Chrome OS is based on desktop Linux, so a Chromebook’s hardware will definitely work well with Linux. A Chromebook can make a solid, cheap Linux laptop.
If you plan on using your Chromebook for Linux, you shouldn’t just go pick up any Chromebook. From ARM vs. Intel hardware to storage space, there are some things you’ll need to keep in mind.
ARM vs. x86 Software Compatibility
Some of the most popular Chromebooks, including the HP Chromebook 11 and Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, aren’t ideal desktop Linux machines. They have an ARM CPU inside them instead of an Intel chip.
This matters for several easons. For one thing, an Intel-based Chromebook will be able to use the typical version of a Linux distribution, while an ARM device will have to use the ARM port. Not every Linux distribution offers an ARM port, and the ARM ports are likely not as well supported. They also have less software available for them.
This is particularly important when it comes to closed source software. For example, the following applications could be used on an Intel Chromebook, but not on an ARM-based one:
- Steam for Linux and its hundreds of Linux games
- Minecraft and other Java software
- Wine for running Windows applications
- Adobe’s Flash browser plug-in (You can run Flash in the Chrome OS environment, but the Flash browser plug-in for Linux only supports Intel systems, not ARM ones.)
Most other closed-source software will only support Intel-based Linux systems, too. If you want a complete Linux desktop experience, you’ll want an Intel-based Chromebook.
Chromebooks come with very little local storage space, often a fairly small 16 GB solid-state drive. Google’s vision is that you have a small local operating system — that’s Chrome OS — and everything else will be stored in the cloud. Of course, if you want to use a typical desktop Linux system, you might want more storage space for applications and your personal files.
Bear this in mind when picking up a Chromebook. You may want to get a Chromebook with a 32 GB SSD or even a much larger mechanical hard drive, if you can find one. Mechanical hard drives will be slower than SSDs, which is why they’re being phased out.
You can also add an SD card or USB drive to your Chromebook for more space, but SD cards and USB drives are slower — they’re good for media, but not ideal for applications and other things you might want on your local hard drive.
Ways to Install Linux
You can install desktop Linux on your Chromebook in one of two ways. Crouton allows you to install desktop Linux side-by-side with your Chrome OS system. You can switch between the Chrome OS desktop and your traditional Linux interface with a keystroke, practically using both at the same time. This also has the benefit of using the same hardware drivers included with your Chromebook for the Linux system, so everything should work well.
You can also set it desktop Linux in a dual-boot system, installing the traditional Linux system to an SD card or USB drive and booting from it. Installing Linux alongside Chrome OS is the most convenient option for most people, but desktop Linux die-hards who really don’t care about Chrome OS may prefer a dual-boot system.
Some Software Runs on Chrome OS, But Not Linux
While Chrome OS is based on Linux, Chrome OS does have some features you can’t use on desktop Linux. For example, you can’t watch Netflix on Linux without a dirty hack, while Netflix is completely supported on Chrome OS. The dirty hack uses Wine to run the Windows version of Silverlight, so it will only work on Intel-based Chromebooks.
Google still doesn’t provide an official Google Drive client for Linux, nearly two years after they first said they were working on it. That 100 GB of free Google Drive space you get with a Chromebook will be harder to use on Linux. You can still access Google Drive via your web browser, install a third-party Google Drive client, or just use Google Drive in the Chrome OS environment.
Dropbox does offer an official Linux client, so you may want to use it or another alternative to Google Drive for your cloud storage needs.
Bear in mind that Chromebooks will have slower, low-power CPUs and low-end integrated graphics hardware. They’re designed to be cheap and optimized for long battery life. Don’t drop a few hundred dollars on a Chromebook expecting it to run multiple virtual machines at once or be a speedy Linux gaming laptop. Chromebooks are lightweight web-focused laptops, and they’ll make lightweight Linux laptops.
Image Credit: Kevin Jarret on Flickr