Unlock Your Chromebook with Linux: A Beginner’s Guide

This Guide is by a Beginner

This is a beginner’s guide since the author is not an expert in information technologies nor operating systems, and that is exactly why you might rely on this guide’s advice.

For context, I’m just a computer user. Like many of my generation, some of my earliest experiences using a desktop PC involved Microsoft’s Windows. Sometime around 2010, I switched to using Ubuntu as my preferred operating system to maintain an old Frankenstein’s monster of a desktop PC, which I still use regularly. For much of the past decade, that old desktop PC was my only functional computer, and I only just recently acquired a Chromebook.

At first, I was a little disappointed with the Chromebook’s limited functionality. Straight out of the box, it just isn’t as capable as a typical laptop with Windows. Designed as a cloud-based operating system, Google never really intended it to fill that role.

But, times change.

Now, unlocking the potential of many modern Chromebooks is as easy as finding the correct setting and flipping the switch that turns on Linux.

By using Linux on ChromeOS, you can install and run apps to enhance your office productivity, to edit audio or video files, or to play games on Steam.

Some of the Terms to Know

If you already feel a little lost, that’s okay. The terminology can get a bit confusing, especially when you don’t know anything about this stuff to begin with.

To help you get a grasp of the situation, allow me to explain a few terms first.

As far as I know, your Chromebook is already running Linux. Yeah. From what I have read, Chromebooks run on the Chrome operating system, which is also known as ChromeOS. Google developed the ChromeOS based largely on Debian, which is a Linux distribution.

Linux comes in a variety of different distributions, and many of those distributions come in a variety of flavours. So, Ubuntu is an operating system that is one popular Linux distribution, and there are a variety of flavours of Ubuntu, such as Kubuntu or Xubuntu. There are many other Linux distributions available, such as Linux Mint or Puppy Linux, and there are a variety of flavours to consider for each. Sometimes, the Linux distribution on ChromeOS is also known as Crostini.

As a beginner, I can’t really tell you much about the differences between each distribution or each flavour. What I can tell you is that these are often freely available operating systems, and Linux often feels lighter and faster than Windows in my experience.

Google’s Gift to Savvy Chromebook Users

Although I may have been a little disappointed with my Chromebook at first, I soon discovered that Google recently enabled Linux on ChromeOS.

What I mean to say here is that Google is okay with you using Linux on your Chromebook. In fact, they want to help you set this up to get the most out of using your Chromebook.

Google has designed this in a way to enable novice users, like myself, as well as developers.

Now, I won’t detail anything here about the developer’s set up of Linux on ChromeOS.

Instead, this guide is only interested in the simplest set up for beginners to explore on their own.

The good news is Google has made this a safe option to explore.

Turning on Linux on ChromeOS will not void your warranty, and it should not compromise your machine.

Once it is enabled, Linux runs inside a virtual machine on your computer, and the ChromeOS is still the base operating system for your Chromebook.

The Basic Steps to Activate Linux on ChromeOS

First, check to see if your Chromebook is supported. There is a list of supported devices here. (Note that some other modern Chromebooks include the Linux on ChromeOS feature, such as the Samsung Chromebook 4, which is not listed there.)

If your device supports this feature, then you may continue following this guide.

Once you’ve confirmed that your device is supported, then open up the Settings for your system. (Note: if you tap the clock in your system tray, then that opens a menu where you can click on the gear-shaped icon to get into Settings.)

In Settings, scroll down until you see Advanced. Click on Advanced, and then scroll down some more until you see a section called Developers. There, you should see Linux Development Environment. Tap that.

Here, just flip the switch to turn on Linux on ChromeOS, devote some storage to use with Linux, and your machine is good to go.

Note that, although the word “developer” is used there a little, you are not advised by this guide to actually activate developer mode on your Chromebook. That is something else, and there is another setting for that. If you go through with that, then it will take your Chromebook out of verified mode, and we do not advise you to do anything like that as a beginner. That’s the sort of thing that could compromise your machine or void your warranty.

If you follow this guide, then you will install Linux on ChromeOS like Google has intended, and your Chromebook will remain in verified mode with all the functionality that provides.

Now You Have a Terminal, and That’s a Start

Flipping that switch is what allows you to use the terminal provided by Google. In Linux, the terminal is like a DOS prompt where you write commands. The commands are not the same as for DOS, however.

Using the terminal can feel intimidating for inexperienced users, but don’t let that stop you!

With a little knowledge, you can accomplish a lot.

The first command you should enter is this:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

That will check for an update and install the update for this Linux distribution on ChromeOS.

The next thing an inexperienced novice will want is an app store for Linux, so enter the following command in the terminal:

sudo apt-get install gnome-software gnome-packagekit

When it prompts you about downloading data, type Y and hit enter.

Once the magic has happened, you can find any Linux apps on your Chromebook from the launcher, located in the lower left corner of your screen, including this app, which will just be called Software.

If you like, you can add any of the installed Linux apps to your Chromebook’s taskbar. Just drag the app’s icon into your taskbar.

To open a Linux app on your Chromebook, just tap the app’s icon and ChromeOS will automatically open a Linux virtual machine to run the app. It tends to work rather seamlessly, in my experience.

Further Guidance

Again, I’m not a tech expert; I’m just really excited about the potential of Linux on ChromeOS.

If you require actual support, please contact Google or the manufacturer of your device.

If you desire further reading, then consider the following links.

Closing Remarks

With Linux on ChromeOS enabled like this, you can really take advantage of the Chromebook’s potential.

Personally, I’m stoked to be able to run LibreOffice, GIMP, Audacity, KdenLive, and Steam on my Chromebook now.

I hope this guide allows you to enjoy Linux on ChromeOS, too!

About the Author

David Reynolds’ passion for language and literature is undeniable. His first work was published when he was only 11 years old, and he’s been engrossed in the minutiae and nuances of the English language in one way or another ever since.

He holds a BA (English & philosophy) and an MPhil (humanities) from Memorial University, where he was fortunate enough to study superhero narratives in a broad context.

Besides teaching English at Atlantic Canada’s largest university, he writes, edits, performs, and publishes a broad range of literature, primarily through Problematic Press, which he founded as a side project in 2013.

In 2021, Reynolds published his debut novel — The Marvelous Saga of the MERCANARY™ — the gonzo result of a lockdown art project.

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