3 Create Your Own Linux Computer
In Chapter One, we explained that the new startup program on all Windows and Apple computers called UEFI has hidden backdoors, a remotely controlled Kill Switch and is not secure. This is why we recommend only buying a computer that comes with the Coreboot Startup program. Currently, there are only two brands of computers that use Coreboot instead of UEFI. These are the Google Chromebooks, which offer several models ranging in cost from $200 to $600 and the Purism Librem 15 laptop which costs $1600 and requires a four week wait to get. None of these Coreboot laptop options come with Linux Mint preinstalled. Chromebooks come with the Linux Chrome operating system and the Librem laptop comes with a version of the Linux operating system called PureOS installed. In this chapter, we will compare the various Coreboot computer options and explain how to turn a Chromebook or Librem laptop into a Linux Mint computer.
This chapter has four sections:
3.1 Why We Need to Create Our Own Computer
3.2 Coreboot Laptop Options
3.3 Upgrading an Acer C910 Chromebook
3.4 Install Linux Mint on an Acer C910 Chromebook
With an estimated market of more than 400 million Windows laptop and desktop computers that haven't been upgraded in more than six years, a lot of people are now using computers that are very insecure. Windows computers can be hacked and halted at a moment's notice. Hundreds of millions of people are therefore faced with the decision of what they will use for their next computer. There are also millions of high school and college students every year who need a computer to help them complete their assignments. Previously, we explained why Linux computers are the fastest, safest, most dependable and secure computers in the world. The only reason they are not more popular is that, due to Microsoft and Apple monopolizing the computer market, it is very difficult to even purchase a Linux computer. In this article, we will explain why you can and should create your own Linux computer.
A Brief History of Computers
To better understand why nearly all of our current computers are so unreliable, we will take a brief tour down memory lane. As we explained in Section 1.4, the software that runs all computers consists of basically three parts – a startup program, an operating system program and a series of application programs.
The startup program sets the power levels of all the hardware in a computer when it first starts. It checks basic settings and then passes control of the computer over to the operating system. Historically, up until about 2012, all computers used a simple startup program called BIOS – which stood for Basic Input Output System. In 2012, with the introduction of Windows 8, Microsoft forced computer manufacturers to switch to a much more complex and much less secure startup program called UEFI. Apple now also uses the UEFI startup program. The benefit with UEFI if you are Microsoft is that is gives Microsoft the ability to remotely turn off any computer they think is running software they do not like by turning off the startup program – preventing the computer from even starting. This is commonly called a Kill Switch. The drawback of UEFI, if you are a computer user, is that your computer is open to remote attack – not only by Microsoft or Apple – but by any computer hacker who wants to turn off your computer. Partly in response to this security risk, the Linux community created a free open source startup program called Core Boot. However, the only current computers using Coreboot are Google Chromebooks and Purism Librem.
The second software component, the operating system, can also present a security risk. In the 1990s, programs were created for computers to exchange information over the Internet. We call such programs Web Browsers. Unfortunately, these interactive web browsing programs are the primary way that computers are attacked with weapons we call computer viruses. It was recognized early on that web browsers were a security risk to the operating system. Before 1997, the makers of all operating systems including Microsoft, Apple and Linux kept their web browsers separate from their operating system. They even put up a series of walls between the operating system and the web browsers (and all other applications) to protect the operating system from being altered by or harmed by programs that we loaded while on the Internet.
In the last section, we explained why it is important to get a laptop with the Coreboot Startup program rather than the UEFI startup program. Unfortunately, there are very few computer companies producing computers with Coreboot. For example, a company called Minifree produces the only computer certified by the Free Software Foundation. It is a 12 inch laptop that costs about $600 and uses an offshoot of Coreboot called Libreboot. They also sell a 14 inch model for $900. However, these supposedly “state of the art” computers are actually 2008 Lenovo Thinkpads with some minor alterations. Equally bad, neither of these computers have wide enough screens to allow side by side editing. In fact, the screen resolution on these two computers is only 1280 x 800. Side by side editing requires at least a 15 ½ inch high resolution 1920 x 1080 screen if you want to have a browser and document open at the same time on your desktop.
