Upgrading a Chromebook to run Linux

In July of 2016, I bought a Toshiba Chromebook 2. These machines were hard to find at the time, but they were the best affordable hardware you could get to run ChromeOS. The screen especially was better than that of competing devices. Everyone in my household has at some point used it, and it’s been an excellent little machine. This week, it started displaying notices that Google’s OS support for this type of Chromebook was ending.

One thing to know is that although Toshiba only ever produced three Chromebooks, they managed to royally screw up model naming. There’s the original “Chromebook”, the “Chromebook 2” and yet another “Chromebook 2”. Thanks, Toshiba.

As it turns out, the one store I managed to find that had the “Chromebook 2” at the time, sold me the 2014 model (CB30), not the then-current 2015 (CB35) one. Weirdly though, it has longer(!) support than the CB35 model.

Enter GalliumOS

GalliumOS is Ubuntu Linux, optimized for Chromebook hardware. It’s based on Xubuntu, so it’s lightweight. It also doesn’t come with a lot of software pre-installed, so it’ll fit into whatever local storage your Chromebook has. Mine has only 16GB, and once everything was installed, I still had around 10GB left.

The CB35 model has a distinct advantage over mine, because it features an M.2 SATA SSD that you can replace with something bigger.

Some hacking required…

To run GalliumOS on your Chromebook, you’ll likely need to update the firmware. This is all explained on GalliumOS’s wiki. I had no use for the (soon unsupported) stock OS, and disk space was limited, so I decided to completely replace the firmware. This does require you to remove the device’s write protection, a “switch” of sorts.

In the CB30’s case, this is a conductive sticker underneath one of the heat shield’s screws. I followed this guide, and it worked flawlessly. Once the machine was back together, I ran the firmware upgrade script, and installed GalliumOS from a USB stick.

What you end up with

In many ways, running a real OS on the Toshiba feels liberating. I can finally run Firefox, VLC, Tilix and all my other favorite applications. Well, unless they’re very large, or require more processing power than a seven years old dual-core Celeron has to offer. Fortunately, my unit has 4GB of RAM, which should be enough for what I plan to do with it.

Boot time is about on par with ChromeOS, and the machine certainly feels quicker. Gallium’s desktop environment, XFCE, is optimized for performance, not looks, but the overall appearance is quite okay. All in all, I can see myself using this machine for a couple of years yet. Not as my main driver, but as a cheap, ultra-portable alternative for road trips and such.

Roy Tanck
I'm a freelance WordPress developer, designer, consultant, meetup organizer and speaker. In my spare time I love to go out and take pictures of things.