Paolo Amoroso's Journal

ChromeOS

I'm going back to Linux after nine years of ChromeOS.

In 2015 I had been using Linux for a couple of decades. Exasperated by the frequent maintenance issues, that year I migrated to ChromeOS. I was living in the browser anyway and ChromeOS seemed like a stable alternative, so I switched. Linux system updates often broke the Nvidia drivers or X11 and dumped me to the text console with no clue what to do. At some point I even stopped performing updates.

Almost a decade later, something changed and made me want to leave ChromeOS for Linux. This post records the motivations for the switch, lists my requirements, and describes the hardware and software setup I came up with for my new Linux system.

Motivation

ChromeOS served me well. It fulfilled my needs, nearly eliminated maintenance, and made upgrading to new devices as simple as signing into an account.

However, in all these years Linux has come a long way in features and usability. Getting a Raspberry Pi 400 gave me a glimpse at how much Linux improved.

These are not the only reasons for migrating though.

Google is considering for ChromeOS a feature similar to Windows Recall. Which is a deal breaker.

Although Google may implement the feature in a thoughtful way, it bothers me not just in itself but for the trend it hints at. I'm not interested in the wave of new AI features the market is pressuring tech companies to deliver.

Another motivation for moving to Linux is a consequence of how my use of ChromeOS changed.

Although I always relied on cloud applications, for the past few years I've been running more Linux programs under the Crostini Linux container of ChromeOS, such as emulators and specialized tools. And I've been increasingly bumping into subtle limitations of the Crostini environment like GUI rendering and keyboard issues, missing features, and minor incompatibilities here and there.

The solution is to move to a full, native Linux system.

The requirements

My experience with Chrome and Crostini on ChromeOS shaped the requirements for the new Linux system.

Hardware

My ChromeOS daily drivers have been Chromeboxes, the latest of which an ASUS Chromebox 3 since 2018. The device has an 8th gen Intel Core i7 processor, an Intel graphics chip, 16 GB RAM, 256 GB of storage, and 1 G Ethernet.

With their compact size and easy access to all ports at desk level, Chromeboxes made me fall in love with the mini PC form factor. The new machine must be a mini PC too.

The performance of the ASUS Chromebox 3 matches well my needs based on a mix of web apps and Linux software. The most graphically demanding programs I run are astronomy applications like Celestia and Stellarium or tools like basic video editors. The graphics chip of the ASUS Chromebox 3 makes them run well with no noticeable lag or stutter.

My typical workload consists of a dozen Chrome tabs plus one or two Linux programs. This computing mix usually fills half a dozen GB of RAM out of 16 GB. The local files take up about 160 GB of the available 256 GB storage.

I'm not a gamer and don't need a gaming rig. I don't plan to do machine learning either. However, I want extra room in the specs to accommodate some growth in my computing needs.

An updated Intel Core i7 processor and double the current RAM and storage seem adequate. The hardware should have good Linux compatibility, which doesn't mesh well with Nvidia chips. I don't need all that horsepower anyway as an Intel graphics chip is perfectly adequate.

Software

Again, my ChromeOS experience guided also my software requirements. I don't run servers and typically use web applications and Linux programs, so most Linux distros would do. However, I have a few extra requirements for a better setup and maintenance experience.

I want a desktop distro that's easy to install and maintain. It should be popular, actively maintained, and not controlled by a corporation.

On the technical side, my ideal distro should support a wide range of hardware and peripherals. Since most of the programs I need are available as .deb packages the distro must be based on or derived from Debian, default to APT, and not force alternate package managers like Snap. In addition, the distro should provide common software and support for installing multimedia codecs without jumping through hoops.

Although I'd appreciate a distro ready for Wayland, I actually have no immediate need for Wayland's features. I'd just like to put the transition from X11 behind me.

I never used Android apps much, which few developers bothered to adapt to ChromeOS anyway. I won't miss them on Linux.

The setup

Researching the right hardware and software combination was harder than anticipated because of two main reasons. First, I have been out of the Linux and PC loop for so long I'm not much familiar with the latest Linux features, desktop environments, and PC hardware.

Searching the web to make sense of the computer market and the huge selection of mini PCs was equally hard. Most keywords associated with the relevant queries are so high traffic the search result pages are filled with ads, SEO-optimized content, and noise.

I mostly skipped googling and went with asking around and browsing through the product listings of manufacturers I already know, who design for Linux, or are recommended by trusted sources.

A lot of reading and thinking later, I came up with a setup I'm pleased with.

Hardware

My new daily driver is a System76 Merkaat mini PC with a short case, a 13th gen 5 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, Intel Iris Xe graphics, 32 GB RAM, 500 GB SSD, 2.5 G Ethernet, and Wi-Fi 6.

