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ALAN ZISMAN ON TECHNOLOGY

A do it yourself Chromebook      
 
By Alan Zisman
15 April 2013


In my last blog posting I wrote about a week I spent with a low-cost (CDN$269) Samsung Chromebook – a small and light system running Google’s Chrome OS.

The Samsung Chromebook hardware is sort of an update of the small and inexpensive netbooks popular a couple of years back, complete with the low cost (and relatively low power) Intel Atom processor found in most netbooks. While Windows-powered netbooks felt underpowered, the light-weight Chrome OS is a better fit for the modest hardware.

In many ways, the whole system felt like competition to an Apple iPad or Android tablet - light and portable like a tablet but with a keyboard and trackpad for easier typing and copy and paste.

I happen to have a couple of netbooks around the house and it also happens that there’s an open source version of Chrome OS available for download – Chromium OS. So, I thought I’d try putting the two of them together, making myself a home-brew Chromebook.

First step is to get a copy of Chromium OS (as opposed to the open source Chromium web browser used with Linux).

The open source project - http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/ - is probably not where you want to go unless you’re a developer wanting to contribute code to the project or you want to download the source code and compile it yourself.

There are several sources for already-compiled versions, however. Hexxeh (http://chromeos.hexxeh.net) offers daily builds with versions for the VMWare and VirtualBox virtualizers and a generic version that can be installed on a 4GB (or larger) USB flash drive and used to boot many netbooks or other PCs. (The Chromium OS project has a hardware compatibility list at: http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/getting-dev-hardware/dev-hardware-list).

The site also offers instructions (for Windows, Mac, and Linux) for creating bootable flash drives, with a downloadable utility for Mac-users. (Unfortunately, the Mac utility didn’t recognize any of several flash drives I tried to use with it).

I didn’t use the Hexxeh image, however… my netbooks are a Dell Mini 9 and Mini 10v – both chosen because the were good candidates for ‘hackintoshing’ – installing Mac OS X. Dell, it turns out, created its own Chromium OS images, usable with these (but not necessarily other Dell) systems. These are available at: http://linux.dell.com/files/cto/.

Aug 4 2014 update: The Dell link is no longer available. I'm making the *.IMG file available here as a 350MB zip file .

The download uncompresses to a 2.5 GB drive image file - I used the free downloadable (Windows) Image Writer utility (https://launchpad.net/win32-image-writer/) to create a bootable USB flash drive from the image. You'll need a 4 GB or larger USB flash drive.

Using that, I was able to boot both the Mini 9 and the Mini 10v to Chromium OS; like Chrome OS on the Chromebook, it boots quickly and after asking for a network connection let me log into my Google account – complete with the bookmarks and saved passwords from my copy of Chrome browser on my Mac.

One hitch, though… initially, I needed a wired Ethernet connection.

It turns out that, while the Dell images support the Broadcomm Wi-Fi cards used in the Mini 9 and 10v models, a user has to ‘activate’ access to wireless networking. The process is documented by user David Whelan (http://ofaolain.com/blog/2012/06/02/chromium-os-on-a-dell-mini-9/). Thanks, David!

It requires going to a command prompt – press Ctrl+Alt+T for a Unix-style Terminal in a browser tab. Type shell. To install the wireless drivers, type: sudo /etc/install_wl.sh

You’ll be asked for a password – this is not the password you used to log in… dell1234 worked for me; on some systems, you might try facepunch.

(Sudo is short for ‘superuser do’, familiar to many Linux users as a command authorizing users to make system-level changes).

A bunch of activity will show on the Terminal screen; after you return to the command prompt, you should be able to close the Terminal, check your networking connections in the lower right-corner, and choose your preferred wireless connection.

Booting from your USB flash drive lets you try out Chromium OS and see whether you like it, and how well your hardware is supported. Once I got Wi-Fi up and running, mine worked well with two glitches:

-    power saving automatically blanked the screen after a few moments of inactivity. (There are no screen savers). If I pressed a key within a few moments the system came back to life. But if I waited half an hour or more, that didn’t happen – I had to shut down and restart.
-    The trackpad didn’t work unless I had a mouse plugged in and jiggled the mouse a bit; once the system responded to the mouse moving the cursor the trackpad worked fine.

Both of these issues took place with both the Mini 9 and the Mini 10v.

Working from the USB drive is fine, but I really wanted to have a dedicated Chromiumbook – that meant installing the Chromium OS to the internal drive of one or the other netbook.

I like the Mini 10v – while its display runs at the same 1024x600 resolution as the Mini 9, the 10” screen is a bit more viewable and the larger size lets it have a more usable keyboard and trackpad.

