Doing more with a Chromebook – How to installing Linux OS on Chromebook

Preface: This article is part of a series of articles which aim to show that it is possible to easily break away from traditional PCs by using a Chromebook and installing another OS on it, such as Linux.

ChromeOS is often criticized for how restrictive it is and for its lack of useful applications. The possibility of being able to install Android applications on Chromebooks is by now a well-worn subject, and outside of the few very specialized office and multimedia programs which are available for ChromeOS, there are not many available applications for doing the other things that the majority of portable PCs are easily capable of doing.

Moreover, trusting all of your documents and data to a Cloud service is not without risks to your personal privacy, not to mention the wasted resource expenditure involved in constantly transferring data to and from a server.

When my colleague suggested that I purchase one of these devices to use as my main computer, I was dubious, and yet…

I was looking for a computer to replace my venerable Sony Vaio TZ21 from 2007. After 10 years of faithful service, its 11 inch display, 4200 rev/min HDD and its 1.06 GHz Core 2 Duo processor were no longer able to keep up with my daily usage needs. I had long since replaced its Windows XP operating system with a very light-weight Ubuntu Linux OS (Lubuntu), which allowed me to always have an up-to-date computer (it is still running on Lubuntu 17.04), without sacrificing any performance. Despite this, I realized that it was really time to upgrade to a more powerful device.

Specifications

My required specifications were quite specific, making the purchasing equation quite complex:

  • A light-weight device with good autonomy
  • No Windows license, Linux compatibility
  • 13″HD display
  • SSD disk
  • 4 GB of RAM, as a minimum
  • A competitive price (under 600$, ideally under 500$)
  • Silent…

Obviously, I also wanted it to be able to run all of the software that I use on a daily basis:

  • Office software (ideally LibreOffice)
  • Programming (a little bit of Python, R, SQL, and Git)
  • Data processing (OpenRefine, Outwit, Tabula)
  • Photo and video editing (not necessarily professional software)
  • FTP, and Web software
  • All of which needed to be usable without an internet connection

Generally speaking, I wanted to have a wide selection of available software, while retaining a certain amount of control over the computer. In my opinion, this was a primordial consideration.

My situation is a little bit paradoxical: I enjoy using a computer that behaves like an appliance for most of my daily tasks, but on occasion I still like to be able to look under the hood, to understand how everything works.

My limited budget prevented me from even considering an Apple product. While I am somewhat of a fan of the Apple brand, the price of their entry-level computers is quite prohibitive, especially since a portable computer is destined to live out most of its life in a hand bag, subject to the hardships of mobility.

There are several sites that sell PCs without any pre-installed Windows operating system. However, I wasn’t able to find a model that really pleased me: I found many of the computers to be rather limited given their price; they also seemed to be quite heavy and to have somewhat limited autonomy.

In short, I was quite dissatisfied until my colleague mentioned Chromebooks to me. I’ll admit that at the time, I found the suggestion somewhat amusing. In my mind, these computers were at the very bottom of the barrel (I am a little bit snobbish when it comes to computers). But, then he showed me his 5 year old Chromebook which was running Linux and that was all it took to convince me.

The choice of computer

After a few days of thinking about it, I settled on the ASUS C301SA, which I ordered from a well-known online retailer for 257$.

Why this model. Simple.

Released at the end of 2016 in its present configuration, it includes a pre-installed 128 GB SSD disk, 4 GB of RAM, and a nice HD display. While it’s metallic finish is somewhat neutral, it is quite attractive. Its price agreed with my budget. Furthermore, I did not want to invest in a touchscreen model since I have no use for this functionality and since it can also cause certain incompatibilities with a Linux operating system. Since this computer was the latest iteration of the model my colleague had shown me, I was almost certain that it would satisfy all of my needs after I loaded a Linux operating system on it.

The details concerning this installation will be the subject matter of another article, but I should mention that I opted to perform a “dual-boot” installation, meaning that at start-up I am able to choose whether I want to load ChromeOS or the Linux operating system. I thought it would be a good idea to make the OS installation process reversible in case I ever decided to sell the computer.

Also, since I was aware of the advantages of ChromeOS for simple “sufing” usage, and since I had enough disk space to store two operating systems, I asked myself why I should deprive myself of having both operating systems.

So, how well does a Chromebook perform?

The operating system that I installed is an Xubuntu 17.04 distribution, the newest version of this freely available OS. The only difficulty I encountered was that I had to borrow a few tools from another distribution called GalliumOS which is based on Ubuntu and which has been specially optimized for running on Chromebooks. The whole installation took me around an hour, plus another half hour of fine tuning.

I opted for a light-weight desktop called xfce4, equipped with a Cairo dock (“OSX style”). Xfce4 has a minimal memory footprint and nevertheless has a large number of applets which allows it to display all of the necessary information in the taskbar.

This computer has all of the applications that I need. While it is not lightning fast (its 4 core N3160 Celeron processor is more geared towards saving power), it is able to discretely and rapidly satisfy my daily needs. It takes about 25 seconds to boot and has around 9 to 10 hours of battery autonomy, easily. Its HD display is also quite good.

While the keyboard is not backlit, it is very comfortable to use. Two (small) downsides:

  • The mapping of the F1 to F12 keys by the Linux OS with the keyboard’s physical keys is sometimes difficult to achieve; also, the CAPS LOCK key is replaced by the magnifying glass.
  • The trackpad is a little bit less responsive under the Linux operating system than it is under the ChromeOS, due to an erratic driver. I use a portable mouse anyway, and this problem is probably fixable.

I surf, I code, I edit my documents, audio and video freely. The available software for Linux is abundant and covers all of my needs. I even installed some software to initiate myself into the world of penetration testing!

In addition to everything that I just mentioned, my system is less reliant on the Cloud, more respectful of my privacy and is slowly becoming my primary computer.

In summary, this Chromebook with a Linux operating system is really fantastic!

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