The machine has two killer features. It's designed for Linux and should have little or no compatibility issues. Also, System76 let me configure the product with exactly the specs and features I wanted: processor, RAM size, storage size, and so on. The one size fits all models by other manufacturers typically miss one or more of the features I want.

I need no additional peripherals as I'll use those of the Chromebox: a 23” HP Pavillon 23cw monitor, a wireless TedGen keyboard, a wireless Logitech M220 mouse, a Logitech c920 webcam, a Blue Yeti microphone, and a Brother HL-L2340DW printer.

The only downside is System76 is an American company and I live in Italy, so dealing with import taxes and duties will be a bloodbath. But I hope the investment will pay off.

Software

Linux Mint is the distro that ticks all my boxes and I'll install on the System76 Merkaat.

It's popular, easy to use, low maintenance, and with no known incompatibilities with System76 devices. It comes with a lot of software out of the box, including multimedia codecs.

A non technical feature that impressed me is Mint is a community distro, which makes the interests of users align with those of developers. Making Snap optional drove this home.

Wayland is optional and experimental on Mint. Hopefully, when Wayland is ready, Mint will provide a smooth upgrade path.

What's next

I ordered the System76 Merkaat and the device is on its way to me. It should land here in a week or so. When I set up the system and play with it a bit, I'll share my impressions.

In the meantime, please excuse me while I refresh the tracking status of the shipment.

#Linux #ChromeOS

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ChromeOS Stable 121 rolled out to my ASUS Chromebox 3 and brought with it a one-click option to upgrade Crostini.

Crostini, the Debian based Linux container of chromeOS, was running Bullseye prior to that. ChromeOS 121 popped up a notification with a button offering to upgrade to Debian Bookworm 12.4. After backing up the container I clicked the button in the notification, skipped the backup option as I had already done it, and clicked another button to start the upgrade.

The process was uneventful. ChromeOS displayed a dialog with status messages informing on the progress, then a final message confirming the successful completion.

I checked out the main Linux programs I use and they all seem to be working fine on Bookworm, as well as everighing else. Some programs actually look better as they're built on GUI frameworks that come with an updated and refreshed design.

Upgrading Crostini from Buster to Bullseye a couple of yeas earlier was less smooth. Back then chromeOS didn't provide any user interface for activating the upgrade, so I had to manually run a script. Although the process completed with a few errors, Bullseye has always worked fine on Crostini since then.

#chromeOS #Linux

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I'm writing this with a TedGen keyboard, a wireless unit with Italian layout I bought for my ASUS Chromebox 3. Here's the product which comes also with a wireless mouse:

TedGen wireless keyboard with Italian layout.

The mouse doesn't work well though as rolling the wheel causes periodic jerky movements of the pointer. I had to keep around my old Logitech M220 mouse.

The TedGen keyboard was essentially an impulse buy. I prefer short-travel chicklet keyboards and the TedGen's design caught my attention. Plus it takes up less desk space than my old Nilox Kt40W.

I've been using the keyboard for several weeks and I like it. The keys have a nice touch similar to that of laptop keyboards.

#chromeOS

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When I researched a printer for my first Chromebox in 2015, going with a Brother HL-2340DW seemed like a no brainer.

It was one of the few affordable, wireless laser units with support for Google Cloud Print, then the only way of printing from chromeOS. Print quality is okay. But I never liked the HL-2340DW much as it's slow, and it often went into a deep sleep mode from which it was difficult to wake up.

When Google discontinued Cloud Print in 2020 I could still use the HL-2340DW from my new Chromebox via the IPP protocol, but the unit would often ignore print jobs. When printing from the Chromebox the HL-2340DW would acknowledge receiving the data, then just ignore the jobs and return to the ready state. No troubleshooting or combination of restarting chromeOS, the Chromebox, or the printer would help.

One of the times, exasperated, I initiated printing the Google Drive files I wanted from my Pixel 4 XL Android phone instead of the Chromebox. The printer worked flawlessly, and it has been from Android since then.

#chromeOS #Android

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Beagle Term is a terminal emulator Chrome packaged app for controlling serial USB devices.

I checked it out with the Z80-MBC2 and the V20-MBC homebrew computers on my Chromebox and the app works well, with good VT100 emulation. A major downside is it doesn't support XMODEM or other file transfer protocols. And Google deprecated Chrome apps, so this one will eventually be discontinued.

When plugging a serial device into a USB port, chromeOS prompts to connect to the device from the Crostini Linux or the Android container. But Beagle Term runs in Chrome, so the selection isn't necessary and the notification may be dismissed.

Launching the app opens a connection configuration dialog prefilled with the default communication parameters, which are fine for the homebrew computers.

