Sunday 17 September 2023

Installing a full Linux distro on my Acer Chromebook 14 CB-431

 So I was having trouble with my Chromebook. When editing photos with Google Photos it would slow down then freeze. After testing in another user account with no extensions or add-ons, it still had the same issue. I then went last resort and powerwashed it. This is simple and quick way of wiping back to factory settings....and then I decided to install a full Linux distro on it.... 

My Acer Chromebook 14 has been End of life for awhile now, (it was released in 2016) which means no more fixes for issues, and no new features. I'd already removed the hardware write protection screw inside the base in preparation for possibly putting Linux on it awhile ago, I had just put off doing it until now. Luckily there's very useful guides on the Arch Linux Wiki on how to put Linux on a Chromebook. I used the guide for my specific model, here.  It is a CB3-431, 4GB RAM, 1080P screen version (Acer also did a 2GB, 720p screen version). 

There's a couple of different options on the Arch Wiki, and I chose the Coreboot route. Linux only, no dual boot. After installing the custom bootloader, I went ahead with installing Linux as normal, wiping all the internal 32GB storage. I used my favourite distro, KDE Neon, which is basically Kubuntu LTS but with the latest version of KDE. I wrote the ISO to a USB stick using OpenSuse Image Writer, which worked perfectly, it's the first time I've ever used it. 

After a normal uneventful install, KDE Neon used just under half of the Acer's 32GB internal storage. It still boots pretty quickly. The main thing I noticed after logging in for the first time, was the display was on full brightness and of course in ChromeOS the Brightness keys are on what would be the normal F keys in Linux. You can use change shortcuts in KDE settings, and create custom ones. For Brightness Up and Down I used Ctrl + F6 and F7. For for the Volume keys I used Ctrl + Shift + F8 and F9  (which were the Volume keys in ChromeOS). The Fullscreen key is F4 so I added Ctrl and Shift for that too. There's a smaller number of F keys to standard so I had to choose another shortcut key for my favourite drop-down terminal emulator, Yakuake. As expected, the Google/Search key becomes the Super Key aka The "Windows key".  

Some of the fixes on the Arch wiki were not needed, such as those for the sound and touchpad. The trackpad seems to work fine, though right clicking only works with the default setting, clicking on the bottom right corner of the trackpad, instead of the two finger clicks that I am used to. Just a case of getting used to that, along with the new keyboard shortcuts. 

The sound works out the box and one advantage of running Linux on this Chromebook is you can increase the Volume beyond 100%, which you cannot do on ChromeOS, as the audio was far too quiet, in headphones or from the speakers on this machine. I used to have to use a Chrome extension called Volume Master to boost the volume on ChromeOS, but its downside was that YouTube couldn't run fullscreen while it was in use. Although having said that, sometimes after boosting the audio for some time, it sometimes goes to just playing a tone.  Another option I can now use is a USB audio interface, like my M-Audio M-Track Solo, which is something else I couldn't use with ChromeOS. 

After all the main tinkering, it was just a case of installing all my usual favourite apps, such as VLC, Audacious, Cantata, FIlezilla etc. And finally, bringing back the Leave option in the Desktop right click menu and removing the silly offline updates feature.  Performance is fairly snappy on first impression, considering it only has 4GB RAM. Lm-sensors reports the normal temperatures as 45 Deg C at idle, rising to just under 50 under heavier loads. Suspend and Resume work fine and battery life doesn't seem to be impacted. It does struggle with 1080P YouTube in Chrome, but it plays a little bit smoother in Firefox. I'm not using Latte Dock as I would usually, because that uses more resources than it should. KDE isn't as heavy as it used to be but I might have to install a distro with a lighter or minimal desktop environment.

 I've been impressed with the full 1080P screen on the Acer ever since I first got it, and KDE looks fantastic on it. I have always preferred to edit photos in Google Photos on the Chromebook instead of on the dull screen on my Thinkpad T430s, the colours are more accurate.  

So far, I am pleased with full Linux on my Acer 14, and I am not missing running ChromeOS yet. It can't run Android apps the same way as ChromeOS did, but that's something I rarely did. They often felt a bit awkward on the desktop. It boots pretty fast, getting to the logon screen not much slower than ChromeOS did. I only wish it had a backlit keyboard, but then at the price it was originally that was to be expected. Installing Linux has basically extended the life of this Chromebook and I'll keep using Linux on it until the device dies, which will probably be whenever the 32GB eMMC onboard storage is dies. It is soldered to the main board so it's not really upgradeable/replaceable. Until then, this Acer will get plenty of use, probably mostly YouTube and Google Photos when I am away from my main desktop. I just have to decide whether to stick with KDE Neon or switch to a lighter weight distro.  

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