A few years ago, Google shocked the laptop market with a $250 Chromebook.
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. But the price, at the time, was hard to beat. 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 new Chromebit, a pocket-sized desktop computer built by Asus, reminds me in some ways of Samsung’s Chromebook from 2012. At $85, it’s the cheapest Chrome OS device ever made, and it’s less expensive than any Windows machine you’ll find. It’s also woefully underpowered compared to an ordinary PC.
But even if you don’t buy a Chromebit–and, to be honest, you probably shouldn’t–it’s an intriguing sign of things to come.
Unlike an ordinary desktop PC, the Chromebit doesn’t sit on a desk. Instead, it plugs directly into the HDMI slot on a monitor or television, and is small and light enough to just hang there beside all your other cables.
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. It may even be less useful, since it only has a single USB port. 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.
Indeed, Google pitches the Chromebit as being ideal for TV use. The company suggests showcasing Google Photos on a large screen, playing games from the Chrome Web Store, and streaming videos from Google Play Movies & TV.
But controlling a full desktop browser through the television has always been a clunky experience, and the Chromebit does nothing to make it better. Website text can be hard to read from the couch 10 feet away, and you have to squint to make out the tiny mouse cursor. Chrome’s settings will let you blow up text and enlarge the cursor, but even these tweaks can’t make up for the comfort that comes from a proper TV remote. The living room just isn’t a natural habitat for mouse and keyboard controls.
Besides, better devices are available for most of Chromebit’s proposed TV uses. 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.
The Chromebit’s advantage, in theory, is that it runs a full desktop web browser, letting you visit any website. For instance, you can access the free version of Hulu, or watch full episodes of TV shows on sites like CBS and Comedy Central. 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.
Unfortunately, Chromebit is so underpowered that it can’t even handle Flash video without choppiness, which is distracting if not unwatchable. Sites that use HTML5 instead of Flash fare better, but many popular websites haven’t made the switch yet, and appear to be in no rush.
The Chromebit is better suited as a lightweight desktop computer. If you’ve got a spare monitor sitting around, you can plug in the Chromebit, connect a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and put the whole setup in the kitchen, family room, or anywhere else you might want to access a full web browser. (Schools and businesses might also get some use out of Chromebit this way.)
As a simple way to browse the web and use web applications, it works. I’ve been able to type this entire review on the Chromebit using Word Online, with no major performance issues. Even with a half-dozen other browser tabs open, the Chromebit remains a tolerable experience.
Things get hairier when you start playing videos, using Flash sites, or juggling more than about 10 resource-heavy browser tabs. 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.
This is simply a matter of the Chromebit cramming meager components into a small device to achieve a tiny sticker price. Like Samsung’s $250 Chromebook from 2012, the Chromebit uses an ARM-based processor–like what you’d find in a phone or tablet–and includes just 2GB of RAM. The desktop web wasn’t really made for these tech specs, and it’s most apparent when you’re visiting sites that haven’t been made mobile-friendly.
Despite the parallels to 2012’s Chromebook, the Chromebit enters the market facing a different set of realities.
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. As a result, we’ve seen a bunch of low-cost, lightweight Windows PCs enter the fray, including stick-sized computers from Intel, Lenovo, and Asus. The $85 Chromebit is still cheaper than these devices, none of which have cracked the $100 barrier, but the returns are diminishing.
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. The concept of Chrome apps already seems to have stalled.
The Chromebit, then, will have a harder time influencing the PC market than Samsung’s Chromebook did. But at the same time, it’s a better distillation of Chrome OS’s purpose, cheaply putting a web browser on a screen of any size, without the overhead of a full desktop operating system. The idea is just as deserving of a few more years to blossom.