Jul 21, 2018

This post covers installation and usage impressions of GalliumOS on the Dell Chromebook 11 3120. To jump straight in, skip to Before You Start.

Dell Chromebook 11 3120

Why the Chromebook?

With November around the corner, I needed a decent laptop to attend National Novel Writing Month meetups. Much as I love my MSI GS73VR, a gaming laptop of its size doesn’t fit in most backpacks and only manages an hour on battery. It also telegraphs “steal me, I’m expensive” from across the room. The ideal laptop for NaNoWriMo, in my mind, is a highly portable, durable beater with extreme battery life and just enough power for work at the absolute lowest price point possible (preferably while not looking like crap). Luckily, just such a laptop exists, and currently goes for about $100: The Dell Chromebook 11 3120.

Why GalliumOS?

Unfortunately there’s that word “Chromebook” in there, which is great for a whole lot of people, but a deal breaker for me even as a web developer. I love the concept and all, but would be lost without git, apache/nginx, node, Sublime Text, GIMP, and InkScape. Plus the cross-platform novel writing software I’m using, Manuskript, doesn’t have a web version.

Chromebooks can run Linux on top of ChromeOS using a tool like Crouton, but some can go even farther and will run a full-on reinstall or even dual boot. GalliumOS is a distro specifically for Chromebooks. It combines the small size and lightweight memory footprint of Xubuntu (Ubuntu running XFCE as its Desktop Environment) with a collection of drivers, optimizations, and bug fixes specific to Chromebooks. The maintainers keep an excellent hardware compatibility list so you can know in advance which Chromebooks it will work with and what problems you may encounter.

Before You Start

You will need:

  • Small phillips head screwdriver
  • Spudger or other prying device
  • One blank flash drive for GalliumOS image
  • One additional flash drive (may already contain files) for firmware backup

Installation Instructions

The Dell Chromebook 11 3120 can run Linux via Crouton in developer mode, dual boot via a legacy boot mode, run a new OS while retaining ChromeOS’s recovery mode, or have its firmware replaced with a new UEFI ROM which completely removes ChromeOS and effectively makes it a normal computer. This tutorial will cover the last option, as I have no intention of ever using this machine with ChromeOS and it has basically no resale value anyway. The last option also has the benefit of better hardware support, as some services like sound will not work on this machine with RW_LEGACY dual booting.

The short version of the steps, each of which will be covered in more detail below, is:

  • create a bootable GalliumOS flash drive
  • open the Chromebook and remove the firmware write-protect screw
  • enable developer mode
  • download and run the ChromeOS Firmware Utility Script
  • choose Install/Update Full ROM Firmware
  • back up existing firmware
  • reboot and install GalliumOS
  • customize

Creating a GalliumOS Flash Drive

Download the appropriate system image from GalliumOS’s downloads page (the Dell Chromebook 11 3120 uses the “Bay Trail” image) and use your favored method of imaging it as a bootable flash drive. I personally like Etcher since it’s extremely simple and works on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.

Etcher program flashing GalliumOS .iso file to 16GB flash drive

Once the drive is imaged, set it aside. We’ll come back to it shortly.

Removing the 3120’s Write-Protect Screw

The Dell Chromebook 11 3120 has seven screws on its bottom plate in the following positions:

Dell Chromebook 11 3120 Bottom Cover Screw Locations

Once the screws are out, you will need a prying tool to remove the bottom cover. Start at the sides toward the screen and work your way toward the touchpad on each side with a spudger.

Next, locate the screw labeled WP. This is the firmware write-protect screw. Remove it and… realistically throw it in the trash. Honestly, are you ever really going to ever revert this thing to factory?

Dell Chromebook 11 3120 Write-protect Screw Locations

Enabling Developer Mode

In order to flash your firmware, your Chromebook will need to be in Developer Mode. With the power on, hold Esc + Reload and then tap the power button. The screen should go blank, then load into Recovery Mode with a message about ChromeOS being “missing or damaged” (don’t worry, it isn’t really–that’s what this mode will always say, and we’re just visiting).

Dell Chromebook 11 3120 ChromeOS Missing or Damaged Screen

Next you turn off OS verification, but first be warned that this will delete all of your data. If you need anything backed up, STOP NOW. Hold Ctrl and tap D to turn off OS verification and press Enter to confirm.

The Chromebook will now reboot. Wait 30 seconds and you’ll hear two beeps, followed by another reboot. It will then factory reset the device, followed by another reboot. Now, the Chromebook will always boot to an “OS verification is OFF” screen for 30 seconds (which you can bypass at any time with Ctrl-D) before booting into ChromeOS.

Dell Chromebook 11 3120 OS Verification Off Screen

Note: If you run into a screen saying “The device owner has disabled developer mode,” you may just need to complete the device setup wizard. Try completely setting up your user, then repeating this section. If you still get this screen, it’s possible your Chromebook was used in a school and not decommissioned properly. See chrome://system and chrome://policy to see if management or device policies have been set up. If they have, it may still be possible to contact the school district and Google support to decommission your device. If not, sorry but you may be screwed. Enjoy your stock Chromebook.

