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Asus Chromebox: A Tiny, Cheap, Very Useful Computer

David Pogue

I roll my eyes when people claim that we’re “living in the post-PC era.”

I mean, we do live in the post-VCR era. And the post-zeppelin era. And the post–steam locomotive era.

And it’s true that sales of Windows PCs are dropping a few percent a year, thanks to the rise of smartphones and tablets. But to say that nobody has them anymore? Yeah, no.

Asus Chromebox: A Tiny, Cheap, Very Useful Computer

That’s not to say that things aren’t changing. Our lives are moving online. Recently, a friend said — “Whoa, you almost forgot your laptop! You’d lose all your data — your whole life!” But actually, I wouldn’t lose much of anything. Almost every important thing on my laptop is stored online and backed up automatically: email, calendar, address book, documents, photos, and so on.

That’s all the setup you need to understand the appeal of the new Asus Chromebox. It’s among the least-expensive desktop computers ever sold — $180 — and certainly among the smallest. It’s a 1.7-inch-tall square slab, 4.9 inches on a side; the computer isn’t much bigger than its own power brick. You could slip this thing into a coat pocket on your way out the door. It could pass for a generously sized brownie.

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That price and those dimensions, of course, account only for the computer itself. Mouse, keyboard and monitor aren’t included. Those accessories might cost another $75 or more. Or less, depending on what you’ve got lying around your house and how cheap a shopper you are.

The big thing, though, is that the Chromebox doesn’t run Windows or Mac OS X. The Chromebox is the desktop version of Google’s Chromebook laptop concept, which means that it’s intended exclusively for doing things online.

Yes, it’s true: A Chrome PC can’t run traditional programs like Photoshop, Microsoft Office, iTunes, Quicken, or Minecraft. (Some would say, “Thank goodness.”)

It runs the Flash plug-in, but it can’t run browser plug-ins like Java or Silverlight, which means that a few web-based games and video playback sites won’t work. If you hook up a webcam, you can conduct video chats using Google’s Hangouts feature — but you can’t use Skype.

What you can do is “check email, build spreadsheets, watch movies on Netflix, chat up friends on Facebook, share photos on Instagram, stream music on Pandora,” surf the web and so on. (That quotation comes from fellow Yahoo Tech columnist Dan Tynan’s terrific introduction to Chromebooks here.)

And, of course, you can use all of Google’s online products: Google Docs (for working with Microsoft Word and Excel documents), Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google+ and so on.

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There are apps that run on Chromebooks and Chromeboxes, but not very many, and they’re not as complete, polished or famous as their Windows and Mac forbears. For most people, they’re a fairly unimportant part of the “Should I buy a Chrome machine?” calculation.

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Why buy Chrome?
Chrome computers are cheap, fast, easy to use and secure (no viruses!). Chrome machines make phenomenal kitchen computers, for example — great for quick lookups, debate-settling, waiting-for-the-cable-guy surfing. They’re fantastic for kids, whose lives (including schoolwork) are primarily online these days. And for anyone or any family, a Chrome machine makes a superb second or third computer.

The new machine, the Asus Chromebox, is everything it’s supposed to be. It’s incredibly inexpensive. It’s fast to set up and fast to respond. It's completely silent, despite having a tiny fan. It has plenty of connectors: four USB jacks (the fast 3.0 kind), an HDMI jack for connecting a TV, a DisplayPort for a projector or a monitor, an Ethernet jack, audio, and even a slot for the memory card from your camera. WiFi is, of course, built in.

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There’s 16 gigabytes of storage inside (many apps can store themselves on the box, for use when you don’t have an Internet connection) — but there’s also 100 gigabytes of storage waiting for you online from Google. You get that massive storage locker at no charge for two years. That’s a lot of Word and Excel documents. (You can work with those, remember, thanks to the free Google Docs site online.)

A faster version of the Asus is coming in April for $370 — doesn’t really seem worth it — and a matching keyboard/mouse package is coming soon for $50.

Laptop vs. desktop
The Chrome computer idea appeals to an awful lot of people, and it’s picking up speed. But most of those people buy Chromebook laptops. Why would anyone buy a desktop version of the same thing, one that you can’t pick up and use on the plane?

There are reasons.

First, there’s a slight price advantage. The Asus Chromebox costs $180; Chrome laptops cost $200 or $250 and up. (Samsung and others make Chromebox desktop computers, too. But they’re bigger than the Asus and more expensive — $300 and up.)

Second, a desktop version lets you plug in any monitor you want. Any brand, any size. Two simultaneously, actually. You can even plug in a TV, courtesy of the Chromebox’s HDMI jack. (Then again, the laptop versions let you plug in an external monitor of your choice, too.)

Third, the Asus is so tiny you can mount it on the wall — heck, you can duct-tape it to the back of your monitor. That opens up new possibilities if you have cramped or cluttered working quarters, or if you plan to connect it to your TV for Netflix and movie watching.

Those are pretty flimsy reasons, actually. If you’re in the target demographic for a Chrome machine — for example, if you oversee children, a school, a library or a home with more than one room — you’re probably better off with a Chrome laptop — a Chromebook — like the $200 Acer Chromebook shown here.

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But choice makes the world go ’round. The Chrome PC idea is, in its way, a beautiful addition to the technology world, because things that are fast, cheap, simple, reliable and good at what they do are always welcome. And while more people buy laptops than desktops these days, it’s nice to know that a desktop option is there.

Incidentally: I’ve heard, on occasion, the following logic used to dismiss the whole idea of Chrome computers. “OK, it’s cheap — but it’s not a real computer! It’s like buying a new car for $1,000 that can’t make left turns.”

Is that the right analogy, though? Is a computer that can’t run Windows or Mac programs as crippled as all that?

No. In a world where a new car costs an average of $20,000, a Chromebox (or Chromebook) is more like getting a Smart car two-seater for $1,000. You won’t be hauling lumber from Home Depot in it, but it’s a terrific deal — and most days, it’ll get you where you want to go.

You can email David Pogue here. And you can follow Yahoo Tech on Facebook right here