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:: Linux Walkabout with a Chromebook

For the past few years, i’ve been using a chromebook as my “walk-about”. i used to have a full laptop with semi-ridiculous specs that weight close to 9 or 10 pounds because, that made the most amount of sense, but we live in the modern era and there’s no reason to do that.

So, why a Chromebook?

99% of the work i do is remote. i log into one or more servers, write code using VIM or something similar, do the compile remotely, and bring up remotely served web pages to see the results. Generally, i don’t need a beefy box to compile up firefox every hour or so. i can get away with a fairly whimpy machine that just needs to runs ssh and a browser. Plus, if i destroy or lose the machine, i’m sad, but not $3,000 sad.

Chromebooks kind of fit that niche nicely. Yeah, i could also use an apple product, but those tend to be way overpriced, and personally, i don’t have a whole lot of positive feelings toward apple. (If you do, great. i don’t. i’m fine showing you where on the doll the bad computer manufacturer touched me.)

As an added bonus, Chromebooks are linux machines at heart. This means that it’s not TOO hard to get things rolling in a pretty usable way.

Picking Hardware

A chromebook is a chromebook, right? These things are all the same, right?

Well, no. Turns out that there are some remarkable differences in build quality, performance, and usability among each of these. HPs, for example, tend to be fairly durable, but they’re also bigger and slower. Asus tend to look fantastic, but i’ve had mixed luck with processing speed and heat generation. Lenovos are also good, but tend to lean more toward the “overkill” side of things making them pricier and bulkier than i prefer. Honestly, if you can go somewhere and do a “hands on check” for a system, it’s worth it. This is a tool, and like a good tool, you can’t always tell everything you need from a static beauty shot and some sales text.

i have a side thing that pays me about $100 a month. i put that extra cash into an account i use for gadgets, phones and stuff like that, so that kinda drives the price i feel comfortable with. Generally, i shoot for around $500. The latest is more in line with what i paid for my cellphone, so it hurt a bit more, but i figure i’ll get a few years out of it at the very least as well.

As for what brand, i’m not going to say “Use an Acer!” just because those are the boxes that i’ve had the best luck with, but i will provide the following criteria i use when picking a box:

Required:

  1. x86 base – this is more important later, but if you’re planning on running Linux, there are FAR more things compiled for x86 architecture than ARM. x86 can cost more, but honestly, it’s worth it unless you’re never offline or at the wrong end of a crap connection.
  2. USB C charging – Again, we live in a modern era. Chances are you’re phone is USB C (or can talk it), and getting a universal adapter means less crap in the carry on. i’ve gotten a 65w USB charger that i’ve used across several chromebooks and it travels great.

That’s really it. The rest are the optional, bonus bits:

  1. Multiple USB C ports – Because you might want to do more than just charge.
  2. Micro SD slot – Extra storage FTW!
  3. USB A port – It’s the universal standard for stuff like plug in keyboards and drives. Bonus if it’s USB3.
  4. Greater than 1440 vertical resolution – This is a bit esoteric, but i am a sucker for being able to put the max amount of text up on the screen, and to do that i need very high resolution. Resolution tends to vary, but the real base is the vertical, and even at 4:6 horizontal is going to beat vertical, so i use that to judge machines.
  5. 360° hinge – When i use an external keyboard, it can be nice to fold away the main one. It’s also nice when you’re watching movies on airplanes.
  6. Illuminated keyboard – Surprisingly useful at night.

The machine i currently use has all of these, and a pen too which i’ve used maybe once. Still, kinda nice.

The two flavors of Linux

i’ll note that Kenn White has a great article about using a low end chromebook without doing a lot extra to it. Sadly, his needs are not quite my own.

One of the needs i have is to run remote programs off of my X-Windows workstation. This is a bit more involved than just running VNC, but is far more useful. To do that, means i have to have locally running linux that can act as an X client. Previously, that meant rooting the box and installing Crouton, which runs linux in it’s own VM with it’s own display. Newer versions of ChromeOS support a “Linux Beta” which uses a container to run linux as an app. Both allow you to run remote X applications.

Crouton

To put it bluntly, Crouton is a hack. It’s an utterly magnificent hack, but it does require you putting your chromebook in “dev” mode which disables pretty much all the security that chromebooks are famous for. Plus, everytime you reboot you get a super scary message and loud beeping warning you that you’re in Dev mode and to hit the space bar to wipe everything clean. You press ^D to continue. Keep that in mind if you’ve got small kids who like to play with your computers.

That said, installing and using crouton is pretty trivial (albeit, getting a window manager of choice running is as difficult as as it is on any other system), and there’s no denying that once you’ve switched to the Linux side, you’re running full on Linux. You get access to the chromebook drive side (kind of have to dig for it, but it’s there), and if you run an additional plugin like Xiwi, you don’t even have to switch modes to use all the Linux goodness. You even have full access to all the devices (including USB) with no trickery required.

All that said, since it’s a magnificent hack, it’s not exactly “official” and there are bits of it that can be slow. For what it’s worth, if you’re running on an ARM box, i’d actually recommend this approach, even though it requires more CPU. Partly for the reason that it’s a bit more stable.

Pros:
* Full on Linux – with all the features and quirks
* Survives “sleep” cycles
* Full access to devices

Cons:
* Full on Linux – with all the features and quirks
* CPU Intensive (no GPU/hardware acceleration)
* Full access to devices (like USB)
* Requires running Chromebook in “dev” mode with the constant threat of a system wipe.

Crostini

Newer versions of ChromeOS introduced the “Linux (beta)” feature. This runs linux in a sandboxed container. (In theory, you could run other similar containers, but you probably won’t.) The container has access to the main ChromeOS screen, and for all intents and purposes, apps run that way show up as apps in the task bar.

You don’t get a program manager by default for linux apps, but you can easily install something like Firefox Nightly for Linux and run that without a hitch. It depends on what chip you’re running but i’ve got 64-bit x86 linux so i can pretty much natively run anything that draws to the screen.

It’s not all sunshine and unicorns, though. The linux app will sometimes hard hang the box during a light ‘sleep’. In addition, Chromebooks don’t have a ‘hibernate’ so they gleefully kill the CPU (and the linux app) if left alone too long.

Pros:
* Full linux with seamlessly integrated window display.
* Cut & Paste works like expected.
* Supported, and generally getting better.

Cons:
* No hibernation here, only death.
* Hangs on sleep or straight up crashes when running out of memory.
* No window manager finesse or app manager control, your CLI is your friend.
* No full linux access to USB (devices go through ChromeOS, so your Yubikey won’t work quite right with linux apps.)
* Limited drive access to ChromeOS.

Final notes

Is this going to be perfect? Hell no. Some things are going to suck or be annoying. Then again, that’s a universal constant, so we continue on as a species. If your needs are like mine, it’ll be just peachy.

If you like, nothing stops you from running either Crostini or Crouton, getting annoyed, factory resetting and switching to the other install. It’s trivial to back up important stuff with either system.

Also, yeah, chromebooks have a known problem with bluetooth audio devices failing to stay connected. They’re reportedly working on a fix. For now, it’s an excuse to carry the audio cable for your headset in your carry bag.

Good luck, and i’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Blogs of note
personal Christopher Conlin USMC memoirs of hydrogen guy rhapsodic.org Henriette's Herbal Blog
geek ultramookie

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