Using My New Chromebook

I got my first Chromebook for my birthday a few years back. It was an Acer C720, a darling of the Chromebook world and a great machine. I used it in it’s stock configuration for quite a while and then I realized i could enable dev mode and run a Linux environment via Crouton. Linux is my OS of choice for everything and being able to run it on my Chromebook was awesome. I soon got tired of crouton and began to search for other options. In dev mode, I could boot from USB so I got a 64GB USB 3 flash drive and installed Xubuntu Linux on there. That way, I could essentially “dual boot” with ChromeOS. I ran the machine that way for years. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t booting into ChromeOS ever and decided to take the plunge and wipe ChromeOS off the system, entirely. I opened up the case. I replaced the 16GB ssd it came with with a much larger one. I removed the write-protection screw and installed Gallium OS. It works flawlessly and I use it often. It’s much lighter than my Thinkpad and most of what i need is a terminal, a web browser and VS Code. But, the C720 only shipped with 2GB RAM and it is hard soldered to the motherboard. Gallium OS runs great; I even wrote an article about it; but I’m a geek, right? New hardware is always on the horizon. I have never been a tablet guy, per se. I have an Amazon Fire Tablet hacked to run apps from Google Play, but I really need a keyboard. Writing markdown or ssh-ing into a server are both difficult tasks for a touchscreen keyboard. My wife has a 2-in-1 Chromebook from Asus and it is great for watching Netflix/Hulu/Disney+. I have also been following the development of Chrome OS and the addition of Crostini, a technology for running Linux apps in a sandbox. I decided I wanted to try my hand at a new Chromebook.

So, for Christmas, I got a Lenovo C340-11. This is a 2-in-1 with an HD (720p) IPS touchscreen, a 64GB SSD, and 4GB of RAM. (lenovo site). This particular machine also has the Intel N4000 series Celeron processor which is, IMHO, a better choice than the MediaTek processors found in other Lenovo Chromebooks. The build quality is not mind-blowing, but the lid is aluminum and the body is tightly integrated plastic. My only real complaint about this machine is the touch pad. It feels a little “plastic-y”. I can solve this with a bluetooth mouse or, more likely, I will just get used to it. I am currently running Chrome OS 79 and I’m on the stable channel. I have enabled dev mode and I have enabled the Linux Apps Beta.

So, how do I use this little guy? It’s really great, actually. Even for a full-time linux user like myself. I have made great use of the android app support and the Linux app support. Because I have enabled dev mode, I can install .apk’s from outside sources. First thing I did was install fdroid and used that to install the Nextcloud (Dev) Sync client for Android. I also installed DAVx5 to sync my Calendar and Contacts from my Nextcloud server. Using the Linux terminal, I installed Firefox and VSCode, my preferred text editor. We can get into editor wars at some point, but for now, this is my editor of choice and I can use it ANYWHERE. The other main linux app I use constantly is Keepassx; Keepassx is a cross platform password manager and I use it for all my login passwords across all my accounts. Being able to run the native linux version is awesome, although there are several compatible apps for Android, as well.

So, I have been using this machine for about 2 weeks now. It has been rock solid doing the day to day tasks like email, web, media consumption and writing. In a future article, I will talk a little more in-depth about how I use VS Code and why i like it. As always, if you have any questions about anything in this article, hit me up on twitter: @norcalgeekdad; on Telegram: @g33kdad; or newly on Mastodon: @norcalgeekdad@mastodon.social.

Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you soon!

Cheers!

GalliumOS – Linux Designed for your Chromebook

There are a couple different ways to get Linux apps running on your Chromebook. For most recent models and, as far as I know, all new models; you can simply enable Linux app support and install your favorites directly into Chrome OS. These apps then run in a container and integrate directly with Chrome OS. However, if you are like me, you have an older Chromebook which does not now, nor will it ever, support Linux apps natively

.I have an Acer c720. In fact, I’m writing this post on it right now. Older Chromebooks can utilize a free utility called ‘crouton’ (https://github.com/dnschneid/crouton) to run Linux applications or even a full linux desktop within or along side Chrome OS. I have used crouton in the past on this C720 and it works great. However, I quickly got tired of switching back and forth between Chrome OS and Linux.

This particular laptop was shipped with SeaBIOS installed. SeaBIOS behaves like a typical x86 bios, allowing you to select your boot device at boot time. By enabling developer mode and setting a few firmware flags, I was presented with a boot menu at startup. I plugged a USB 3 flash drive (64g) into the USB 3 port on the C720 and a xubuntu (http://www.xubuntu.org) install usb stick in the other port and installed a full version of xubuntu to the flash drive. With this configuration, I could essentially dual-boot. I could select the internal boot drive to load Chrome OS or select the flash drive to boot xubuntu Linux. I used this set up for a long time and it worked well. I had a “best of both worlds” scenario. I would boot Linux to work and Chrome OS for media consumption (netflix, youtube, etc) or to quickly browse the web and check email.

As time went on, however, I became frustrated with the speed running off of the usb drive. I also found that I was booting to Linux 90% of the time and using my tablet or phone for the odd email or youtube video. I decided to sacrifice Chrome OS and use linux only. I cracked open the laptop case, removed the write-protect screw, and installed Linux directly to the internal drive. It went perfectly and worked great. The C720 ships with a 16gb MVNE drive and I quickly filled it up. I replaced it with a 120g drive and solved that problem. The only issues were some hardware related things that result from the specialized Chromebook hardware. It wasn’t impossible, but there were some rough edges. The main pain point was the fact that the media keys (volume/brightness/etc) that make up the top row of the keyboard were not functional as intended. I tried to do some creative key mapping in xfce to work around this, but it was kludgy. I started looking for something new.

I tried several different distros with varying degrees of success until I finally came upon Gallium OS (https://galliumos.org/). Gallium is a specialized distro (based on my beloved xubuntu) that is tweaked to run on Chromebooks/Chromeboxes. I installed it a few weeks ago and I have been using it almost every day.

All in all, GalliumOS has been everything I want it to be. My only small kludge is a tiny, one line .Xmodmap script to set the Chromebook’s “Search” key to a CapsLock. (keycode 133 = Caps_Lock). I highly recommend using Gallium on your Chromebook. It has restored usefulness to my C720. Go give it a try.

Peace,
Matt McGraw
@NorCalGeekDad – twitter