A Do It Yourself Chromebook

In a recent 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.

Samsung ChromebookThe 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 lightweight 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 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 offers daily builds with versions for the VMWare and VirtualBox virtualizers and a generic version that can be installed on a 4 GB (or larger) USB flash drive and used to boot many netbooks or other PCs. (The Chromium OS project has a hardware compatibility 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/

As with the Hexxeh images, each of these is about a 250 MB download, which uncompresses to about a 2 GB iso image file. As I noted, I was unable to get the Hexxeh Mac utility to work for me (even working with Hexxeh’s image files); instead, I copied to uncompressed iso image file to a USB flash drive and moved it from my Mac to a Windows system – there, I used the free downloadable Image Writer utility to create a bootable USB flash drive from the image.

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

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.

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 WiFi 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 1024×600 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 WiFi 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 two 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, WiFi 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.

Keywords: #chromium #chromiumos #chromeos #chromebook #diychromebook #netbook

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3 thoughts on “A Do It Yourself Chromebook

  1. Nice article. I’m hoping they get the mouse issues worked out as I’ve been looking for a good use for my Mini9 with only a 4GB SSD.

    Might I ask where your source is for the 16GB for just $30?

  2. Having read this I thought it was very enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this content together. I once again find myself spending a significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it was still worth it!