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Do you need Skype on your Chromebook? Do you miss not having access to games through Steam? Are you pining to use VLC Media Player? Then start using Linux on your Chromebook.
Installing a traditional Linux environment on your Chromebook is a quick and easy way to unlock your machine’s true potential and improve its functionality.
Chromebooks have been getting a lot of news coverage recently – their market share has been expanding rapidly and many onlookers now predict they are set to become one of the best-selling gadgets of 2014. They are not perfect for everyone though, their inherent online functionality frustrates some users, the ongoing Google vs Microsoft war means no native Skype app, and the media player isn’t well-endowed with features.
Luckily, because the Chrome OS is a Linux-based operating system, users can install an alternative Linux environment and get a fully-fledged Linux desktop on their Chromebooks. Before you start please be aware that if you have a ARM-based machine, several Linux apps (including Skype) will not work, as they are only designed to run on Intel architecture.
There are two main ways to install a traditional Linux environment on your device, either in a dual-boot environment using ChrUbuntu, or in a chroot environment using Crouton. Both methods are relatively painless to undertake, and this article will provide a simple step-by-step guide on how to install them, whilst also looking at their advantages and disadvantages.
Putting a Chromebook into Developer Mode
Both methods of installation first require you to put your Chromebook into ‘Developer Mode’. This is a special function built into Chromebooks which, amongst other things, allows you to boot an unapproved operating system.
A few words of caution before progressing. Firstly, putting your device into Developer Mode will wipe all locally stored data, so please ensure you have made adequate backups of everything important. Secondly, you are removing an important level of Chromebook’s security, as the machine will no-longer verify or authenticate the Chrome OS on start-up, which could leave you open to potential attacks. Finally, remember any modifications you make are not supported by Google and may void your warranty.
The method for putting your Chromebook into Developer Mode varies depending on the make and model of the machine. Older Chromebooks have a simple physical switch underneath the battery, however, newer versions do not have a removable battery and thus require you follow these steps:
- Hold down the Esc+Refresh, and whilst keeping them pressed, hit the power button. Once the computer restarts you will be in ‘Recovery Mode’.
- Press Ctrl+D, which will bring up a prompt asking if you want to enter Developer Mode. Press Enter to proceed.
- The Chromebook will start initialising Developer Mode – this may take some time.
- When the setup is complete you will be faced with a screen that displays an exclamation mark and the phrase ‘OS verification is OFF’. From now on you will see this screen every time you turn on your Chromebook. If you wait 30 seconds your Chromebook will start automatically, or you can press Ctrl+D to boot immediately.
How to Dual-Boot a Chromebook Using ChrUbuntu
ChrUbuntu can be installed either directly onto the local memory or onto a removable disk, such as a USB stick or external hard-drive. Some users have reported problems with installing it onto a removable disk, so in this guide we will focus on repartitioning the local hard-drive and using ChrUbuntu to install a new Linux environment directly onto your Chromebook. If you want to try installing ChrUbuntu on an external disk, head to the developer’s website and follow his instructions.
The method below only works for the newer Haswell-based Chromebook models. It is not advisable to use ChrUbuntu if you have an ARM-based machine, though the developer does offer a solution for ARM-based devices. However, the performance on these models is poor as a result of the slower processor speeds and limited RAM. If you have an ARM-based machine, you will see better results by using the Crouton method as described further down the page.
Be aware that when using ChrUbuntu you cannot switch between the two operating systems without rebooting your machine, and if installed locally, the removal of the new environment will require a full system recovery.
Let’s have a look at how to install ChrUbuntu. Please make sure you have enabled Developer Mode and you are connected to a Wi-Fi network before starting.
- Turn on your Chromebook, but do not enter your details when presented with the login screen. Instead press Ctrl+Alt+Forward.
- Type Chronos and press Enter
- Type curl -L -O http://goo.gl/9sgchs; sudo bash 9sgchs and press Enter.
- You will see some on-screen information about the installation that is about to take place. Press Enter.
- You will be asked to decide how much of your Chromebook’s local memory you want to use for Linux. The developer recommends no more than 9 GB. Press Enter.
- The repartitioning of your hard-drive will then take place. Upon completion you will be returned to the Chrome OS login screen, again, do not enter your details.
- Repeat steps 1 to 4.
- The installation will start. Every time you see an on-screen prompt, select the default option. Important – towards the end of the installation you will be prompted to choose where GRUB should be installed, please ensure you choose /dev/sda, failure to do so will cause the installation to fail.
- Reboot when prompted to complete the installation.
Once the installation has finished, you will be returned to the screen saying ‘OS Verification is OFF’. Simply press Ctrl+L to boot into Linux, or Ctrl+D to boot into Chrome.
Note: Power users can use the shell to see what other versions of Ubuntu are available by entering curl -L -O http://goo.gl/9sgchs; sudo bash 9sgchs -h at the second time of entering the command.
