22.12.2012 18:13

A while ago, in fact as soon as Amazon started shipping them to Europe, I ordered the new ARM-based Samsung Chromebook. It seemed like the perfect replacement for my aging EeePC 901. Looking back, this little laptop has served me incredibly well for more than four years and cost 330 €. But recently it has starting to show its age. While the battery still has more than two thirds of its original capacity (which is quite amazing) it seems that the SSD slowed down considerably and the battery sometimes won't charge until I disconnect and reconnect it from the laptop.

ARM-based Samsung Chromebook

Anyway, the new dual-core Exynos system seemed like it would be an improvement over the old Atom and other specs are more or less the same. The most important part for me, weight, is just about the same as 901, while Chromebook has a considerably larger screen and keyboard. Chromebook lacks the built-in wired Ethernet interface, so I bought a separate USB-to-Ethernet dongle. It also has a HDMI instead of a VGA connector for video, which is great for watching movies on a modern TV, but not that much for giving presentations, as most places still expect you to connect via a VGA to the projector.

Some reviews I've seen criticized Chromebook's LCD panel. Certainly it can't compare in contrast and brightness to my work laptop, but that one cost almost ten times as much. However putting the EeePC and Chromebook side to side, the Chromebook seems considerably better. As far as ergonomics is concerned the only part that seems worse is the touch pad. While it is larger in surface it appears less accurate and so far I haven't liked the no-button approach (you press the whole surface down to click). I am used to having a thumb on the button while moving the cursor with my other fingers. This doesn't work here since resting a finger on the touch-sensitive surface is recognized as a two-finger gesture. I might get used to it with time though.

Oh, and the laptop is plastic, in case you were wondering. You weren't expecting machined aluminum for this kind of money, right?

As far as the pre-installed Chrome OS goes, I can say that this was one of the best out-of-the box experiences I've seen in modern computing. There is pretty much no unnecessary nonsense which everyone seems to expect from a Windows laptop these days. A short OS update, enter Google account credentials and you have a browser.

But of course, I bought this laptop to run Debian on it. I switched the laptop to developer mode and overwrote the original system with a Debian Wheezy armhf installation. I first started with armel architecture, but switched later because it turns out that binaries from Google for Chrome OS only work on armhf, and you need those to have anything better than a framebuffer driver. Getting Debian to run was quite painless thanks to this Ubuntu guide, although there's a lot to learn if you are only used to setting up Intel boxes. One annoying thing is that there seems to be no nice way of disabling the big warning screen about the disabled OS signature check on each boot and the mandatory Ctrl-D. As I understand you need to overwrite the first-stage bootloader via an SPI bus to get around that.

Unfortunately my adventures with this new toy ended up as soon as I opened the first YouTube video in the browser and wanted to hear the sound out of the built-in speakers. It turns out playing with ALSA mixer settings is more dangerous than I thought and soon I started smelling the stench of burning isolation and the underside of my shiny new computer started melting. At this point I was panicking and cursing the lack of a hardware power button and the non-removable battery, so the computer continued to melt while I typed in shutdown -h now.

Samsung Chromebook without the bottom cover.

This was maybe a month ago and I haven't touched the computer until then. Just yesterday I opened it up (Google provides nice disassembly instructions) and found out it's not as bad as I though. The membrane and coil of the left speaker have heated up to the point of melting into the plastic case, but it appears there was no collateral damage as far as electronics is concerned. Meanwhile Ubuntu folk produced a patch for this problem. So in the end I might still get to use it once I sort everything out with the Debian installation. For the time being though, I'm sticking with my trusty old EeePC.

Oh, and if anyone has any source of replacement Chromebook speakers, I might buy a set. I plan to poke local Samsung service shops, but I'm not optimistic they have access to this kind of hardware.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life


Somebody forgot big elco from audio IC to speaker :-( I remember expensive radio lacking output surge resistor causing strong band when headphones were pulled out while elco charges. HNY 13 YM.

Any chance you could get us a more step by step walkthrough for getting debian up and running. I get the basic idea of it. But no idea what image to use.

Posted by Mike

Mike, I might make a simple step-by-step walkthrough once I actually have a usable system. Right now I don't want to make a guide on how to set fire to your speakers and how to get a system that makes you jump through hoops on each boot.

If you want to experiment though, Ubuntu guide I linked above almost work step-for-step. I bootstrapped a Debian root filesystem using "multistrap". This page will give you a rough idea on how to do that and links for further information:

Posted by Tomaž

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