Which lightweight Linux distro should I install on my Chromebook?

Let’s look at how 5 lightweight Linux distros fair on a Chromebook. I’ll compare basic usage as well as gaming and ease of use.

I’ve been running Linux on my Chromebook for almost a year now and I think it’s a perfect combination of OS and hardware as an ultrabook. My Linux distro of choice is Ubuntu Gnome but the question is, is it a bit bloated for a Chromebook?

Using a resource saving Linux distro is probably a good idea on a Chromebook which after all was really designed with a very lightweight distro in mind – Chrome OS. This should also answer some of the questions I’ve been asked about how well Linux performs on a Chromebook.

Origin story

  • You’ll need a Chromebook, I’m using my Toshiba Chromebook 2 (2014 version) which has an Intel Celeron N2840 processor and 4GB of RAM.
  • I’m using my trusty  with a multiboot setup using logical partitions.
  • All five distros were allocated 12GB hard drives and 4GB swap space.
  • I ran all software updates (including 3rd party software) in each distro.
  • If any additional drivers were available they were installed.

The Fantastic Five

How lightweight a Linux distribution (distro) is depends on the underlying system and the desktop environment (DE). The five I picked are five poplar lightweight distros and are also great for people just beginning their Linux adventure. For Windows or OS X users, the menu layouts in these distros will be comfortably familiar.

I chose these distros because they are user friendly and have excellent support communities. The desktop environments are varied including LXDE, Mate, Xfce and Pantheon.

Ubuntu Mate 16.04 is an official variant of Ubuntu that only requires ‘modest hardware’ and uses the MATE desktop.

lubuntu 16.04 is another official variant of Ubuntu and aims to be fast and energy efficient and uses the LXDE desktop.

Xubuntu 16.04 is based on Ubuntu 16.04 and also uses the Xfce desktop, this distro aims to provide ‘enough features for efficient, daily usage’.

GalliumOS 2.0 is based on Ubuntu 16.04 running the Xfce desktop this distro is specifically targeted and optimised for Chromebooks.

elementary OS (Freya) is based on Ubuntu 14.04 and uses the Pantheon desktop, a DE that was specially designed for this distro.

The Fantastic Five go toe to toe

When I read online performance reviews, I see lots of benchmark results and pretty graphs which can all be really useful. For this post however, I want to show you how these distros perform during common everyday computing tasks.

The table below gives a quick overview of how these distros compare against each other on some common features.

Linux Kernel Boot time HDD space used RAM in use on idle Octane score in Firefox Steam install issues
Ubuntu Mate 16.04 4.4 23 secs 4.8GB 15% (600 MB) 7749 None
lubuntu 16.04 4.4 24 secs 4GB 6% (240 MB) 7566 None
Xubuntu 16.04 4.4 24 secs 4.6GB 7% (280 MB) 7775 None
GalliumOS 2.0 4.4 25 secs 3.4GB 10% (400 MB) 7311 None
elementary OS Freya 3.19 26 secs 4.4GB 10% (400 MB) 7979 Error about missing 32 bit lib. Ran install from terminal and dependencies were installed automatically

Similar Linux kernels and base distros

Apart from elementary OS all the distros tested use Linux kernel version 4.4 and an Ubuntu 16.04 base (at the time of writing elementary OS is developing Loki, which is still in Beta). Newer kernels support newer hardware so more up to date kernels are preferred on Chromebooks (especially for trackpads and sound drivers).

With my Chromebook however, I found everything worked without the need to upgrade to the latest Linux kernel (something I had to do previously in elementary OS).

Boot times and disk usage

Boot times were about the same with only a couple of seconds between boot times. Ubuntu Mate was the winner at 23 secs. This is by no means a scientific test but just a quick indictor. In my mind a couple of seconds here and there doesn’t really matter much but I know for some readers boot times are important.

The hard drive space used by the distro is important especially when you’re using the small 16 or 32 GB drives that come with Chromebooks. The space used by each OS ranged from 3.4GB to 4.8GB which is quite amazing if you think about it.

We are running a full operating system with a fully functioning desktop environment with many default apps included. Of course this comparison is not entirely fair between distros since each one will have different default apps included.

RAM usage and browser performance

 

The amount of memory (RAM) available to the system is important for a fast efficient operating system. You can see from the results that all these distros use minimal resources but the star performer was lubuntu using only 240 MB while idle.

I decided to run Google’s Octane benchmark because it’s a good web surfing indicator. Huh? Well, it’s actually for measuring the performance of the JavaScript engine in the browser but it’s also useful to show how good your web surfing experience will be in general. The higher the score the better.

I used Firefox in all distros to run the Octane benchmark and the scores varied between about 600 points with elementary OS producing the best score at 7979. Remember this test was more used as an indicator to browsing speeds rather than a definitive benchmark.

Ease of use

 

A lightweight distro is great but if it’s so stripped down that it’s difficult to get stuff done, well then it’s not really usable. With this in mind, I took a look at some common tasks…

The best menus are in Xubuntu, GalluimOS and elementary OS because they are not only easy to use but also include a search feature to find apps and settings. Unfortunately, Mate and lubuntu do not have this feature.

