Chromebooks have been improving a lot over the years. They’re not just web browsers with keyboards anymore. Many Chromebooks can now run Linux programs via an included Crostini virtual machine container, and many can also run Android apps. (As long as it’s not enrolled in enterprise management: Be careful about buying refurbished Chromebooks.) Those additions can greatly improve the usefulness of Chromebooks and greatly reduces their limitations.
A few months ago, I wrote that a $99 Chromebook with Gallium OS installed is so much better. That was just an editorial with a “how to” though and I didn’t provide any in-depth experimentation or proof, so that’s what we’re going to do in this article.
I bought two refurbished $60 Lenovo N22 Chromebooks and installed Gallium OS on one of them while letting the other one update itself to the latest version of Chrome OS 80. This is after I got them un-enrolled from Google’s Enterprise Management of course.
You can watch the above video to see the full results of this experiment including converting one of the Chromebooks to Gallium Linux, setting up the Chrome OS Chromebook, testing Linux apps, testing a Linux game, and running some Android apps. There are some long-wait sections where running certain programs gets really slow, and I kept those in there so you could see the actual speed comparisons.
First off I wanted to start with a comparison of DNS queries. Both Chromebooks were connected to my WiFi network which is configured to route DNS queries through my own DNS server so that I can see (and control) what’s going on. As one would expect, the Chrome OS Chromebook makes many calls to Google, and of course you can expect that all of these calls are saved as part of the Google account which is required to use the device. Well, it can be used as guest mode, but then you can’t install any Linux or Android apps. There are also some privacy controls in the settings, but I didn’t bother checking how those changed the DNS queries since the damage was already done due to the Gmail log in requirement.
With Gallium OS installed, there are more calls to open source repositories as it would seem to be checking for updates, but no cloud-based account ID is required to use the device, and that’s a big advantage since there’s less of a dependency on external servers. Plus with full Linux, I have way more control over what information gets sent where.
When it comes to Linux apps running on these Chromebooks, Gallium OS is much much faster. It’s like day and night. Linux programs are extremely slow to load on Chrome OS (at least with these particular Chromebooks) because they need to be run within a virtual machine. Even after they load, the performance is terrible. Scribbling in GIMP, is extremely laggy in Chrome OS, but almost instantly responsive in Gallium Linux.
The Chromium browser included with Gallium Linux is just as good performance wise compared to the Chrome browser in Chrome OS, so on the web browser level, the two are practically the same. However, Firefox installed on Gallium Linux is much much better than Firefox installed on Chrome OS (via Crostini or Android, both.)
I also tested a little gaming performance using the open-source Minecraft clone called “Minetest”. On Chrome OS, the game was barely usable. I couldn’t even look around smoothly. On Gallium Linux, however… the performance is quite usable even on such inexpensive hardware. It’s surprisingly impressive!
Of course, Chrome OS has some advantages over Gallium Linux. For one, it comes pre-installed and you don’t have to figure out how to get it to work. You don’t have to worry about driver problems or updates as the hardware was designed to work with Chrome OS. Another advantage is that Chrome OS now allows you to run Google Android apps. That’s pretty nice… when they actually work. Unfortunately, many Android apps barely ever work on Chrome OS. The only one that I found to be fairly quick and reliable was Microsoft’s Remote Desktop client.
There are many advantages to running a full Linux distribution like Gallium OS on inexpensive Chromebook hardware. First of all, the performance is massively better than the same Linux programs running on Chrome OS’s native Linux support. Everything is more efficient: less disk space used, less RAM used, better use of the processor. Accessing external drives is a bit easier as well.
Chrome OS has some advantages too. It’s probably already installed on the Chromebook, so you don’t have to put any effort into modifying things. Linux programs are run in a virtual machine container so that they and you can’t accidentally screw up the primary Chrome OS system. The fact that you can run Linux programs and learn about Linux programs without worrying about messing up your Chromebook is a huge advantage as long as you can tolerate the slowness. Android apps are also supported even thought they’re awfully slow and mostly unusable. Chrome OS is also easier to manage and lock-down in an Enterprise environment if you’re a business.
In my opinion, full Linux on a laptop is much better for learning about technology and the future is entirely about software and technology.