Here is the screen difference between a 15 ½ inch screen and a 13 inch screen. Note that these screens are measured on the diagonal. The actual width of these screens is about one and one half inches less. In other words, the 15 ½ inch screen is 14 inches wide and the 11 ½ inch screen is only 10 inches wide:
As we explained earlier, the most common Linux computer makers, System 76, Think Penguin and Emperor Linux all sell computers with UEFI – basically making all of them unreliable and nearly worthless for anyone who wants to assure control over their computer and over their data. There is only one laptop with a 15 ½ inch screen, Coreboot and a full Linux operating system pre-installed. It is the Purism Librem 15. The Librem 15 comes with a version of the Linux Debian operating system called PureOS. This is a good operating system. But it is not as easy to use as the Linux Mint operating system. Thus, if you want a 15 ½ inch laptop prebuilt with Coreboot and Linux Mint preinstalled, you are currently out of luck. If you want security, privacy and safety, and is easy to use, the only way to get it is to create your own Linux computer by converting a 15 ½ inch Chromebook laptop to a Linux Mint laptop.
In this section, we will review the process to upgrade an Acer C910 Chromebook from 32 GB SSD to 256GB Solid State Drive. In our previous article, we explained some of the benefits of the Acer 910 Chromebook. This revolutionary new 15 ½ inch laptop only has a couple of drawbacks. The first is that it comes with a Solid State Drive (SSD) that only has 32 GB of capacity. The second drawback is that the Chrome operating system is extremely limited in terms of the programs it can run. A 32 GB SSD is simply not enough for folks who want to store their own images, videos and documents on their own computer. We will therefore explain in this article how to replace the 32 GB SSD with a 256GB SSD – for a cost of about $90. Then in the next section, we will explain how to replace the Chrome operating system with a much more functional and completely free operating system called Linux Mint – which will allow us to access tens of thousands of free open source programs.
There are 9 steps to the SSD Upgrade process:
#1 Buy USB 128 GB stick & 2 8 GB USB Sticks. (about $50)
#2 Order Acer C910 and the Correct SSD Replacement Drive
#3 Save your documents to a USB drive.
#4 Set Up Your New Acer C910
#5 Create a Chrome Recovery USB Stick.
#6 Open the Rear Cover of our Chromebook.
#7 Remove the 32GB SSD and remove the Write Protection screw.
#8 Insert the 256GB SSD and Replace the Cover.
#9 Restart the Chromebook, Insert the Recovery USB Stick and Follow the Recovery process.
We will next review these steps. You’ll need a 4GB USB stick, a small cross-head screwdriver and the 256 GB M.2 drive. The process takes about 60 minutes.
#1 Buy USB 128 GB stick & 2 8 GB USB Sticks. (about $50)
128 GB Stick will be to save your existing documents. The 8 GB sticks will be for Chrome Recovery and Mint ISO installation.
#2 Order Acer C910 & Correct SSD Replacement Drive
As we noted in the previous article, solid state drives are 50 to 500 times faster than traditional Hard Drives that use a spinning disc. Because of the rapid decline in price of solid state drives, they are now within the reach of virtually everyone. There are several kinds of Solid State Drives. The most common is called SATA. The second most common is the MiniSATA also called mSATA. The third most common and newest option is called M.2 SATA.
The SATA part is often dropped from the description which is not good because there is a newer option that is not SATA called M.2 PCI (PCI has one notch in the connector while M.2 SATA has 2 notches). M.2 is pronounced “M dot 2.” The Acer C910 uses the M.2 SATA Solid State Drive. The M.2 SATA is 3.5mm thick, 22mm wide and comes in three lengths. These are 42mm, 60mm and 80mm.
