In 2017 I got my brother a Chromebook as a lightweight computer for traveling. I chose the Acer CB5-132T, a machine with 4GB of RAM and a Quad Core Intel Celeron processor - relatively powerful for a Chromebook at the time. When he returned from traveling he gave it back to me and since then I’ve been using it on and off as an internet machine.

I never used it as my primary device, that has always been a regular tower PC or a powerful notebook from work, but for casual browsing and YouTube videos the Chromebook was far superior to whichever tablet I had lying around at the time. It does the basics well with great battery life as well as a decent keyboard + trackpad.

Five years after I got it, Google stopped providing new OS-updates at some point in 2022, which meant I was stuck with a device that’s basically an unpatched Chrome Browser with a keyboard. At the time I had a few travel-related things going on myself and had to reduce the amount of devices I rely on, so it ended up on a shelf.

Last year I dug it up again when I visited my parents for Christmas and took it with me. Since then I’ve been using it a fair bit for casual browsing, since I’m not a huge fan of the mobile-device optimized web experience and wanted all the ad- and tracking-blockers that I could run on ChromeOS. The completely outdated ChromeOS version stopped me from using it for anything serious, though.

Last weekend, I had some time on my hands and decided to do something about that. I set out to install Linux on my Chromebook and did some research about that. I found this nice article outlining the basic steps, which was very useful. I should note though, that it’s a bit outdated.

The first step was backing up all the data and firmware, which I did by following the article mentioned above. After I activated developer mode, I was ready for the next step. I shut down the notebook down and opened it by unscrewing the 11 screws that attach the bottom to the device (super-easy, but it seems like half the amount of screws would have also done the trick). I located the big black screw, removed it and closed it down again. Why would I remove a random screw from the notebook? Well, this screw basically makes the firmware read-only and we need to flash a custom firmware to be able to install an alternative OS.

Magic Screw

I followed the blog post and flashed the FW_LEGACY Firmware - you shouldn’t though. The script in the blog post is a bit outdated as I learned later, but it didn’t break anything. Now I thought that I was ready to run Linux and tried to find a way to create a bootable USB drive from the Chromebook. I had already downloaded a ISO for Linux and learned that you can use the Chromebook Recovery Utility Chrome extension to do that.

There was just one problem - it wasn’t available for my EOL-version of ChromeOS. I had to track down an older version of the extension on the interwebs, which I downloaded and extracted. Chrome’s crx-extension format is basically a ZIP file. Then I activated the developer mode in Chromes extension settings and chose to load an unpacked extension, selected the extracted directory and boom, the extension was loaded.

Why didn’t I just create the bootable USB drive from a real OS? Sometimes, I like to make life difficult for myself and this way I learned a bit more about Chrome extensions.

After solving the problem I had created, I was able to create a bootable USB-drive with Fedora 39 and the Xfce desktop environment. I proceeded to shut down ChromeOS for what I thought was the list time and tried booting from USB. Frustratingly it didn’t work. At first I suspected, the USB-drive but I was able to boot into Fedora on another Notebook so that couldn’t be it.

Next, I researched more about Coreboot, which is basically the open source firmware that I supposedly flashed. I checked the compatibility list on MrChromebox’s super helpful website and saw that my device is compatible. I then read a bit more about the difference between RW_LEGACYand Full ROM firmwares and learned, that the former is commonly used if you want to dual boot ChromeOS, which didn’t make a lot of sense for me, since that’s EOL for my device, so I chose to flash the full ROM.

Using the Firmware Utility was a breeze and I was able to flash the full ROM in a few minutes. I anxiously rebooted the Chromebook to figure out if I had bricked it, but after a little bit it asked me if I wanted to boot into the Fedora live system. I was super happy and did exactly that. I hadn’t used Fedora before and only played with Xfce on a very old notebook many moons ago, but both felt familiar immediately.

There are some recommendations for distributions that work well on Chromebooks by the Chrultrabook community and after checking out their websites, I settled on Fedora with Xfce because it’s lightweight without reminding me of Windows 95 while being customizable and coming with the bare minimum pre-installed. Chromebooks tend to have little local storage so I was looking for a basic distribution.

After test-driving my choice in the live mode and seeing how responsive it was while having a relatively low memory footprint I decided to commit to it and installed it. The installation took 20 to 30 minutes and then I was able to use it. Next, I installed a few additional tools that I use, like Keepass, and removed other stuff that I don’t need and spent some time customizing the interface a bit until it reminded me a bit more of my daily-driver - MacOS. I was very pleased with all the customization options that Xfce offers.

I was a bit worried in the beginning that there would be sound issues or some parts of the device wouldn’t work as expected, but those concerns turned out to be unfounded. Everything I tried so far is working flawlessly, even the touch screen. It seems like driver support and coreboot have come a long way in recent years.

There are some things that I have yet to re-create from the Chromebook:

  • Ability to run Android apps from the Play store (although I don’t need that, now that I can run Keepass natively)
  • Smooth integration of Google Drive
  • Media Keys on the Keyboard are now F-Keys and I have to set up bindings some day
  • Helping big brother by having them collect a bunch of data without me being able to turn that off

These are no big losses in my book and are easily balanced by:

  • Firefox instead of Chrome
  • Security/software updates (again)
  • Full linux customizability
  • Avoiding E-Waste (for now) by being able to continue using this machine

The only thing that would be nice would be a bigger built-in screen with a higher resolution, but this one is still fine for my purposes.

I should note that it has only been a few days of me using this machine in its new configuration so there’s still a chance I may end up hating it down the road, but with Linux as a solid base I think that’s not very likely.

I’m not entirely sure why I wrote this, but I had fun and maybe you learned something as well.

— Maurice