Chromebooks For Development Work?

I’ve been looking into getting a new laptop/chromebook for a while now as the battery on my C710 stopped taking charge.

After reading some really interesting posts on using chromebooks for development I thought I’d take a look at getting a chromebook & this time actually keeping the OS. (currently run linux on C710 using coreboot)

The idea would be to have something to travel with that is cheap & also has the added security features of ChromeOS.

Chromebook Security

Chromebooks have some advantages over PC laptops as both the hardware & software is designed to be secure.
Installing ChromeOS onto a PC will not give you these advantages.

Security advantages:

  • U2F for user login
  • User data encrypted (per user)
  • Verified Boot
  • TPM
  • Secure Boot

I noted in 2014 that I really like the design of ChromeOS due to the structure of the filesystem, the bootloader & the use of TPM.

More information on ChromeOS security features & design can be found on the chromiumos wiki.

Keyboard Problems

chromebook_keyboard

After looking at newer chromebooks I found they all have massive CTRL + ALT keys with no dedicated search key on the bottom row of the keyboard.
Not only this but they have replaced CAPS LOCK with SEARCH.
(you need to press ALT + SEARCH for capslock)

Surely you would want familiarity to bring new users from mac, windows & linux to your platform?

Most new chromebooks also have a POWER ‘key’ at the top right of the keyboard above the BACKSPACE key.
I spoke to some people on IRC who have newer chromebooks who said this is a problem for them as they often press power by accident.

Another issue I would have is that the top row of keys are not function keys & seem to default to keys you wouldn’t often use on a laptop. Keys like screen brightness & audio volume are things that would normally require a modifier key combo.

The keyboard layout is differrent for the sake of being different, not because it adds any function.

I tweeted about the keyboard issues & got a reply from an account which looks like a twitter bot.
I received a reply suggesting I should upgrade as the C710 is the only chromebook with a spinning disk.

My last response was to point out most chromebooks are underspec’d, running on eMMC, a slow CPU & a small amount of RAM.
Also to point out that I had upgraded the RAM & installed a SSD on the C710 ( thanks to it having a SATA disk slot )

Usable By Developers?

Being of a low spec brings up the issue with software developers wanting to use chromebooks.
The operating system could be really nice to use if the hardware was there to support it.

Also in order to setup a working environment for developing terminal based linux/unix apps you would need to have some sort of chroot which would require installing something like termux.
DO NOT USE DEVELOPER MODE / CROUTON to achieve chroot as this means you will have to disable most security features of the chromebook.

I understand chromebooks being something you might take on a flight etc as they are cheap & data is encrypted but you still need to be able to use them for your work.

Conclusion

Despite having some interesting ideas on OS design I think chromebooks seem flawed in many ways (poor hw spec and/or poor keyboard layout).

There is also the addition of android apps via the google playstore.
This can be seen as a positive & a negative as it provides more app options but in terms of security it opens up ChromeOS to the possibility of rogue android apps.

A lot of what I said in my previous article from 2014 when I bought the Chromebook C710 still stands which is a little disappointing.

I tried using chromeos for a while and I really like a lot of the design behind it.
The whole filesystem / partition layout seems really nice and the use of eCryptfs for cached userdata is nice.
For someone who just wants to browse or doesn't want/need to know much about computers chromeos seems pretty perfect.

Notes

Make sure you set a sync passphrase on your google account so data isn’t stored in plaintext on google servers
If you are looking to buy a chromebook check out the Auto Update policy to see how long each model is supported for.

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