A little while back I posted a quick video of me running Firefox on a Chromebook. Chromebooks themselves are somewhat limited in what they can do, but ultimately they are full fledged laptops under the hood, and you can actually install other operating systems onto them and use them as such.
Now, I know that Gallium is in the title of this article, and that’s mainly what I’m focusing on, but you actually have a number of options. Gallium is a version of Linux based on Ubuntu (which in turn is based on Debian), but if you are interested in going through this and you’re unfamiliar with Linux and that sounds confusing you don’t need to worry too much. Gallium itself is specifically designed to work on Chromebooks, so you’ll probably get the best bang for your buck in performance, drivers, and things like ChromeOS’s custom keyboard working correctly. That said, you’re perfectly capable of installing things like Windows or other versions of Linux on a Chromebook as well.
The only caveat here, though, is it might take a bit of technical know how. Depending on the Chromebook you might need to change the firmware on it, which looks to be really difficult at first glance, but is fairly straightforward process that isn’t too complicated once it’s laid out. DB Tech did a great video on the process , and the Gallium wiki has a page dedicated to listing out which Chromebooks do and do not need firmware updates and an installation guide so if you do consider doing something like this those are all great resources.
Anyway, a month or so back I went through this process and thought I would summarize what I ended up doing. It won’t cover everything from start to finish, but it should give you an idea on what to expect if you found this interesting. First thing I did was go on Ebay and look for used Chromebooks, which is how I got mine for $35 plus tax. Now, you don’t need to buy a used Chromebook if you do end up going through this process, but a used one will obviously be a lot cheaper. If you are buying it used, like buying anything else used, make sure that it’s in good condition and/or you can live with or fix any defects.
Regardless if whether you’re buying used or not, once you find one that fits your budget and looks decent you are going to look into what can be installed on it. Even if you plan to install a different operating system other than Gallium, the next step is still to pull up the Gallium compatibility Wiki page and see what it’s compatibility is. There are three levels of compatibility, one allows you to install other operating systems out of the box (which of course is ideal), one requires you to modify the firmware to install operating systems (a little more complicated but perfectly doable), and one cannot install other operating systems at all. For me personally I ended up purchasing an HP 11 G4 Chromebook, which requires you to modify the firmware before installing another operating system, but is overall compatible with other operating systems.
Once you found one that meets your price point and is compatible with other operating systems, the next step is to research it’s specs. Mine came with a dual core 2.16 GHz processor, 4 gigs of ram, and a 16 gig hard drive. That’s perfectly acceptable for what I intended, and while it won’t run games it’ll be powerful enough to do most other normal laptop stuff. At this point, once you’ve found a Chromebook that looks acceptable and is compatible with other operating systems you can make the purchase.
Next comes the decision as to whether to replace the hard drive or not. Something like 15-40 gigs is obviously less than a normal laptop, but is still capable of performing basic tasks (much of this depends on what you intend to use the device for). Replacing the hard drive also has a couple of security benefits. Also, you can always change the hard drive later if you choose to, though you will probably need to re-install the operating system if you replace the hard drive later on.
- quick tangent on security risks of used hard drives -
I would usually recommend replacing hard drives when buying a used laptop instead of just formatting it. It is possible that malware hides in the hard drive’s firmware and is not effected by a format.
In this case, however, I did not replace the hard drive. The reason is that a Chromebook is a lot less susceptible to malware, especially the kind that would gain that level of access as compared to something like Windows, Mac or Linux. Additionally, when switching operating systems there is a decent chance such malware might not carry over since it would likely be highly tailored to the operating system which it originally occurred on. Last, though this type of malware exists it is still seemingly pretty rare.
Long story short, I would feel amiss if I did not mention it, and it is a valid reason to consider when deciding to replace a hard drive, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it in this specific circumstance.
- end tangent -
At this point, once you have the device, replace the hard drive if you intend to and then you are all set to begin the installation. If you need to modify the firmware like I did then again I highly recommend checking out DB Tech’s guide.
Now, once you’ve replaced the firmware (or if you never had to), you are ready to install the operating system. If you are installing Gallium, return to the wiki page and determine which installation file corresponds to the CPU on your device and download the installation file. If you installing Windows or other Linux versions then download those installation files. If you are installing Gallium or another version of Linux then use the Rufus tool to create an installation thumb drive (here's a good tutorial) and if you are installing Windows follow the installation instructions provided by Microsoft.
Enable developer mode on your Chromebook, reboot, and boot to the installation media (may vary from device to device, but again I recommend checking out DB Tech’s guide). As you go through the installation, assuming you are installing Gallium or another version of Linux, you’ll get asked the usual questions such as time zone, keyboard layout, where to put the OS (make sure to select the hard drive) etc; which should be fairly straightforward. Additionally, you’ll be asked things such as how the installation should be completed (unless you’re dual booting make sure to select the option to use the entire had drive), whether to use encryption (I highly recommend you do), and for a Root password (a password used whenever you do something requiring administrative rights which boosts your security). In case this sort of project sounds interesting to you, but you’re unfamiliar with Linux, here is a good basics guide.
Once you finish the installation, you are all set. So, what can you do with this laptop? Well that varies based on what you had planned, but I’ll give a quick overview. Assuming you installed Gallium:
First, you can do everything a Chromebook can do. This includes browsing the internet, accessing services like Google Docs/Microsoft Office Online, email, streaming services, online shopping, etc.
Beyond Chromebook capabilities, however, you can run standard full blown software. Office suites like Libre Office allow you to compose documents offline and in a more private manor than an online based suite, you can use software like GIMP or Audacity to create/edit images and audio files respectively, run lightweight games such as Unciv or emulators, run communication software like the Thunderbird email client or various XAMPP/Matrix/IRC chat clients, open offline books and video files, and plenty more – just about anything you can run on a standard laptop minus a few resource heavy processes.
For me, utilizing that kind of software I can do most of my go-to computer related tasks on a small computer with an amazing battery life, and being a $35 laptop the risk of it being damaged or stolen if I carry it around regularly in my backpack is a lot less then if I bring around my regular laptop (which also doesn’t have a working battery in it, I know could replace the battery it but I keep telling myself it’s a security feature).
That said, if you end up going through this process you might have other uses in mind. Maybe you only have a desktop and want something to be able to travel with, or you could want a backup device in case your main device breaks, you could want to dip your toes into Linux and do it on a separate cheap device, or maybe you want to give a kid a device but don’t want to pay a fair bit for a device they’ll possibly end up breaking.
Anyway, regardless, this is what I ended up doing, and I guess if you made it this far hope you enjoyed it. Again, if you do end up going through the process here I would highly recommend you check out the resources I listed throughout the article, and would be happy to answer any questions if you tried it and ran into any issues (though I've been pretty busy so I can't guarantee I'll be quick to respond or that I'll know what to do).