The best Chromebooks you can get today have come a long way since the early days. Chrome OS is no longer just a fancy browser running on a laptop. It has grown to integrate Android and Linux, and the platform is now much more powerful than you might have thought.
The latter is particularly important. I don’t want to preach that everyone should switch to Linux immediately. Or that 2022 is the year of the Linux desktop. Or something like that. However, it’s in the spotlight right now with the immensely popular Steam Deck hitting the shelves.
Why am I talking about learning Linux? Well, for one, it’s never too late or a bad idea to learn something new. Linux isn’t just another desktop operating system that you’re not currently interested in. It has many uses in the big wide world. All those cloud servers? Running Linux. On a smaller scale, the Raspberry Pi is a tiny, extremely flexible Linux computer that you can do many wonderful things with. A Chromebook is a great place to mess around with Linux relatively safely.
Linux and Chrome OS: A harmonious interplay
My own love affair with Linux began in 2020 during the major global event that kept us all much more at home. I’ve dabbled with Chromebooks in the past, but mostly because I’m in the browser all day at work. I picked up a cheap Acer Chromebook to play around with, but eventually it went back into the drawer.
Then I found it, applied many, many updates and brought it up to date. And that included Linux support, which I had been missing until then. And here the journey began. I activated Linux and started googling a lot.
But what is it all about? The short version is enabling Linux on a Chromebook adds a Debian container on top of the operating system. Chrome OS itself is based on Linux but is heavily customized. Described as a “developer environment” on Chromebooks, Linux lives alongside everything else you have on your computer.
That debian Container is a fantastic place to get your first Linux footsteps as it doesn’t endanger the rest of your laptop. It’s isolated from Chrome OS but has integrations. You can share folders from Chrome OS to Linux, You can view Linux files in the Chrome OS Files app. You have the option to share USB devices like your microphone with the Linux container. You can use Linux almost like any other app and hop in and out as you please.
The beauty of this sandbox approach is that if you mess something up, you can just destroy it and start over. It’s so easy to set up that anyone can do it. A lot happened in my case, and while I found my way around, I certainly appreciated Chrome OS’s ease of use over using Linux on a dedicated machine.
Familiarize yourself with the terminal
It’s easy to reference memes about Linux users and the terminal. But once you’re comfortable with it, and with any of the many terminal-based tools you can use, you might find that your mind has changed. Using the terminal is a quick and efficient way to get things done. And in server environments, or even on a headless device like a Raspberry Pi, you’ll be using Terminal a lot.
I used to wonder why I would ever use a terminal. Now I spend most of my day in one, and I’m not a developer. I use Neovim to write all my work before putting it into our CMS. I use Ranger when I want to know about Linux and Chrome OS filesystems. I use Git and Github to sync various configuration files and settings between computers. Take notes, use SSH to connect to other machines, run speed tests, or even check the weather forecast. All the things I do from the terminal using text commands. I never once have to interrupt my workflow to use a mouse or trackpad or open another application.
Getting to grips with Linux and the terminal has really changed my personal workflow. Prove you don’t need to know coding to make it work for you. There are terminal clients that can do all sorts of crazy things, even check Twitter and Reddit or open entire webpages. But aside from making the workday go faster, I really feel like I’ve learned something useful.
Linux also makes Chrome OS better
If you want to learn Linux from scratch, a Chromebook is a great place to start. There’s plenty to choose from at affordable prices, and there are some really nice Chromebooks out there now. But there’s one other thing Linux does on a Chromebook. It makes Chrome OS better.
Chrome OS still relies heavily on web apps and extensions. It now has Android built in, but I’m not a huge fan of it. It consumes so much system resources that I personally couldn’t justify leaving it enabled.
Linux, on the other hand, is a better way to fill in the gaps that Chrome OS alone cannot. Debian on Chrome OS is not only a great container to get rid of terminal problems, but also has full support for GUI applications.
That means a lot. You can’t run Photoshop on a Chromebook, but you can run the Linux version of GIMP. Need an audio editor, how does Audacity sound? video work? Try Kdenlive. You might not find the apps under their usual names, but you can probably find a free, open-source alternative on Linux.
The hardware of your particular Chromebook matters, just like it does with a Windows laptop. If you have a Celeron and 4GB of RAM, you probably won’t have a good time editing a video in Kdenlive. Still, in my experience, a budget Chromebook with Linux turned on has had an overall better time than a similarly priced Windows laptop.
If you already have a Chromebook, you should definitely enable this Linux environment. And if you’re looking for a new laptop but are a little jaded with Windows, then look into one. Modern Chromebooks are a mix between the Chrome browser you’re familiar with and the world of web apps, with a Linux desktop computer and even an Android device.
They won’t be for everyone, but you can get a lot more done on a Chromebook these days than you used to. And you never know, maybe you’re a stealthy Linux user waiting to break out. That happened to me. Everything from activation on a Chromebook two years ago.