Saturday, 28 February 2015

HP Chromebox

HP Chromebox

David Briddock investigates the potential of a Google Chrome OS desktop

There’s no doubt hardware based on Google’s Chrome operating system (OS) has caused a mini revolution in the PC arena.

One reason is the easy-to-use nature of Chrome OS, perfect for consumers who spends their time using cloud-based social communication, games or just web surfing.

Chromebooks, essentially lightweight, Intel-powered laptops running Chrome OS, have carved out a market all of their own. With an ultra-lightweight design, complete with full keyboard and trackpad, a Chromebook is an ideal solution for email communication, web surfing or taking full advantage of today’s powerful web-centric, cloudbased apps.

And the latest range of Chromebooks are fantastic value for money. For example, you can buy a number of entry-level Chromebooks, with a 12” or 13” screen, for under $200 from HP, Asus and other companies.

The Chromebox Format

But now there’s an alternative to the laptop Chromebook format. Called the Chromebox, it’s a desktop PC option that’s small enough to go almost unnoticed when placed on a table or behind a TV, and it’s easy to stow away in a drawer. Yet paired with a large screen (or an HD TV), mouse and full-sized keyboard, it provides a flexible and productive computing experience.

It’s a far more affordable alternative to other desk-cube products, such as the Apple Mac Mini (which is also larger than a typical Chromebox).

Companies like HP, Samsung and Asus were quick to add Chromebox products to their inventory. Now there’s a growing range Chromebox models to choose from. In this article we’ll take a closer look at HP’s Chromebox range.

HP Chromebox Appearance

At under 126mm (under five inches) square and just 39mm (1.5 inches) high, the HP Chromebox is a pretty unassuming piece of hardware. Yes, it does need a separate AC power brick, but this is also quite small, around the size of a typical laptop one.

Its square form is softened by rounded edges with subtle design flourishes, and there are a number of case colours to choose from: Smoke Silver, Snow White and Ocean Turquoise.

Kit options bundle the Chromebox with a wireless keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is of the compact variety and almost identical in size to an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. Both keyboard and mouse are pre-paired (via a dedicated Bluetooth dongle included in the kit) to ensure owners enjoy an instant plugand-play experience.

HP Chromebox ports

HP Chromebox Features

So what’s actually inside this diminutive box? In some regards, the core Chromebox elements aren’t much different from a typical 2014 Chromebook. However, there’s a dual-core Intel Haswell processor inside.

An Intel processor offers two key advantages. It generally delivers superior computational grunt and graphics performance to an ARM-based Chromebook. And it offers the freedom to install an alternative operating system, such as Linux or Windows.

HP’s CB1 is a low-end model with an Intel Haswell Celeron 2955U 64-bit 1.4GHz dual-core processor, plus 2GB of RAM and 16GB of solid-state drive storage. In addition to the local storage, owners receive 100GB of space on Google Drive.

Despite its size, the HP Chromebox isn’t short of ports. There are four USB 3.0 ports (two front, two back), both HDMI and DisplayPort out for video (including dual monitor support), analogue audio out, an SD card slot, Ethernet port and a security lock slot. Wireless communication options include 802.11b/g/n wi-fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

It copes fine with a 1920 x 1200 resolution monitor, scaling appropriately and outputting the sound over HDMI, so it’s more than large enough for multitasking via multiple windows. And it plays 1080p YouTube videos with ease.

That said, when more than a dozen browser tabs are open on a 2GB RAM model it can start to slow down. However, 4GB models are available, and doityourself RAM upgrades are also possible (as we’ll see later).

As you’d expect, there’s a full suite of pre-installed Google apps: Drive, Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Play, Google+, Hangouts and YouTube.

All this means a HP Chromebox has, unsurprisingly, the same sort of performance as a Chromebook with similar specs. While obviously nothing extra special, it’s more than enough to meet the needs of a web-focused desktop user. And with prices that start at $170 (or $160 in a recent sale), it’s certainly a bargain.

Chrome OS Updates

Chrome OS has an active development group, which delivers frequent updates. These aren’t just security measures, bug fixes and minor improvements but often include major new features.

In particular, 2014 has seen a raft of powerful features, some that improve the user experience, and others that make Chrome OS look and feel more like a fully fledged computer.

One notable example is the support for multi-user login (a standard feature on Windows, OS X and Linux computers). Previously with Chrome OS you had to log out to switch accounts. But now multiple users can now sign onto a Chrome OS machine and remain logged in simultaneously.

Another welcome change is that ‘Settings’ now appears in a window rather than as browser tab. This is a much more flexible option, as this window can be minimised, expanded, moved around or closed as required. Although a minor update, yet again it contributes to a more realistic desktop experience.

Bookmarks have also received some developer attention. With the new Bookmarks Manager menu option, it’s much easier to add, organise and browse your bookmarks, while the improved bookmark search now looks beyond the title and snippet to take into account the bookmarked page’s content.

Bookmarks are automatically organised by topic as well as the existing folder collections. Both new and existing bookmarks will be automatically updated with images and descriptions where appropriate. Once signed into Google, all your bookmarks and folders are available, regardless of the device you’re currently using, and they can be shared either publicly or selectively to specific individuals.

Language translation flexibility has been improved by an update to the Google Translate Chrome extension. Now you can translate just a text selection, rather than the whole page. Simply highlight the text that you want to translate, then click the ‘Translate’ icon or right-click and choose ‘Google Translate’.

Chrome OS Android Compatibility

Chromebook owners have already witnessed some subtle moves to consolidate the Chrome OS and Android user experience. Redesigning the Chrome on-screen keyboard to match the look of the Android keyboard is one example, However, there’s much more to come.

