How To Turn Your Netbook Into A Chromebook With Chromium OS

Google recently released its own line of Chrome OS-clad netbooks, but with only a few choices, a somewhat high price tag and no clear Aussie release plans. As such, you might be more comfortable running Chrome OS on your own machine. Here’s how to install it on your current laptop or netbook.

We’ve spent some serious time with Chrome OS, and found it to be a remarkably good productivity tool for the right user. It’s super-quick to boot up, moves fast and is relatively pain-free since it is, in effect, just a browser. This also makes it perfect for netbooks, since they’re low on power. Whether you want to install Chrome OS on your own netbook or you just want to try it out before you buy yourself a Chromebook, you’ll need to do a little work to get it up and running yourself.

You can’t get the official Chrome OS build from the web; Google only sells it on its Chromebooks. You can, however, download its slightly less polished open-source counterpart, Chromium OS. In this guide we’ll be using Hexxeh’s “Vanilla” builds of Chromium OS, which are similar to the official version of Chrome OS, but take a bit more work to set up. Here, we’ll show you how to get Chromium OS installed on a live USB stick for testing, as well as how to install it (or dual-boot it) on your own netbook for regular use.

What You’ll Need

  • A compatible machine. Chromium OS, sadly, doesn’t run well on every machine out there. On some machines, it runs very slow, and may have other issues with things like the trackpad, webcam or Wi-Fi. It’s worth trying on your machine anyway (after all, hardware compatibility is constantly improving, and you can test it on a live USB drive before committing), but just know that it might not work amazingly well. (For example, it definitely does not work on Macs in my experience.) Here’s a list of netbooks on which Chromium OS has been tested, and which ones work well (or have worked well at one point in time).
  • A 4GB USB stick. Sadly, you can’t burn Chromium OS to a CD; the only way to test it out natively or install it is to use a USB thumb drive. If your computer doesn’t support booting from a flash drive, you can boot from the Plop Boot Manager Live CD and then boot to the USB stick from there.
  • Hexxeh’s Vanilla Chromium OS build. This is the image we’ll burn to our USB drive. You can either grab a direct download or a torrent from the home page. These are often stable, but are nightly builds, meaning each day a new build comes out with new quirks, bugs or fixes. See more about finding a stable build below.
  • A working Linux live CD or installation. You’ll only need this if you want to dual boot your netbook with Chromium OS, so you can partition your drives and install a bootloader (since Chromium OS does not have an actual installer built in that does these things). If you don’t have one, just grab an Ubuntu live CD; it should work fine. You may need to use Unetbootin to put it on a flash drive if your netbook doesn’t have a CD drive.

Preparation: Download Your Chromium OS Image

Unfortunately, the big downside of turning your netbook into an “unofficial” Chromebook is that you only have “unofficial” Chrome OS builds to work with. Hexxeh’s builds are by far the most popular, but they all have their quirks. You basically have two choices: Flow and Vanilla. Flow is Hexxeh’s custom build with automatic updating and more hardware support, but it hasn’t been updated in over a year, and has some pretty annoying SSL issues that make accessing things like Gmail a pain. Vanilla is a nightly build almost straight from Google, but as a nightly build, stability can vary quite a bit from build to build, and with almost one a day out there, you have a lot to choose from.

I recommend going with the vanilla builds. Generally, you can find a pretty stable one that works with your hardware, but it takes some trial and error (unfortunately). You can do a bit of Googling using your particular netbook model, but you might have to try a few builds before you find one that works. Some might be slow or buggy, and some might not work with your hardware. I ended up having to go back to a mid-May build because Google later removed support for my Wi-Fi card.

So head to Hexxeh’s Chromium OS page and start with the Vanilla builds. Download one and run through the following steps. It might take a few tries to find one that’s stable and compatible, but once you do, you can just stick with that build for a while.

