A rare beast
For nearly ten years, I've had a Gigabyte microPC in my home's entertainment room, whose job is basic: view movies from Acorn, Britbox, and so on. It runs a Web browser that does all the work streaming us movies.
Initially, I had used an Internet-enabled DVD player, which showed Netflix and other services, as well as played DVDs. But these so-called "smart devices" have short lifespans when it comes to staying up to date and still being able to access Netflix and its ilk. This is something the salesman will never tell you.
Anyhoo, I figured getting a microPC running Windows 10 (free upgrades for life!) would solve the long-term incompatibility problem. It is a minimal system, just 4"x4" in size, hosting an i3 CPU with 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD. But that's good enough for running a Web browser.
Fake Audio Driver
But then problems ensued, one annoying, the other really annoying.
A couple of years ago, the sound disappeared. It took me a while to track down the problem: the audio driver had been replaced. Eventually, I found the solution in downloading the OEM sound driver, and installing it.
The problem, however, became more and more regular. Something -- Windows, I suppose -- at random intervals replaces the Intel-branded audio driver with another one. My wife would wait patiently as I did the reinstall of the correct driver, a process taking 6 or 7 minutes each time. The problem became regular, first every few weeks, and then more recently every couple of days.
Reading online, I found that this is a known problem: Windows 10 arbitrarily replaces perfectly good audio drivers with non-working ones. I tried a lot of the solutions that were suggested, but none were permanent.
CPU Cycle Eater
The second problem emerged from the muck a couple of months ago. The miniPC would grind to a crawl.
Checking the Task Manager, I could see that the CPU was running at 100% -- right up to the moment I opened the Task Manager. I never did find what was sucking up the cycles, as no virus haunts the machine.
Between not being able to hear movies and movies grinding to a stop, something else needed to be done.
The Chromebox Solution?
So last night I made the executive decision to replace the miniPC with a Chromebox. This, I hope, will solve the evil audio driver problem and the even more evil CPU crawl problem. I love the Asus Chromebook Spin 13 laptop I bought a year ago, and so hoped to re-experience the experience.
That was when I discovered how hard it is to buy a Chromebox, if, as in my case, you want the following specs:
- Reasonable price -- its primary job is to merely run a Web browser, after all
- Reasonable specs -- enough to run a Web browser
- Long term ChromeOS support -- well, yah
- Runs Android apps -- nice to have
Firstly, I discovered Chromeboxes tend to have horrendous prices, some going for nearly $1,600 here in Canada at Best Buy.
The prices are especially horrendous especially when you consider the boxes come with no hi-res touch screen, no backlit keyboard with no integrated trackpad and no stylus. I didn't want to spend as much as my Acer Chromebook, which was $850, for something that was so unfeature-ladden.
Then I discovered how rare they are, as compared to Chromebooks. One of Google's lists holds 242 Chromebook models, but only 22 Chromeboxes. And maybe that's why the boxes are expensive -- minimal competition.
So I found a reconditioned one on eBay with a i7 CPU for US$140, before shipping. I ordered it.
Then a though struck me. I want one that runs Android apps. Does this one? Short answer, no.
Here is Google's page listing the devices that support Android: https://sites.google.com/a/chromium.org/dev/chromium-os/chrome-os-systems-supporting-android-apps.
LTS is industry jargon for "long-term support." It's most commonly seen with the Linux operating system, where a release is supported by the distributor for a few years. It also happens in ChromeOS but in a different way:
Google says they will provide ChomeOS with updates during several years for specific models of Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. The newest models are supported until 2029, while older ones are already dead, upgrade-wise.
The official list is here: https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/6220366?hl=en. That reconditioned one I found on eBay had got its last update in 2019. Fortunately, I was able to cancel the order.
So now the list of Chromeboxes for me to consider was considerably narrowed down, if I wanted Android support and LTS ChromeOS support -- just seven models. All of these have LTS of 2025:
- Acer Chromebox CXI3
- Aopen Chromebox Commercial 2
- ASUS Chromebox 3 CN65
- CTL Chromebox CBx1
- HP Chromebox Enterprise G2
- Promethean Chromebox
- Viewsonic NMP660 Chromebox
The list looks slim, but isn't. The Acer CXI3, for instance, comes in nine hardware configurations in the USA, four in Canada with prices that range from $320 to $1,000.
In the end I decided on the bottom-of-the-line CXI3 model, with these specs. In brackets I show the specs of the miniPC:
- 1.80GHz Intel Celeron Dual-core CPU (1.7GHz i3)
- Intel HD Graphics 610 (similar)
- 4 GB RAM (same)
- 32GB SSD (64GB)
I'm interested to see how it turns out.