Looking for a Chromebook so you can cut your dependency on expensive commercial software? Well, I’ve got good news, and bad news. The good news is that you can buy one now. The bad news is that they start at $350 and go up. If you’re not absolutely sure that a Chromebook will do what you need, that’s a lot of money to drop on an experiment.
So, what to do? Build your own! The Chrome OS has a very small hardware resource requirement, which I have proven by installing it on an ancient Dell Latitude CSx. This little machine has no optical (CD/DVD) drive at all, a 500MHz CPU, and only 256 megs of RAM. It has no built-in wireless, not even an Ethernet port, so I am using PCMCIA cards for that. I replaced the hard drive with a CompactFlash adapter and a 16GB CF card from Amazon, and there’s still plenty of room. It won’t boot from USB, so I actually installed the OS on another, newer Dell laptop and moved my home-made SSD into the antique. It works!
Now, I’m not going to be watching live video due to the hardware limits imposed by chipping my own Chromebook out of granite (I think the frame rate is around 6fps on YouTube) but it proves that Chrome does meet my needs, so I can graduate to better hardware when the mood (and my budget) takes me.
So, how would you make your own? Start by prowling the local pawn shops and find a reasonably-capable laptop or netbook. Be sure to check prices online before paying for it, most pawn dealers have a rather vague notion of the current value of a computer. Make the pawn dealer demo it for you, checking that the optical drive (if any) works, and that the wireless and Ethernet ports are functional (again, if any). Make very sure it can boot from the optical drive or USB! Look for cracks or blemishes on the case, and worn keytops; you can use those to bring the price down if you like to haggle.
If the machine you picked doesn’t have Ethernet, or Wi-fi, or 3G (most won’t have 3G), you’ll need to get appropriate card(s) for that. It’s best to get the 3G card from your cell provider anyway. I didn’t bother to get one, because I have no intention of paying for a data plan. If there’s no Ethernet and no wi-fi where ever I go, there’s nothing I need to see on the Web right then.
Once you find suitable hardware, you’ll need to download either Chrome OS (the “official” Chrome) or Chromium OS (a linux-based community-supported derivitive). Follow the directions on the download page to create a bootable CD or bootable USB flash drive. By the way, I went with Chrome OS on my little antique, but I have made a bootable SDcard with Chromium on it and run it on newer hardware; it’s a lot prettier but still contains the same heart. Be sure to poke around on the Web page so that you know what the default username and password are!
Boot your pawn-shop-rescue laptop from the disk or USB drive you just made. If all goes well, you’ll be looking at the Chrome/Chromium desktop in a minute or so. Play with it a little. When you’ve decided you want to install it (it will boot faster that way), follow the directions here for Chrome OS or here for Chromium OS. After you install and reboot, you can log in using your Google account (usually email@example.com but in the UK and parts of Europe it might be firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
Yes, it really is that easy! And if you are good haggler, you might have gotten that laptop for as little as $150, or even less! Mine cost $60 but it is admittedly pretty old.
Oh, about that home-made SSD; you’ll need to know first if your laptop has an IDE (aka “ATA”) hard drive, or a SATA hard drive. See pics below. There’s a DIY SSD guide here. After you check that out, go to Amazon.com and search for “CF to sata adapter” or “CF to IDE adapter” and you should be able to find the adapter for under ten bucks. If your laptop is IDE, be sure to get the 44-pin adapter; the 40-pin jobs are for desktop systems and won’t fit. You can use any fairly recent CF card with at least 2 GB capacity. I found that the Kodak card I have won’t work, it can’t be made bootable, but all of my SanDisks work. Oh, and generally you’ll want to avoid the two-card adapters; they won’t fit into some of the modern narrow drive bays, because they are too thick. Once you assemble to card to the adapter, make sure it’s insulated (some don’t come that way, but thin plastic as found in those annoying clear plastic clamshell cases can be easily cut to fit with ordinary scissors), and substitute it in your laptop. Then go back and reinstall ChromeOS.
Enjoy your new, budget Chromebook!