Chromebooks have started rolling out and the question being asked across the Web is whether or not they are worth the hundreds of dollars required to pick one up. While the hardware alone should be considered to be the bulk of the value, it’s never a good idea to throw down a significant amount of money before finding out if the platform will work for you.
Thankfully, Chrome is the commercial iteration of the open source Chromium OS. This means you can get a working copy of the platform for free, as long as you’re willing to accept the possibilities that bugs may present themselves as frequent builds are released and tested. Using Chromium is like using a beta version of Chrome.
In fact, that’s almost exactly what it is as Chrome takes a less frequent pull from the Chromium project to create Chrome OS. One advantage to using Chromium OS over Chrome is that you’re literally getting the latest technology with your experience as new advances are brought over to Chromium sometimes months before they will appear in Chrome.
Chrome and Chromium both run fairly well on much less powerful hardware than most modern operating systems. This means you can put that old laptop or desktop machine sitting in your closet gathering dust back to work as a Chromium system. You can also load Chromium on a virtual PC and test it that way. Parallels even includes a one-click Chromium install with its software that allows you to load Chromium on a virtualized PC with the hassle of having to compile the source code and load it yourself.
Chromium OS doesn’t work on all hardware, and the most frequent compatibility issue comes in wireless networking. You can check your particular system’s hardware against the Chromium Project Developer Hardware list to determine if your system is capable of running Chromium.
Chromium also lacks a few features that makes the Chrome OS more suitable for the majority of its end users. For example, verified boot and easy recovery are some of Chrome’s firmware features not present on the Chromium OS project. Chromium also does not auto-update, which is a fundamental selling point of Chrome OS. Support for Google’s Chrome OS is provided by Google itself. Chromium OS is supported by the open source community of developers working on the project.
The most important thing to consider about Chromium OS in comparison with its commercial cousin is that Chromium is primarily a developer’s platform and not intended for general public use. You can find pre-built and installable copies of Chromium all over the Web, but official updates are released as source code which requires compiling in order to work. The most widely distributed of these builds currently is called “Flow” and can be found on several Chromium sites, including one by Hexxeh. As with any software download, it’s important to only grab builds from reliable sources that have been vetted by multiple official channels.
For most users, Chrome OS is a better choice as Chromebooks are made to be fully supported by the software. The extra security and stability features present in the commercial OS are also big advantages that are hard to overlook for most users. Still, if you’re wanting to build your own Chromebook and you think you have what it takes to handle the open source project, Chromium OS is a nice alternative.