Asus Chromebit isn't the first computer-on-a-stick, but it may be the first one to succeed.
Back in 2011, I met FXI Technologies at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona where they demonstrated a similar device called Cotton Candy that dual booted Android and desktop grade Ubuntu. The company filed for bankruptcy three years later.
But Google is different. Unlike FXI, Google has the financial resources to develop and market such a device. They have a huge developer community writing web apps for Chrome OS and their Chrome browser dominates market share.
Google was kind enough to send me review unit, but before I send this one back, I will be placing an order for myself. Here's a look at what I think makes the $85 device worth buying -- and who it's good for.
First things first: The hardware
Chromebit is using the same processor, Rockchip RK3288-C, that powers the popular ASUS Flip Chromebook. I have been using the Chromebook Flip for months and love it, except for non-UHD display. So I can say that the chip is powerful enough to drive a heavy workload. Since it’s a Chrome OS device, by "heavy workload" I mean hundreds of tabs running different services and applications; we are not playing Crysis or using Photoshop here.
The only concern I have is Chromebit's 2GB of RAM, although I haven’t noticed any drag in performance so far. I tried Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Pixlr, Netflix, and played an HD movie. It worked fine. But to my mind, 2GB is baseline for web browsing. I would like to see at least 4GB of RAM to future proof it for those services and sites that can be resource intensive.
The device has one HDMI port, which comes with a protective cap. You can’t store the cap on the other end of the device, so chances are you will eventually lose it.
There are two more ports on the device: A jack for power supply and a USB 2.0 port. You can use the USB port to plug in external (and powered) hard drives, USB Flash drives, SD card readers, etc. I wish there was support for a microSD card so storage could be expanded in a more discrete manner (Chromebit comes with only 16 GB of storage).
Of course, if you want to connect more than one device, since there is only one port, I would recommend using a powered USB hub.
You need an HDMI enabled monitor to use Chromebit. If you don’t have one, then you can buy an HDMI adaptor, but the drawback of not having an HDMI monitor is you won’t get any audio since Chromebit doesn’t have an audio out port.
Chromebit has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. If you are planning to buy Bluetooth peripherals don’t buy those that come with their own USB dongles for connectivity as there aren’t enough ports.
Once everything is in place, turn the monitor on before plugging the device into it. This is important as it will allow Chromebit to detect the maximum resolution and aspect ratio for the monitor. (Note: The max resolution you will get out of this device is 1080p; no 4K yet.)
There is no power button on the device, just plug in the power cable and it will turn on.
If you are using wireless peripherals you will see a screen where you will be asked to pair your devices. Just push the connect buttons on your keyboard/mouse and Chrome OS will pair with them. Once your mouse and keyboard are paired you will be greeted by the typical Chrome OS screen where you have to select your language, keyboard layout and network. Then you have to agree to the Terms of Service before you can log into your Gmail account. You can use as many Gmail accounts with the device as you want, just like a Chromebook.
Along with my review device, Google sent me a Logitech Ultrathin Illuminated Keyboard, which is a great keyboard except that it’s a Windows keyboard and lacks keys that you would find on Chromebooks. There is no log out button on the keyboard, so you will have to use the mouse to do so. And once you shut down the Chromebit, you can turn it on by either clicking the mouse or hitting any button on the keyboard.
And that’s where one of the biggest problems with Chrome OS pops up: There is no easy way to set up a lock screen protected by a PIN. All you can do is log out and then you will have to enter the Gmail password to log back in. If you use a long, complex password, you are going to hate this.
** Google developers, if you are reading this please offer PIN support, just like Android and iOS offer. **
A tip for Android phone users: You can unlock your Chromebit's screen with your smart phone. Here's how to set it up: Place your Android smartphone close to Chromebit. Then go to Settings > Advanced Settings on Chrome OS and open Set-up lock. You will be asked to enter the password for the currently logged in user. It will scan for the nearby Android phones. You can choose the phone from the list. Once connected the Chromebit will unlock when it finds the phone near the device (within Bluetooth range.)
Chrome OS uses an image based upgrade mechanism so everytime you reboot your system it switches to the latest version of the operating system. As a result, you will never have to worry about updating your system. It’s the same OS that runs on Chromebooks: it’s a browser based operating system. It’s fast, modern and just works.
You can use Google Docs, Microsoft Office and Apple’s Pages You can play Netflix, connect with friends on Facebook, make phone and video calls from Hangouts…everything that you can do inside a Chrome browser can be done here.
Google has added offline capabilities as well, so you can continue with your work even if there is no Internet.
I run a local file server in my home network that hosts all my files, including documents, music, movies and pictures. The file browser of Chrome OS now has support for mounting remote drives. Once you mount those drives you can play music, movies, look at pictures and work on documents with ease. It also has Plex so you can turn your Chromebit into an entertainment box.
Who is it for?
Everyone. Chromebit is a perfect device for an average user who uses a computer for browsing the web, replying to email, working on documents, and chatting with friends on Facebook. It’s a perfect device for enterprise users who access the corporate network over a browser.
As a writer, it’s a great device for me as I am a heavy user of Google Docs and I don’t have to worry about the overload of running the whole operating system just to use a browser. It’s certainly a great device for anyone who doesn't want to worry about viruses, system maintenance and other complexities that come with regular desktop PCs.
Who is it not for?
As tempting as it may look, it’s not a travel companion. You still need a mouse, keyboard and a monitor. I would stick to a laptop or a tablet for traveling. It’s not for those who are into audio/video production, PC gaming or run some really old legacy software. It’s also not a replacement for your Chromecast.
- Zero maintenance
- No recurring license fee
- Always updates
- No viruses
- Dirt cheap - The whole package of the Chromebit, keyboard and mouse costs under $200
- No data loss
- Works offline
- Restricted to using the Chrome browser
- All the limitations of a Chrome OS device
- Can’t take phone calls from Android phones
- Only 2GB RAM
The bottom line: Buy it. It’s just $85 and if you have an extra HDMI monitor lying around, Chromebit will let you convert it into a family PC.
Have you tried Chromebit yet? Are you planning to get one?
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