Step One: Create Your Bootable Flash Drive

The first thing we’ll need to do is get Chromium OS onto a flash drive so we can test it out. This is actually a pretty simple process. First, format your USB drive as FAT32 to clear any of the data off it (in Windows, this is as easy as right-clicking on the drive in My Computer and hitting “Format”). Next, download your Chromium OS build of choice, and unzip the image file to your desktop.

You’ll need a small program to write the Flow image onto your flash drive. Windows users should download a copy of Windows Image Writer, while Linux users can run sudo apt-get install usb-imagewriter in a terminal to get the USB-ImageWriter program. Start up the respective program, pick the IMG file on your desktop as the source, and then hit Write. When it’s done, you’ll have a bootable USB drive from which you can launch Chromium OS.

Step Two: Boot Into Chromium OS

To boot from your USB drive, stick it in your machine and start it up. If you’ve started from a USB drive before, you’re good to go, but if not, you may need to change a few BIOS settings. Hold down the Delete key when your computer boots up (or whatever key your computer tells you to press to enter setup), and find the setting for “Boot Priority”. Make sure the “USB Drive” choice is above “Hard Disk”, then reboot your machine. You should see the Chromium OS startup screen fairly shortly.

Before it boots you into Chrome, you’ll need to pick a wireless network and enter your Google credentials. If everything’s working as it should and your Wi-Fi card is supported by that build, you’ll boot right into Chrome and immediately see all your settings, bookmarks, and extensions synced right down to your netbook. That’s it! You can start trying out Chrome OS right away, and see all that it has to offer.

If you ran into a roadblock at this step (the most common being Wi-Fi not working), go back and try another build. See if you can find anything on the web about your particular Wi-Fi card and when it might have been supported. From the information I could find, it seems like Wi-Fi support was a bit more ubiquitous before May 21, so try a build from before then and see if it works instead.

Step Three: Install Chromium OS

If you find you like Chrome OS, or you want to try it out for longer without inserting the thumb drive every time, you can install it to your system. You have two choices: Install Chromium OS as the only operating system, or dual-boot it with something else. Installing it on its own is very easy, but means you erase whatever else you had on your netbook at the time. Dual booting is more time-consuming, but assures that you still have your previous Windows or Linux installation to fall back on when Chromium OS isn’t enough (or if you decide you don’t like it).

Installing Chromium OS as the main operating system is easy. Boot into Chromium OS from the thumb drive and hit Ctrl+Alt+T to open up the command line. From there, just type install and hit Enter. If you’re asked for a password, type in facepunch and hit enter. It’ll take a few minutes to install, after which you can remove the thumb drive and boot into Chromium OS just by turning on your machine (you’ll notice it boots insanely fast, too). That’s it! You now have your own custom Chromebook. If you want to dual boot, however, follow the instructions below.

Alternative Step Three: Dual Boot Chromium OS with Another Operating System

Chances are, you don’t want to give up your existing netbook distribution of choice just yet. In that case, you’ll need to do quite a bit more work. For what it’s worth, unless you absolutely need Windows on your netbook, this method isn’t really worth the trouble – it’ll be a lot easier on you to just use the Live USB stick until you decide to install Chrome OS as your netbook’s main OS. If you need to dual boot, though, here’s how to go about setting it up.

Step 3.1: Partition Your Hard Drive

Make sure all your data is backed up, then grab that Linux live CD or thumb drive we mentioned earlier and boot into it. Alternatively, if you have a form of Linux already on your netbook, you can just boot into that. Once you’re booted in, insert your Chromium OS thumb drive as well.

First, you’ll need to partition your hard drive. You’ll need two partitions for Chromium OS: a “C-ROOT” partition, which holds the root OS, and a “C-STATE” partition, which holds your settings and other data. Open up Gparted from System > Administration on your Ubuntu Live CD, and select your thumb drive from the source menu in the upper-left hand corner. Note the sizes of the C-ROOT and C-STATE partitions on your thumb drive. You’ll also want to note the partition reference for each, which will be something like /dev/sdb2.