But the Mini 9 uses fast and relatively affordable SSD storage while the 10v uses a standard hard drive. The 10v’s hard drive holds 160 GB compared to the 16 GB on my Mini 9’s SSD – but storage size is not a big deal in this case; Chrome OS/Chromium OS is fairly small (remember that 2 GB image file) and users are encouraged to save data files ‘to the cloud’ – a Google Drive or DropBox account, for example. (Samsung’s Chromebook also comes with a 16 GB SSD).

And it’s quick and easy to swap SSDs on the Mini 9 – there’s an easily opened compartment on the bottom with access to the SSD, the Wi-Fi card, and the RAM socket. By comparison, getting at the 10v’s drive requires removing the keyboard and more – much more work.

And I already had several replacement SSDs for the Mini 9, letting me swap between the Windows XP that came with it, Mac OS X, and Ubuntu Linux. I decided I could live without Ubuntu for a while (though I’ve got yet another 16GB SSD on order – a $30 purchase).

Installing Chromium required booting to the USB flash drive, opening a Terminal (Ctrl+Alt+T) and typing install. Again, I was prompted for a password and again Dell1234 worked. Again, several minutes of activity and text on the Terminal screen.

When done, Terminal cutely suggests you 'shut down, remove the USB flash drive, cross your fingers and restart'. This time it booted directly to the internal SSD (the first time takes 2 minutes or so, subsequently it takes about 15 seconds – Chrome and Chromium OS report on the time needed to boot to the password prompt each time). This time, Wi-Fi was already activated – though the suspend and trackpad issues remain as before.

There’s a new April 10th Chromium image on the Dell download site – I’ve downloaded it and will give it a try as soon as possible. Hopefully it’ll fix those two issues. I’ll update this blog to let you know!

Update: I followed all these steps again using the new April 10 build - nicely, all the apps added to the previous installation magically reappeared in the new installation after a few moments. Less nice - I need the mouse more than ever; the trackpad can move the cursor (after first moving the mouse) but the trackpad buttons no longer seem to work. And it still doesn't come back to life after being suspended for a while.

Still, these are minor imperfections. Chromium OS has given this old netbook a new lease on life.

2015-06-02 Update: Dell no longer seems to be supporting Chromium OS for its (also no longer actively supported Dell Minis) - and I no longer have a Dell Mini and as a result cannot really answer questions about this topic.

However, there may be a new option - see the recently published article - Chromixium Adds Polish to Chrome. This appears to be a sort of mashup between Chromium OS and Linux and may work on older lower-powered systems such as the Dell Mini. If anyone gives it a try, let me know how it works out - success or failure.

2015-06-30 Comment: From Brazil, Sandro Romanelli wrote: 'After reading your post about chrome OS on your late Dell Mini 9, I've tried hexxeh compilation on mine too. But the same wi-fi and trackpad problems arose.

Then I noticed that postscriptum update of yours, mentioning the existence of a distro mixing Chrome OS and Ubuntu. Well, I've decided to give a try, and I'm very please to tell it worked nice and smooth!

The trackpad worked already from the live session on. For the Broadcom B43 drivers, some apt-get was needed, but nothing big

[Just for the record: "# apt-get install broadcom-sta-dkms" and "# apt-get install bcmwl-kernel-source", using the ppa:poliva/pof repository for the first, following these german instructions here]

The chromixium acts and feels like chrome OS, but allows to make use of Ubuntu's power (documentation, repository and apps).

I'm very happy with it until now, just wanted to thank you (again) and let you now about it.'

Update 2016-04-27: reader Glyn Nelson commented:

' As an update, to this old blog post, I came across it recently when I
was looking to upgrade chromium on my Dell Mini9.  I have had a
similar experience to Sandro Romanelli.  However, there a couple of
things you may wish to add as an update:

Chromixium is now called CubLinux due to threats from Google:

https://cublinux.com/2016/01/17/chromixium-is-evolving-a-cub-is-born/

but it still works really well on the mini9.  Secondly, the wireless
drivers worked fine from the ubuntu repositories, and I didn't need
the extra repository that Sandro mentioned.  In fact, the mini had
already installed bcmwl-kernel-source, so I only had to add
broadcom-sta-dkms

The only hiccup I had was after install, the installer failed to
reboot and hung after shutting down all services, but was fine when
rebooted via the power button.  I'd recommend to anyone with one of
these old pieces of kit: it has breathed new life into it, since the
chromium OS wasn't updated and failing to run a lot of google syncs
correctly.

Regards, and thanks for the blog post, it helped me a lot.


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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to alan@zisman.ca are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter for notice of new blog postings.
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