New Life for an Old Chromebook

I bought my Chromebook in early 2020, for testing the KeyMusician Keyboard. It is an Acer Chromebook 15, and was fairly inexpensive, yet quite capable.

It would run KeyMusician Keyboard in 3 different environments using ChromeOS, but with limitations, where JACK wouldn’t work. But look at that same Chromebook now, running the KMK on ordinary Lubuntu Linux 22.04:


My Chromebook, now running Lubuntu Linux 22.04


Close-up of its screen, running JACK (qjackctl), Qsynth, and QmidiRoute (not shown)

Only 2 years after buying it new, in the summer of 2022, its update process indicated I had received the last update for this quite new, and totally functional computer, which totally disappointed me.

Since I would receive no further updates, I had no good way of testing KeyMusician Keyboard with Chromebook.

Where I currently couldn’t get JACK (qjackctl) to work on basic ChromeOS, Crouton, or even on Gallium Linux (dual-booted), it is a rather poor computer for performing music with. Yet I really liked its 12-hour battery life.

I knew from testing KMK on it, that there is a way to re-write a Chromebook’s BIOS, with one that Windows and all other Linux distributions can run on (which would let me use JACK).

Yet I also knew that involved opening up the machine and making a minor hardware change, which I was reluctant to do.

But where my Chromebook was now of little use to me, it motivated me to take that scary step – despite the fact that the hardware engineers at Unisys joked I was the sort of programmer you shouldn’t give a screwdriver to...

I started with the goal of installing both Windows and Linux on it, dual-booting whichever OS I wanted.

When I realized my Chromebook only had 32 gigabytes of (disk) storage, and its normal processor speed is 1.6 gigahertz (which can increase to 2 point something gigahertz), I decided not to put Windows on it, but instead, install Lubuntu Linux, 22.04, which I use on all my other music performance computers.

There are articles on running Windows on a Chromebook, that suggest installing Windows in a virtual box (such as Parallels), but I know from experience that approach adds an unacceptably large amount of latency (delay between hitting a note key and hearing the note), so that is not a reasonable approach where I want to play music on it.

Some articles suggested using your Chromebook as a remote console for another computer running Windows, but I’m convinced that would add even more latency than running Windows in a virtual box.

So using Windows on my Chromebook was not a reasonable approach for me. Yet I can do so much with it on Linux (including layered voices, and playing 10 different instruments simultaneously), I don’t consider the lack of Windows to be a problem.

Chromebook Compatibility for Running Windows

Before trying this yourself, check if your Chromebook is compatible for using the BIOS re-write, and even running Windows (which will certainly make it capable of running Linux). You can check your Chromebook’s compatibility at CoolStar’s website, by following the link below:

https://coolstar.org/chromebook/windows.html

I found my “Acer Chromebook 15 (CB3-532)” on the list, fairly near the bottom, and it indicated it was fully compatible. If you find your Chromebook on the list, write down its “Chromebook Name” and “Board Name” values, which you’ll need when re-writing your Chromebook’s BIOS.

How To Re-Write Your BIOS, and Install Windows, or Linux

If your Chromebook is compatible, you can proceed with re-writing your Chromebook’s BIOS.

Following the link below will take you to instructions for re-writing your Chromebook’s BIOS. I did the steps through 3. At that point, I inserted my Lubuntu 22.04 installer USB drive, and booted the Chromebook from the installer USB drive. I tried-out the Lubuntu installer system on the drive first, and when I saw what everything worked, I double-clicked the icon to install the system, and followed the instructions appearing on my screen. Here is the link:

https://www.howtogeek.com/278953/how-to-install-windows-on-a-chromebook/

Each Linux distribution has instructions for making an installer USB drive. Follow the instructions your Linux distribution provides. Step 5 of the instructions will work in a similar fashion for installing Linux.

If your system is compatible, and capable of running Windows, you can install Windows, as per the instructions. You can also set up your system to dual-boot Windows and Linux, if you have room on your main disk drive for both. If you want to do that, you should install Windows first.

I am very happy with my new Lubuntu 22.04 Chromebook. It runs everything I depend on for playing music on Linux, including JACK, and it has that same phenomenal battery life, of 12 hours.

In the KeyMusician Member Pages, where you are now installing on Linux, rather than ChromeOS, you should use the “Installing On Linuxinstructions, and “Improving Your Linux Systeminstructions for advanced capabilities.

If you installed Windows on your Chromebook, again, you need to use the “Installing on Windows” instructions, and the “Improving Your Windows System” instructions.

Installing ChromeOS Flex

With the Chrome BIOS re-written, as per the instructions above, there is another option for my Chromebook.

There is a new version of ChromeOS, called ChromeOS Flex, that can be installed on Windows PCs, or on MacOS machines.

Learning of this later, I actually installed ChromeOS Flex on my Chromebook (with its new BIOS). This worked, and it ran just fine, except that it re-formatted the machine’s (disk) drive, without giving me any choice of another drive (such as the SD-Card) to put it on.

This system would have let me receive ChromeOS updates into the future, and I could still use it to test KMK on Chrome OS.

But a laptop machine with a 12-hour battery life, is much more valuable to me as a music performance machine, than a ChromeOS test machine, so I put Linux back on it, and installed ChromeOS Flex on a Windows PC instead.

Knowing it would format the system’s hard drive, I took that drive out (saving it for later), and put in a small, inexpensive, SSD, which I then installed ChromeOS Flex on.

The computer I installed it on, is an HP Compac Elite 8300 Desktop machine, which is certified for using ChromeOS Flex, through 2025. So I now have a test-machine for testing ChromeOS. And it will likely continue receiving updates beyond 2025. The certified-machines list, only says that ChromeOS Flex is tested on all machines on the list, and that it is verified to work.

I found out from using ChromeOS Flex, that the Crouton environment for Linux, is not available in ChromeOS Flex, and will probably disappear from Chromebooks some time in the future. Only the basic Linux environment for Linux applications (of which the KMK is an example) is supported.

You can learn more about ChromeOS Flex, by following the link below:

ChromeOS Flex Info

I hope this article gives you some ideas for making use of older Chromebooks you might have. I hope it proves useful for you.

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