Note: This is part three of a multi-part series about Chromebooks, consisting of the following:
Part 1: What is a Chromebook?
Part 2: What Can I Do with a Chromebook?
Part 3: Beyond Chrome OS – Ubuntu and Crouton
Before we get started, a few points. If you’re starting here, I’m going to assume you’re already familiar with the concept of Chromebooks. If that isn’t the case, skip back to one of the earlier parts and then come back.
I’m also going to assume you have a passing familiarity with Linux and Ubuntu – not how they work, perhaps, but what they are. If not, here’s a great intro you may want to check out before proceeding:
Expanding your Chromebook’s Horizons
I’ve written about what Chromebooks can and cannot do in the first two parts of this series, and for the vast majority of Chromebook users, this part is going to be superfluous. If you’re looking for a laptop mainly for using the web, that also has some ability to open and edit basic Office files, and has great battery life and a cheap price, a Chromebook is a great option for you. Similarly for those who don’t want or need to deal with the hassles of managing a Windows PC, or just can’t do so, a Chromebook is an ideal option for entertainment and light productivity.
But, if you’re willing to invest a little time and energy, your Chromebook can actually be more. A LOT more. In fact, it can do some of the things that I said a Chromebook can’t do:
- You can install Steam for Linux and play native Linux games, or directly install Linux games via download from HumbleBundle
- You can run some .exe files meaning you have access to some Windows software
- You may be able to print to your network printer (ignoring the Google Cloud Printing nonsense)
- You can install native Linux programs for far more advanced music, video, movie, photo, and programming options than you have in Chrome OS
Basically, you can “unlock” your Chromebook from Chrome OS into a full-on desktop environment that works much like Windows or OSX, giving you a full file management system, the ability to use other browsers like Firebox and Internet Explorer, and a full library of software you can’t find in Chrome OS.
For me, it was all about the games.
Here’s what the Unity 13.04 desktop looks like on a Chromebook. Note how similar this looks to a more traditional PC or Mac experience:
I’m Interested, Tell me More
If you’re still with me, let’s start to talk options and decisions.
Your first decision point is deciding whether you want to dual-boot Ubuntu (ChrUbuntu) or run it side-by-side with Chrome OS (Crouton).
If you’ve used a Mac, you’re probably familiar with the concept of dual-booting OSX and Windows. ChrUbuntu is a traditional dual-boot setup between Chrome OS and the Linux distro of your choosing upon system start-up. If you want to switch to the other OS, you have to reboot. Because Chromebooks almost exclusively run off solid-state drives and have sub-10 second boot times, this isn’t a huge issue, but does lock you into one environment or the other at a time.
ChrUbuntu is typically done by installing a partition on your system’s SSD (although it can be done on external media), so the other issue is that unless you’ve purchased a Chromebook with a 32 GB SSD, or upgraded the SSD yourself, space is going to be an issue. You can work around this via USB 3.0 flash drives, SD Cards, and so on, but it is worth noting, and for casual users, using external media in this environment isn’t as straightforward as it is in Windows/OSX.
There are also some other benefits, chiefly that you’re getting the best performance in Ubuntu this way if you’re willing to invest the time; the drawback is that out of the gate, you’re not as ready to go as you would be via Crouton. This includes basic things like the trackpad not working, for example, whereas in Crouton, there aren’t issues like this. I’ve read that this has gotten much better, but still an issue or concern to note.
It also seems to me that Crouton has more consistent support and updates, including development on a wider range of processors.
For more on ChrUbuntu, see:
Unlike ChrUbuntu, Crouton is a script that allows you to run an Ubuntu environment at the same time as Chrome OS. However, this isn’t a virtual box or anything like that; Chrome OS is Linux-based and the Chromebook is fully sharing resources between both environments. You get the benefit of using all the existing settings and drivers from Chrome OS.
You can also switch back and forth via a button combination, so there’s no need to reboot. This is great if you’re hoping to get some expanded function from Ubuntu but aren’t going to spend the majority of your time in it.
Crouton can be set up on either your SSD, or external media like SD cards and USB 3.0 flash drives. If you wish, you can play around with it first on external media, which minimizes the chance that you cause any permanent damage to your system and also gives you plenty of space to play with; in recent weeks, I’ve seen high-speed USB 3.0 Flash Drives as cheap as $40 for 128 GB, and high-speed SD cards as cheap as $50 for 64 GB.
Issues with Crouton include some compatibility challenges for advanced users, less speed and stability if installed to external media, and problems with some of the versions of Ubuntu (which we’ll talk about later).