As I said VT100 emulation is pretty good. For example, here is the CatChum Pacman clone running under CP/M Plus on the Z80-MBC2:

CatChum Pcaman clone under CP/M Plus on the Z80-MBC2 homebrew computer.

And this is what WordStar 4 looks like under CP/M-86 on the V20-MBC:

WordStar under CP/M-86 on the V20-MBC homebrew computer.

Good VT100 support shouldn't be taken for granted in terminal emulators as it may be missing or broken such as in CuteCom or Serial USB Terminal.

#z80mbc2 #v20mbc #chromeOS

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I’m typing this with a keyboard that is cheap and looks cheap. And I’m loving it.

My appreciation for cheap keyboards began with my first Chromebook, an Acer C720 I got to learn and explore chromeOS. I loved the device so much I switched to using chromeOS as my only desktop operating system. Back then my daily driver was an i3 ASUS Chromebox 2 hooked to a Logitech K120 full travel keyboard from my last PC.

With the Chromebox as the main desktop machine, I put aside the Chromebook for a while. But something later motivated me to play more with the Chromebook: its keyboard.

The screen of the Acer C720 has notoriously poor viewing angles. But I realized I could improve legibility by setting the Chromebook on a slightly taller desk, which made the viewing angle optimal. This led me to use the device more and appreciate its chiclet keyboard with good feedback.

To have a similar experience on the ASUS Chromebox 2 I used at the time, I bought the only low profile chiclet unit I found that provided the extended Italian layout with accented letters I wanted, an Atlantis Chocolate 1300 wired keyboard. It was cheap and came from a little known manufacturer, but worked great. I began enjoying typing on the Chromebox more and more.

When I upgraded to my current i7 ASUS Chromebox 3, I plugged the Atlantis keyboard into it. However, its cable and that of the mouse contributed to the mess on my desk, so I replaced the input devices with wireless units. I bought a Logitech M220 mouse and, again, the only low profile chiclet keyboard with the required layout I found, this Nilox Kt40W:

Nilox Kt40W wireless chiclet keyboard.

The keyboard cost me all of €14.69. Besides being cheap and from an unknown brand, the plastic finish and feel make it also look cheap.

But I really enjoy using the Nilox keyboard.

Pressing the keys makes a clunky noise, a satisfying kind of clunky with a pleasant feedback. At first the pressure of the keys felt hard, slightly more than the Atlantis. But I eventually got used to the keyboard and came to love it.

#chromeOS

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My post on why I use a Chromebox was shared on Hacker News and got enough upvotes to receive more than 4,000 views over a day. The feedback in the comments made me realize I didn't explain why I use chromeOS instead of Linux, so here goes.

I did use various Linux distros from the mid 1990s until switching to chromeOS, but I got exasperated with maintenance.

Device driver support was suboptimal. System updates would often break something and throw me to the console, forcing to waste days to troubleshoot and fix whatever broke and restore X. These issues were so frequent I ended up deferring to apply system updates, trading features and fixes for stability.

I had enough with Linux maintenance, realized I was living in Chrome anyway, didn't mind Google, and gave chromeOS a try. Seven years and four chromeOS devices later, I never had a single system update issue. And maintenance simply disappeared.

For years I used also Windows and Mac OS X but I liked Linux — and later chromeOS — much more.

#chromeOS #Linux

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Chromebooks are mainstream but many people don’t grok Chromeboxes.

Some wonder what’s the point of Chromeboxes and what to use them for, especially high-end units. People seem to assume Chromeboxes are good only as kiosks or for who knows what uncommon use-case.

This is the main unit of my ASUS Chromebox 3:

ASUS Chromebox 3 main unit.

I chose a Chromebox because I nearly never need to move my primary desktop device. And I want the most high-end unit I can get my hands on to do the same stuff cheap Chromebooks can do, but faster.

Let me elaborate.

First off, in 2015 I switched to using exclusively chromeOS on the desktop and ditched traditional desktop operating systems such as Linux or Windows.

Therefore, for me the choice is among the form factors of chromeOS desktop devices: Chromebook (laptop), Chromebox (fixed desktop system), or Chromebase (think iMac for chromeOS).

I went with a Chromebox as my daily driver because I work with it at the same desk 99.999% of the time. Since I nearly never need to move the device, not even to a different room or chair, I want the best experience with a large monitor, a full-size keyboard, a mouse, and wired Ethernet. I could plug these peripherals into a Chromebook but it would introduce friction, take up additional desk space, and cost more.

Here's the workstation of my ASUS Chromebox 3.

Nilox keyboard and mouse, and HP Pavillon 23cw 23" LCD monitor connected to an ASUS Chromebox 3.

