Acer Chromebook R13: 3. As a Linux development workstation

I have got an Acer Chromebook R13 and I will write about it from my perspective.

1. Background
2. As a casual computer
3. As a Linux development workstation (this post)

As a Linux development workstation
I switched my Chromebook to Development mode and everything that follows depends on that.

In ChromeOS you can hit CTRL-ALT-T to get a crosh shell. If in Development mode you can run shell to get a regular “unix” shell. You now have access to all of ChromeOS. It looks like this:

crosh> shell
chronos@localhost / $ ls /
bin     dev  home  lost+found  mnt  postinst  root  sbin  tmp  var
debugd  etc  lib   media       opt  proc      run   sys   usr
chronos@localhost / $ ls ~
'Affiliation Database'          login-times
'Affiliation Database-journal'  logout-times
Bookmarks                       'Media Cache'
Cache                           'Network Action Predictor'
Cookies                         'Network Action Predictor-journal'
Cookies-journal                 'Network Persistent State'
'Current Session'               'Origin Bound Certs'
'Current Tabs'                  'Origin Bound Certs-journal'
databases                       'Platform Notifications'
data_reduction_proxy_leveldb    Preferences
DownloadMetadata                previews_opt_out.db
Downloads                       previews_opt_out.db-journal
'Download Service'              QuotaManager
'Extension Rules'               QuotaManager-journal
Extensions                      README
'Extension State'               'RLZ Data'
Favicons                        'RLZ Data.lock'
Favicons-journal                'Service Worker'
'File System'                   'Session Storage'
GCache                          Shortcuts
'GCM Store'                     Shortcuts-journal
GPUCache                        Storage
History                         'Sync App Settings'
History-journal                 'Sync Data'
'History Provider Cache'        'Sync Extension Settings'
IndexedDB                       'Sync FileSystem'
'Last Session'                  Thumbnails
'Last Tabs'                     'Top Sites'
local                           'Top Sites-journal'
'Local App Settings'            'Translate Ranker Model'
'Local Extension Settings'      TransportSecurity
'Local Storage'                 'Visited Links'
log                             'Web Data'
'Login Data'                    'Web Data-journal'
'Login Data-journal'
chronos@localhost / $ uname -a
Linux localhost 3.18.0-16387-g09d1f8eebf5f-dirty #1 SMP PREEMPT Sat Feb 24 13:27:17 PST 2018 aarch64 ARMv8 Processor rev 2 (v8l) GNU/Linux
chronos@localhost / $ df -h
Filesystem               Size  Used Avail Use% Mounted on
/dev/root                1.6G  1.4G  248M  85% /
devtmpfs                 2.0G     0  2.0G   0% /dev
tmp                      2.0G  248K  2.0G   1% /tmp
run                      2.0G  456K  2.0G   1% /run
shmfs                    2.0G   24M  1.9G   2% /dev/shm
/dev/mmcblk0p1            53G  1.3G   49G   3% /mnt/stateful_partition
/dev/mmcblk0p8            12M   28K   12M   1% /usr/share/oem
/dev/mapper/encstateful   16G   48M   16G   1% /mnt/stateful_partition/encrypted
media                    2.0G     0  2.0G   0% /media
none                     2.0G     0  2.0G   0% /sys/fs/cgroup
tmpfs                    128K   12K  116K  10% /run/crw

This is quite good! But we all know that starting to install things and modifying such a system can cause trouble.

Now, there is a tool called Crouton that allows us to install a Linux system (Debian or Ubuntu) into a chroot. We can even run X if we want. So, I would say that for doing development work on your Chromebook you have (at least) 5 options:

  1. Install things directly in ChromeOS
  2. Crouton: command line tools only
  3. Crouton: xiwi – run X and (for example) XFCE inside a ChromeOS window
  4. Crouton: X – run X side by side with ChromeOS
  5. Get rid of ChromeOS and install (for example) Arch instead

I will explore some of the options.

