If you've got some spare time, search for the words "Android dongle" on eBay -- your screen will be filled with little, Android-powered HDMI doodads that purport to make your dumb TV smart. But what about Chrome OS, Google's other operating system? For years, it lived most prominently on notebooks, but the new $85 Chromebit from ASUS is Google's attempt to give Chrome OS even more of a life beyond the laptop. Got a spare monitor with an HDMI-in port? Or an HDTV that could stand to be smarter? Just pop in the Chromebit and voilà: Your dumb display is now a Chrome OS computer. It's not that powerful, and it's far from perfect, but the Chromebit is just cheap and just good enough to find a home in classrooms and tinkerers' dens.
Remember the already-very-cheap Chromebook Flip? You could think of the Chromebit as a headless version of that. There's a quad-core Rockchip RK3288-C chipset inside, along with 2GB of RAM, an integrated Mali-T760 GPU and 16GB of internal storage for all the things you won't actually download. (That sounds glib, but the only things I wound up storing on my Chromebit were a few screenshots.) Here's the rub: This isn't exactly the Chromebit we saw earlier this year. Well, I mean it mostly is, but the model I've been testing lacks the swiveling design we first saw back in March. Instead, what we have here is a Snickers bar-sized dongle with a matte black finish with a pinhole for a proprietary charger with an often-too-short five-foot cord instead. Yep, that unfortunately means the micro-USB power port featured on the prototype has gotten the axe.
Speaking of cords, the Chromebit also ships with a foot-long HDMI extension cable that might come in handier than you think. See, the biggest downside to having a non-swiveling dongle is that all of its weight is just jutting out to one side. Turns out that becomes an issue if you want to use the Chromebit with your television; plugging the Chromebit straight into the HDMI ports of both TVs at home never gave me the comforting, tell-tale "thunk" of a solid connection, and the extra weight made for a disconcerting wobble whenever I got it in. At least in my case, using the included foot-long extension cable was a must to get things working properly. It wasn't until I went to the office and plugged the device into newer Samsung and Sharp televisions that I felt a proper connection and everything worked without the cable. The HDMI ports on my home televisions have seen plenty of use over the years and I wouldn't be shocked to learn they're a little loose, so keep that cable in mind if your Chromebit doesn't latch on properly.
From the moment you connect it to a power source, it'll be about five or six seconds before the Chromebit wakes up. The initial setup screen asks you to pair a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard (though you can plug a hub into the single full-size USB port for wired gadgets). Then you connect to WiFi, agree to the usual slew of terms and conditions and log into the Google account you undoubtedly already have. Simple enough, right? Well, things can be a little more complex than that, especially if you're trying to set up a purely wireless Chrome experience. I occasionally ran into frustrating stretches of keyboard input lag, even when I was less than six feet away from the Chromebit and TV. And that Bluetooth mouse didn't work at all, even though the Chromebit recognized it during the initial setup.
Normally this wouldn't be a huge deal since every other Chrome OS device has inputs built right into it, but since the Bit is a headless piece of kit, wonky peripheral connectivity is a potential dealbreaker. It got to be so frustrating that I had to "power wash" (or hard-reset) the Chromebit just to get the pairing process working normally again. I didn't face as many of these connection woes when the Bit was plugged into a monitor mere inches from my face, but they still happened from time to time. On the flip side, you're no longer bound by whatever input methods ASUS engineers designed. Not a fan of the key travel on that Bluetooth keyboard you had lying around? Swap it for a new one. (I quickly switched to the all-too-familiar Apple keyboard.) Ditto for the mouse; you're not stuck with a sub-standard trackpad here.
If you are using the Chromebit with your television, chances are you'll need to pop into Chrome OS' settings to fiddle with the overscan and alignment. By default, hooking the Bit up to a 40-inch Sony LCD and a 47-inch LG TV meant icons and controls were well off-screen and needed to be moved around for easy access. None of this is terribly taxing, but setting things up will take more effort than you're used to on Chromebooks.