My XFCE Desktop with Steam Log-In:
I personally installed Crouton as I initially wanted something not located on my internal SSD, and I wanted to be able to swap between environments without rebooting. Most of the compatibility issues in Crouton are for programs beyond what I was looking to do. There are guides and discussions about ChrUbuntu online you can look at, but my suggestion if you’re just starting is to use Crouton, and if you fall in love with Ubuntu, then consider migrating to a dual boot.
Of course, you can also wipe Chrome OS off your system completely if you’re just looking for a cheap, pure Ubuntu laptop.
As I’m far more familiar with Crouton, I’ll be speaking in far more detail about it going forward.
Before getting started, recall back that some Chromebooks use an Intel Haswell micro-architecture, and some use an ARM processor. The Intel chips play really nice with Ubuntu and specifically are needed for gaming and running Windows software. The ARM chips do not place nice with these things.
If you have any inclination to game on your Chromebook using Steam, buy a Chromebook with an Intel chip. I’m going to do a blog at some point about the differences between Chromebook models, but in a nutshell, if you want to use Ubuntu I’d avoid any Chromebook that’s pre-2013, the HP 11, and any Samsung model. Sadly this includes the 2014 updates that have full HD screens available.
If you’re looking to play games on a Chromebook, the more RAM you have, the better; this is challenging because your options are mostly locked to 2 GB of RAM. As noted, you also want the Intel processor. There are three models I can recommend that meet both of these criteria:
Acer C720: The 2 GB versions are perfectly functional, though the 4 GB versions, whether the base model, Touchscreen, or i3, are all perfect for Crouton. That said, this model is no longer available at most retailers. You can pick up a refurb and can also often find the base-level C720P new and on sale.
Acer Chromebook 15 and Acer C740: The newly released Acer Chromebook 15 models have versions with 4 GB of RAM and IPS displays and are fantastic for Crouton. For those that prefer a smaller device, the C740 is also a great choice for Crouton.
First-Generation HP Chromebook 14: The original model 14″ HP Chromebook that includes mobile 4G wireless has 4 GB of RAM and a 32 GB SSD, making it ideal, though it is not currently in production. Be aware that the 2nd-generation HP14 has an ARM-based NVIDIA Tegra K1 and is not good for Crouton.
Dell Chromebook 11: Only the now unavailable original model, which was on sale direct from Dell, pairs an Intel processor with 4 GB of RAM. This has been on sale for as low as $220 as it is no longer in production. As of April 2015 you can buy this from Dell through Amazon for $249.99, which is a great deal.
Given that the Acer C720 isn’t available any more, your choice is really between the new Acer CB15/C910 or the C740 from the new Broadwell-generation devices, or the Dell and the HP from the Haswell-generation devices. Fortunately all are excellent Chromebooks.
The Broadwell-class devices have significantly better graphics performance than the Haswell ones, but Crouton isn’t quite as stable on them yet. That said, see here for an install guide for these Chromebooks.
EDIT: As of January 2015, there are a significant number of Chromebooks using Intel’s N2830 and N2840 Bay Trail chips. These all support Crouton. The Toshiba Chromebook 2 is an excellent device for using Crouton, though its hard drive only is available in 16 GB, and although it has 4 GB of RAM, the processor is much weaker than the 2955U for anything graphic-intensive (including gaming). Note also that the NVIDIA K1-powered Chromebooks like the 2014 HP14 and the Acer 13 CB5 are ARM-based, and not good choices for Crouton.
External Media or SSD Upgrade
After you select the Chromebook model, your next choice is to make sure you have the external media you need, or if you want to be fancy, have purchased an upgraded SSD for your Chromebook.
External media is certainly the easier option. I’ve run Crouton on a 45 MB/sec SD card, and on a 190 MB/sec USB 3.0 Flash Drive, and both have worked well. I can vouch for this being a reasonable option, even for gaming.
However, the absolute best option would be to upgrade your SSD. Most common guides on this reference the Acer C720, however any Chromebook where the drive isn’t soldered on should follow a similar process.
Here’s a good guide on upgrading the SSD in the Acer should you want to do that.
Alternately, here’s a video guide:
A high-performing m.2 64 GB SSD is now $59.99 on Amazon – see link below – so this is a very reasonable cost for those open to a little extra work. From what I’ve read online, you can do the same to the HP system, though it is apparently difficult to get the case apart. The Dell is brand new, so it isn’t clear to me yet if you can upgrade that system’s SSD.
Keep in mind, however, that just about any Chromebook, even ARM systems, can run Crouton, and that you can get a perfectly functional Linux experience with a 2 GB Acer C720 for $199.99 plus the cost of your external media or SSD upgrade.
Let’s Do This Thing!
To recap, so far we’ve went through three key decisions:
- ChrUbuntu or Crouton?
- What Chromebook are we installing to? (hopefully not ARM-based)
- Are we installing to external media (USB or SD) or upgraded SSD?
