Asus Chromebox 3 review: Miniature PC, maximum productivity

An attractive option for schools and businesses that don’t need heavyweight computing devices

Price
£208
  • Small and quiet; Android apps are capable enough for most tasks; great central management features
  • Underwhelming performance; Only runs browser and Android apps

Chromebooks have obvious appeal. Secure, cheap and portable, they're such a compelling alternative to Windows laptops that our own Nicole Kobie has just invested in one for her travels. They also suffer from none of the annoying Windows Update problems: you can pick one up after months and it will just work.

Chromeboxes, though, have never had the same X factor. They've found a niche in schools and colleges, where the ability for students to log into their account with an email and password, combined with their ease of management, make them a compelling choice. But Asus believes the Chromebox 3 has appeal to home users, too, thanks to a combination of Intel silicon, low prices and built-in support for the Google Play Store.

It sent us the very cheapest version, based on an Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD, but you can buy a higher-end unit with a Core i3-7100U, 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD - the only drawback being that this almost doubles the cost, to 450.

We'd love to say that the Celeron version is so spritely there's no point in spending more, but sadly "laggy" is a more fitting description. If you're used to a Windows PC where Chrome windows launch in an instant then you'll find the Chromebox 3 irritating at first; even the mouse seems a little sluggish. This subjective feeling was backed up by its scores in Geekbench 4 when we ran the Android app: 2,323 single-core, and oddly a lower multi-core result of 2,206.

But we soon got used to this machine taking a millisecond or two longer than my Windows laptop. Sure, websites don't always spring instantly to life, but if all you want to do is respond to emails, tap reports into Google Docs and watch TV series on Netflix then this machine is more than capable. Indeed, we hooked it up to a 4K screen using the HDMI output and for 80% of the time it was exactly like using a Windows machine.

Where it jolts you back to Chrome OS reality is when something doesn't work - or at least, not like you expect it to. For instance, we decided to use the Outlook app to handle email rather than the web interface. It seemed to install fine, but then said we needed to install a browser. A tad ironic when you consider that a browser is basically all Chrome OS is.

Still, the Word Android app works beautifully, allowing you to access all your files saved on OneDrive with a single click. You can resize the window to work, say, with the browser open on the left and Word on the right, with the only difference compared to the Windows-based experience being the stripped-down ribbon.

This is a quiet little system too. If all else is still in your office, you'll notice a faint whirr from the fans inside, but this fades into the background. Fix it onto the rear of your screen using the VESA fittings (not supplied in the box) and you won't even notice it's there.

It helps that this is a well-equipped PC for wireless comms. There's Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, so you could get away with two wires: HDMI and power. Thanks to a USB-C 3.1 port that supports power input, if you have a suitably equipped monitor then you don't even need the external power brick. It essentially turns your monitor into an all-in-one PC.

This isn't to suggest the Chromebox 3 lacks ports. There are two Type-A USB 3.1 ports at the front, along with a microSD slot, while this Celeron-equipped version includes another Type-A USB 3.1 and two USB 2 ports at the rear. Its Core i3 brethren benefit from faster USB 3.1 connections all round. In addition, there's a USB-C 3.1 port for speedy data transfer, power delivery and hooking up a screen via a DisplayPort adapter (not included). You could even use the Chromebox to power two 4K displays at once.

It adds up to a surprisingly versatile computer. Would we want it as our main system? No, because it doesn't have enough power and we want full-fat programs, not lightweight apps designed for Android. Would it work as a secondary all-purpose system for guests, or for businesses where users' demands are less intense? Undoubtedly. Indeed, its inherent security and ease of management make it much more appealing than a traditional Windows system. Especially when it costs just 250.

Verdict

The Asus Chromebox 3 is far from powerful, but if your needs are basic then its small footprint and equally small price coupled with the ease of management will leave you very happy indeed.

Intel Celeron 3865U processor Intel HD Graphics 610 4GB RAM; 32GB M.2 SSD TPM module 802.11ac Wi-Fi Bluetooth 4.2 RJ-45 port microSD card reader USB-C 3.1 2 x USB 3.1 2 x USB 2 HDMI 149 x 149 x 40mm (WDH) 1kg 1yr RTB warranty

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