I have a small little netbook, a Vaio P. It’s a cool little laptop, and I took it in favor of a clunker laptop. It handles 95% of my needs, and it’s actually pretty fast. a 128 GB solid state drive, and 2 GB of (non upgradable) RAM. It ran Windows 7 perfectly, only hiccupping on performance when it came to video and medium to large Visual Studio solutions. But I didn’t get it for development, I got it for a browser and a chat client (this was pre-iPad days). I figured if all I used it for was that, most of the time just a browser, I owed it to myself to try installing Chrome OS.
I’d previously played with it in a Virtual Machine, and was very impressed by the boot time (it boots faster than the BIOS can do a POST). It’s borderline an instant-on operating system. That’s typically what I use it for – open it up, use a browser for 30 seconds to figure something out, and then I am done. For Windows, it’ll go into standby, but ends up in hibernate pretty quick because my battery desperately needs to be replaced. I’m impatient, I want it on now. That’s what Chrome OS seemed to offer.
Installing Chrome OS is not nearly as simple as installing another distribution. In fact, it has no installer. Going even further, there isn’t an official build of it yet. I ended up getting the Flow version from Hexxeh. Basically you are given an IMG file, which is a drive image. You have to image it to something, I used a USB Key per the instructions. Having another Linux distribution is close to required – you need grub to boot, and an easy way to copy partitions (dd). First, in Windows 7, I used Computer Management to get rid of all of the partitions I didn’t need (like the recovery one) and the other one that Windows 7 likes to use for BitLocker purposes. I just used BCDEdit to make the main partition bootable. Doing this from Windows 7 is highly preferable because while GPart can resize an NTFS Partition, it will often make Windows unhappy and require that you repair the boot loader. I ended up with a drive that had 7 GB free in the front, then the NTFS volume for Windows 7. I shrunk the Windows 7 partition by 3 GB and left those 3 GB unallocated. I installed Ubuntu on the 7 GB space in the front (which works great by the way, more on that later), and the other 3 GB would be for Chrome. I won’t go into the details of installing Chrome because I think the documentation is pretty good, but if you fear spending an angering hour with grub when something might go wrong or don’t want to risk destroying all of your partitions, this may not be for you.
In the end, I got everything working correctly. The first thing you will notice is that Chrome OS requires an internet connection to login. But you need to login to configure WiFi. Fortunately, I have the Ethernet / VGA adapter for it so I just plugged in, logged in, then configured WiFi. Alternatively, you could use the username “facepunch” and the password “facepunch” to login an configure your WiFi… which leads me to my first point. Hexxeh, as he goes by, is a 17-year-old kid. A brilliant one at that. However, I have reservations about the safety of these distributions. I’m not doubting him, but he could, like any other person including me, make a mistake. He could be doing worse and harvesting passwords. The 17-year-old me would find “facepunch” funny (and the current me does, too) but it sends a bit of a mixed message.
After getting logged in, you’ll go through a few EULAs, all of which are for Java. After that, you’re done! Unfortunately, that’s as far as I got really. It was dirt slow. Actually unusable. This isn’t Hexxeh’s fault either. I’d put most of the blame, if not all of it, on the lack of proper video drivers for the Intel GMA 500. If you installed a Linux distribution on your Vaio P you know you have to do a few magic tricks to get your video card working at something other than awful. With Chrome OS, that isn’t really an option due to the partition layout. It was disappointing, quite a bit a work for a net loss. When Chrome OS goes live, hopefully I can try again. This little laptop will always have a home in my tech closet.
On a related topic, Ubuntu 10.10 works great on it. There is one trick to getting it installed. I could only get the installer to work correctly was from a NetInstall using UNetbootin. Directly from a USB Key resulted in the error “(initramfs) Unable to find a medium containing a live file system.” Basically even though it just booted from USB, it couldn’t read from it. On top of that, once I was booted into the setup, it couldn’t figure out my WiFi so everything had to be downloaded via LAN. Once I got that far, everything went smooth. Take the time to straighten out the video drivers and you’ll be happy. My feeling on performance was basically “Ubuntu boots faster than Windows 7 but runs slower (noticeably) once booted.” I’m sure there are a lot more tweaks I can do to get this working better. We’ll see! I know, “real” Linux guys will tell you, “If you are after performance, why the hell did you install Ubuntu?” Yeah, I know. Maybe I’ll try another one later.
The verdict on Chrome OS is don’t bother with Hexxeh’s flow build. Wait for a newer one. Ubuntu is worth a shot though.