If you’ve got all that sorted, and are willing to give Crouton a go, I’m going to list some of the best resources I’ve found online.
Basic Install Guide
First, the basic guide a lot of people like is this one: Lifehacker Crouton Install Guide
For me, this was… ok, but too basic. It only covers installing Crouton to your SSD and doesn’t really explain all the options available.
UPDATE: I like this article from Linux.com quite a bit, and recommend it if you’re planning to install Crouton to your SSD. Please note that on a 16 GB SSD, after installing Crouton plus some of the required extras to utilize the environment, you’ll have roughly 5-6GB of free space, and you’ll need to keep around 2 GB of space free to keep your system running at maximum efficiency.
Recommended Install Guide
I’d strongly recommend reading and following this set of instructions, created by Parth Perygl.
Google Doc: Google Docs Guide for Crouton Install
There are a few reasons why I love this set of instructions. One is that I like the video plus corresponding text guide. I also find it to be comprehensive, especially the Google Doc. It covers all three major steps in one place:
- Setting up your Chromebook in Developer mode
- How to install Crouton
- How to set up Ubuntu afterwards
This is the only reference I found with ALL these crucial steps in one place. It also helps explain what you are actually doing, and how to choose different release versions and different desktops. Using this guide I was easily able to figure out how to install XFCE 13.04 and Unity 13.10 on the same USB 3.0 drive and choose between either environment. The more basic guides don’t actually teach you to understand what you’re doing, if you’re a novice.
There are a ton of other guides out there if you take a look on Google, or YouTube. Some more great references on Crouton:
Unity vs XFCE and 12.04/13.04/13.10/14.04
By default, Crouton will install Ubuntu 12.04 (Precise). You’ll most likely want to choose to install 13.04 instead (Raring), as it is more recent and fully supported in Crouton, meaning that everything will work (trackpad, software center, etc.) without user intervention.
You can also install 13.10 (Saucy), but I don’t recommend it. There’s an issue with Crouton and Saucy where the Ubuntu software center doesn’t grant you admin privileges and therefore can’t install anything. You need to install all your packages and programs using the Terminal. This is mostly fine, especially for advanced users, but it does make you do more work than you need to. I also found some games had graphics issues in 13.10 that weren’t present in 13.04.
Finally, 14.04 (Trusty) is coming out in April 2014. I’d suggest holding off on upgrading for a while, until support is fully in place.
EDIT: As of June 2014 I can recommend that you install 14.04 (Trusty) as it is fully compatible with Crouton and is a long-term support (LTS) release, where 13.04 has reached end of support.
You can also choose a number of desktop environments though most people suggest Unity or XFCE. XFCE is very light, meaning it is basic, simplistic, and doesn’t tax your system or impede performance. If you want a fuller experience more akin to Windows or OSX you can install Unity. I really like the look and feel of Unity, but it did impede performance on my Acer C720. This could be a situation where the extra RAM in a 4 GB model makes a difference.
If you’re going to spend most of your time in Ubuntu in Steam, I’d suggest just going XFCE to minimize any performance hit. However, if you have a 4 GB system and expect to spend significant time in Ubuntu itself, go with Unity.
Also, keep in mind that you CAN install multiple CHroots to the same external media device. For instance I have a USB 3.0 Flash Drive that has two CHroots installed, one with Unity and one with XFCE. XFCE is in 13.04 and Unity is in 13.10. Another reason why I like the guide I recommended, as it will explain the concepts you need to know to do this even if you’re a total novice at the beginning. It also covers encryption concepts.
I’ve Installed Crouton – How Do I Game?
The first step is to make sure you’ve installed the Ubuntu basics listed above in the Crouton guide I recommend.
The next step is to install Steam, which can be done a few ways. You can navigate via web browser to store.steampowered.com and download the Linux client. You can also install Steam through the Ubuntu Software Center. Finally, you can install it through the terminal:
sudo apt-get install gdebi-core sudo gdebi steam.deb
For reference, see this Steam Linux Wiki: Steam WIki
Once you have your Steam account connected, you can install any Linux games you have on Steam. Games purchased on Steam where Linux versions are available for the Steam client are automatically available to you; select “Linux Only” filter in your library to see just native Linux games. These should all install without issue (though they may not all run based on system specs).
Steam on my Acer C720:
A few things to keep in mind:
- The Intel Haswell chip used in modern Chromebooks is a dual-core 1.4 GHz chip, however some games rated for 2.0 GHz dual core and above have run for me without issue.
- You’re running an integrated GPU on a modern, but budget, Intel chip and should not expect miracles. Games that state they need 128MB or 256MB GPUs may run, or Intel HD 3000 may run, but again it may be hit or miss.
