Are you itching to try the new Ubuntu 18.04 LTS release codenamed Bionic Beaver? Are you also itching for an inexpensive development platform? Enter the Google Chromebook Pixel which runs Ubuntu 18.04 LTS beta 1 flawlessly. While this may not be the newest technology, it may be a borderline perfect device as a dedicated administrative node or just to try what using an Ubuntu Linux based desktop environment is like.
Why the Google Chromebook Pixel?
This is a somewhat odd platform at the outset. It is a 2013 era product based on Intel’s Ivy Bridge architecture. The RAM content is a paltry 4GB. We have a 32GB boot drive which is just barely enough to be worthwhile on the lower end unit. Even with that, the Chromebook Pixel has a few great features that make it relevant in 2018:
- Keyboard: Still very good even after over four years of industry advancement
- Trackpad: Still the quality of > $1000 notebooks
- Display: 2560×1700 and very sharp
- Touchscreen: It has one which even more expensive laptops today do not have
- Battery: Not great by 2018 laptop standards, but this is good enough
- Build quality: Still better than any sub $800 notebook today.
We got our 32GB model from UnixPlus and at the time of this writing, the units sell for around $319. They also have the 64GB LTE model in stock for a few dollars more. If you are looking for dirt cheap performance and 32GB works for you, then go with the 32GB we used. If you are looking for a remote KVM terminal to sit in your data center and act as a local KVM for your visits. Remotely you have a battery-backed admin box, with the potential for LTE OOB management which is a really intriguing option if it is instead in a remote office location rather than a data center.
The downside is that the CPU is not fast, the RAM is not plentiful, and the 32GB SSD is small as well. These Chromebooks are built well, but they are not easy to work inside and upgrade. If you are looking for an Ubuntu admin station, and these specs are OK for what you need, this is a best in class. Realistically, you could get something like an Intel NUC, but then you still would want a keyboard, mouse, and display.
How to Load Ubuntu 18.04 LTS Bionic Beaver on the Google Chromebook Pixel
Chrome OS is nice, and there are rumors swirling of Google switching strategy in the space. Before embarking on the Ubuntu journey, you need to set the system up in developer mode. After that, there are two main ways you can get Ubuntu 18.04 LTS Bionic Beaver on the Chromebook. First, you can use a tool called crouton which utilizes chroot functionality to let you run multiple systems. Second, you can just go for it and install Ubuntu directly. Since we are doing this with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS beta 1, we tried both options.
Pre-Requisite: Start in Developer Mode
Part of the allure of Chrome OS is that Google manages the security and relatively locks down the system. To get Ubuntu working, we need to get around this. Luckily, Google makes this easy. Here is a link to Google’s instructions and for those that want to save a click:
On this device, both the recovery button and the dev-switch have been virtualized.
To invoke Recovery mode, you hold down the ESC and Refresh (F3) keys and press the Power button for at least 200ms (until the keyboard backlight comes on). If you don't hold it for long enough, then it won't work.
To enter Dev-mode, you first invoke Recovery, and at the Recovery screen press Ctrl-D (there's no prompt - you have to know to do it). It will ask you to confirm, then reboot into dev-mode.
Dev-mode works the same as always: It will show the scary boot screen and you need to press Ctrl-D or wait 30 seconds to continue booting.
Then let the system reboot in developer mode. It took ours about 7 minutes to complete while on AC power. During the process the system is wiped, so you need to go through setup again if you had already done so. You then need to reboot. We are going to first start with the chroot Ubuntu option.