This summer I was looking around for a new laptop. I wanted something lightweight and simple, preferably running a Linux variant. A lot of what I’ve been working on lately doesn’t require Windows and I’m often moving projects to virtual private servers hosted with Rackspace or Linode anyway.
Most of the laptops I was finding had more power than I needed and had a higher price tag to match. I had seen Google’s Chromebooks and remembered hearing that they ran the Linux-based Chrome OS. I figured I’d give it a try, and at just $250 it wasn’t much of an investment.
While by default Chromebooks are locked down in Google’s web-centric operating system, installing Ubuntu on one is actually quite easy and a great way to get more functionality out of it. I actually like Chrome OS so rather than mess with dual-booting I opted to use Crouton which let’s you use a chroot environment to run Ubuntu or Debian and Chrome OS simultaneously.
While Crouton is incredibly easy to use and, I strongly suggest you create a recovery flash drive or SD card by following the steps in Google’s support documentation. They’re really easy to make you just need a Chrome, Linux, Mac, or Windows machine (so basically anything) and a 4GB or larger card or drive. You’ll be glad you have one if anything goes wrong.
Step 1: Developer Mode
Your first step is to put your Chromebook into Developer Mode. Keep in mind that doing this disables the security features they come locked down with.
For my Samsung ARM Chromebook, I just entered recovery mode by holding down both the Esc and Refresh (the circular arrow) keys while hitting the power button. When the recovery screen appears, hit Ctrl+D, and accept the prompt confirming you wish to enable Developer Mode. This will completely wipe your device and could take ten to fifteen minutes.
Once enabled, every time you load your Chromebook you’ll see a warning screen reminding you that you’re running in Developer Mode. You can either wait thirty seconds or hit Ctrl+D to continue loading Chrome OS.
Step 2: Install Crouton and Ubuntu
Open Chrome and download Crouton by going to the Crouton GitHub page and clicking the link at the top or by just going here. Then, open a terminal window by hitting Ctrl+Alt+T. In the tab that opens, enter shell.
There are a number of different installation parameters outlined in the README.If you just want to get started quickly, you can install Ubuntu LTS and XFCE by entering sudo sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -t xfce.
Your Chromebook will begin downloading and installing Ubuntu. This will easily take 20-30 minutes, so now might be a good time to browse through the README you skipped. Towards the end of the process, you’ll be prompted to set a username and password.
Step 3: Start XFCE Session
Once installed, simply entering sudo startxfce4 will start your XFCE session. At this point, you can easily toggle between Chrome OS and XFCE with Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Back and Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Forward.
When you want to start XFCE in the future, you’ll first need to open a terminal and enter shell just as before. You can bookmark the terminal if you’d like too.
Installing Ubuntu Software Center will help you quickly install and manage your desired programs without having to going through the command line. Just open a terminal windows in XFCE (the monitor/prompt icon at the bottom), and enter sudo apt-get install software-center. You’ll be prompted for the password you set during installation, and once complete, Ubuntu Software Center will be available under System in the Applications Menu.
The default browser in my installation was NetSurf. I found it to be completely unusable due to the way it rendered pages and overlapped text. You’ll likely want to install a different browser right away. Either browse the options available in Ubuntu Software Center, or just search for and install Chromium which is the base for Google Chrome.
You’ll want to disable the screensaver that’s enabled by default. You can do that at Applications Menu > Settings > Screensaver. Just change the Mode to Disable Screensaver.
Remove Crouton and Restore Chromebook
If Crouton isn’t for you, your Chromebook can be restored by disabling Developer Mode. This will wipe your device and restore Chrome OS to it’s original state.
To do this, reboot your Chromebook. When the warning message pops up, follow the instructions to restore Chrome OS.