At the 2014 Google I/O conference Google’s Android and Chrome chief, Sundar Pichai, announced an array of new features designed to consolidate the Android and Chrome OS user experiences.

For example ‘Easy Unlock’ automatically unlocks the device when your Android phone is nearby, so just having your Android smartphone in your pocket means you’ll be able to immediately start using a Chromebox or Chromebook without a tedious manual sign-on. It might seem like magic, but behind the scenes it uses Bluetooth to access your smartphone’s Google account credentials.

It’s also possible to have communication events from your Android phone appear in real-time on your Chromebook desktop. When activated, this facility means you’ll see incoming call notifications, skim text message contents or even take calls without having to break away from the PC and dig out your smartphone.

This kind of tightly bound device pairing offers further possibilities, such as seeing a notification pop up on the Chromebook screen to say that your phone’s battery is about to expire.

Another cool feature is the ability to set up an Android device to act as a remote control. It’s particularly useful when a Chrome OS device is operating in audio or video media player mode.

HP Chromebox stuff

Cross-Platform Apps

The Android app runtime for Chrome is another new piece of functionality, albeit one with a few rough edges. However, the ability to run Android apps, even if it’s only a sample subset for now, is a very useful capability, and the app compatibility is improving all the time.

During the I/O 2014 conference, Pichai stated that Google had started to port Android apps to run natively on Chrome OS. A little later, Google released Chrome versions of Evernote (the popular note-based organiser), Duolingo (a foreign language coach), Sight Words (a visual reading coach) and Vine (a video production app).

What started out as a token effort is now gaining steam. More and more converted Android apps are beginning to appear on the Chrome Web Store for quick and simple installation.

But what if you can’t wait for your favourite apps to appear on the Chrome store?

Well, you could try a hackityourself solution. If you’ve already installed a ported app, like the ones mentioned above, you’ll also receive a Google created runtime module that allows an Android app to run on Chrome OS. Once installed, you can ‘sideload’ other Android apps and see if they’ll run on your Chromebox or Chromebook. Unfortunately, not all apps will run successfully, so it’s a bit hit and miss.

For advanced hackers there’s the ‘chromeos-apk’ tool, which runs on Mac OS X and Linux (or even directly on Chrome OS itself if you’ve decided to install Linux in developer mode).

To extend compatibility even more, Google is keen to see Chrome apps run on Android, so Chrome OS developers now have a tool that wraps up a Chrome web app into an Android app package.

New Interface Soon?

As you might already know, Android 5.0, also called Lollipop, ushers in a radically new ‘Material Design’ user interface. Could a future Chrome OS see a similar upgrade?

Well, it looks like the answer is yes. Project Athena is all about delivering a similar user experience for Chrome OS, which will also integrate the Material Design ethos.

However, it’s still early days in the life of this project, so it will be some time before we’ll see a single interface design implemented on both Android and Chrome OS.

Software Hacks

Software modding is a fun way to create a computing experience customised to your own needs and interests. However, before you start to play, it’s best to ensure there’s a path back to a fully working system.

Fortunately, an official Google tool can create a recovery USB stick or SD card (4GB or larger) to restore a Chrome device to a factoryissued software status. Google has posted full instructions on using the tool online.

Did you know Chrome OS has a substantial list of ‘experimental’ settings? Some are rather fragile in nature. Some will punch holes in your system’s security. But others might improve your Chromebox experience. To play around with these settings, simply enter the text ‘chrome://flags’ into the URL bar and then hit enter.

More experienced hackers might like to install multiple operating systems. With an Intel processor at its heart a Chromebox can run a wide range of free and commercial operating systems, including a full Linux distribution and Microsoft Windows.

Each OS can be installed alongside the existing Chrome OS by creating separate partitions. This means you’ll be able to boot into, say, Linux to play a few open-source games, then reboot into Windows to use its Office software suite, before returning back to your original Chrome OS environment.

As for Linux, just about any distribution will run, especially if you own a 4GB model. But with a basic 2GB Chromebox, it’s best to use the optimised ChrUbuntu ( or another low-RAM-optimised distribution like Puppy (

Some intrepid hackers have found a way of installing Windows, version 7 or 8.1, onto a Chromebox. Some tutorials use the free WinToUSB tool ( to access a Windows .iso image.

For the ultimate challenge why not build a custom version of Chromium from the source code. Anyone familiar with building a big software project should feel at home, although it can be a rather daunting process for the first timer. Everything you need to know is at the Chromium OS project website (

HP Chromebox inside

Hardware Hacks

Typically, it’s a straightforward job to open up a Chromebox, which means plenty of fun with low-cost, do-it-yourself upgrades.

Applying any kind of hardware mod will, of course, invalidate your warranty. Nevertheless, certain mods can transform a Chromebox into a far more powerful ad flexible computing platform.

One easy option is to upgrade the memory from 2GB to 4GB of RAM. All you’ll need is a screwdriver, a DDR3L PC3-12800 RAM stick (the ‘L’ stands for low power) and a few minutes of free time (as shown here:

Chrome OS can manage up to a maximum RAM of 4GB. But that’s not true of other operating systems. With Linux or Windows installed, you could expand the RAM to 16GB. Once again, it’s easy to find step-by-step tutorials on the web that describe the upgrade process and the type of memory modules to buy.

The location of the solidstate drive (SSD) means replacement requires a little more fiddling around with the core components, but it’s still a reasonably straightforward process, one that should only take around 15 minutes.

With a larger hard drive – say, a Kingston mS100 64GB SSD – connected to the mSATA port, you’ll have much more storage capacity for audio, video and image files, and it’s easier to experiment with multiple operating systems.

Some Chromebox models have an additional and unused mSATA port. In this case you could add a second SSD or a cool USB 3.0 peripheral.