When Google first launched Chrome OS, the operating system was basically a glorified web browser designed to run web apps. Over time Google added support for running some applications offline and built in tools that let you do things like watch videos without an internet connection, making the platform a little more useful.
A few years ago the company kicked things up a notch by adding support for Android applications, allowing users to choose from millions of apps and games.
And this year Google started to build support for desktop Linux applications into Chrome OS. Initially the feature was only available for the Google Pixelbook running Chrome OS in the developer channel. But over the past few months Google has added support for a bunch of additional devices… including the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, which is the first Chrome OS tablet to ship without a keyboard.
I happen to have a Chromebook Tab 10 review unit in-house, so I decided to switch from the stable channel to the developer channel and take a few Linux apps for a spin.
The Acer Chromebook Tab 10 features a 9.7 inch, 2048 x 1536 pixel display, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC storage, a Rockchip OP1 hexa-core processor, and a Wacom EMR digital pen.
It has a 34 Wh battery, a USB 3.1 Type-C port, a headset jack, and a microSD card reader.
The tablet is aimed the education market, which means it’s not available from Amazon, Best Buy, or other retail stores. But Chromebook seller Promevo has it in stock for the list price of $329, and CDW is selling the tablet for $340.
How to enable Linux app support
As of July 9th, 2018, you’ll need to switch to the dev channel so that you’re running Chrome OS 69 or later. Here’s how to do that:
- Open the Chrome OS settings app
- Go to the About Chrome OS menu
- Tap the Detailed build information option
- Tap the Change channel button
- Choose the option that says Developer – unstable
Once that’s done, your Chromebook will download the update in the background and the next time you reboot you’ll be in the developer channel.
Keep in mind that Google isn’t kidding when it says “unstable.” Chrome OS 69 brings some nice new tablet-friendly features including a revised quick settings panel with bigger, more colorful icons for finger input. But it also causes problems using the touchscreen in landscape mode (when I open Gmail in the Chrome web browser and tap a subject line to open a message, a different message entirely will open, for example). Fortunately everything works fine in portrait orientation.
Anyway, once you’re running the developer channel, open the Settings app again, scroll down until you see a section that says Linux (beta), and tap the button that says turn on.
The next screen lets you know that the Chromebook will use about 300MB of space to install a Linux virtual machine. Tap the install button to proceed, and in a few minutes you’ll be good to go.
I’ve found that this last step can be a little finicky. When everything works properly, Chrome OS will bring up a terminal window automatically. But sometimes you’ll get an error message instead… dismiss it, open the app launcher, and you’ll probably find a terminal app anyway. You can open it to start using Linux commands.
Installing Linux apps
Open the terminal app and you’ll be greeted by a command line interface that works much like a typical Ubuntu or Debian terminal. In fact, when you run a lsb_release -a command you’ll discover that the system is running Debian 9.4.
The command line tools that I’m suspecting most people are going to find most useful are the ones that let you install Linux apps.
Want to to install GIMP so you can use the powerful open source image editor on a Chromebook? This should do the trick:
sudo apt install gimp
Some lines of code will fly by, the system will tell you how much it needs to download and how much disk space it needs, and if you type “y” for yes, it’ll proceed with the installation.
Once that’s done, you can either launch GIMP from the terminal window by typing “gimp” and hitting enter, or just go to the Chrome OS app launcher and find the GIMP icon.
Want the LibreOffice suite of office applications? Type sudo apt install libreoffice to start the installation. Replace GIMP or LibreOffice with the name of the package you want to install and you should be good to go.
I didn’t have any luck installing the Firefox web browser, and the Midori web browser was buggy. But just for kicks I installed the Links text-based web browser via a sudo apt install links command, allowing me to surf the web like it was 1995 from the terminal window.
Speaking of apps that are unavailable, another thing to keep in mind that this tablet has an ARM-based processor, which means that some Linux apps may not be compatible if developers haven’t compiled them for the architecture.
Using Linux apps
Most Linux apps with a graphical user interface will show up in your Chrome launcher. Links doesn’t have a GUI, so it doesn’t (you can launch it by opening the Terminal app and typing links).
GIMP and LibreOffice Writer, Calc, Impress, and other apps showed up mixed in with Android and Chrome apps on the Chromebook Tab 10.
Tap an icon to launch an app and it should open in full screen. In fact, all apps run in full screen mode by default on the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, since this is a computer designed for use in tablet mode.
You can run some apps in split-screen mode. Just tap the app switcher icon in the lower right corner of the screen and instead of tapping the currently running app you want to open (which would open it in full screen), drag the app to the side of the screen. It will take up half the screen and show a list of the other apps that are running. Choose one and it will fill the rest of the screen.
Not all Linux apps support split-screen mode. I was able to fill half the screen with the Chrome web browser and the other half with LibreOffice Writer or the Terminal app. But GIMP would only run in full-screen mode.
But if you want to read a website on one side of the screen while writing a document on the other, split-screen comes in handy. That’s true whether you’re using a Linux, Android, or Chrome-based text editor for taking notes.