I got the most high-end Chromebox available at the time I researched it, i.e. an Intel CORE i7 ASUS Chromebox 3 with 16 GB RAM and 256 GB storage. Why? To run exactly the same software that works on cheap Chromebooks, but with a snappier and more responsive experience. If you're old enough to remember MS-DOS, it’s the same reason people got 80386 PCs when the same software ran just fine on 8088 PCs.

Why not a Chromebase? Because I want to be able to upgrade different parts of the system separately, such as changing only the monitor.

As for software, I use mostly web apps and they work great on chromeOS as this is the use case the platform was designed for. Installing Android apps on the Chromebox fills a few gaps in my needs for which no web alternatives are available. Crostini Linux is invaluable in running specific and niche software.

I happen to have a Chromebook too, a Lenovo Yoga N26. I use it for experimenting with Chrome OS and on the — very rare — occasion I need the mobility of a laptop.

#chromeOS

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Working on Suite8080 and using the Z80MBC2 encouraged me to learn Intel 8080 and Z80 Assembly.

Now I'm dipping my toes into x86 Assembly, which I've always been curious about and attracted by. An additional motivation is discovering MikeOS, a lovely real-mode operating system in x86 Assembly that's surprisingly easy to read and understand.

Therefore, I put together an environment to cross-develop and run x86 code.

Requirements

My desktop daily driver is an ASUS Chromebox 3, with the Crostini Linux container of chromeOS that lets me run most Linux software. Any emulation and development tools must therefore be available for Linux.

Intel x86 Assembly is close enough to 8080 Assembly that x86 code looks familiar. To leverage this similarity and avoid the complexity of x86 segmentation, for the time being I want to develop 16-bit real-mode programs that fit into the single segment of a .COM executable.

The obvious choice for an operating system to run these programs is MS-DOS. Why? Because its rich environment strikes the right balance between complexity and functionality.

So the emulator must run a full MS-DOS environment and boot from media images. Which enables coding for the bare metal, a PC with no operating system.

As for the Assembly tools, I prefer to cross-develop on Linux. Although I'm a retrocmputing enthusiast, for writing and building code I want the convenience of a modern system.

MS-DOS emulation

QEMU would have been my first choice for x86 emulation but has compatibility issues with Crostini, as virtualizing in a virtual environment is tricky.

A bit of research led me to DOSBox-X, which runs fine on Crostini as it emulates rather than virtualize. DOSBox-X is a fork of DOSBox with a more fleshed out MS-DOS environment. Plus it can boot from media images.

DOSBox-X running under chromeOS on my Chromebox looks like this:

DOSBox-X session under chromeOS on an ASUS Chromebox 3.

Installing DOSBox-X on the Chromebox was straightforward. However, the Flatpak package carried almost a gigabyte worth of dependencies that nearly filled the Crostini file system. I had to resize the container from 7.5 to 10 GB to accommodate all the files and leave enough free space.

A feature I like is the emulator can mount a directory tree of the Linux file system as an MS-DOS disk. This is handy for quickly transferring cross-assembled binaries to MS-DOS.

DOSBox-X has rendering issues on chromOS, i.e. the menu bar and items flicker randomly. A workaround is to turn off the menu bar.

I tested DOSBox-X booting by checking out MikeOS, which runs well.

Assembly development

There's a vast assortment of x86 assemblers but I skipped the research by picking NASM for Linux.

I like this popular tool because it's rich of features and comes with extensive documentation. It also has a clean, non verbose syntax and can generate MS-DOS .COM programs.

To test the full cross-development and emulation toolchain I used NASM to assemble an x86 real-mode hello world demo, copied it to a directory DOSBox-X mounts as a disk, and ran it under MS-DOS. Success! A simple and low friction workflow.

#Assembly #MSDOS #chromeOS #retrocomputing #x86

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ChromeOS 104 delivered the ability to access USB serial devices from Android, an option for controlling the Z80-MBC2 computer from an Android terminal emulator app.

I didn't realize chromeOS 104 improved the support for accessing USB serial devices also from web apps implementing the WebUSB API. On my Chromebox, version 104 is the first that enables controlling the Z80-MBC2 from the web. Here's a CP/M 3.0 session in a serial terminal emulator web app:

USB Web Serial terminal emulator web app running a Z80-MBC2 CP/M 3.0 session on chromeOS.

Up to chromeOS 104, web terminals failed to connect to the Z80-MBC2 as they didn't detect the USB device. With version 104 I tested the following terminal apps, most of which work:

These apps operate the same way. A connection button brings up a system dialog listing the serial devices, like the Z80-MBC2's CP2102 chip. Once connected, the apps behave like other terminal emulators.

Although useful as an additional option for controlling the Z80-MBC2 on chromeOS, these web terminals are experimental or basic apps, have limited functionality, and miss major features like XMODEM file transfer.

#z80mbc2 #sbc #Android #chromeOS

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