Samsung XE 300M Chromebox review

3 out of 5
£280

For

Plenty of connectivity, largely safe from viruses, small and light, great if you live in the Google universe

Against

Not cheap enough, feels sluggish, HDMI would be nice, lack of compelling apps, begs to be made into a media player

Samsung's new Chromebox is essentially a desktop version of its Chromebook. It's a little bit cheaper at £280, instead of £380 for the Chromebook Series 5 550. It lacks the display, but has a lot more connectivity - especially in terms of video output.

But £280 isn't especially cheap. For that kind of money, you could get a Windows-based PC using some reasonable components. We aren't talking gaming rig here, but certainly with a little more oomph than the Chromebox.

And it's only £100 less than the Chromebook, which offers a lot more portability, with virtually the same level of computer power. 

Design

Stylistically, there's not much to say about the Chromebox. It's a box. A black one, within which are some pretty standard PC components. There is, for example, 4GB of RAM and an Intel "Core" processor. Not a high-spec machine by any standard, but recognisable as a PC nonetheless

Connections are also incredibly generous. There six USB sockets dotted around the machine: two on the front, four on the rear. Also out back are a pair of DisplayPort connections and a single DVI port. The two DisplayPort sockets are HDMI compatible, although you'll need an adaptor to connect it to an HDMI device. The DVI port is also VGA compatible, so with some adaptors, there's pretty much no screen the Chromebox won't work on.

We suspect there are no HDMI ports here because they require a licence, whereas DisplayPort does not. Basically, this means that the cost of plugging this device into an HDMI-equipped screen is passed on to you, the user, rather than the cents ($0.04) needed for Samsung to pay in HDMI royalties. DisplayPort to HDMI adaptors start around £5.

There is Wi-Fi built in, or you can use the Ethernet socket on the back of the Chromebox. Happily, wireless is 802.11n and the wired connection is Gigabit-speed capable. We're always happy to see this, but we're not sure what you're going to be doing on the Chromebox that will require Gigabit speeds.

Obviously, you'll have to provide your own keyboard and mouse, but we had no problem using wireless hardware with it. There was no installing drivers or messing about with settings - aside from the mouse speed - and we were up-and-running in seconds. All computer experiences should be like this.

You'll also find a headphone jack on the front, and a mono speaker built-in. The speaker is actually very good indeed for casual watching of online video or music - although it's not a hi-fi speaker! Headphones, however, are the best solution for listening to anything.

What's it for

Honestly, we're a little stumped by the Chromebox. We understand the Chromebook a little more, to be honest. There, it's a light, simple laptop that uses the internet to ensure that you're always backed-up, and accessing up-to-date cloud storage.

When it comes to the Chromebox, it's unlikely that it will be moved about much - although it is both small and light. What's more likely is that it will end up being deployed in internet cafes the world over, where it will be a safe, secure and easy-to-maintain computer that can't easily be ruined by clueless backpackers.

And, that model can be used for other places too. We could, for example, see this box being used in places where employees don't need access to anything more than an internet-connected computer with Office support and email access. Of course, this all works really well if you're a company that has migrated to Google Apps - and several have. It works less well in a world of Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes.

But perhaps to businesses, the Chromebox will be attractive for its inability to be broken by users. This is virtually an maintenance-free computer. It's pretty hard to get a virus, and you can't install countless stupid apps or toolbars. And, at least, in theory, it should be as fast in 10 years, as it is today.

Massive potential that's so far untapped

We can also see the Chromebox being a big deal in home media. If there were apps for Netflix, Lovefilm and Plex - our favourite home media streaming system - then it would be THE device to plonk under your TV and use to enjoy media from the internet and your own collection.

But sadly, looking at the Chrome Web Store, there isn't all that much to draw you to use the Chromebox as a media player. Like any new(ish) platform, there is still a distinct lack of apps available to do useful things.

And, indeed, the apps that Google has on its web store are just web apps. This means, for the most part, they just look like webpages. Google doesn't appear to have encouraged the development of apps that, while built on HTML 5 and other web technology, look like standalone programs.

Here, Microsoft has confusingly taken the lead with Metro. We may not love Windows 8, but it's fair to say that Metro apps are a clever way of presenting quite simple programs. On the Chromebox, there are times when you just want a full-screen app. Take for example the remote desktop service: it's quite good, and works well, but it's not possible to make it full screen, so controlling a 1080p desktop from the Chrome 1080p desktop isn't a brilliant experience.

There are some games on the Chrome store, again though, these are browser-based and you could play them on pretty much anything. We also had problems with some apps, which refused to load on the Chromebox, but worked fine on our Windows machine.

Chrome as an operating system

Chrome has recently had a pretty substantial overhaul. It looks great now, and there's a proper desktop too, with your apps available in a grid format. Everything remains simple. There are no more than a few simple settings to get up and running. Really, you tell it your Google login details, and show it a wired or wireless network, and you're done.

This is good, from an ease-of-use perspective, but not so great if you want to adjust the way the OS runs. But having said that, Chrome is so cut-down, there's really not a lot to adjust anyway. At its core, there's Linux running under here, but Google prevents you from ever seeing that - the Chrome devices have a developer mode that allows it, but it's not especially simple to get to, or user friendly when you do.

Viruses and malware aren't generally a problem though, which is good. Of course, users will still be open to phishing attacks and social engineering. It would be remiss of us to claim that this is the answer to your security problems, but it's likely to be a lot safer than a Windows machine.

Performance

This is where things start to get a little confusing. The Chromebox is a pretty modest computer, but it's powerful enough to run Windows at a basic level. The problem is, Chrome OS still feels a bit like pushing through treacle. This seemed to be a combination of the wireless connection feeling quite slow - again, fine on our other devices - and the slowish mouse.

We used a Microsoft wireless mouse, and on the Chromebox we were never able to make it responsive enough. On a PC it's fine - if a little bulky to push around - so the the lack of cursor speed can only really be blamed on Chrome.

We like the OS though, and visually it's quite attractive. You can watch video and listen to music without much hassle. The file manager is really simple, but actually works well. For the most part, files will be stored in the cloud, so there aren't many occasions when you'll need this.

After our time with the Chromebox, we did feel quite attached to it. It may not feel fast, but when you're using Google's apps and whizzing about the OS, it is a pleasant and simple process. Our only slight issue is, we did end up getting a little bored at how little we could do, and run. But perhaps we're just expecting something that Google doesn't want to provide.

Verdict

If you want a Chrome device, then the Chromebox is a decent enough machine. It feels a bit slow - it's certainly not as enjoyable to use as our Windows-based desktop and it's obviously a lot more limited.

Really, the Chrome computers need a killer app. You might think the internet is that app, but there's something missing here. As good as the Chromebox is for accessing Google's services, and the apps from its app store, if you have aspirations of more, you will be disappointed.

Those who have their heart set on a Chrome device won't be disappointed. Those who want a cheap PC should just buy a PC or laptop. You probably won't have to pay much more for one, but you'll get a lot more functionality, including the option of Linux, if you want it.