Chromebit – Google's computer on a stick – transforms TVs into PCs

Google and Asus are rolling out the Chromebit, an $85 computer-on-a-stick that plugs into an HDMI port. The Chromebit, and other devices like it, can transform a TV or other screen into a full-featured, though very basic, computer.

Google's Chromebit, shown here, plugs into a TV's HDMI port and transforms the screen into a full PC.

In the 1950s, computers employed large vacuum tubes and generally occupied an entire room. In 2015, basic computer hardware is small and cheap enough that it can be condensed into stick form and plugged, almost as an afterthought, into the back of a TV.

People who want to surf from the couch can take their pick of tiny systems, complete with processors, RAM, and onboard storage, that plug into a TV’s HDMI port. Archos’ PC Stick runs Windows 10; Lenovo’s Ideacentre Stick 300 runs Windows 8.1 or Windows 10; Intel’s Compute Stick comes in Windows and Ubuntu Linux flavors. And on Tuesday, Google and hardware maker Asus added the Chromebit – a tiny computer running ChromeOS – into the mix.

The Chromebit, which costs $85, turns a TV into a (basic) computer. Its processor isn’t very fast, but it lets people run a full desktop web browser on the biggest screen in their house, so they can, for example, stream video from sites that don’t have a dedicated app on set-top boxes such as Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast.

Someone could also grab a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and use Google’s suite of productivity apps to get some work done. Chromebit even has a single USB port to plug in an external drive or other peripheral devices.

Early reports say the Chromebit provides an awfully meager PC experience. “Chromebit is so underpowered that it can't even handle Flash video without choppiness, which is distracting if not unwatchable,” Fast Company’s Jared Newman reports.

“The $85 price tag is enticing, but you could spend another $50 and get one of the cheaper Chromebooks,” adds Ars Technica’s Valentina Palladino.

Even so, the Chromebit – and other tiny plug-in computers – probably have their place in a few different scenarios. Road warriors might throw computer sticks in their bags, knowing that they can bring up their work on any screen they encounter. Average users might be able to use one as a complement to a regular streaming device. Businesses and schools might find it helpful to be able to easily plug a computer into a large screen for presentations or projects. 

The Chromebit and its ilk might also appeal to tinkerers and hackers. The Raspberry Pi, another “headless” PC, was originally envisioned as a way to teach students how to program, but thanks to its low cost and simple design, it evolved into a playground for tinkerers of all ages. Tiny “stick” computers might be another opportunity for coders to get their hands dirty and see what they can make out of the devices.

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