ASUS Chromebit—Chrome OS in HDMI stick. But what’s the point?

18 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Asus Chromebit Review: The Cheap Browser On A Stick Needs More Time In The Oven.

Built by Samsung, it was considerably less powerful than the average notebook PC, and like all Chromebooks, it didn’t run any software beyond Google’s Chrome browser.

Though it’s the size of your average USB stick, the Chromebit has fairly decent specifications: a quad-core Rockchip RK3288-C processor and an integrated Rockchip Mali T764 graphics chip, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.Google and Asus today launched the Chromebit, an $85 HDMI stick that allows users to plug into any screen and run Chrome OS straight out of the box — assuming they also link up a USB or Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. In 2015, basic computer hardware is small and cheap enough that it can be condensed into stick form and plugged, almost as an afterthought, into the back of a TV. People who want to surf from the couch can take their pick of tiny systems, complete with processors, RAM, and onboard storage, that plug into a TV’s HDMI port.

Suddenly the tech industry paid a lot more attention to Google’s browser-based Chrome OS software, and that paved the way for lots more thin, light, and cheap laptops. The 75gm candy bar-sized dongle is “a full computer,” Google says, and envisions it for use-cases like watching videos and movies, showcasing photos, exploring Google Earth, or playing games through the Chrome Web Store (as well as “some apps from [Google] Play”). Archos’ PC Stick runs Windows 10; Lenovo’s Ideacentre Stick 300 runs Windows 8.1 or Windows 10; Intel’s Compute Stick comes in Windows and Ubuntu Linux flavors. It’s essentially a cheap Chromebook, with the screen and input devices removed, and it provides a neat, portable means of carrying around a computer.

In a nutshell, the idea here is to “upgrade any screen—even a TV—to a modern computer that’s easy to maintain, secure, and manage.” Emphasis is also being placed on its being an ultra-affordable solution. Plug it into a TV or any display with a HDMI port, connect it to a Bluetooth keyboard and a mouse, and you’re ready to do pretty much everything you can do on a desktop PC. Its processor isn’t very fast, but it lets people run a full desktop web browser on the biggest screen in their house, so they can, for example, stream video from sites that don’t have a dedicated app on set-top boxes such as Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast.

The Rockchip-based Chromebit comes in “Cacao Black” and “Tangerine Orange,” but overall, it’s a pretty unassuming device that’s mostly meant to disappear behind your screen anyway (hence why I’m not sure why there is an orange version). You still have to plug the Chromebit into a power outlet, though, so from a practical standpoint the stick design isn’t much different than having a small desktop box.

Businesses can download Chrome Kiosk apps to power signs and kiosks (available examples include StratosMedia, Telemetry, Arreya, Signagelive, Wondersign, Nutrislice, and Chrome Sign builder). Early reports say the Chromebit provides an awfully meager PC experience. “Chromebit is so underpowered that it can’t even handle Flash video without choppiness, which is distracting if not unwatchable,” Fast Company’s Jared Newman reports. “The $85 price tag is enticing, but you could spend another $50 and get one of the cheaper Chromebooks,” adds Ars Technica’s Valentina Palladino.

The story behind the story: Although we couldn’t find much use for it in our review, several computer makers have come out with computers on a stick in 2015. Not much has changed in terms of specs (the color did, though; instead of blue, it will be available in “cacao black” and “tangerine orange”), but now we know the exact price: $85. To that end, Google is today announcing Single App Chrome Device Management (Single App CDM), which it calls “a more streamlined console just for digital signs and kiosks… priced at $24 per device per year.” “Single App CDM offers ongoing reporting that monitors the health of your kiosks and signage at all times. The scenario in which the Chromebit’s design makes the most sense is with wall-mounted televisions, which can neatly hide the Chromebit away without any additional mounting brackets.

You could probably use the Chromebit as a somewhat cumbersome media center in your living room if you wanted to, but it’s really at home in a school, enterprise, or maybe call center. Globally, you can expect to see it at retailers in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and the UK.

As long as the work only involves web apps (or maybe a remote connection to a more fully-featured machine), the Chromebit is up for the job and can turn any screen into a usable desktop. Although available to consumers, the real market here appears to be enterprises and schools where a single computer on a large screen can be helpful for large team projects. The Raspberry Pi, another “headless” PC, was originally envisioned as a way to teach students how to program, but thanks to its low cost and simple design, it evolved into a playground for tinkerers of all ages. Google for Work and Education customers can also opt to add the new single-app kiosk mode option for $24 per user and year, available through CDW in the U.S. and Canada. Among them are Google’s own $35 Chromecast dongle, which lets you play videos, music, and photos on the television using a phone, tablet, or PC as the remote control.

Whether a Chrome OS device is worth that much depends on how invested you are in Google’s ecosystem and whether you really need a Windows desktop for those times only a TV and mini-PC combo will do. Even if you have a streaming box such as a Roku or Apple TV, the Chromebit could be a stand-in for when your favorite video or music site doesn’t have an app available. For instance, I tried putting the Chromebit through my usual Sunday afternoon ritual of watching NFL Redzone while running Yahoo Fantasy Sports’s StatTracker web application, and found that performance was uncomfortably slow.

And during the workday, leaving tabs open for Tweetdeck and Slack led to long delays after getting back from lunch, as the Chromebit struggled to load up everything I’d missed. Most notably, Microsoft has responded to the Chrome OS threat over the past few years, lowering the base storage and RAM requirements of Windows, and even offering a break on licensing costs for vendors. The future of Chrome OS is also an elephant in the room, with recent reports claiming that Google may announce some Android-Chrome hybrid for laptops and desktops next year. Google says that Chrome OS isn’t going away—it has lots of traction in schools, after all—but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where development de-emphasizes consumer applications.

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