While some American schools have metal detectors on the entrance to stop wayward kids smuggling in a chrome, Samsung is looking to get in the back door by targeting its affordable Chromebox Series 3 desktop PC at schools. Not only is it aimed at kids, it's also suited to anyone looking for a low-cost PC.
The US has got the jump on us Brits with the Chromebox already locked and loaded Stateside. Our CNET.com cousins have grasped the cold metal, cocked their trigger finger and pointed their review in our faces. So we're not about to disagree with the following review, which is based on the insights they've gleaned during their tests.
We're waiting on news of when Samsung's latest desktop PC, which is built around Google's Chrome operating system, will hit the UK, but various online retailers are listing it for around £280.
Should I buy the Samsung Chromebox Series 3?
Google Chrome sets itself apart by being an almost entirely web-dependent operating system, with the added benefits of prompt start-up, thousands of available apps, built-in virus protection and secure cloud storage. So all your films, music and files are stored online. Chromebook laptops launched a year ago with the underwhelming Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. The Chromebox is the first outing for the Google's OS on a desktop PC.
So is it a good option for general-purpose budget computing? CNET.com's reviewer Rich Brown thinks not, due to occasional issues with hardware and software compatibility. What's more, the tiny amount of on-board storage means the Chromebox is far from ideal as a small home theatre PC. But despite these shortcomings, the Chromebox is still a very likeable computer.
Google's Chrome operating system is the search giant's software experiment, played out in public. It first emerged in 2011 and hardly set the tech world on fire, underwhelming us with high prices and the drawbacks of being entirely reliant on Internet access. While the Samsung Series 5 was pleasingly portable, staying constantly online can be a challenge for a laptop that's supposed to be used on the go.
If you're travelling by air, out at business meetings and conferences, or simply sat in a cafe, there was no guarantee of a reliable connection. Google attempts to mitigate this by building in data network support with its laptops in the US. Of course, you have to pay extra for that, which meant that the Chromebook suddenly appeared less like the affordable option it was intended to be.
You're not likely to be carting your desktop PC around with you though, so you'll retain a more-or-less persistent connection to the Internet. At a stroke, that's one of the big question marks hanging over the Chrome answered.
The OS is basically an expanded version of Google's Chrome web browser. While the system boots up into a familiar log-in screen and desktop environment, once you start playing around with applications or downloading, you'll most often find yourself in a traditional Chrome browser.
For a full run-through of how well the operating system works, see this standalone review of the Chrome OS. But one of the headline benefits is expanded support for offline documents and files. While most of what you get up to on the Chromebox takes place online via the Chrome browser or through Chrome-specific applications, the OS does let you see local files.
File types that are supported include most Microsoft Office formats (such as DOC and DOCX), as well as PDFs, JPEGs, GIFs and other common image files, and various audio and video types. You're not able to edit these files, apart from basic photo tweaking. But the mere fact you can access them offline is a marked improvement over the previous generation of Chrome OS.
Hardware and performance
Because the Chromebox comes with a 16GB solid state drive rather than a bog standard hard drive, it boots up in seconds. The PC also supports USB keys and flash media cards (the latter if you connect a USB card reader). That means you shouldn't have any problems accessing your files.
The 1.9GHz Intel Celeron B840 is an up-to-date, dual-core budget CPU, and it comes with 4GB of memory. Those are reasonable specs for this price range.
If you're sniffy about Celeron processors, remember that this is a cheap PC that is almost completely web-driven. That doesn't mean the CPU makes no contribution to general performance, but most of Chrome OS's browser-based doings are unlikely to tax the brain too much. Apart from some downloadable games, the reviewer found no major performance gripes.
The Chromebox happily ran 1080p video files from YouTube, while large spreadsheets opened in Google Docs with no trouble. So the Celeron chip was totally up to the task when dealing with basic office jobs, general browsing and serving up films.
That said, gaming would benefit from faster processing and better graphics capability. Among the recent additions to the Chrome application store are Bastion and From Dust, two stalwarts of the downloadable game console market. Bastion worked reasonably well, although mouse response felt sluggish. From Dust wouldn't load at all -- it just threw up an error message saying the graphics chip wasn't powerful enough. There's no way to know that the game won't play on the Chromebox unless you read the recommended system specs on its web store listing before downloading.
Another area where Chrome-based PCs fall short is with on-board storage, and the Chromebox's 16GB is no exception. That's well under the 500GB drive you might expect from regular budget PCs. Having said that, the solid-state drive found here is a bonus because paired with the lightweight operating system, the machine turns on and off incredibly quickly -- about 10 seconds and 1 second respectively.
The Chromebox sports some uncommon video outputs for a budget PC. The DVI socket is not unexpected and works well for traditional monitors, or as a base port to plug in an adapter for a VGA or HDMI-based display. Few, if any, budget PCs offer a DisplayPort output, let alone two of them.
The latter works similarly to an HDMI-out, transmitting video and audio over a single cable. The Chromebox scales up to a maximum resolution of 2,560x1,440 pixels, although the operating system decides on the output resolution via automatic detection. There's no apparent way to change the resolution manually. A Google spokesperson told CNET.com that auto resolution detection would be in place for "the next couple of versions of Chrome".
The Chromebox does support dual-display output, but it will only mirror the desktop image to both displays. For the price, you don't get a monitor. In fact, you'll even have to provide your own mouse and keyboard.
There are six USB 2.0 ports (two on the front, four at the back). It wasn't all plain sailing with device compatibility though. With a Logitech G300 mouse connected up to the Chromebook, the cursor arrow shot off to the side of the screen every time the mouse was moved or a button was clicked. Every other mouse worked fine though.
There were problems with USB webcams too. The reviewer tested ones from Creative, Logitech and Microsoft and while the Chromebox recognised the camera without trouble, the Chrome OS does not support USB-based microphones, resulting in silent video chats. Google says USB microphone support will arrive in future, and suggested using the analogue microphone/headphone jack on the front of the unit. While that works well enough, it's far from ideal -- you should be able to use the webcam's own microphone.
Connecting a printer to any computer without specific driver software can be difficult, but thankfully Google's Cloud Print software is a good solution. Instead of getting mired in printer testing, the reviewer connected an external USB-based DVD burner and a multi-format USB media card reader. The Chromebox recognised the files on both storage devices.
While the compatibility issues are hardly a deal breaker, they could be inconvenient. The mouse problem is easy enough to solve -- buy a new one. It just goes to show that Chrome OS is still very much a work in progress.
By itself, the Chromebox's web-focused, Google-centric experience is not necessarily bad, particularly for those who hanker after a simple cloud-based computing life. The problem is that the Chromebox is a newcomer in a largely Windows-dominated world of software and peripherals.
Its newness offers would-be buyers the biggest challenges. CNET.com felt the absence of some basic features after using the unit for only a few hours. While these will be addressed by Google given time, what other problems are lurking in the OS?
If you're happy to gamble on Google and grow with the operating system, the Samsung Chromebox offers an attractive, low-risk entry into the great Chrome experiment. It has pleasing looks and being a desktop PC, you shouldn't be hampered by losing Internet connection, as you would with a Chrome-based laptop on the go.