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Set your Chromebook free by installing Linux

Chromebooks have transitioned from an intriguing idea to a product that’s taking the computing world by storm. Quick boot times, long battery life, and connected apps make these budget-friendly laptops a great choice for a diverse set of needs.

If you’re a tinkerer and like to really squeeze efficiency from your machines, though, you can get a lot of mileage from installing Linux. It provides greater control over your system and an array of useful applications that aren’t available on ChromeOS yet.

Note that switching your Chromebook over to developer mode may void your software or hardware warranty, so make sure to check with your manufacturer’s details before getting started. Theoretically, a restored image will take your system back to a brand new state, but you never know what the manufacturer might see if you have to send it in for repairs.

Step 1: Back up your junk!

One of ChromeOS’ best features is that a lot of your data is saved on your Google Drive, rather than locally. It’s especially convenient for you right now, because step two is going to erase all of the local data on your Chromebook. If you have any files you don’t want to lose, back them up to the cloud, or to another computer, for the time being.

You’ll also want to be prepared with a recovery image in case something goes wrong. You can download software directly from Google that makes this process easy, and then all you need is a flash drive or SD card, depending on your Chromebook’s connectivity.

Step 2: Developers, developers, developers

Now that you backed up all of your data and are ready to wipe your system completely (don’t worry, it will automatically install ChromeOS) and start over, you can put the system into developer mode. There used to be a complicated series of hidden switches for this, but it’s now part of the firmware and it couldn’t be easier.

With the device on, hold down the Escape and Refresh keys, then press the power button. When your Chromebook turns back on, you’ll be in recovery mode, with the screen telling you to insert a recovery disc. You’ll come back here if something goes wrong, but for now hold CTRL and press the D key to bring up the OS verification menu.

Chromebook developer mode

You have two options here, the first being that you can hit space to wuss out, remove yourself from the menu, and pretend you never wanted Linux to begin with. The second option is to hit enter, which will delete all of the local data on your Chromebook and boot you into developer mode. After a few moments, it will let you know that you’re now in developer mode, and then reboot the system to a fresh install of ChromeOS. Fill out all of your information like normal, and continue until you’re looking at the ChromeOS desktop.

Step 3: Don’t eat this Crouton

Dealing with Linux kernels and shell scripts can be intimidating and messy if you aren’t familiar with Unix, but that’s okay because David Schneider, a hardware engineer at Google, has made it relatively painless. Through a bundle of scripts he calls Crouton (an acronym for ChRomium Os Universal chrooT envirONment…sort of) all you have to do is use one command with a few parameters to get Linux up and running. The Crouton GitHub page features a download link for the software, as well as detailed instructions, troubleshooting tips, and forums to discuss issues and tricks for making everything run smoothly.

Chromebook Crouton

Download the Crouton file, which should be automatically placed in your Downloads folder, exactly where we want it. If you want some added functionality, like a unified clipboard between ChromeOS and Linux, you can install the Crouton Chrome extension, but it isn’t necessary.

Step 4: Roll your sleeves up and pull on a root

You might not know it, but Chrome actually has a terminal of its own, called crosh (ChRome OS developer Shell), that gives you access to settings that aren’t normally available, and lets you control files and programs in much the same way you would a Linux shell.

The easiest way to access it is to simply hold CTRL and ALT, then press T, which will open a Chrome window or tab with some text and a place to enter commands. Once you have this window open, type in “shell” without quotation marks to enter the true UNIX command line, where we’ll access the core at the center of your Chromebook and ChromeOS.

Chromebook Linux Shell

It’s from this command line that we’ll run Crouton, the program that will download and install any of a number of Linux distributions. For this guide we chose XFCE because it’s lightweight and functional, which is perfect for preserving the long battery life and portability of a Chromebook.

Step 5: Where’d my icons go?

Paste the following command into your command line. If you also installed the Chrome extension, change the command so it says xfce,extension at the end.

sudo sh ~/Downloads/crouton -t xfce

Running Crouton on Chromebook to Install Linux

Hit enter and wait for a while as the system begins pulling necessary information and setting up your chroot. Don’t be surprised if this takes a bit and displays lots of text on your command line. Don’t interfere with this process.

Step 6: Babysitting the process

If you’ve ever installed an operating system before, you know that it needs time to itself to unpack data and configure system files, but it needs your input from time to time. A Linux installation is no different, so you’ll have to respond to a few prompts during setup.

Successful Install of Linux on Chromebook

If you used the most basic installation option, it will just ask you for a username (lowercase letters, numbers, and dashes) and a password. Before you go and type in the same password as your Gmail account or the one you use for every site, it’s important to note that your whole system, not just the Linux half, is protected by that password, so if someone guesses it and gets into the Linux shell, they have the potential to access your Google account and its data. You should choose a strong password regardless. Type it in again to verify (in Unix the cursor doesn’t move when you enter a password) and hit enter to finish installation.

Step 7: It’s in the computer

Your secondary operating system is now installed! To access it, simply return to the shell–where it should have deposited you after install–and enter the following command.

sudo enter-chroot startxfce4

Chromebook Chroot

The screen will go black for a minute and boot into the Linux desktop. If you aren’t familiar with the use of a Linux machine, it takes a bit more effort than Windows or Mac, especially the first time you boot it up.

Step 8: Live free

There are lots of advantages to installing Linux on your system, but there are a few that are particularly relevant to ChromeOS users. The following programs provide functionality that your Chromebook can handle but don’t fall within the ChromeOS ecosystem.

Steam: Valve’s insanely popular gaming store and community, is awesome for sitting on the couch, using your Chromebook to play whatever games in your library natively support Linux (I have just over 100 games in my library, and after installing, over 50 of them were available to play locally.) If you have a desktop somewhere in your house that you usually use to play games, you can play those games on your Chromebook too. Simply log into Steam with the same account on both your Chromebook and your desktop to set up the connection, rendering games and streaming the video output over your local network.

VLC: When it comes to media players it’s hard to beat VideoLAN Client, which supports dozens of audio and video formats, as well as a bevy of useful features for network streaming, playback, and disc formats. It couldn’t be easier to install (even coming packaged with some larger distributions) and is open source if you want to try your hand at compiling the software yourself.

GIMP: Chromebooks don’t have a real version of Photoshop to run, with browser-based options such as Pixlr providing basic substitutes. If you need something a little more robust, the Gnu Image Manipulation Project (GIMP) is freely distributed image editing software that provides a large number of tools found in competing software, and a user base that can help solve problems and develop new tools and features.

Skype: Because Chromebooks are so easy to take with you wherever you go, Skype is a great choice for staying in touch. Most modern laptops have webcams and microphones built right in, too, so you can videochat from anywhere you have an Internet connection. If you can’t convince your friends to switch to Google Hangouts, at least you still have another option for managing your long-distance relationships and web friends.

[Tux the Penguin image created by Larry Ewing, vectorized by Simon Budig]