All the distros have good file browsing capabilities but I preferred Xfce’s file explorer’s in Xubuntu and GalluimOS. Although elementary OS and Mate allows you to find your stuff easily and intuitively I think the Xfce’s interface is more elegant and full featured.

GalliumOS uses the Chromium browser as the default bowser which works well and elementary OS uses the very fast Midori browser. I like this browser but found it a bit buggy at times and can’t see myself using it full time. I installed Firefox instead which is also the default browser in the other distros.

Playing music and watching video’s is essential to most users and I found all my media played without any problems. VLC player is the leader in media players and Mate uses this for both music and videos.

Lubuntu uses the Gnome player, Xubuntu uses the Parole media player which is nicely integrated with the DE, GalliumOS uses VLC for videos and DeadBeeF for audio whereas elementary OS uses its own player called audience.

All distros allow you to install software through the Ubuntu software centre but GalliumOS does not have this feature. You have the choice of either the Synaptic Package Manager or GDebi Package Installer.

I think this will be confusing for new users and most users will probably end up learning how to install software through the terminal instead.

As a last note I noticed that lubuntu kept losing its wireless connection and I had to restart the network manager (sudo service network-manager restart) when this happened to fix it.

How good does it look?

This is obviously subjective because what looks good to me might not look good to you but here’s my opinion anyway…

I’ll be honest I don’t like the way lubuntu looks, it looks old and the interface looks tired. This is likely to change however since the newer version of lubuntu will likely be using the LXQt desktop environment.

I know many people like the look of Mate because it reminds them of Gnome 2 but I find it looks dated and dare I say it, a bit bland and boring.

I like Xubuntu because it looks clean and modern and so I should like GalliumOS because it’s based on Xubuntu. GalliumOS has however decided to add a different icon pack which I think looks out of place.

My favourite looking distro is elementary OS and it’s easy to tell why. The team concentrate on design and also make sure their apps match the overall look of the distro.

Let’s play a game…

Now on to gaming. I thought this would be an interesting test to see what happens if I install steam and run a graphics intensive game (within reason, this is a Chromebook after all!). Not really for the gaming aspect but more for how well my Chromebook would cope with a resource intensive task.

Installing Steam on all the 5 systems was a matter of simply downloading the app from the Steam website and following the steps. On elementary OS I got an error about missing x32 lib files. Using sudo apt-get install steam in a terminal window installed all dependencies automatically.

Those of you paying attention will have noted that I only gave each Linux installation in this comparison 12GB partitions – not enough space for downloading games. I created a new partition on my USB 3.0 drive with 30 GB of space and used that for the Steam library.

Having the library separated also meant that I could point Steam to that partition on each Linux distro so that I didn’t need to download the game 5 times – good huh?

Anyway, I downloaded the free to play game Star Conflict, that is quite graphics intensive. I should point out here that I’m not really a gamer but my 12 year old son was more than happy to do the testing for me!

During the initial intro I was surprised at how well the game worked and only noticed a few lags or frames dropping. The best experience was on Mate and GalluimOS with the other distros lagging a bit. Overall though pretty good for a Chromebook worth only a couple of hundred bucks.

Was there a winner?

This post wasn’t really about saying one distro is better than the other on a Chromebook, it was more to show you how well they work on a Chromebook.

Hopefully some of the info here will help you make up your mind and I think each distro has differences and similarities so choosing the one that suits you is a personal preference.

 




34 Comments

  • I installed Ubuntu 17.04 on my Toshiba i3, boot time is like 4s, literally, I was shocked. Gallium OS took forever to boot and I didn’t love the xfce interface (just me) — I don’t LOVE unity, but I find it easier and more appealing. I’m finding Ubuntu to be more stable as well – not sure why a derivative distro would be worse (in my opinion), but I get about 4hrs + of battery life with Ubuntu and was getting definitely less with Gallium.

  • Please investigate Peppermint OS. I’ve successfully used Peppermint to upgrade a group of old XP computers for two non-profits, The latest is Peppermint8 based on Ubuntu using an LX environment. I would rather do this via chrx but I’m more thn willing to try croutin.

  • Hi Captain, your posts are very usefull. I have a Toshiba CB2 (2015 i5), I used Xubuntu with crouton and I really like it. Then, I upgraded my CB with 256GB SSD and dual boot with Gallium OS and I have to say that it is absolutly perfect. Thanks!!

    1. Thanks Leo, glad you found my posts helpful, stay tuned, there should be more on the way in the coming months!

  • This review did not even touch on the common daily task like drivers, printers and adding softwares. PDF, simple editing of office files. It really does not help much.
    if i wanted to browse and play music, i think the default chrome OS is sufficient.

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris and I appreciate your feedback. Stay tuned and I will be doing more posts that deal with everyday Linux tasks.