If you have installed ChrUbuntu locally and then decided it is not for you, the only way to remove the OS and restore the drive partitions to their factory state is to perform a system recovery.
When performing a full system recovery, all your data in the cloud will automatically resynchronise with your machine, but all local data will be wiped, so please ensure you have adequate backups before you commence the process.
The simplest way to recover the system is by creating a recovery disk directly from your Chromebook. Enter chrome://imageburner in the browser’s address bar, and follow the onscreen instructions. You will need a USB stick with at least 4 GB of memory.
When the disk has been created you can enter Recovery Mode by holding Esc+Refresh and pressing the power button. Once in Recovery Mode, you will be prompted to enter the USB recovery disk and the process will begin.
How to Install Linux as a Chroot Using Crouton
The alternative to using ChrUbuntu is to use software called Crouton, which will install Linux in a chroot environment. In practice, this means you can switch between the two operating systems seamlessly by using a simple keyboard command, and the machine will not require rebooting.
Further benefits include the /Downloads folder being shared across both systems, meaning files can be easily accessed from both environments, whilst removing a Linux operating system that has been installed using Crouton does not require a full system recovery.
The software itself was developed by a former Google employee and is, therefore, optimised to run extremely quickly, even on older machines. All drivers are also shared between the two environments, so they should work immediately and without problems.
The process of installing Crouton is very simple. Please check you are connected to a WiFi network and you have Developer Mode enabled, then follow the steps below.
- Download Crouton to your device’s local hard-drive.
- From your Chromebook’s desktop press Ctrl+Alt+T to launch the device’s terminal.
- Type shell and press Enter.
- Type sudo sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -t xfce and press Enter
- Near the end of the installation you will be prompted to enter a username and password for your new Linux system. Choose something suitable, press Enter, and the installation will compete.
To start your new OS, make sure you are in the Chromebook’s shell (from your desktop press Ctrl+Alt+T, type shell, press Enter), then type sudo startxfce4 and press Enter. After you have done this once, the new OS will continue to run until you either turn off your computer or log out of the Linux desktop environment.
The following keyboard shortcuts enable you to switch between the original Chrome OS and your new Linux environment:
- Arm-based machines: Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Forward and Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Back
- Haswell/Intel-based machines: Ctrl+Alt+Back and Ctrl+Alt+Forward then Ctrl+Alt+Refresh
Once you have successfully installed your new environment there are a couple of actions you should take to improve your experience.
- Enable your keyboard’s brightness and volume keys to work inside the new OS. To do this, access the Chrome OS’s shell (from the Chrome OS desktop, press Ctrl+Alt+T, type shell, and press Enter), and type sudo sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -r precise -t keyboard –u and press Enter.
- Remove the new environment’s screensaver as it has been known to cause graphics errors. You can do this from the terminal inside Linux by typing sudo apt-get remove xscreensaver then pressing Enter.
- Install Ubuntu Software Centre and Synaptic (both used for installing additional apps). Do this by entering the terminal inside your new Linux installation, typing sudo apt-get install software-center synaptic and pressing Enter.
Note: Power users can see which Linux versions are supported by running sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -r list before starting the installation.
Removing a Crouton Installation
There are two principle ways to remove a Linux environment that has been installed using Crouton.
The first is to enter the shell on of your Chrome OS (press Ctrl+Alt+T, type shell, press Enter) and do the following.
- Type cd /usr/local/chroots and press Enter
- Type sudo delete-chroot * and press Enter
- Type rm -rf /usr/local/bin and press Enter
The much simpler alternative is to reboot your Chromebook and press Space when you see the initial ‘OS verification is OFF’ screen. This will take your device out of Developer Mode and wipe all local data, including any new environments you have installed. As always, ensure you have made backups of any important data before taking this step.
Recommended Apps to Download
As stated at the beginning of the article, one of the main benefits of installing a new Linux environment is to improve offline functionality, get access to a native Skype app, and get an alternative media player. Below are some Linux apps you should consider.
Linux can be confusing for a first-time user, but the ubiquitous VLC Media Player can be easily installed by entering the terminal inside your new environment, by typing sudo apt-get install vlc and pressing Enter.
Skype is only available on non-ARM-based machines, to install it you can visit the Skype website and download the 32-bit release for Ubuntu 12.04+, following the on-screen instructions.
Further recommendations include the OpenOffice productivity suite, Wine (for installing Windows programs) and Steam for your all gaming requirements. These packages can all be installed via the Ubuntu Software Centre or Synaptic.
Which is the Best Method?
I’ve tried both methods on my Chromebook, and found Crouton to be faster, easier to use, and less hassle to fix if something goes wrong. The ability to switch between operating systems is a big bonus, and integration of the /downloads folder makes working between the two environments a much smoother experience.
Please post any questions about the processes described and I’ll try to help you out. Enjoy your newly unlocked Chromebook!