Flashing the Custom Firmware

Once your desktop comes back up in developer mode, connect to the internet in the install tutorial, then hit Ctrl-Alt-F2 (right arrow/forward) to get to a root terminal and log in as “chronos”:

Dell Chromebook 11 3120 Developer Mode Login

Next, download and run the ChromeOS Firmware Utility Script from MrChromebox.tech using the following command (the -LO is a capital O, not a zero):

You should see the following screen:

Dell Chromebook 11 3120 Firmware Update Script

Insert your flash drive to back up your firmware. Choose option 3, “Install/Update Full ROM Firmware” and accept the option to back up your firmware when it is offered. This file should be placed somewhere for safe keeping, so consider moving it to your backup solution once it’s safely onto the flash drive.

Updating the firmware takes about a minute. When the process is finished, insert your GalliumOS flash drive and restart the computer.

Installing GalliumOS

From here the process is much like installing any Linux distro. Let the computer start up with the bootable flash drive, then click the “Install GalliumOS 2.1” icon on the desktop. Once it’s finished, remove the flash drive as instructed and your new Gallium… book? is complete!

All that’s left after that is to customize the desktop to your liking. Here’s a screenshot of my finished desktop, which uses plank for its dock, numix-gtk-theme for its GTK theme, numix-icon-theme and numix-icon-theme-square for its icon themes, and a custom GTK config for the whisker menu from Graeme’s Blog:

Customized XFCE Desktop Screenshot

Usage impressions

Overall, it’s reasonably snappy for what it is. Here’s what $100 got me broken down into data:

  • Boot to desktop: 34.72s
  • Desktop from suspend: 1.20s
  • Open Firefox: 5.28s
  • Open LibreOffice Writer: 2.31s
  • GtkPerf benchmark: 5.12s
  • Real-world battery life: 7h
Nov 30, 2017

To Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr:

This has always been a web development blog, and I’ve always followed a simple content rule:  Posts must be about a web/IoT-related project or technology. Sadly, your choices now threaten the projects I post about and the ecosystem in which they exist. Truly your short-sighted, selectively-applied ideology threatens my entire lifestyle.

The internet plays a role in nearly every aspect of my life. I develop online services via an internet connection from a home office. The vast majority of my social interaction with family and friends occurs online. I met my significant other first online. My entertainment (from video to gaming to books) is almost exclusively consumed online. The majority of my learning occurs online through classes, blogs, repositories, and wikis. All of my finances from my checking account to my bills to my retirement are managed online, and always have been. Access to the internet is genuinely more essential to my everyday life, career, and place in society than having running water in my home. That might strike you as an exaggeration. It is not.

I have anxiously watched the entrenchment of an increasingly predatory oligopoly this past decade, and I know you see it too in spite of your deeply disingenuous Myth vs. Fact bullshit. I have watched our last-mile providers explicitly state they do not compete with each other. I have watched them capture cities’ utility poles and deny attachment to any who would compete. I have watched them block and throttle traffic, perform shakedowns on businesses by deliberately sabotaging bandwidth during negotiations, sell services they cannot and do not intend to deliver, and handle and price traffic differently for popular services. Only once have I lived at an address where more than one company provided an adequate connection for my needs.

"We never will, but it’s very important that we be able to. But we won’t. So let us do it. Because we won’t do it. Which is why we’re spending so much money to make sure we can. But we won’t. But let us."

You know there isn’t a free market, and you know that killing net neutrality will not change that at all. You know you are setting the FTC up for failure. For all your bluster about competition, you seem blind and deaf to the issues currently preventing it. For all your zealotry about deregulation, you seem concerned only with removing the regulations that protect me. You know you will get away with this and collect your payoff because in today’s post-truth world there are no longer consequences for being flagrantly evil.

I expect I will soon have data caps and surcharges for low-latency traffic, VPN connections, web-accessible ports, and p2p sharing. My web experience will be parceled out into bundles with price tags and restrictions, and I will simply have to deal with it since there is a regional monopoly and without my connection I no longer have a career. I expect my future, and our country’s future will be strip-mined thanks to your choices.

America’s online innovation has been the envy of the world for decades. What a terrible joke that the regulatory capture of a mere three people can allow all of it to be skimmed and double-dipped by a couple of entrenched telecommunications conglomerates.

Jan 5, 2017

Normally in web application development, clicks are a matter of listeners. Either a click hit a thing or it didn’t. When using the HTML5 canvas, this isn’t the case. Images and features are rendered onto it, but you can’t attach a listener to them. Instead, you monitor where these elements visually reside versus where clicks land. If […]

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Jan 4, 2017

My team does a holiday card promotion each year, which gives us a chance to create something unusual. This year we decided on a “create your own holiday card” image editor idea. We’d specify a couple of backgrounds and design a bunch of “sticker” graphics, then users could arrange these how they liked and print off a foldable […]

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