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Ubuntu on an ASUS Chromebook Flip

2016-03-12 4 min read Hardware marco

Ah, yes, my glamorous life of jet-setting and international travel! OK, so I barely managed to fly out to ski resorts this year, and instead of flying first class, business class, or any class at all, I had to make do with budget airlines and seats so cramped, my knees routinely touch the seat in front of me. Particularly annoying when you have a six-year-old in front of you who is bored to the point of kicking the chair during the entire trip.

The other thing that the cramped seats won’t allow is typing on a full-size computer. There is simply no room, between the seat’s angle and the tiny, half-size tray table. Which, incidentally, wouldn’t fit a tray, either. Someone should sue budget airlines on their misuse of the word, tray table!

I can’t fix airline seats, I won’t want to afford expensive tickets, so I am left with two options: (a) not type while flying, and (b) get a small computer. Of course, I can also do both and get a small computer and not use it.

I researched for a while. What I wanted was something that I would use only while traveling and not as a primary computer. That meant it had to be economical. It also had to be lightweight (obviously) and sturdy (obviously). It needed to have a decent keyboard on which I would want to type for hours, and it had to run all the software I wanted to run even when disconnected.

I ended up with one logical choice for the hardware: a 10″ tablet or Chromebook. I would buy a keyboard for the tablet and make do, or take the Chromebook as is.

When I saw the Chromebook Flip, I fell in love with it. Frankly, the “flip” part (where you can flip the keyboard over the screen so it turns into a tablet) wasn’t really my thing. But the size, weight, screen resolution, and other specs made it perfect. It was tiny, it had a great keyboard, it looked sturdy.

But it ran Chrome OS, which is not my idea of a full-fledged operating system. It’s more like what we used to call a thin client, back in the day. All it does is run a browser.

Fortunately, a Google employee, no less, came up with a way to install a full-fledged Linux system on it. Not just on this particular Chromebook, but on the whole class of them. Also, while this Chromebook runs an ARM processor and support for Linux ARM is still piecemeal, this method promised installation of virtually any version of Ubuntu and Debian.

The project is called Crouton, which is a weird name and not even a real acronym. I guess there was salad on the menu that day.

Crouton explains how to go about installing it on the GitHub page. The process is really not that complicated and worked on second try for me. The first try, incidentally, failed because I installed debugging extensions and gave the laptop a root password, but then somehow the root password wasn’t recognized.

What you do, basically, is to set the Flip into Developer Mode. To do so, you hold the top left and the key three to its right while turning on the Flip. (The power button is the tiny button on the left side of the computer.)

You will get through a series of screens that have all sorts of scary warnings. Then the laptop is going to reconfigure (and lose all your data, so don’t do it on a Flip you’ve already used) and after a while, it reboots into Developer Mode. Looks just like regular mode.

Next thing, you open up a shell (also in the instructions – Ctrl-Alt T). You download Crouton from GitHub. Then you enter “shell” into the shell, and then “sudo sh ~/Downloads/crouton”. After the usual gibberish explaining how to use crouton, you can get started.

I told it to install trusty (14.04) with xfce (the windowing system for low-resource systems) and off it went, downloading the entire distribution. Once that was done, all I had to do was start up the system with “sudo startxfce4” and I was staring at a Linux machine. From then on, I could simply do what I do on all my other computers. Voila!

I think this is the prettiest little computer on which I’ve ever run Linux. It’s quite sleek!