The Chromebook Pixel is the best Chrome OS laptop money can buy — but at $1299 and up you’ll need a fair bit of money to buy one. That’s a lot of money to spend on a laptop that runs a browser-based operating system, but it turns out the Pixel isn’t limited to just running Chrome OS.
You can run Ubuntu, Android, and other operating systems on the Chromebook Pixel, which means that it’s essentially just a premium laptop with a great display, an excellent touchpad and other top notch features that happens to ship with Chrome OS preloaded.
First step: Entering developer mode
Before you can install another operating system on a Chromebook you need to enter developer mode. Out of the box Chrome OS may look like an locked down operating system that lets you run a web browser and not much else, but Google is a company of people who like to tinker, and they’ve made it easy to tinker with Chromebooks as well.
The first models shipped with developer switches that you physically flipped. Newer models simply require you to pres a special key combination.
When you enter developer mode, Chrome OS will wipe your internal storage, so make sure to backup any files you have on your device. You’ll also have to login to your Google account again once you’re finished — but after you do that Google will automatically restore your settings, apps, and other data.
Here’s how to enter developer mode on the Pixel:
- Turn off the Chromebook.
- Press and hold the Esc and Refresh keys while you hit the Power button.
- You’ll see a scary menu that talks about missing files. Don’t worry. Just press Ctr+D and your system should reboot into developer mode.
Note that you may have to try this a few times before it works — or at least I did.
Once developer mode is enabled, you’ll see a scary screen about OS verification every time you reboot. But you can skip past it by pressing Ctrl + D and Chrome OS will boot in a few seconds. Or you can wait 30 seconds for the system to start itself.
Now that you have access to developer mode, you can move onto the next steps.
Crouton: Running Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS using chroot
Chrome OS runs on a Linux kernel, and Crouton is a tool that lets you tap into that kernel to run Ubuntu side-by-side with Chrome OS. In other words, it piggybacks on Chrome’s drivers for the touchpad, touchscreen, display, wireless connectivity and other functions.
As an added bonus, you can switch between Chrome OS and Ubuntu without rebooting if you use Crouton. That’s because the tool just uses chroot to switch from one file system to another. You’re kind of just running one operating system, not two.
If you’re happy with Chrome OS most of the time, but want to be able to run a few desktop apps such as GIMP or OpenShot for editing photos or videos, Crouton is an amazing tool to have in your arsenal.
You can find more details at the Crouton page at github, but here’s a short guide to installing Ubuntu with the Xfce desktop manager on the Chromebook Pixel:
- Boot your Chromebook (in dev mode) and download the latest crouton script from goo.gl/fd3zc.
- Press Ctrl+Alt+T to open a terminal.
- Type “shell” (without the quotes) to enter shell mode.
- Type “sudo sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton -t xfce” (without quotes) to start the installer.
Seriously, that’s it. The process can take a while — the script will download and configure a lot of files from the internet. You’ll want to keep an eye on your Pixel, because you’ll have to answer a few questions about your location and keyboard layout as you go, for instance.
If you want to use a different desktop environment or choose different options, you can type “sh -e ~/Downloads/crouton” before step 4 to see the help file with a list of available options.
Once the install process is finished you can switch to Ubuntu by typing “sudo startxfce4″ into a shell window.
From Ubuntu you can switch back to Chrome OS simply by tapping Ctrl+Alt+Back arrow. To get from Chrome OS to Ubuntu, hit Ctrl+Alt+Refresh.
I’ve found that sometimes if the user interface doesn’t switch you can also hit “Ctrl+Alt+Forward arrow” before hitting one of the other commands and that usually does the trick.
You can also exit Ubuntu altogether by choosing the “log out” option from the toolbar.
The first time you boot into Xfce you’ll notice that all of the text, icons, and other graphics look really, really small. That’s because Ubuntu doesn’t use the automatic pixel-quadrupling that Chrome OS does. In other words, for better or worse, you’re getting your money’s worth out of that 2560 x 1700 pixel display.
You can adjust the size of system fonts and some other settings, and use the zoom tool in the Chromium browser to make basic operations a little more comfortable. But there’s no MacBook-like tool to simply change the dpi of every single thing on the screen. So even after adjusting some DPI settings, you end up with weird artifacts like a web browser with incredibly tiny browser tabs at the top, but large and clear text and images in the main window.
Booting Android, Ubuntu, other operating systems from a USB drive
While Crouton lets you run Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS, it’s also possible to boot an alternate operating system from a flash drive or even go one step further and install an OS to the Chromebook Pixel’s solid state disk.
I’m only going to cover booting from a flash drive here, because you’re not likely to break your $1299 laptop if you’re just following these steps.
The Chromebook Pixel is the first Chrome OS laptop to ship with SeaBIOS which makes it easy to boot from a USB flash drive. Here’s how to do it:
- Open a terminal in Chrome OS by typing Ctrl+Alt+T.
- Type “crossystem dev_boot_usb=1 dev_boot_legacy=1″ (without quotes).
- Turn off the Chromebook Pixel.
- Press the power button, but when you get to the boot screen press Ctrl+L instead of Ctrl+D.
- Hit the Esc button as soon as you see the SeaBIOS text.
- Choose the drive you want to boot from.
In other words, if you have a bootable flash drive with Ubuntu, Linux Mint, or pretty much any other operating system on it, you should be able to boot into that OS.
I took the road less traveled and tried running Android on the Chromebook Pixel.
You can do this by downloading the latest build of Android-x86 and preparing a bootable flash drive with the software. This lets you run Android 4.2 Jelly Bean on the Chromebook.
For the most part Android looks better on the Pixel’s high-resolution display than Ubuntu because most Android apps are designed to run on virtually any screen resolution. So text and graphics should automatically scale.
Some apps will work better than others — for instance there’s a lot of blank space on the left and right sides of the main body of the Google Play Store. But the web browser works pretty much perfectly.
Some menu text and other items though, do look pretty small — and when you use a mouse to move the on-screen cursor you’ll find yourself moving your write an awful lot to get it from one end of the screen to the other.
And you’ll need a mouse, because at least for now when you run Android on the Chromebook Pixel you won’t be able to use the touchpad or touchscreen. Fortunately the keyboard does work.
You’ll probably run into the same problem running any Linux-based operating system that doesn’t yet support the touchpad or touchscreen drivers for this laptop. But Google has been submitting upstream patches to the Linux kernel so that better support for the Chrombook Pixel hardware should be on the way.
Restore your Chromebook by exiting Developer mode
Done playing with Ubuntu, Android, or what have you? No problem. You can erase any changes you made to your system simply by exiting developer mode.
Just reboot your machine, and at the scary boot screen hit the space bar to turn on OS verification.
At the next screen, hit Enter to proceed and the Chromebook will wipe your local storage and restore Chrome OS. This will overwrite any changes you made.