Chrome OS is a Linux-based operating system built by Google for use on a class of laptops labelled Chromebooks, in an attempt to break the hegemony of Windows and Apple. It is essentially an entire working environment set in the popular Google Chrome web-browser instead of a conventional desktop. It requires a mandatory web connection as all your productivity programs and services are Google web-apps. Rather than assault the market with something completely new, Chrome OS is largely based on open source software.
While Chrome OS is the commercial version shipped by Chromebook manufacturers, independent developers can download the source code for the Chromium OS open source version from a public repository and compile their own builds. The bad news is that this is still optimized for the Chromebook machines. However, you can try Chromium OS on conventional machines, either using a bootable USB drive or in a virtual machine.
While Google provides detailed instructions on how to download and compile the source code into a bootable system image, that technical process isn’t really aimed at enthusiasts who just want to try the software. For that, we can thank a character called Hexxeh (Liam McLoughlin), at hexxeh.net, who releases daily builds of Chromium OS for anyone to download. There’s still some choices to make and a little technical understanding required, but anyone should be able to give it a try. It is available for Windows, Linux and (with a bit more work) Mac. Hexxeh is well on the way to a version of Chromium OS for the Raspberry Pi.
First off, there are two flavours of Chromium OS on offer: Vanilla and Lime. The Vanilla build is a straightforward compile of the Google source, whereas Lime includes further hardware support and additional components, such as Java support for the browser and apps.
I suggest you try standard Vanilla first to test for compatibility with your hardware. You can always experiment with the Lime build later and compare results. Booting Chromium OS takes minutes because it isn’t installing a full desktop operating system like Windows and Mac OS that can take hours.
Secondly, you have the choice of formats. Hexxeh provides bootable USB stick images and virtualized disk images for VirtualBox – useful if you want to test Chromium OS on a virtual machine instead of running it natively on hardware. The image is supplied as a VDI file, which is the standard VirtualBox virtual disk format.
At this point it is worth stating that Chromium OS on a regular laptop or desktop is not the same as running Chrome OS on a Chromebook; those machines have a specific set of hardware features dictated by Google that differs from regular netbooks and laptops. Built into the firmware for example, is a secure boot mechanism that checks the manufacturers signed Linux kernel at startup to make sure the operating system hasn’t been compromised. Chromium OS builds aren’t so tightly locked down as the standard Chrome OS. Chromium provides a full shell access to the filesystem.
So that’s the pre-amble. For those sufficiently brave and inspired, you can dive in and follow the instructions provided by Hexxeh and give it a try. Otherwise, stay tuned and we’ll walk through the Chromium OS set-up, first in VirtualBox then as a hardware boot from a USB stick. AJS
Related: Chromium OS on Dell Mini-10