#2. Crouton command line tools only
For the time being, I don’t really need X and a Window Manager. I am fine (I think) with the ChromeOS UI and UX. After downloading crouton I ran:

sudo sh ./crouton -n deb-cli -r stretch -t cli-extra

This gave me a Debian Stretch system without X, named deb-cli (in case I want to have other chroots in the future). Installation took a few minutes.

To access Debian I now need to

  1. CTRL-ALT-T : to get a crosh shell
  2. crosh> shell : to get a ChromeOS unix shell
  3. $ sudo startcli : to get a shell in my Debian strech system

This is clearly a sub-optimal solution to get a shell tab (and closing the shell takes 3x exit). However, it works very well. I installed Node.js (for ARMv8) and in a few minutes I had cloned my git nodejs-project, installed npm packages, run everything and even pushed some code. I ran a web server on and I could access it from the browser just as expected (so this is much more smooth than a virtual machine).

For my purposes I think this is good enough. I am not very tempted to get X up an running side-by-side with ChromeOS. However I obviously would like things like shortcuts and virtual desktops.

Actually, I think a chroot is quite good. It does not modify the base system the way package managers for OS X tend to do. I don’t need to mess with PATH and other variables. And I get a more complete Debian system compared to just the package manager. And it is actually the real Debian packages I install.

I installed Secure Shell and Crosh Window allowing me to change some defaults parameters of the terminal (by hitting CTRL-SHIFT-P), so at least I dont need to adjust the font size for every terminal.

#4. Crouton with XFCE
Well, this is going so good that I decided to try XFCE as well.

sudo sh ./crouton -n deb-xfce -r stretch -t xfce,extensions

It takes a while to install, but when done just run:

sudo startxfce4

The result is actually pretty nice. You switch between ChromeOS and XFCE with CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-BACK/FORWARD (the buttons next to ESC). The switching is a little slow, but it gives you a (quite needed) virtual desktop. Install crouton extensions in ChromeOS to allow copy-paste. A good thing is that I can run:

sudo enter-chroot -n deb-xfce

to enter my xfce-chroot without starting X and XFCE. So, for practical purposes I can have an X-chroot but I dont need to start X if I dont want to.

After a while I have uninstalled XFCE and I only use crouton with cli. The terminal (part of the Chrome browser) is a bit sub-optimal. My idea is to learn to master screen, however:

$ screen
Cannot make directory '/run/screen': Permission denied

This is easily fixed though (link):

mkdir ~/.screen
chmod 700 ~/.screen

# add to .bashrc
export SCREENDIR=$HOME/.screen

# and a vim "alias" I found handy
svim () { screen -t $1 vim $1; }

I found that I get problems when I edit UTF-8 files in VIM in screen in crouton in a crosh shell. Without screen there are also issues, but slightly less so. It seems to be a good idea to add the following line to .vimrc:

set encoding=utf8

It improves the situation, but still a few glitches.

Now at least screen works. It remains to be seen if I can master it.

I installed lighttpd just the normal Debian way. It does not start automatically, but the normal way works:

$ $ sudo service lighttpd start

If you close your last crouton-session without stopping lighttpd you get:

$ exit
Unmounting /mnt/stateful_partition/crouton/chroots/deb-cli...
Sending SIGTERM to processes under /mnt/stateful_partition/crouton/chroots/deb-cli...

That stopped lighttpd after a few seconds, but I guess a manual stop is preferred.

I have written about NUC vs RPi before and to be honest I was worried that my ARM Chromebook would more have the poor performance of the RPi than the decent performance of the NUC. I would say this is not a problem, the Acer R13 is generally fast enough.

After a few Nodejs tests, it seems the Acer Chromebook R13 is about 5-6 times faster than an RPi V2.

A C-program (some use of 64-bit double floats, little memory footprint) puts it side-by-side with my Celeron/NUC:

RPi V1        142
RPi V2         74
Acer R13       12.5
Celeron J3455  13.0
i5-4250U        7.5

Benchmarks are always tricky, but I think this gives an indication.

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