  • Hi there. I was all excited, after reading another post of yours, to install Mint on my Samsung Chromebook 2 (XE500C12), then I saw the ARM issue. I was hoping you could please tell me if there is a best, full featured (Windows substitute) that might work on my system. You mentioned Crouton to another user, but I didn’t want to jump the gun. I would like to preserve the original ChromeOS (to revert to, if needed, not for daily use), if that is an option. Thanks for all your clear and friendly tutorials!

    1. Hi Kris, glad to help. Crouton actually installs inside your ChromeOS installation so you do not need to worry about losing ChromeOS. You can image the crouton install like a container that lives inside of ChromeOS that runs Linux. There’s lots of info about how to do the install here.

      1. Thanks! I will do just that, until I get a system that can run Mint. Looking forward to reading your reviews of other distros!

  • Thanks for your reviews. I have recently decided I want to attempt to install Linux on my HP Chromebook. I was thinking Ubuntu or Mint. But I am new to all of this and I see no need to reinvent the wheel and will follow your advice. Guess I’ll flip a coin to pick betweek Xubuntu and elementary.
    Thanks agin,

      1. ok, I am finally getting around to attempting an install of Mint on my HP Chromebook. I have burned the iso to usb and performed the MrChromebox legacy mod but when I select Start Linux Mint I get an error stating “Not enough memory to load specified image”
        Any thoughts?

  • Thank you for all the information, I have recently purchased a Lenovo N22 Chromebook. I have been trying unsuccessfully to install Linux on the chromebook, the instructions seem to get me almost there but at the end I always seem to get an error, when I find the work around for that error message I will get another. I was hoping that someone would have the complete terminal command line to install the Xubuntu distro. I am not stuck on Xubuntu but it would look similar to my current slowly dying laptop. Thank you in advance I look forward to getting this chromebook up and running.

      1. I think I have found my error, I was trying to use Crouton to install linux on my chromebook and you suggest running linux as a dual boot. Crouton did not work for me so now I am going to get the parts to proceed to a dual boot. I have seen several reviews of the Scandisk Ultra fit that reference the disk getting very hot, I wonder if you have had this happen to you or is that only something that would occur if you were using the disk on a laptop or other type of device.
        Thanks for your help

        1. Hi Bruce, I have noticed that it gets hot but I believe most compact drives like this one also do the same thing. USB 3.0 provides more power output and that probably contributes to the extra heat. I don’t think it hinders performance though as I’ve been using it for over 6 months and have not had any problems.

  • Thanks for posting this, and your youtube videos. I am still stock Chrome OS on my Toshiba Chromebook 2 (2015 celeron), but I did upgrade the storage 256 gig in anticipation of installing linux.

  • hi intersting post and just wanted to say thank you for all your info on installing, especially on the toshiba chromebook 2014, which I have. Think I will try GalliumOS even if I am tempted by Elementary a bit!

  • Great collection.In my opinion, Elementary is perfect for any type of user.From beginner to expert.
    Thanks for sharing an awesome post.

  • What was the octane score for your Toshiba Chromebook running ChromeOS? Have you tried running Windows 10 on your Chromebook?

    1. Hi,

      I didn’t check that on ChromeOS but it will definately be better since ChromeOS is optimised for the bowser.
      My Chromebook doesn’t support Windows last time I checked but for this spec performance would have been slow…

  • Tried Gallium on my Acer C720 for about 2 weeks and took it off in end because the battery life went from pretty good to not really acceptable when running Gallium. I had a quick look but couldn’t find good reason for this so ditched it and went back to ChromeOS

    1. Hi Dmitry,

      Out of these 5 distros I can’t decide between Xubuntu and elementary OS (the new version is even better than the old version in this post).

    1. I was a bit underwhelmed by GalliumOS if I’m honest, Elliot. Although I do appreciate all the effort that the developers are putting in to get a distro that makes Chromebooks run out of the box.

      I wonder what other readers think, is there a clear winner out of these 5 distros?

  • Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?? So much old hat cr@p! What about the leading-edgiest distro around, the wonderfullest, the world-beatingest redhat Fedora, hey? Once you’ve tried it, you will never, ever even think for a moment about going back to stodgy boring white-sliced stuff like Debian, let alone linux-for-[beginners –edited by Captain] (yup, that’s Ubuntu).
    daveC

    1. Hi Dave,

      I love the sarcastic Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat??, I can almost hear you saying it! Yes Fedora is a great distro and I will do a video on it at some point but it’s a bit heavy for a Chromebook (remember this post focused on lightweight distros).

      As far as Ubuntu and Ubuntu based distros for some it’s actually the best thing since sliced bread. I like it but I also like Linux Arch which many would consider an advanced distro. The best thing about Linux is that we have choice: beginner, experiened or advanced there’s something for everyone. We all start our Linux journey somewhere and so as far as I’m concerned everyone gets a place at my table.

      Dave, the tone of of your comment made me laugh (in a good way) but I had to edit it. Please refrain from insults however mild they may be.

      Lastly, keep in touch, you may like some of my distro reviews that I’m planning in the coming months…

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