Google’s CR-48: An adventure in brickdom

In this multi-part report, nerd extraordinaire Jason Kennedy will look at all sorts of fun and interesting ways to hack his CR-48 laptop. Come along for the ride, and watch his tragedies and triumphs.

Like many of you, when I first heard about Google's Chrome OS Pilot Program I was clawing at my mouse to sign up just as fast as I possibly could. ChromeOS was something I think I had difficulty conceptualizing; an OS built around a browser to be used almost entirely online.

The online part I was into, certainly. I blog entirely in Google Docs, use Gmail for all of my email needs, and even stream my video/audio via services like Pandora and Hulu. I won't deny having a sizable media collection that I keep digital for space reasons, but I find myself utilizing it less and less as streaming goes mainstream (if I may). As far as having the entire user interface exist inside of a browser, that I needed to see for myself.

I received my CR-48 a couple weeks ago, and I've been using it daily ever since. And I can honestly say I think I've found my preferred OS. I will admit to some random annoyances when I need (or want) to save something, but that's a small price to pay for this sort of convenience. It's fast and useful. Intuitive. Fun.

But, let's get to the even more fun stuff: breaking it.

I did a ton of research into this before I started, and it's actually rather difficult to permanently brick your system. If you do get the sad CR48 screen meaning it can't boot, you have only to throw in a USB stick to make it all right again. Make sure you make this drive before you start playing around, for your sanity's sake. Google provides some recovery instructions in case something goes wrong. In either case, something can still go wrong, so hack at your own risk.

That's the method I used, but for the record you need a linux or mac system to utilize it. I run Ubuntu everywhere so I had no issues at all with the instructions. If you don't have access to such operating systems, you can play around with something like VirtualBox in order to install a workable OS, or just go someplace like this blog. I didn't try making a recovery USB stick from Windows because I don't actually own a windows machine, so do so at your own risk - I won't cover it here.

Being a glutton for punishment, I of course went right to the source: The Chromium Project's guide to installing Ubuntu on your CR48. My desktop was running Ubuntu 10.10 32 bit, which is an issue for this method; it requires you to build a ChromeOS environment via chroot in a 64 bit linux installation. I'm going to actually skip this method for now and save it for last, but needless to say, that desktop is right now sitting with a clean Ubuntu 10.10 64 bit edition. I did it for you, readers. And for science. I digress, though.

Scanning for something easier, I located this little guide. Easy way to install Ubuntu? Sold.

The instructions are ridiculously easy to follow and straightforward. Bear in mind it's a rather large download (52 100MB files), so give it some time, especially if you're rocking a slow connection. I did test to see if the script will pick up where it left off by battery pulling the unit mid-download and it absolutely does, so don't worry about it being flakey in that regard.

You're actually downloading a working filesystem that someone else made, so if that sketches you out, don't do it. You'll also want to run step 12 from the default "user" account as I tried twice to make my own user and then run it without any success, so I'm not sure what to tell you there. As of this writing, I have a completely functional Ubuntu installation on a 5GB partition that I boot by flipping the dev switch. No issues at all, if you don't mind not being to connect to your Verizon 3G service. I also noted that multitouch support does not appear to be working, though I didn't dig too much into it.

Things to note: If you edit the partitions manually with cgpt, do not use this method. It'll get all the way through the download, reboot and fail. There's no if then, if it sees drives partitioned it panics out. That happened to me the first time, as I was partway through the Chromium Project's method before I found this, so don't make the same mistake I did. Or do, to see what happens.

At any rate, there's method one. Success! A special thanks to Jay Lee, author of the "easy way".

If you try this out, let me know in the comments or on Twitter; I'd love to hear from you!

Tags Googlehardware systems

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Jason Kennedy

PC World (US online)

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