by using Alt+[ to snap an active window to the left, then selecting a new window and pressing Alt+] to align it to the right. Thanks to Steve Cusack for the tip.)
Asus Chromebox 3 review: the blockers
And then there are the things that you can’t do with Chrome OS at all. These are dwindling over time, but there are still no equivalents to professional Adobe tools such as InDesign and Photoshop. I suspect that most people have one particular tool that’s only available on Windows or Mac.
The best workaround I can think of is to remotely control a Windows PC or Mac as and when you need one, but that’s a hack – and not one I’d care to do every day.
Asus Chromebox 3 review: the upsides
In my handwritten list of positives during the week, I only came up with four (although I’m sure many more exist). One is that every single document you have on Google Drive is instantly on hand. In my case, I have an archive of documents going back three years stored on Drive, and there isn’t room for them all on my Surface Book’s 256GB SSD.
This ties into another of my scrawled positives: that a Chromebook or Chromebox moves you away from that old-fashioned conceit of “your PC”. Computers fail all the time, and it’s dangerous to rely on one particular chunk of metal and plastic. If this particular Chromebox failed, Asus could send me a new one the following day and I could pick up from exactly where I was.
Then there’s the fact that updates and viruses become a much smaller part of your life. Sure, Chrome OS will keep itself updated, but you won’t lose any data (or much time) while it does so. In fact, leave it on, and you’ll probably never notice it updating itself at all.
Finally, of course, there’s the price. Assuming you already have a monitor, mouse and keyboard kicking about, you’re buying a tidy computer for £250 all-in. No need to buy extra software either; everything you need is supplied.
Asus Chromebox 3 review: the verdict
Crunch time: should you buy the Asus Chromebox 3? Can it really replace a Windows PC or a Mac? I’m not convinced. This feels like a supplementary device: one you’d shove in the guest room or roll out in schools rather than as a main system.
If you’re going to buy, then do so with caution – and understand what your own blockers will be.
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