Over the last two weeks I’ve been playing with Chromium OS and the idea of bringing new life to older computers. Chromium OS is a lightweight open source operating system which is based around using a web browser for everything. Instead of opening up Word or Pages, you’d open up Google Docs. Instead of saving to a thumb drive, you save to the cloud – Google Drive in this case. Chromebooks run Chrome OS and Chrome OS is based off Chromium OS. The main difference between the two is that Chrome OS contains Flash, PDF and MP3 support out of the box. Chromium OS does not contain this software out of the box due to licensing. Chrome OS is also not publicly available. It is only available on official Chromebooks sold by Google partners.
During discussion with the IT Team at my school, the idea of Chromebooks came up. Last year Digital Education Revolution (DER) laptops started getting unlocked for the leaving Year 12s. Some left their laptops behind and probably won’t come back to get them. These older machines, as you can imagine aren’t the quickest. We have a few of these sitting around collecting dust serving no useful purpose. I suggested putting Chromium OS on one and seeing how it would run. It ran well and was much faster however there were quite a few problems.
Chromderium refers to a DER Laptop running Chromium OS.
I thought I’d share these problems just in case anyone was considering purchasing Chromebooks for use at school. I’m not sure if an official Chromebook shares the same problems as the ones I describe below. Maybe there is solution to these problems.
When you start up Chromium OS for the first time a setup screen will appear. The very first thing it asks you to do is connect to the internet. You can’t proceed without connecting to the internet. Connecting to the DER wireless was successful. Entering the proxy details is where we ran into trouble. We could successfully enter the proxy address however there was no option to enter a username and password. I assumed we would be prompted for our credentials when they were needed. That was not the case. We were not prompted and couldn’t proceed with setup while connected to that network. Using the PAC file and changing over to ethernet also produced the same results. Our solution was to share our mobile phone data over WiFi to complete setup.
After successfully signing in, connecting to the DER wireless and entering the proxy details, everything seemed to work. Entering a username and password was not an option in the settings menu. Instead we were prompted for credentials when the system required them.
The login screen is where everything falls over and breaks. Like above, connecting to the DER wireless and entering the proxy details is not a problem. There are two issues here. The first being credentials used to login to DER wireless are saved in some cases. That didn’t prevent usability so we weren’t worried about it, it could be an issue to consider in the future.
I’m not entirely sure about the second issue but I believe it is related to Chromium OS not liking the proxy. After entering the correct network details and clicking sign in, the system stops and the screen flashes (like when you change the resolution) back to the login screen. It’s interesting because it does this before we can enter our Google account password. In most cases the screen will continue flashing in this loop until the system is hard shutdown. At first we thought this was related to bad drivers. After switching networks the issue went away. We were able to reproduce this on other Chromderiums. In order to successfully login we needed to connect a mobile phone WiFi hotspot. Once we were logged in, we could then successfully use a school network. We came to a conclusion that Chromium OS doesn’t know how to prompt for credentials at the login screen and crashes as a result.
In order to get the most from your Chromebook you need to sign in using a Google account. Setting up the Chromebook also requires you to have an account. I tried to login with an @education.nsw.gov.au account and was unable to. I received a generic your username or password is wrong error. I suspect this is related to single sign-on. When I attempt to setup an @education.nsw.gov.au account on say iOS’s mail app I get the same password error. When I try and setup the account in iOS’s Gmail App I am successfully redirected to the portal login page. I can then successfully stay signed in. Like the proxy issue above, I suspect Chromium OS is not yet able to display a page which would allow single sign-on to redirect to the portal login page. There is a guest mode which would allow a proper sign in to happen temporary if you were able to connect to the internet successfully. I didn’t really test out guest mode but I believe you couldn’t edit a certain setting required to connect to the internet.
Despite the issues we still continued on. Our goal was to have five test Chromderiums. I had been manually installing each OS. We tried to take an image of one setup system and clone it to other hard drives. We ran into issues.here. I believe the partitions were not recognised. In the end cloning the whole disk seemed to work. When the cloned drive had been placed into a new laptop the setup screen reappeared. This shouldn’t have happened. We should have been taken to the login screen.
So instead of taking an image I manually installed Chromium on five other drives. I set them up with unique accounts. When the drives were taken from the laptop they were originally installed on and placed into other laptops the setup screen reappeared. This leads me to believe that when Chromium OS is installed it does something like take a copy of hardware serial numbers and stores them. If the hardware serial numbers don’t match what they were during original setup, the setup screen appears.
If the above issues didn’t exist, Chromium OS would be a fantastic way to bring new life to old devices. I don’t think these issues are on DEC. These are issues Google need to solve if they want to target the education market with their Chromebooks. I have seen some of these issues mentioned in the Chromium OS bug tracker. They may have already been solved in proper Chromebooks. The ideal situation for us would be
Start Up Laptop
Prompted for Username and Password for DER WiFi.
Prompted for Username and Password for proxy.
Sign in using DEC Google Apps account.
In a perfect world:
Start Up Laptop
Login Once – WiFi, Proxy and Google Apps
The Chromderium works. twitter.com/nickpatsianas/…
— Nick Patsianas (@nickpatsianas) May 7, 2013