I’ve been testing a lot of Linux games on my 2 GB Acer C720, and have been impressed with how many titles can run. See the current list, here: Acer C720 Compatible Steam Games (2 GB RAM) or text list in the Appendix. 4 GB models should have improved performance in some games, especially Source games like Left 4 Dead, Half-Life 2, CS:GO, Team Fortress 2, and Portal.
As with Steam, if you’ve made game purchases or bundle purchases from HumbleBundle, you have an immediate source of native Linux games available to you. This may include some titles not yet listed as available for Linux on Steam for whatever reason; I had several titles like this. You can download these titles directly through your web browser and install them. In some cases Ubuntu Software Center can assist with installation.
I’m not sure if it is so simple for all flavors of Linux, but I can tell you that in Ubuntu 13.04 (Raring) with XFCE, installing Minecraft was exceptionally easy. Follow the “Step 3” items in my recommended guide, and then do the following:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:minecraft-installer-peeps/minecraft-installer
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install minecraft-installer
Then, go to “Games” and run the Minecraft Launcher. It was really that easy. The game ran pretty well, too.
Install instructions courtesy of IT World – Install Minecraft Ubuntu 13.04:
WINE and PlayOnLinux
WINE allows you to open and run .exe files normally for use with Windows. This includes games as well. For gaming purposes, you’ll want to get PlayOnLinux, which is as custom package installer for WINE (for applications as well as games). This is great, because it will locate and install packages you need, as well as the best version of WINE, for running specific supported games and may be able to help you get games running in Linux that you otherwise couldn’t figure out on your own.
WINE: Wine HQ
PlayOnLinux: PlayOnLInux HQ
There are a few options for running .exe games in Linux. One is to download the .exe Windows version of the Steam client, and get it up and running using WINE (preferably via PlayOnLinux). Then you can download the PC versions of Steam games and some may run.
If you buy games from GOG.com, you can get the GOG Installer downloaded, manually download games from GOG.com, and then use WINE to open their setup .exe files. This will open the GOG installer and configure the games. PlayOnLinux helps as well, they have many GOG titles listed and set up in their database.
I tried some on my own, and had mixed results. Torchlight didn’t run very well for me (despite the fact that it should run based on system specs), and Master of Magic ran without any sound, but System Shock 2, Steamworld Dig, and Race the Sun all ran great.
Beyond gaming, there are plenty of Windows applications that will work using WINE and PlayOnLinux, including:
- IE 8
- iTunes 10 (note: Doesn’t support syncing or purchasing items from the store, and is buggy in general)
- Microsoft Office 03, 07, 10 (not all programs supported)
- Windows Media Player 10
Whenever possible I advise using PlayOnLinux rather than managing packages on your own in WINE, unless you’re a power user.
Here’s how to install from a terminal:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubuntu-wine/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install wine1.7 winetricks
I hope you found this to be a helpful reference for choosing the best Chromebook for Ubuntu, how to install Crouton, and how to set up gaming on your Chromebook.
Please note that I have provided quite a few links here to external resources, and in no way was I responsible for the creation of those documents, videos, websites, etc. so: huge kudos to all the appropriate parties for the work they’ve put into helping novices (like me) get maximum use out of their Chromebooks and for finding ways to do things on Chromebooks that people think you can’t do.
It should be obvious at this point that I am a huge fan and advocate of the Chromebook concept; I liked them before I understood what you can do with Ubuntu and Crouton and like them even more now!
As always, feel free to share, and feedback is appreciated!
Games I can confirm work on an Acer C720 2 GB using Ubuntu 13.04 (raring) with XFCE, both via USB 3.0 card and SD card (45 MB/sec):
Steam – Playable:
- A Virus Named Tom
- The Bard’s Tale
- Bad Hotel
- Beat Hazard
- Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians
- Bridge Constructor
- Cave Story+
- Costume Quest
- Crusader Kings II
- Crypt of the Necrodancer
- Don’t Starve
- Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition
- Dungeon Hearts
- Dust: An Elysian Tale
- Europa Universalis IV
- Foul Play
- Frozen Synapse
- Gratuitous Space Battles
- Half Life 2
- Hotline Miami
- Intrusion 2
- Legend of Dungeon
- Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine
- Organ Trail: Director’s Cut
- Papers, Please
- Rogue Legacy
- Shadow Warrior Classic Redux
- Shank 2
- The Shivah
- Solar 2
- Super Hexagon
- Super Meatboy
- Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP
- The Swapper
- Thomas Was Alone
- Ticket to Ride
- To the Moon
- Waking Mars
- World of Goo
Costume Quest, CKII, Dust: An Elysian Tale, EUIV, Half Life 2, Rogue Legacy and The Swapper require some manipulation of graphics options for optimal frame rate