Another think to keep in mind about the Chromebook Tab 10 is that it has an on-screen keyboard… which has a habit of covering some parts of the screen you might not want covered.
The tablet’s virtual keyboard is pretty much the same as what you’d see on an Android phone or tablet. But the user interface is different on Chromebooks and Chrome OS tablets. When the keyboard is active, you can’t see the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, so you may need to minimize the keyboard in order to switch or close apps, for example.
And when using the virtual keyboard with the Linux terminal app, text may appear behind the keyboard. Minimizing the keyboard and then tapping the screen to bring it up again should resolve the issue by minimizing the terminal window so that all the text is above the keyboard.
Or you can just plug in a Bluetooth keyboard.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Linux apps may have a user interface that looks a bit out of place on a Chromebook. LibreOffice and GIMP, for example, have menus and toolbars that are designed for Debian, not Chrome OS. But you can still switch apps, minimize, or close them the same way you would any other Chrome OS app.
For now there’s one important difference between Chrome OS apps and Linux ones: files are stored in different directories.
That’s because Linux is actually running in a virtual machine. Google obscures this fact by listing apps alongside native Chrome and Android apps in the taskbar and launcher. But if you download a Word or Excel document using the Chrome web browser, you won’t just be able to fire up LibreOffice to open them from the download folder.
Instead you’ll need to copy the document from the Chrome OS download folder to the Linux Files folder in the Files app.
Likewise, if you create a new document using LibreOffice and save it to your home folder, you’ll find it in the Linux Files area. In order to access it using other apps, you’ll need to copy it to your Downloads folder, Google Drive, or another section of the Files apps.
Removing Linux apps
If you install an app that’s buggy or that you don’t want to keep for some other reason, you can uninstall using the remove command. For example:
sudo apt remove gimp
Note that Linux distributions have a habit of installing a bunch of required dependencies when you install an application though… and they don’t all disappear when you uninstall the app. So if you want to free up space, you might also want to run sudo apt autoremove next. That should clear out any unused packages.
If you decide that you don’t want to use any Linux apps or want to start over from scratch, you can go back into the Chrome OS settings menu, scroll down to the Linux (Beta) section again and this time when you tap that option, you’ll see a link to Remove Linux Apps for Chromebook.
From the following menu, choose the option marked Delete, and it will start deleting Linux from your Chromebook and removing all Linux apps you’ve installed.
Is it worth it?
Maybe. Linux app support for Chromebooks is very much a beta feature at this point, and it might be even more so on the Chromebook Tab 10 thanks to its touch-first user interface that has most apps running in full-screen windows and which has a virtual keyboard that sometimes overlays parts of the screen you might want to see.
And part of the appeal of Chrome OS devices is their simplicity. Adding support for Linux apps to Chromebooks makes them far more versatile for power users that want to be able to run desktop applications that wouldn’t otherwise be available for the platform. But at this point you need to be familiar with the command line to do it, and you may end up cluttering the app launcher (and local storage), making your Chromebook more powerful… but also a little more complex.
The Chromebook Tab 10 is also designed specifically for the education market. Not only is simplicity important, but so is stability. So there’s very little chance that we’ll see K-12 educators switching these tablets over to the unstable, developer channel in order to add support for Linux apps. Maybe things’ll look different later this year when Linux support starts to roll out to the beta and then the developer channel.
But even then, you start to lose some of the benefits of Chrome OS for educators and students when you start adding a bunch of applications. If a school has a single user account it can be used to let students access logins for third-party educational services like Khan Academicy, Quill.org, or Newsela. And if individual students have their own accounts, they can login to any device to access their settings, apps, Chrome extensions, and apps within moments, whether they’re using the same Chromebook as they had during the last session or not.
If anything goes wrong with a Chromebook, it’s pretty simple to just restore the device to its default settings or powerwash the device to remove all user accounts and data. Then a student or teacher can just login again to pick up where they left off.
None of that works with Linux apps… at least not yet. If you installed LibreOffice on a Chromebook, performed a powerwash, and then logged back in it would restore all of your Chrome settings, but not your Linux software.
So does it make sense to use Linux apps on the Acer Chromebook Tab 10? Right now it probably doesn’t… as least not for the the educators and students Acer is targeting with this device.
But the Chromebook Tab 10 is also a brand new kind of device: a touch-first Chrome OS tablet. We’ll probably see more in the future, and with Linux app support these could become pretty powerful competitors to Android and iOS tablets thanks to the ability to run the sort of desktop Linux applications you’d normally expect to run on a full-fledged PC.
That said, it still probably makes more sense to use Linux apps on a Chromebook with a keyboard and touchpad for now. Apps like GIMP and LibreOffice aren’t really designed with touchscreens in mind. They have menus and icons that are a little too small to use with your fingertips, and not much easier to use with a stylus, honestly. Even apps that are designed for touch and pen input like note-taking/sketching app Xournal have fairly small icons that aren’t really optimized for a device with a high-resolution, touchscreen display like the Acer Chromebook Tab 10.
I’ll be curious to see if and how Google works to make Linux app support for Chromebooks more touch-friendly for tablet-first devices like the Chromebook Tab 10 in the future.