I have never hidden my love for Chrome OS. In fact, early on in my budding journalistic ‘career’ I wrote a piece that suggested that Chromebooks should be the weapon of choice for around 80 per cent of students. For the most part, they combine a solid performance with a great price and can – in a roundabout way – handle almost anything you throw at it. There are a few trade-offs, but that comes as part of the deal when you attempt to build an OS entirely based around the Chrome browser. And while I do not think anyone would opt for Pixlr over Photoshop, or Hangouts over Skype, they’ll do at a pinch. For someone who just wants the basic computing experience and does not want to play grade A titles or create an electro jazz symphony, Chrome OS is a compelling option. What I am saying is that it will never be able to match Windows 10 or OS X in raw computational performance, which is important because if you do not understand the limits of Chrome, you will not be able to understand the flaws of the Chromebit.
On first inspection, the device really does not look like much – but then it is not supposed to. The Chromebit is very much designed to be hidden from view: a black 123 mm long tubular shaped monolith, with only a USB 2.0 port and a small proprietary power socket breaking the textured plastic surface. I actually like its design, but it is pretty different from the brightly coloured original concepts showcased last year. These alterations do not make a huge difference to the overall usability of the device, but they would have been nice inclusions as they gave a more premium feel to the budget computer.
In an ideal world I would also have liked to see a USB 3.0 port, but again, that is not my biggest issue. My main problem with its design is the use of the 3mm power adaptor. Google pioneered the use of Micro USB on their original HP 11 Chromebook and has now moved to USB type C as an industry standard across their laptop, tablet, and smartphone ranges. So I struggle to see why that port was not incorporated into the Chromebit; it is clearly capable of carrying enough power and if customers were to put the device forward as a mobile workstation, what good would it be if you forget your proprietary adaptor and cannot find another one? A USB power port would allow for that; they are so readily available that I always have two of them in my bag just in case.
With 1.8GHz quad-core Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM, the Chromebit can handle only the most basic tasks. If you have more than three tabs open on Chrome you can really feel the weight of the world pressing down on the device, but as a Netflix streaming stick, the Chromebit excels, and I actually found myself using it more than the Apple TV. While its traditional desktop interface is not as well suited to a sofa browsing experience, save for gaming, you can do a lot more with a Chrome device than you can with Apple’s vision for the ‘future of television’. Most of the streaming apps are available through their native sites and if you are feeling really audacious you can make use of VPN and watch Vietnamese Netflix to your heart’s content. What is also nice is the included 100GB of Google Drive storage, which would normally cost around £40 for two years. That is a pretty swish deal and, even if you decide that you have outgrown Chrome OS, it is always good to have an easily accessible and comprehensive backup for all of your important documents.
The bottom line is that if you want a fairly cheap streaming stick that can do more than a Chromecast, and is less expensive than the Apple TV, then the Chromebit is a strong contender – although it faces weighty competition from the slightly more expensive but more capable Intel Compute stick. For the most part though, I struggle to understand where it fits into the market. As a portable device, it is really not great; the whole concept of having a PC the size of a USB stick is rather self defeating when you have to carry around an enormous power brick. Furthermore, when it comes to streaming, the Chromebit does not score much higher than the Chromecast. In reality, I think that this device will only truly excel in either a start-up office or the classroom – essentially any environment where funds are limited and performance really is not key.
If you are feeling daring – or just want to give Chrome OS a try – then you have little to lose by buying a Chromebit, but if you are expecting an award-winning experience, do not be surprised to find that it is a bit of a let-down.
Image: Adam Shaw