The more I use Google’s new Chromebook Pixel, the more I consider buying one; I have to return the loaner laptop next week. To many, that sounds insane: “Pay $1,299 for a browser?” is the common comment theme I’m seeing. And it’s a fair point if you do more than just work on the web. Even me, a Chromebook owner since last June, occasionally strays outside the Internet for some activity. Can that actually be done on a Chromebook Pixel? Actually, yes it can, because because you can use other operating systems on this hardware.
After researching over the weekend and asking some Googlers themselves, I found out that unlike prior Chromebooks, there is a BIOS option that is writable: meaning the Pixel’s startup software isn’t locked down as much as prior Chrome OS devices. Google included a copy of SeaBIOS with the Pixel, currently allowing for the installation of Linux distributions. Here’s an instruction page on how to do this and the following explanation from Bill Richardson, who works at Google:
“Chrome OS firmware normally consists of three distinct BIOS images. First, there is the read-only BIOS, which is (duh) read-only. It can’t be modified without disassembly. Then there are two read-write BIOS images, called RW A and RW B. The read-only BIOS is what runs when the machine is first powered on. It checks the two read-write BIOSes (A, then B), looking for one that is correctly signed by Google. If it finds one, it jumps to that image, which then looks for a valid kernel, and so forth. If there is no valid RW firmware (or some other fault has occurred), the execution stays in the RO BIOS and enters Recovery mode.
With the Pixel, we’d added an extra (unverified) BIOS slot. It only works in developer mode, and you have to explicitly enable it, but we’ve put a copy of Seabios in the Pixel firmware.”
The second option for running an alternative platform on the Pixel is a tool created by David Schneider, another Googler. Called crouton — standing for ChRomium Os UbunTu chrOot enviroNment — the downloadable tool supports running Ubuntu in a virtual instance within Chrome OS.
This means you can run the standard Chrome OS environment and a fully usable Ubuntu build at the same time. To toggle between the two environments, you simply press Ctrl-Alt-Refresh (F3) for Ubuntu or press Ctrl-Alt-Back (F1) for Chrome OS according to Richardson, who shared this picture of the end result.
Of course, if you want to run Mac OS X or Microsoft Windows, you’re out of luck on a Chromebook Pixel, but as a Googler reminded me in this thread, you can always use Chrome Remote Desktop to connect to another system. Bensen Leung, a Linux Kernel engineer on the Chrome OS team, told me he uses that method — in addition to the above Linux approaches — to connect to desktops on other platforms.
Are these ideal solutions for a laptop that costs $1,299 or more? Probably not for most folks, but they do provide options outside of just using a web browser.