Now we're left with the $85 dollar question: How well does this thing actually work? After all, the Chromebit is a neat exercise in gadget economics, a precarious balancing act of price and performance. Thankfully, aside from those initial setup headaches, the Chromebit's low-end silicon keeps up better than you'd think. Firing up tabs and paging through endless Wikipedia articles is sort of Chrome's specialty, so straight web browsing won't be an issue. And Chrome OS has matured dramatically since its early days: I spent a few hours sifting through a Murakami novel in Amazon's Kindle web app, and followed it up with rearranging appointments in Sunrise (a Microsoft service!). I also spent time managing assignments in Trello and making god-awful "music" with Audio Sauna. The Chromebit's power and value isn't actually tied to the gadget itself, but more to the experiences it enables, and indeed, there's plenty you can do.
Of course, it helps if you're doing all these things sequentially and not in parallel. This very modest hardware means you can't just use Chrome all willy-nilly like you would on a conventional desktop. Consider my normal work setup. I'll usually have Netflix playing something in the background while I'm pecking out a story in Google Docs or triaging messages in Slack. For the most part, the Chromebit kept up with my workflow, but it'd sometimes lock up and make the television it was connected to reacquire the signal. I could always tell when this was coming, too; The Chromebit would stop accepting inputs from the keyboard or mouse. I'm not sure if this is Netflix's fault or ASUS's, but whatever: You'll have to be judicious in how you use this thing.
ASUS Chromebit (Rockchip RK3288-C, 2GB RAM)
ASUS Chromebook Flip (Quad-core Rockchip, 4GB RAM)
Toshiba Chromebook 2 (Celeron N2840, 4GB RAM)
Samsung Chromebook 2 (11-inch, Celeron N2840, 2GB RAM)
Acer Chromebook 13 (NVIDIA Tegra K1, 2GB RAM)
Lenovo N20p (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM)
ASUS C200 Chromebook (Celeron N2830, 2GB RAM)
*SunSpider and Kraken: Lower scores are better.
If you're looking at the Chromebit as a streamer or set-top box replacement... you probably shouldn't. Yes, you can run Netflix and Spotify in Chrome tabs, but they'll never run quite as smoothly as you want them to. (The latter especially; Spotify web playback really kind of sucks.) Google devotees can pick up a base model NVIDIA Shield TV for an extra $115 and get so much more power for ultra high-def video and gaming, while those on tighter budgets could probably ferret out a deal on a Nexus Player even after Google dropped it from its hardware store.
It's worth pointing out that Chrome OS doesn't exactly thrive on the big screen, especially when you're seated on a couch a few feet away from your television. The Chromebit dutifully offered up different resolution choices (all topping out at 1080p for me) but I usually had to dial the detail down to 720p if I wanted to look for Spring Awakening tickets from my loveseat. Chrome OS was never really designed to be a lean-back experience, so it's no surprise it shines a little brighter on a smaller monitor a foot from your face. I could totally see school districts buying these things in bulk and pairing them with cheap surplus displays -- just hook them up with Google Classroom and you've got a connected school without dropping loads of cash.
Ultimately, Chrome OS's limitations actually work to the Chromebit's advantage. Remember Intel's Compute Stick? Its 1.3GHz Atom processor, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage put that pocket PC in the same general territory as the Chromebit, but it struggled when we tried to use the thing as anything more than a basic productivity tool. If the Compute Stick was a disappointment, it was because offered a sense of promise and potential that it just wasn't equipped to deliver. Not so with the humble Chromebit. It's not perfect, but it under-promises while managing to over-deliver.
If all you want is to fire off occasional emails, watch YouTube videos and peck out memoirs in Google Docs, you'll be pleased with the Chromebit's capabilities. It's all vaguely reminiscent of WebTV, that failed Microsoft endeavor to bring the internet to television sets normal people already own, except there's an elegance here that should make the Chromebit even more alluring to people with modest 'net needs. Hell, I'm thinking of buying a couple for my parents so I don't need to endure weekly catch-up calls about how confusing they find Windows 10.
There's something intriguing about the Chromebit. It's not terribly fast, nor is it always elegant in its execution. Then again, it's a perfectly serviceable way to access your email, music and nearly everything the web has to offer, mostly using gear you probably already have. Chrome OS has matured over the years, and it's never been more accessible. Still, you have to approach it with the right expectations. It's not the most capable streamer. And like most other Chrome OS machines, the Chromebit won't replace a desktop or laptop with heavier-duty hardware and a more fully featured OS. That said, while I haven't been a Chrome OS user for long, the fact that I can handle much of my daily routine on a candy bar-sized hunk of plastic is kind of exciting. Power users should probably stay away, but there's just enough functionaity here for students and tinkerers alike to walk away satisfied.