I got my first Chromebook, a cheap machine just to try it out. I like it! I’ll probably end up getting a fancier Chromebook to replace my 2017 Razer Blade laptop when I travel. I’d love to get one that could also replace the tablet I use for books and videos.
ChromeOS makes a great first impression! I’d not realized it’s basically a whole new desktop OS, a third way other than Windows and MacOS. (And I guess Linux on the desktop, lol.) It’s an interesting middle ground between a full desktop OS and a mobile OS like a phone or tablet.
I can’t quite decide whether I’ll want to use a Chromebook like a desktop computer or like a tablet. ChromeOS seems squarely in the middle. I think it could basically replace what I use a tablet for (reading books, watching videos, light web surfing) if I could find a Chromebook where the keyboard gets out of the way. Assuming the UI works well as a touch screen, which it seems to with tablet mode. These are marketed as “2-in-1” devices.
I ran into a problem with hardware though; no one makes the Chromebook I want as a tablet replacement. Part of the problem is price; Chromebooks tend to be under $400 and so don’t use very high quality screens, etc like the $800 Galaxy Tab S8+ I’d be replacing. (Although see Samsung’s Chromebook 2, 4K Chromebook, HP Dragonfly Pro, or this article). Part of the problem is mechanical. I’d love a “detachable” where the keyboard comes entirely off like the Lenovo Duet 3. But then the keyboard attachment is not a strong hinge, which means you can’t reliably support the weight of the whole machine with the keyboard while sitting or propped up in bed. Maybe one of the 180° folding screens would work better. Really need to get my hands on them to see.
The other big question is CPU type: ARM or Intel. I firmly believe ARM is the future for devices like this. But I’d say 80% of the Chromebooks out there are Intel, a few even AMD. And the ARM systems tend to be the cheaper / lower powered ones. No one is making anything like Apple’s laptops for ChromeOS, Linux, or really even Windows.
The machine I bought is an Acer 311 C722-K4CN, aka N20Q9, aka willow. It cost $120 on Amazon (new!) and is marketed as a school / student laptop. I think these were first introduced in 2020 for $350, mine was built in Feb 2021. It’s definitely not a powerhouse, $120 implies a lot of compromises, but so far the hardware exceeds my expectations other than screen quality. I deliberately chose an ARM system; it’s a MediaTek MT8183 which is maybe 2-3x more powerful than a Raspberry Pi 4 CPU? It seems powerful enough for web browsing at least. No HDMI, microSD, and limited USB ports.
First thing I did was update ChromeOS from v88 or so to v105 and now v111. A little surprised it’s a 32 bit build; the CPU is definitely 64 bit. I also installed Linux via the official route (“Crostini”) it’s a VM,
aarch64. From what I’ve read on ARM the ChromeOS kernel is 64 bit but the userspace is 32 bit. I wonder if that’s partly a RAM savings thing?
Chrome OS is quite big; 14 GB! The Linux install wants another 10 GB (although 3 GB seems sufficient.)
One hassle: there aren’t ChromeOS apps for everything I’d expect. Particularly surprised there’s no Slack app. Slack works in a browser though, and Chrome makes it easy to “Create Shortcut” so it looks more like a separate app in the GUI.
Google has good docs for building Chrome OS apps. The basic message is “it’s an Android app with special accommodations for Chromebooks” with observations like “every Chromebook has a physical keyboard” and “A system-level back button is a pattern carried over from Android’s handheld roots—one that doesn’t fit as well in a desktop context.” It’s remarkable how many different kinds of systems Android runs on: phones, tablets, laptops, TVs, Android Auto, Android Automotive. That’s a lot of different UI metaphors!
I use Firefox everywhere else but feel like I should be using Chrome as my browser on a Chromebook. I mean, it’s in the name. Also the whole OS is basically one big Chrome instance? Firefox does work but it is the mobile Android app, not a desktop app. Without proper tabs, and the wrong user agent, and… I guess it’s possible to install a Linux version but I haven’t tried it.
The Linux support is interesting. It works via a system called Crostini which seems a bit like WSL2 in its approach; it creates a VM with an LXC container, then installs Debian inside that. See also the wiki here. You can install Arch Linux and Ubuntu, albeit with rough edges. Note Crostini is different than replacing ChromeOS with a full Linux install; that’s also often possible on Chromebook hardware. Crostini supports graphics via both X11 and Wayland. Crostini is an evolution of crouton, an earlier system for running different OSes inside ChromeOS.
The underlying Android system is mostly hidden in Chrome OS but accessible. Ctrl-Alt-T will launch crosh, the Chrome OS shell for the host OS. This isn’t a full Unix shell, it’s got its own weird command set, but
top are there.
I thought I would hack the OS a lot more but one joy of a Chromebook is it mostly works just fine and doesn’t need a lot of tinkering. I do want to eventually get a full development environment for Python and web frontend. Between the Linux system and VS.Code it seems entirely doable.
One big caveat: ChromeOS is designed as a cloud-centric system and definitely wants to be online all the time. It’s possible to run things offline but you have to do a little preparation. Honestly computers are mostly useless to me offline anyway, I can’t go 2 minutes without having to look something up on the Internet. As long as I can read a book or watch a downloaded video on an airplane, I’m good.