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Ubuntu on a Chromebook

Screenshot from an Acer C710-2833 computer running the GIMP, Zotero, and LibreOffice Writer.

A couple of months ago, Jason wrote about his initial impressions of Samsung’s Chromebook. In the comments on that post, I asked about trying Ubuntu Linux on it, and noted that I’d tried it out on an Acer model using Crouton.

Crouton has one major advantage: it runs simultaneously with Chrome OS, making it ridiculously easy to switch between operating systems at will. I quickly gave up on Crouton, though, for two main reasons. First, while the Chromebook woke instantly if I’d closed the lid while in Chrome OS, waking it if I’d closed it while using Ubuntu required considerably more effort. The second was that I occasionally need to connect to my employer’s network via VPN, and there was no way to do that using Crouton. It relies on Chrome OS for its network connection, and nothing I tried was going to get the VPN working in Chrome OS. Getting it working in Ubuntu is fairly straightforward.

Given my frustrations with Crouton, I decided to give ChrUbuntu a try. The hard drive that ships on the Acer is an solid state drive with a mere 16GB of space, so I initially tried to install ChrUbuntu to an SD card using this method. It appeared to install correctly, but the Acer kept insisting on booting into Chrome OS; it steadfastly refused to boot from the SD card. So I tried the process again, this time trying to install ChrUbuntu to a USB drive — with the same result. Apparently the Acer Chromebook can’t boot from either the SD or USB slots.

I finally bit the bullet and installed ChrUbuntu to the SSD using Jay Lee’s “One Script to Rule them All.” I allocated 9GB to ChrUbuntu, and will store working files to the SD card or USB drive.

There is a downside: ChrUbuntu doesn’t provide a genuine dual-boot capability. Chrome OS is still present, and it’s still possible to boot into it, but switching between operating systems requires issuing a command in the terminal and then restarting the machine, which is an annoyance. I don’t see myself making that switch very often.

But then, at this point I prefer having a full desktop operating system, anyway. And thus far, ChrUbuntu is working very well. As long as I remember to hit Ctrl-D to bypass the Chromebook’s warning screen right away, a full boot takes just over twenty seconds. I’ve now got a lightweight, inexpensive, Ubuntu 13.10 system that runs smoothly. (I did have some issues with the dreaded “He’s dead, Jim” message in Chrome when I had too many tabs open, but bumping the RAM up to 3GB from the pre-installed 2GB with a 1GB module I happened to have handy noticeably improved performance. I’ll likely increase to 4GB when I find some RAM on sale.)

I’m looking forward to traveling with this machine over the holidays; it will be a much lighter travel companion than the laptop I ordinarily use at work.

Have you tried running Ubuntu on a Chromebook? Feel free to share your experience — and if you have any suggestions for new Linux users, or favorite Linux applications, we’d love to hear about them.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by the author]

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