In depth: What Asus's $179 Chromebox is actually like to use

Google's Chrome OS has been expanding like crazy over the last couple of years -- but for all the new Chromebooks in the universe right now, we haven't seen a desktop-based Chrome system since 2012's original Chromebox debuted.

Asus Chromebox

Well, gang, the dry streak is officially over. Asus is kicking off the Chromebox rebirth with the release of its $179 Chromebox (model M004U), which is available for pre-order now and will ship later this month. The device will soon be joined by a higher-end sibling, too: Asus's $369 Intel Core i3-based Chromebox, which is set to launch in April.

So what's the $179 Asus Chromebox actually like to use? I've been living with the device for the past week to find out.

Asus Chromebox: The basics

First things first, the form: Asus's Chromebox is a nicely designed minimalist box that blends into your workspace without any fuss. It's a 4.9-x-4.9-in. square that sits just over an inch and a half tall. The exterior is a matte black plastic; there's a silver-colored reflective Asus logo and a small Chrome logo on the top -- and that's about it.

Asus Chromebox Design

If you're looking for something flashy, Asus's Chromebox isn't it. But if you're looking for an understatedly classy and extremely compact computer, it might be just what the doctor ordered.

Asus Chromebox: The ports

The Asus Chromebox is no slouch when it comes to connectivity: The system has two USB 3.0 ports on its front panel and two more on its back. The rear panel also holds an HDMI-out port, a dual-mode DisplayPort, an RJ45 LAN port for wired Internet connections, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a DC port for its included power adaptor. (There's also integrated support for Wi-Fi -- dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n -- as well as Bluetooth 4.0.)

Asus Chromebox Back

The left panel, meanwhile, has a two-in-one card reader and a Kensington Lock slot.

Asus Chromebox (left)

Notably absent is any sort of speaker. You'll need to connect your own external speaker if you want sound.

The Chromebox does come with a VESA mount in case you want to stick it on a wall.

Asus Chromebox: The user experience

Using the Asus Chromebox is exactly like using any other Chrome OS device; it's essentially just the desktop version of a Chromebook. That means you plug in your own monitor, keyboard, and mouse (Asus will be selling a custom Chrome OS keyboard and wireless mouse combo for $50 starting next month, but any ol' peripherals will work just fine). In terms of the actual user experience, though, Google's cloud-centric environment is absolutely constant from one device to the next.

Asus Chromebox Chrome OS

I've covered the Chrome OS experience exhaustively over the years, so I'm not going to get into the ins and outs of the operating system here. In short, I'll say this: Chrome OS offers a lot of benefits over a traditional desktop computing environment, but it also has its share of limitations and isn't going to be right for everyone. If you haven't spent any time exploring it in recent months, check out my in-depth Chrome OS review and my list of common Chrome OS misconceptions for a detailed look at what you can expect.

Asus Chromebox: Performance and hardware upgrades

So far so good, right? All that's really left to talk about with Asus's Chromebox is its performance, then -- and that's fairly simple to cover.

Asus Chromebox Performance

The reason? Asus's Chromebox uses the same setup we've seen in many of the recent Haswell-based Chromebook devices: an Intel Celeron 2955U processor along with 2GB of RAM. And consequently, its performance is pretty much identical to what we've seen on those other systems (as is the fact that the device runs almost silently most of the time).

The one variable is the RAM: Some of the recent Chromebooks have 4GB instead of 2GB, which gives them a little extra processing punch. With 2GB, the Asus Chromebox is on the level of a system like Acer's C720P Chromebook, which tends to be slightly less snappy than its 4GB-packing cousins but generally still quite usable and responsive.

Here's where things get a little strange: Asus actually sent me an evaluation unit with 4GB of RAM, as I first discovered when looking in the Chrome OS system info panel. When I asked about it, Asus told me it was an unintentional mixup and that some developer units were evidently sent to reviewers by mistake.

The apparent gaffe gave me the opportunity to confirm something interesting about this device, though: It's user-serviceable -- meaning if you're comfortable with Computer Repair 101, you can get under the hood and upgrade its RAM pretty easily. All you have to do is pry off the rubber feet on its bottom, unscrew the four screws hidden beneath them, then stick a screwdriver into one of the holes to get the bottom panel off.

Asus Chromebox Inside

The system supports up to 8GB of RAM, so you can turn it into a power-user-friendly setup without too much work or added cost; you can snag a compatible 2GB DIMM for around 20 to 25 bucks, and if you're feeling especially memory-thirsty, 4GB DIMMs won't run you a heck of a lot more.

(As you can see in the photo above, you could also theoretically swap out the device's 16GB solid-state drive for one with more local space, if you want. That'd involve a bit more effort, as you'd have to back up and then restore the operating system image -- and it may or may not be officially supported in terms of warranty -- but it can definitely be done. The Chromebox also comes with 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years, which is obviously intended to help you transition to a more cloud-centric storage mindset.)

I used the Chromebox with 4GB of RAM for a while and then popped out one of the memory modules to drop it to the standard 2GB level for comparison. In either scenario, with just a few tabs open -- you know, the way "normal people" work -- the Chromebox keeps up without any problem. If you're a typical user who doesn't usually have a ton of tabs running at once, it should be more than fine for your needs right out of the box; you probably won't ever think twice about performance.

Asus Chromebox RAM

With more extreme levels of use, though, the device does start to feel like it's working extra hard to keep up -- and that's where the amount of RAM seems to make the most difference. With 2GB in place, I start noticing things getting a little poky once I get around 10 or 12 tabs open at the same time. With 4GB, I can usually get up to 20 active tabs before I start seeing the first signs of subtle struggle. (Obviously, those numbers can vary a bit based on what types of tabs are involved.)

I haven't ever hit the point where the system feels unbearably sluggish and slow, like what we'd sometimes see with the first-gen ARM-based Chrome OS devices, but it is a little less nimble than I'd like when heavy-duty multitasking is involved -- especially with its default 2GB RAM setup. I've also run into the occasional tab crash when I've had lots of stuff open, presumably because the system ran out of available memory -- both with 2GB and 4GB in place.

But again, that ceiling is really only apparent when you're running an unusually high amount of processes at once. Most users will never hit it.

Asus Chromebox: The bottom line

All considered, I've really enjoyed using Asus's $179 Chromebox. I'm admittedly already a Chrome OS convert, but within the world of cloud-centric computing, I've found Asus's latest offering to be a nice way to get the experience I enjoy in a compact yet robust desktop-based configuration.

That said, you do have to remember that it is an entry-level system; particularly with its default 2GB RAM configuration, it can be a bit limiting when it comes to heavy-duty computing. If you fall into the power-user camp like I do -- if you frequently keep a dozen or more tabs running simultaneously and/or want super-snappy performance in general -- I'd strongly suggest you consider either upgrading this system's RAM or waiting for a higher-end model to arrive.

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For more casual users who are looking for a cloud-centric desktop setup, though, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Asus's $179 Chromebox in its default form. It's a well-designed and solid entry-level system that should do everything you need -- and as an added perk, it's easy to upgrade if you ever decide you want some extra punch.

I'll be taking a closer look at Asus's higher-end Core i3 Chromebox next. Stay tuned for some hands-on thoughts and comparisons.

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