Saturday, August 30, 2014

Asus Chromebox

Asus Chromebook

 So I had about $40 in best buy bucks that I had to spend before they expired.  They had the asus chromebox for $167 so that brought my price down to $127.  I noticed amazon has it for a little cheaper and had a $10 rebate that I might give a try.  So yeah it's a really cheap little box.  I already fell in love with the celeron 2955u based acer c720 chromebook that I got at the beginning of the year and this basically has the same exact guts.  So I picked one up for two purposes: wife wanted a premium browsing experience on the 55" hdtv in the family room, and two I wanted to see how good of an xbmc machine it was.

I decided to do a dual boot setup with chromeos and openelec.  I skipped installing coreboot firmware because I wanted to continue running chromeos.  On the chromeos side I installed crouton.  I also disabled the firmware write protect to reduce the time to get past the white developer mode screen.

I just basically followed the instructions here:
Just a few notes on step 1.3.  I used the chromeboook recovery utility to prepare the recovery usb flash drive.

Installing openelec I just followed the instructions here:
Everything went smoothly.  The only thing I might have done differently is to use a 1GB partition for openelec instead of 2GB.  If you are going to stream everything 2GB is a bit overkill, and I would have rather used that space with crouton.  I wish there was a way to reduce the boot time to 5 sec instead of 1 or 30 sec.  Having chromeos boot quickly while in dev mode is nice and is especially important when using a wireless keyboard/mouse combo like the logitech k400.  They don't work during that dev white screen.  So you need a regular wired usb keyboard to be able to hit ctrl-D or ctrl-L.  Being able to shorten that to 1 sec makes a big difference.  Openelec runs fantastic as a media streamer.  CPU utilization never went past 55% even under the most demanding mkv 1080p high bitrate videos.  Dolby digital true HD and dts master audio both bitstream pass through just fine over hdmi.  Just make sure you use the recommended openelec settings listed in that first wiki link.  For remote control I used a Flirc along with my harmony remote.  Harmony has a default profile for flirc under media pc.  It worked with flirc without even having to learn anything and works right out of the box.  Everything is smooth and responsive.  It plays everything great except for one thing: frame packed MVC 3D video files.  It plays them just fine but only shows the left frame so it's 2D only.  FFMPEG doesn't even support MVC yet so don't hold your breath on xbmc supporting it anytime soon.  SBS and OU mkv 3d files work just fine though.  So if you don't care about MVC and only stream local media (no netflix, hulu, etc. though you can get all that and more on the chromeos side or through some xbmc addons/hacks) this thing is better than the wd tv live and comes close to the med600x3d but doesn't quite surpass it.

Over on the chromeos/crouton side it was very similar to the acer c720p.  Setup was pretty much identical so you can read that article for all the gory details.  I installed the ubuntu software center, all of libreoffice, steam, vlc, and minecraft.  I did run into one small issue when trying to install steam.  I had to install this first:
sudo apt-get install apt-transport-https

I installed xbmc gotham under crouton just for the heck of it.  After all this I had about 3.5GB free left.

It uses only .6w while sleeping, 7w while idle, and about 12w under heavy media playback load.

The asus chromebox was surprisingly a slightly different experience than the acer c720p.  Having a full 1080p screen to use the hardware on is refreshing.  You can even have dual monitors (there is also a display port).  It's just as fast and responsive as ever and looks great at 1080p.  For the price again the value is unbeatable.  You get so much flexibility and performance between chromeos, crouton, and openelec.  For less than the price of a med600x3d you get the same great performance, nearly as good media support, and pretty high WAF (with flirc and harmony) plus the great desktop chrome browsing experience and the utility of linux under crouton.  Having an intel based soc I think is kind of critical though for this flexibility and utility.  Some of the newer chromebooks like the new acer 13" is switching to tegra K1.  I think the trade off is pretty poor.  You gain even more battery life (but battery life doesn't mean much once it lasts all day) and a very nice GPU, but you lose x86.  This means linux compatibility is greatly reduced.  Many linux applications only work on x86 including steam and most linux native games.  So say goodbye to steam streaming.  IMO, you should skip the K1 ARM based chromebooks and wait for broadwell.

The chromebox is a pretty great desktop and htpc experience at a great price.  Highly recommended.

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