Use your Chromebook with Linux

The Operating System

The distribution already has a surprisingly extensive inventory of software in the live version, despite the small size of the ISO image of less than 900MB. You will find all the typical submenus and a wide variety of applications in every menu.

Because of the small size, the live system does without programs that hog scarce resources: Instead of LibreOffice, the Office submenu offers you Gnumeric and AbiWord as programs for your digital office, a Chromium web browser is installed, and there is no tool for editing images.

There are just a couple of viewers. All-rounder VLC is integrated into the system for viewing multimedia content, however, and the Accessories menu offers a useful number of utilities.

To install the operating system on the mass storage device, double-click the Install GalliumOS install icon on the desktop to launch the graphic routine known from Ubuntu, which guides you through the install in just a few steps, giving you a stationary OS on the Chromebook. The installer chooses the mmcblk0 eMMC mass storage device as the installation location; these computers have no conventional hard disk or SSD (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The mass storage device in the Chromebook goes by the name of mmcblk0.

After a few minutes, the system is ready for use. After a reboot, it is advisable initially to set up access to the Internet. To do this, right-click the WiFi icon in the Panel and then enter the data to authenticate against the desired network.

In the System menu, Synaptic Package Manager takes you to the graphical front end for the package manager where you have access to the complete inventory of Canonical's operating system due to the compatibility of GalliumOS with Ubuntu. That is just less than 50,000 packages as Synaptic will tell you. By default, all repositories are already unlocked.

Hands-on Test

For both HP Chromebooks, the first task after the successful installation was testing the resource requirements of the operating system. It turned out that the need for memory and mass storage is astonishingly low: In spite of the now somewhat larger Xfce desktop, it only required about 420MB RAM. Also, the entire operating system occupies only around 3.5GB on the mass storage.

These very low values show you how carefully the creators of GalliumOS have integrated both the lean application software with the system and also that they have worked very hard on the kernel to speed up the system. In fact, the weaker two-core Celeron processor in the smaller Chromebook showed hardly any load (Figure 5).

Figure 5: System load on GalliumOS GDP.

The excellent hardware support is striking – despite the fact that this is a still very recent chipset with a brand-new WiFi card in the lab machine. Even the audio components of the Chromebook ran without trouble.

Very significant improvements compared to previous versions of Ubuntu were also visible in the support for the various operating modes of the mobile computer: The device woke up from sleep mode without fail after closing and then opening the lid.

Other Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) problem areas exist, such as the time-controlled dimming and switching off the screen after a defined period of inactivity or the WiFi functionality after a suspend worked perfectly.

To test the performance limits of the Chromebooks with Linux, I installed a software tool for transcoding videos on both devices in another test: The Handbrake program not only requires more memory than conventional office or Internet applications but makes use of various hardware extensions of the Intel architecture.

For example, Handbrake uses the SSE4 instruction set introduced to Intel-based processors in the year 2007 to accelerate streaming of multimedia content. The CPU I used does not have these extensions; the conversion thus ran at a significantly slower speed.

Measurements on the devices with a standard Phase Alternating Line (PAL) resolution of the videos showed conversion speeds of between 35 and 60 frames per second – which is approximately the level of Core-2 Duo processors of the Merom and Penryn generations (Figure 6). In other words, the HP laptops can easily take on full-blown laptops of a slightly older generation.

Figure 6: Almost as quick as large notebooks, the Chromebooks can handle even computationally intensive tasks.

Another positive thing in this context is that the test equipment generated little waste heat because of the low energy consumption, even at full load. There was only a slight increase in temperature directly below the CPU on the housing.

And, the battery life was not noticeably reduced, even under full load: Although an external DVD drive connected via a USB port served as the source for transcoding the videos, the estimated run time was around five hours.

Even extensive office and Internet applications, such as LibreOffice and Firefox, which also ran on the HP machines in our lab, failed to faze the systems. The systems also managed to stream HD videos from the Internet in full-screen mode, although the CPU load on both cores of the N2840 processor rose significantly up to about 80 percent.

I also enjoyed the very well-designed audio system when playing back multimedia content: GalliumOS had no trouble addressing the audio system of the Chromebook correctly, and, thanks to a sophisticated speaker system on the bottom side of the unit, it offered an unusually full and clear sound for a mobile computer.

Conclusion

As the test impressively demonstrated, Chromebooks are definitely suitable for more than just a few web applications and, thanks to the free developer community, you rid many of these devices of those shackles installed by Google.

GalliumOS, which boasts excellent hardware support even for very recent components, turns the low-cost laptops into full-fledged systems for your daily needs.

Because the two test devices from Hewlett-Packard also came with good displays, a Chicklet keyboard that was nice to use, and excellent housing quality, they prove to be serious competitors to traditional laptops, while at the same time taking the strain off your budget.

Buy this article as PDF

Express-Checkout as PDF
Price $2.95
(incl. VAT)

Buy Linux Magazine

SINGLE ISSUES
 
SUBSCRIPTIONS
 
TABLET & SMARTPHONE APPS
Get it on Google Play

US / Canada

Get it on Google Play

UK / Australia

Related content

comments powered by Disqus

Direct Download

Read full article as PDF:

Price $2.95

News