I recently bought a Chromebook C201, with the intention of flashing libreboot on it and finally having a fully-free laptop from the bootcode all the way up. Most (all?) Chromebooks already use coreboot, of which libreboot is a distribution.

I’m a fan of GNU/Linux, I use Ubuntu, but I recognise that Ubuntu is a compromise. Eventually you encounter proprietary code, and at that point you have to make a choice between freedom and usability. I’m interested in seeing how far you can push the balance for entirely free software.

There’s a line of old ThinkPad laptops which can be librebooted, you can buy them refurbished for a few hundred euros. They are quite old though, as in they were mostly released around 2008. They’re sturdy machines, and they’ve been upgraded of course, they’re no less useful machines due to age, but… the price/performance ratio is too steep.

Thankfully the libreboot project supports the C201, it came out in early 2017, you can pick one up quite cheaply on the second-hand market, although the specs are absolutely minimal.

I took to ebay, where I bid on a ‘cosmetically damaged’ laptop from the USA, and won the auction at £29.45 (USD equivalent). However, this is ebay, and I didn’t pay enough attention to the £23.42 international shipping charges, and £19.45 customs charges. The laptop came without a charger too, so I had to get a new one for £7.

Overall my bargain £30 laptop ended up costing almost £80 overall. I’ll be more careful next time I’m on ebay. It’s probably an excessive waste of money, though still just about affordable for an experiment.

When the laptop arrived it was coated in hair, dust, hand grease. I sprayed it with generous amounts of anti-bacterial cleaner and scrubbed it down thoroughly.

Next, I followed the documentation here on replacing coreboot with libreboot.

First, I put ChromeOS into developer mode.

chrome_dev_mode

Then, I got into the developer console.

chrome_dev_console

I had difficulty when I hit this point because I don’t think I set a password for the root user and didn’t know what the default was. I remember browsing forums for a while and just trying different suggestions until I found it. Sorry, this isn’t a tutorial, just a record of my experiences.

I opened up the case to remove the write-protect screw on the motherboard.

write_protect_screw

After that, flashing the chip was quite straightforward.

libreboot_flash

Tried booting with a mainline debian image, it wouldn’t boot properly. There’s a debian-based distro designed specifically for the C201, called PrawnOS.

prawn_os

Yep, that’s a prawn!

I opted to go with the XFCE desktop.

xfce_desktop

It’s been a while since I last used xfce, and it looks much prettier than I remember it.

I wanted to really go out on a limb and mess about with i3. You can use xfce as a desktop environment, along with i3 as a window manager. The only thing is requires a PPA in order for window switching to work, and the package isn’t built for armhf so, I’ve given up on that route. If you can’t switch between windows the whole thing is pretty much useless.

When I come back to it in future I’ll try out Regolith Linux.

For the moment though, the laptop is all librebooted, and technically running on 100% free software. Cool!

The sole disadvantage is that the WiFi chip doesn’t have free drivers. You can buy a separate WiFi USB dongle… or accept to run non-free drivers. I’m reluctant to spend much more so that’s probably what I’ll end up doing.

Still, I’m quite open to the idea of using a laptop with a barebones interface as an offline note-taking device. It’s the mirror opposite approach to using an always-online Chromebook. All your notes are text files, you write them in a (terminal-based) text editor, you connect to the internet occasionally via a wired connection to upload your work, download necessary updates, and that’s it.

It’s a unnecessarily impractical way of working, but I’ve been through a few periods living in places without WiFi, and it’s not impossible to work like that. Even now, I write these blog posts in a text editor on my laptop, and then upload them to the server when they’re done.

I’m also interested in the upcoming Pinebook Pro - based on the RK3399 chip. It comes out at the end of the month, and it covers a lot of nice features:

  • Designed to run GNU/Linux, should be well supported, especially with free graphics drivers in the pipeline.
  • Not unreasonably expensive, expected to sell for $200 + shipping.
  • Decent build quality, metal case, no visible branding.
  • Full HD screen, 4GB of reasonably fast memory, plus an optional M.2 adapter for extra storage.

Maybe I’ll get a Pinebook in September, see how the early-adopters react. I’m very tempted by a laptop which might be compatible with mainline Debian, powerful enough to run full-fat GNOME3, and cheap enough to fall within my budget.