Exploring the Samsung ARM Chromebook 3G

Getting Down and Dirty with ChromeOS

From a basic user standpoint, ChromeOS is actually a good thing. It comes with an "office suite" included in the price of the machine, is virus-/malware-resistant out of the box and is easy to update. ChromeOS on the Chromebook boots to a user-login screen in about eight seconds, which is plenty fast for the average user. It's basically a Google Apps appliance, and when you think of the Chromebook within that frame of reference, it's a really nice little machine.

I loaned the Chromebook to my ten-year old son, who knows just enough about computers to be dangerous. In no time flat, he was surfing the Web, and he discovered you didn't need a Netflix "app" to watch Netflix movies on the Chromebook. If you're looking for a Web-surfing machine, the Chromebook more than fills that particular need.

In all, for most of the tasks an "average" user would do, this little Chromebook is a decent portable machine, so long as that user has a full-fledged desktop somewhere—and is comfortable with the Google Apps suite. However, power users (the readers of this magazine) will find the "jail" of ChromeOS to be limiting. However, that jail can be broken.

Power-User Time: Hacking the Chromebook

As mentioned previously, it was possible to put the old CR-48 Chromebook prototype into "developer mode" and extend its capabilities through various hacks. Thanks to Google and Samsung for retaining this ability on the new ARM-based Chromebook, as it's necessary to hack the unit.

There are a couple different ways to extend the Chromebook to run a full Linux environment, but I think the most flexible and easiest to install is an Ubuntu chroot environment, using the Crouton script by David Schneider (an engineer at Google). Crouton is the best thing since sliced bread—it makes it easy to install Ubuntu's ARM port in a chroot on the Chromebook's filesystem. Although it's possible to repartition and reformat the Chromebook's disk (see the Another Way to Hack the Chromebook sidebar for more information), doing that brings its own set of risks and challenges. By keeping ChromeOS on the machine, and installing Ubuntu in a chroot, you can let ChromeOS handle the power management, networking and other hardware-related tasks. Going with a chroot-based install also lets you install multiple chroots side by side, play with them and delete them with impunity if you don't like the way they're behaving.

Getting Started with Crouton

First, please refer to the links provided in the Resources section of this article, and back up any data you have on your Chromebook. The tools and methods described here may change between the time of this writing and press time, so please, ensure that you're following the latest set of instructions.

Now that you're all caught up, start by putting your Chromebook into developer mode. This is done by starting the Chromebook in "Recovery" mode first: hold the Esc and Refresh keys down while turning on the system. Once the "Recovery" screen appears, invoke developer mode by pushing Ctrl-D (there's no prompt, you have to know the magic sequence). The system will ask you to confirm, and then it will wipe its internal disk, finally rebooting into developer mode. As a consequence, the system always will show an "OS verification is off" screen on power-up, and you'll need to press Ctrl-D to clear that boot screen.

Once the Chromebook is booted in developer mode, open the Chrome browser and go to the Crouton download URL: http://goo.gl/fd3zc. The Crouton script will download automatically in your Downloads directory on the Chromebook.

Now that you've got the Crouton script on your Chromebook, you need to launch it. Start a crosh shell (Chrome Shell) in the Chrome browser by pushing Ctrl-Alt-T, then type shell and press Enter. You're almost ready to make your first chroot. Crouton has the concept of "targets" as install definitions. If you want an Xfce-equipped system, you can install with the -t xfce target. Because you're installing Ubuntu here, you may as well try out a full-blown Ubuntu—let's install Unity. Do that by running Crouton with the following command from the crosh shell:


sudo sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -t unity

Crouton will prompt you along the way, asking questions, such as user name and password, and it'll download all the necessary files to build the chroot. Then, it'll go and do the heavy lifting of actually building and installing the chroot.

Figure 3. Running a Ubuntu chroot in a Shell alongside ChromeOS

Once it's all done (how long it takes depends on your Internet download speed, because Crouton downloads all its bits from the Ubuntu mirrors), you can start your Ubuntu session from crosh simply by running sudo enter-chroot. If you want to start Unity, once you're in your chroot, just run startunity, and Unity will start on a second virtual terminal. You then can flip between Unity and ChromeOS by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Shift-Forward or Ctrl-Alt-Shift-Backward. (The "Forward" and "Backward" keys are special Chromebook keys, about where F1 and F2 would be on a normal PC's keyboard.) You also can install any other software inside your new chroot, simply by using Ubuntu's Software Manager, apt-get or your favorite Debian package installer.

Figure 4. Ubuntu Running on the Chromebook

There are other versions of Crouton, in the event that Ubuntu's not your speed (see the Resources section for a port of Crouton that installs Arch Linux). Don't forget, if you want to experiment, or have more than one chroot for different reasons, you can. Simply install with your desired target(s) and name them differently with Crouton's -n option.

Conclusion

The Chromebook, out of the box, isn't exactly the most usable of machines for most Linux Journal readers. It's geared more for the basic or novice user, particularly one who's already using the Google Apps suite of products. However, once the Chromebook is extended in developer mode and has a full Linux chroot on it, it's an extremely good mobile companion—particularly for the price. Its long battery life, light weight and silent operation lend itself well to working just about anywhere. If you decide to put up the money and get the 3G model, you should factor the two years of free 3G and Google Drive into the equation too. Google Drive and 100MB of Verizon 3G would be priced at about $15 a month, or $360 for two years. With the 3G model going for $329, this is indeed a bargain.

If you're looking for an inexpensive, highly portable, Linux computer—and you don't mind hacking on it a little bit—check out the Samsung ARM Chromebook.

Another Way to Hack the Chromebook

If a Linux chroot doesn't appeal to you, and you want to excise all signs of ChromeOS from your Chromebook, there's a way to do that. The ChrUbuntu project (linked to in the Resources section) has a script that will allow you to repartition your Chromebook to install and run Ubuntu natively in a dual-boot configuration—or wipe your Chromebook and run Ubuntu as the sole OS. There's also an option to run Ubuntu off of an external disk (SD card or USB stick), if you choose. However you wish to extend your Chromebook, you have many options.

Resources

Google CR-48 Wikispace: http://cr-48.wikispaces.com

Developer Mode on the ARM Chromebook: http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/developer-information-for-chrome-os-devices/samsung-arm-chromebook

Crouton—Ubuntu Chroot Installer for Chromebook: http://github.com/dnschneid/crouton

Crouton Download URL: http://goo.gl/fd3zc

ChrUbuntu—Dual-Booting the Chromebook: http://chromeos-cr48.blogspot.com

Chroagh—Crouton Ported to Arch Linux: http://github.com/drinkcat/chroagh

______________________

Bill Childers is the Virtual Editor for Linux Journal. No one really knows what that means.

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first stab at this was the CR-48: an Intel Atom-powered netbook with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of Flash. The CR-48 wasn't a powerhouse by any means, but it had a couple cool things going for it.

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