Below is a picture of the three lengths for the M.2 SSD models.
The Acer C910 uses the shortest of these three lengths. This short SSD is often described as a “2242” which is simply the width followed by the length.
The main reason for replacing Google Chrome with Linux Mint is so you can keep working on your documents, images and videos even when you do not have Internet access. A second important reason to install Linux Mint is to access more than 10,000 free programs for processing images, videos and documents that are available through the Linux Mint Software Center. A third reason to install Mint is so we can use the Mint File Manager to keep our documents, images and videos well organized. In fact, the reason to expand our Solid State Drive from 32GB to 256 GB is to be able to have plenty of room for our documents and programs while working with Linux Mint. Before we get into the steps to replace the Chrome operating system with Linux Mint, we will explain why a complete replacement is better than the other two options for using Linux Mint on a Chromebook. These are called Crouton or Chrubuntu.
Why Replacing Chrome is More Reliable than Crouton or ChrUbuntu
ChrUbuntu is a process for “dual booting” or dividing or partitioning the solid state drive between Linux Mint and Google Chrome. For example, you can allot half of the SSD or 100GB to Mint and the other half or 100GB to Chrome. At the computer startup screen, you would then need to choose which operating system you want to use by pressing on control plus D to enter the Chrome operating system or Control plus L to enter the Linux operating system. The problem with Chrubuntu is that there really is no need for the Chrome operating system once Linux Mint is installed. Having a dual boot option just adds another step when starting your computer. ChrUbuntu also has problems with trackpads and other devices not working and requiring additional configuration.
The other option, called Crouton, allows us to run Google Chrome and Linux Mint at the same time. You can switch back and forth between the two operating systems without needing to reboot to switch operating systems (like you would have to do with ChrUbunutu). Also because Crouton uses the Google Chrome drivers, track pads and all of your other devices will work. The problem with Crouton is that it only works in a risky setup called Developer Mode. The Developer mode start screen urges users to click on the “space bar” to re-enable Chrome. But it fails to warn users that clicking on this space bar will wipe out any and all data, documents and programs you have stored in Linux Mint!
The method we will use does show this same screen for about one second. But the space bar resetting function will be disabled – eliminating any chance of losing your data, documents and programs by clicking on the wrong key.
5 Steps to Replace the Chrome Operating System with Linux Mint
There are 5 important steps to install Linux Mint. We will need either WIFI Internet access or an Internet Ethernet cable and a USB to Ethernet connector. These instructions assume that you completed all steps in Section 3.3 including making a copy of the Chrome operating system, replacing the 32 GB SSD with a 256 GB SSD and removing the Write Protection screw, then putting the cover back on your Chromebook. With these preliminary steps completed, we are now ready to set our Start up program which will then allow us to use a Mint Live USB to replace the Chrome operating system with Linux Mint.
#1 Turn on Chromebook and put Chrome into Developer mode.
#2 Open a Terminal to Update the Coreboot Startup Program
#3 Enable Coreboot to Start by Default
#4 Make a Live USB of Linux Mint or any other Linux Distribution.
#5 Use the Live USB to install Linux Mint
Let’s look more closely at each of these five steps.
Step #1 Turn on your Chromebook and put Chrome into Developer mode
Putting your Chromebook into developer mode will wipe out any data on your Chromebook. The process we are doing should result in only doing it this one time. It is actually three stages. First, we need to make sure our Chromebook is plugged into a power source and turn it on. Log in your Chromebook account or the Chromebook guest account. Second, put the Chromebook into Recovery Mode. Before we press the power button, hold down the ESC and Refresh buttons (the first and fourth buttons in the top row – see image). Then press the power button (last button in the top row).
Release the power button when the screen goes black – but continue to hold the other two buttons until the chrome error screen appears and then release them also. This will reboot your Chromebook into Recovery mode. A screen will appear claiming that Chrome OS is missing or damaged. Chrome is not really missing or damaged. But they are hoping to scare you. Be brave!