Now, select your netbook’s main hard drive from the drop-down. Click on your main partition, which should have a healthy amount of empty space, and go to Partition > Resize/Move. Shrink it down so you have at least 3GB of empty space, and hit the Resize/Move button. Then, click on your new “unallocated” free space and go to Partition > New. You’ll want to basically mirror the partitions on your thumb drive. So, if your thumb drive’s C-ROOT partition is 858MB, then you’ll want to make an 858 MB partition here. Under file system, choose ext2. Then, click on the rest of your unallocated space and create another new partition, this time just filling up the rest of the space. Choose ext3 for this partition’s file system. When you’re done, your partition map should look something like the image above (you’ll notice one of the partitions is almost too small to see, because it’s only 800MB. That’s normal). Hit the Apply button in the toolbar to complete the process.

When you’re done, note the partition references of your two new partitions. Remember, this will look something like /dev/sda3.

Step 3.2: Copy the Chromium Files

Now, open up a Terminal window. We’re going to copy the partitions from your thumb drive onto your hard drive, effectively installing Chromium OS next to whatever operating system you currently have. In the Terminal, type:

sudo dd if=/dev/C-STATE_USB_PARTITION of=/dev/ bs=4096

sudo dd if=/dev/ of=/dev/ bs=4096

Where C-STATE_USB_PARTITION is the partition reference for your thumb drive’s C-STATE partition, MACHINE_SMALL_PARTITION is the corresponding partition on your netbook’s drive, and so on. So, for example, my commands looked like this:

sudo dd if=/dev/sdb1 of=/dev/sda3 bs=4096

sudo dd if=/dev/sdb2 of=/dev/sda4 bs=4096

See the multiboot guide on Hexxeh’s Wiki for more information on setting this up.

Step 3.3: Update or Install the GRUB Bootloader

Lastly, you’ll need to make sure you can boot into Chromium OS. From Ubuntu, open up a Terminal window. If you’re dual booting with Windows, run the following commands:

sudo grub

> root (hd0,0)

> setup (hd0)

> exit

When you boot up, you should get the option to boot into either Windows or Chrome OS.

If you’re running Linux as your other operating system, you already have GRUB installed. Open a Terminal window and run grub-install -v to see what version. If you’re running GRUB legacy (prior to version 1.99), you just need to boot into Linux (these commands assume Ubuntu) and run:

sudo update-grub

However, if you’re running GRUB2 (1.99 or later), you’ll need to add Chrome OS’ entry manually. Type gksudo gedit /etc/grub.d/40_custom to edit your GRUB configuration file. Add the following line to the end of the file if you have Intel graphics:

menuentry “ChromiumOS” {

insmod ext2

set root=(hd0,x)

linux /boot/vmlinuz root=LABEL=C-ROOT rw noresume noswap i915.modeset=1 loglevel=1 quiet

initrd /boot/initrd.img


If you have Nvidia graphics, add this instead:

menuentry “Chrome OS NVIDIA” {


linux /boot/vmlinuz console=tty2 init=/sbin/init boot=local rootwait root=LABEL=C-ROOT rw noresume noswap i915.modeset=1 loglevel=1 apci=force single

initrd /boot/initrd.img


When you reboot, you should get the option to boot into Chrome OS.

Note that I have not tested all of these methods. These are taken from the MultiBoot Guide on Hexxeh’s Wiki. Everyone’s GRUB setup is going to be a little different, so you might have to do a bit of research on your own to get it all working. Like I said before, the dual-booting option is quite a bit of work, and unless you need Windows on your netbook, you’re better off just sticking with the flash drive until you know you want Chrome OS, then installing it on its own.

That’s it! It’s certainly more work than buying yourself a Chromebook, but you get the advantage of picking your hardware, or using the hardware you already have. Again, everyone’s system is going to be a little bit different, so if you have issues with the installation or with dual booting, leave a comment and help each other out. And, once you’ve given Chrome OS a shot, let us know how you like it in the comments too.

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