Every once in awhile, technology converges to make life better. It just happened again. I am sitting in my easy chair, writing a blog post about reading the paper while listening to nice jazz, and I did not even have to get my lazy butt out of my chair to turn on the stereo.
Two days ago, my friend Daniel showed his new Microsoft Surface Book to me. It’s a sweet form factor with a very nice screen at at attractive weight. I managed to avoid drooling on the keyboard. (See, Candy? It’s Daniel’s fault!)
I’m a Linux guy, though, not a Windows fan. More to the point, over the last year, I have become enamored with a pair of portable devices:
- an Acer Chromebook 15 with full Ubuntu Linux available via crouton for the times when I need more than a Chromebook can do, and
- a Google Pixel C Android tablet with it’s magic magnetic keyboard.
I use the Chromebook when I need to type because the full-size keyboard and the big screen work well. Most of the cheaper Chromebooks have tiny, low resolution screens, just 768 pixels tall. The Acer Chromebook 15 is a full 1080 pixels tall, much closer to a real desktop monitor. It also has 4 GB of RAM, which is plenty to have Gmail and several other web pages open at the same time. The RAM lets me run full Linux for the times when I want an application that is not “on the web,” like PyCharm or LibreOffice or Behringer X32 Edit or Room EQ Wizard.
I use the tablet for reading and when I want something smaller than a 15 inch laptop for taking notes at a meeting. At just 2 lbs., with keyboard, carrying the Pixel C anywhere is a no-brainer. The form factor is almost perfect for kicking back in a chair and reading. Since it runs Android, I have full access to my lazy butt apps like the Logitech Harmony remote control, allowing me to control my home theater receiver exerting the superhuman effort required to actually walk into the den.
As with all tech, though, life was not perfect. The Acer Chromebook 15 is kind of large, bigger than I want to take to some meetings. When I set it on a table in front of me, it forms a formidable barrier to conversation. Plus, with only 16 GB of SSD disk, it does not have much space for Linux applications and files.
The Pixel C is fantastic, for a tablet, but it is just a tablet. The Android version of Chrome lacks support for plugins that I consider “essential,” like Privacy Badger, and it lacks the Chrome Developer Tools that I use for my job. And it does not really multi-task, though Android finally got split-screen mode.
Though I have read about convertible laptops, which allow you to fold the screen back so that the machine switches from being a laptop to being a clipboard-sized tablet, I had not actually laid hands on one. It did not make sense to me. Why would I want a heavy tablet when I have a nice, light tablet already at hand? The rationale clicked for me when I held Daniel’s Surface Book in my hand, though. Since the Surface Book weighs in at just 3.5 pounds, I could imagine myself doing some serious reading on that “tablet.” The real keyboard meant that it could also be a real laptop.
I knew that there were convertible Chromebooks so I started researching:
- 4 GB of RAM
- 32 GB of SSD storage
- 11 to 13 inch screen
- full-size keyboard
The One That Got Away
I stumbled across the Samsung Chromebook Plus which, though newly released, seemed perfect. It met all of my requirements and had a bonus: it could run Android apps from the Google Play Store. I headed over to Best Buy, bought one, and hauled it home.
The machine was cool. It had a great screen and it weighed a full pound less than my Acer Chromebook. Unfortunately, it had a few “small” problems.
- It broke. Whatever is inside it that is supposed to detect that the screen has been folded back, and is supposed to switch the machine into tablet mode (disabling the keyboard), worked once and never again.
- The keyboard felt cheap and was hard to type on because the keys rattled around under my fingers, instead of feeling solid until pressed.
- It has an ARM processor, not an Intel processor, which meant that running Intel Linux programs would not work.
With considerable disappointment, I decided to return it. Thank goodness for Best Buy’s excellent return policy.
After more research, I found the Asus Chromebook Flip, a name that has been applied to a whole family of products in a whole range of configurations and performance levels. The C302 model meets all of my requirements, and it has an Intel processor.
I found the model that I wanted at Micro Center, with 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. It has a gorgeous keyboard, backlit even, that is sheer joy for me to use. It is just 2.5 lbs., only a couple ounces heavier than my Pixel C and a full pound lighter than my Chromebook 15.
Once I had set up my Chromebook Flip, I kicked back in my easy chair and…
- Used the Logitech Harmony Android app to turn on my home theater receiver and set it to play music from my Chromecast
- Started up Google Music in a browser window, casting the music into the den and playing it through the home theater receiver
- Opened up the New York Times website in a browser window
- Flipped the screen backwards, so that the Chromebook switched into tablet mode and automatically made the NY Times page full-screen
- Thanked Candy for graciously interrupting her crochet to take the photo that you see above
- Flipped the screen back to laptop mode
- Cropped the photo and wrote this blog post
Pretty darned awesome for one little box that weighs in at just 2.5 lbs and has an all-day battery!
The Tech Details
Chromebooks are trivial to set up: You just log in. The Google elf hiding inside the box does everything else. Getting Linux and Android running on the Asus Chromebook Flip took a little bit more work.
I switched the Chromebook into developer mode.
I installed crouton.
I backed up my crouton Linux environment on the Chromebook 15 with the command
sudo edit-chroot -b trusty
Then I copied the file to the Chromebook Flip. I restored the Linux environment and then updated it to run properly on the new hardware with two commands:
sudo sh crouton -f trusty-20170228-2100.tar.gz
sudo sh crouton -u -r trusty
Voila! Linux ran perfectly.
Next I enabled the Android app store. This is still in beta, with good reason. The apps, and sometimes the Chromebook, crash. But I’m sure it will “get there” soon. In the meantime, set up was easy and, when the Chromebook crashes, at least it reboots in about 10 seconds.
I created a little file named appstore in my Downloads directory. The file contains:
# enable the Android App Store
if [ ! -e $conf ]
cp $etcconf $conf
echo "--enable-arc" >> $conf
mount --bind $conf $etcconf
To enable the Android app store, which is not yet really supported on the Asus Chromebook Flip, I run this command
sudo sh appstore
Then I log out and log back in. After logging back in, the Android apps appear in the Chromebook launcher. Here you can see several: Amazon Kindle, Harmony, Tiny Tiny RSS, and the Google Play Store.
The Bottom Line
I am thrilled with the Asus Chromebook Flip C302. This one device replaced both my old Chromebook and my Android tablet. It even has enough oomph to function as a full Linux laptop on the occasions when I need more than the Chromebook offers.