Two weeks ago Google released the source code of their upcoming Chrome OS operating system, and thanks to some fast and hard-working developers, you don't have to be a coder to try it out.
While Google's official word is that you have to build Chromium OS from source to try it out on your computer, several developers have released installable builds that save you the trouble. Let's take a look at how to take Chromium OS out for a spin without typing make or build.
Setting Expectations: Meet Your New Bicycle
Before you get started, you should know that Chrome OS (or in this early development stage, Chromium OS) is an operating system that essentially consists ONLY of a browser. You can't install applications or twiddle with settings—Chromium OS feels like it's just Google Chrome with no layer between it and your computer. It's a neat idea, but kind of disappointing for software geeks who like lots of settings. It acts just like a regular old browser with not too many innovations, except that it's lightning fast. For more on Chrome OS's backstory, see our first glimpse at Google Chrome OS.
Mac-lover John Gruber predicts that Chrome OS will be the operating system on your secondary computer; he says that Google's betting that instead of two cars, you just need a car and a bicycle. Meet what might someday become your new bicycle.
Testing Method 1: Run Chromium OS as a Virtual Machine
The easiest, surefire way to try out Chromium OS without even rebooting your computer is running it as a virtual machine. If you've got a Mac or an incompatible PC and you just want to see what Chromium looks like without having to restart or worry whether or not your internet connection or keyboard will work, this is the way to go.
What you'll need: First you'll need software that can run virtual machine images; I'd recommend you go with the free, cross-platform VirtualBox. Secondly, you'll need to download the prefab Chromium OS virtual disk image. For the price of a free site registration, you can download a working virtual machine from gdgt.com.
How to boot it: If you've used VirtualBox before, firing up Chromium OS in it isn't much different than any other operating system. When you create the new image, set the OS Type to Linux/Ubuntu as shown.
Then, use the vmdk file you downloaded from gdgt as the virtual boot disk.
For a detailed step-by-step screenshot tour, check out The How-To Geek's guide on how to run Chrome OS in VirtualBox.
The disadvantage of this method is that Chromium OS won't be as fast as the operating system is designed to be, because it's running in a virtual machine—in other words, you won't get to see Chrome OS's amazing boot time or snappy responsiveness. The advantage of this method, however, is that your internet connection, keyboard and mouse will work whether or not they're on Google's list of approved hardware.
Testing Method 2: Boot Chromium OS from a USB Drive
A virtual machine is just that—virtual—and you want to see the real thing. You can run Chromium OS natively on your computer from a USB stick if you've got the right hardware.
What you'll need: To boot Chromium OS natively, you'll need a netbook or laptop known to work with Chromium OS (note: that list isn't exactly complete, so your mileage may vary if you try gear that's not listed), a 1 gigabyte USB drive, and the bootable USB image. Download the "Diet" Chromium OS for a 1 gigabyte USB drive here. (Thanks to Hexxeh for offering these!)
Note that the USB stick method does NOT work on Macs. (See below.) Also, a Chromium live CD is not available because it needs to write to the disk; therefore, a writable USB stick is the way to go.
How to boot it: The USB build developer Hexxeh describes how to prepare your USB drive for booting on Windows:
Download Image Writer for Windows and extract the program. Launch the program, and select the image (chromiumos.img) and your USB drive letter from the drop down box. Click "Write". The install image will then be copied to the drive. Once it's done, close the program and you can then boot from the USB drive.
Now that your USB drive is bootable, shut down your computer, insert the drive, and start your computer. As it's booting, hit the boot menu key and set your computer to boot from the USB drive. (The boot menu key and method for setting the boot drive to the USB stick varies from computer to computer; check your user manual or Google your model to see how to do it.)
When your computer starts up for the first time, if you're using Hexxeh's build, the username and password are both facepunch. Normally these login details will be your Google account username and password, but if your machine is not yet connected to the internet, facepunch it is. If all goes well, your keyboard, mouse and wireless or Ethernet adaptor will work with Chromium OS and you'll be in the cloud in seconds. If not, check this hardware compatibility list for more info about what might or might not work with your computer.
For an alternative to Hexxeh's USB build, check out the handy torrent with instructions from MakeUseOf.com. (Note that the default login username and password is different than Hexxeh's build in the MakeUseOf.com build.)
If you've got an ASUS Eee PC and you've already downloaded the virtual image in the first method, you can turn that into a bootable USB stick as well. Here's how to create a USB stick from the virtual image and boot up your Eee from it.
If you're already running Ubuntu Linux (Karmic Koala) on your laptop and you can't get Chromium OS to work with your Wi-Fi card, Linux user Lee Briggs explains how you can patch the USB build with your current drivers.
The main advantage to testing Chromium OS using a bootable drive is you'll get the native experience with the speed and responsiveness of a real computer. The disadvantage is that your current hardware might not work with Chromium OS.
What's your favourite method for test-driving Chromium OS? Was it worth the time? Are you using it regularly? Let us know what you think in the comments.