Monday, February 17, 2014

It’s Aliiiiiiive!

I was moving through my backup plan to give my old macbooks a second life when I had an (embarrassing) epiphany regarding Chromium.  I am installing Xubuntu on these old laptops using my home network and it’s slow going. I am using my little router and my one spare network cable to hardwire the macbooks in order to pull down updates during the process. Nine macbooks in, I realize that I should have done the same with Chromium.  Afterall, Chromium is based on Linux, and I wouldn’t install a linux build without a network connection, right? Thinking back, I probably didn’t try this with Chromium because of my “no network cable” experience with our Chromebooks. But then, this is Chromium on old third party hardware, not Chrome on proprietary devices. So embarrassing.

I tried Chromium again, this time with the macbook connected physically to the router. Magically, the wireless card was recognized. I can now see the network, which is critical for a web only device, but things are still not perfect.  The trackpad doesn’t work - the cursor doesn’t even appear.  After unsuccessfully trying the solutions posted here and here, I’ve given up on the trackpad. Instead, I just plug in a mouse and it works great.

The verdict on Chromium is still out.  I can tell you that it is a lot faster to load Chromium than Xubuntu.  I am going back to “plan A” because I basically want the laptops to serve as a Chromebook writing lab. I really like the idea of managing users via the GAfE control panel and wasn’t looking forward to locking down the Xubuntu system.  We’ll see...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

“Cross your fingers and reboot”

My teachers recently had their old 2007 MacBooks upgraded and I thought Chromium might be a good way to give these machines a second life. Chromium is an open source version of the Chrome operating system and shares it's low power footprint and "all in the cloud" advantages.

Apparently, it isn’t so easy. The line that finishes the Chromium Install process is “Cross your fingers and reboot.” This foreboding send off quickly made sense. Your mileage will certainly vary with this free OS, and personally, I didn't get far.

Getting Chromium Installed
You have a few options with Chromium. You can use the official Chromium site to compile your own build, but this looks like a complex process.  An easier option is to use one of the builds compiled and shared by a small, but generous, community.

Liam McLoughlin, a young programmer who goes by Hexxeh, is the most often mentioned in older blog posts about Chromium, but his once popular project seems to have stopped in April of 2013.  I couldn’t get any of his builds to work past the boot screen on my MacBooks.  A Chromium project that is still regularly supported is hosted at I had the greatest success with these builds, getting as far as the Chromium network screen.

As far as I got without network support
Once you have your build, you need to copy it to a USB drive and follow the directions here. I found that not all USB drives were equal.  I don’t know why, but SanDisk drives did not allow my MacBooks to boot, whereas Kensington sticks weren’t a problem.

The Problems Begin
Drivers are the biggest challenge with Chromium. The community behind this open source project is very small and the support reflects this. Comment threads are crowded with people having trouble getting hardware recognized by Chromium. I was no exception, MacBooks use a Broadcom wireless card that isn’t included in the build. I followed these directions to install the driver but did not experience success.  Even if I did get the card working, the process to get there was too involved to be practical at scale.

Next Steps
Although my MacBooks weren’t a good fit for Chromium at this time, that doesn’t mean a different device will have these problems.  You have to try for yourself.  My backup plan is to install the Xubunto Linux OS on my 21 MacBooks.  It’s a lightweight OS that will work snappily on these older laptops.  I intend to install the Chrome browser and lock down the OS. I’ll let you know how it goes.

An Update
I've since updated this post here, after figuring out how to get the wireless card recognized.