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Windows and Mac OS are both very popular operating systems, but over the past few years open source solutions have become increasingly prominent for both home and office computing as well as for managing web servers. We’re now at the stage where companies such as Dell are shipping computers with the Linux Ubuntu distribution pre-installed, and the quality of open source operating systems has prompted Google to develop their own.
Now it might be argued that they already have an open source operating system in the shape of Android, their OS for mobile phones and tablets, but Google have their eye on the netbook and laptop market with Chrome OS.
By offering their own operating system which is built from open source components, Google is able to offer a free computing experience that pushes the use of the cloud for storage purposes. As the owner of the most popular cloud services (such as Gmail, for instance, or Google Docs) this ensures that users are engaged with Google products.
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How Is Chrome OS Different?
There is more to Chrome OS than just cloud computing, although this is a major element. Google has designed the operating system to offer all of its services where possible, but the key to it all is usability. Conceived as a means of providing the best netbook experience, the main difference between Chrome OS and standard operating systems is that you don’t install software or apps onto it. Instead, Chrome runs web apps, and as Google develops more these can be added to a computer running Chrome.
This approach has various advantages, but one of the key selling points of Chrome OS comes not from the the reliance on the cloud but from its origins as a Linux-derived operating system and the approach that the developers have taken with regard to security.
Basically, Chrome OS doesn't require any anti-virus software thanks to the attention that has been given to keeping the system secure. The Chrome OS developers have built the system "from the ground up, with security in mind" and this can only be a good thing. Certainly, a combination of approaches has been employed from user account management to various verification methods, all with the intention of making sure your Chrome OS experience remains as secure and user friendly as possible.
If you really want Chrome OS to run as the main operating system on your computer then you should be looking for a suitable dedicated device, such as a Chromebook or a netbook that will accept Chrome as the OS.
Otherwise, you can run Chrome OS from USB or as a virtual machine in VMware or VirtualBox.
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Chrome Browser - the Heart of Chrome OS
Because of the cloud-centric paradigm used in Chrome OS, the operating system is an interesting mix of Linux and various Internet favorites displayed in a Google Chrome browser window.
When you first launch Chrome OS and login, you will immediately see the browser, already open and ready for you to check email, play Angry Birds, get to work on some Google Docs or access Facebook or Twitter. In addition you will find a browser toolbar at the foot of the window offering access to Google News, online games and more.
What you see here in the browser window - which can of course be used to visit websites in the regular way - is the nuts and bolts of Chrome OS. Just like the Dock in Mac OS X, it's the part of the operating system that Google wants you to see and make use of as the heart of your Chrome OS experience.
In fact, there is no reason not to do this. While other parts of the operating system can be configured to deliver a more rounded experience, using the browser in this way as a pre-configured hub for your favorite websites and online services means that you could conceivably ignore the other features and applications on offer and not be any worse off.
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Behind the Browser in Chrome OS
Obviously the browser is a key element of Chrome OS, as this is an operating system that has an unprecedented relationship with online services. The majority of apps that can be used with this OS are web-based, accessed via the browser; however, there are exceptions.
Chrome OS is built on Linux, and once you start ignoring the Chrome browser and use your mouse to click elsewhere on the desktop, you will see evidence of this. For instance, a wealth of options can be accessed by clicking the Computer button in the lower-left corner which features three buttons; Applications, Documents and Places, as well as shortcuts to oft-used apps such as LibreOffice (this is particularly useful as Google Docs can be quite troublesome should you lose your Internet connection while edting a document).
Other options are available via the Computer button, much like the Windows "Start" menu. A Control Center displays all of the configuration options for the operating system such as sound, display, mouse and keyboard, etc., while there are also tools for checking your system status and options for connecting to the Internet or a local network.
What will come as a real surprise, however, is the presence of applications in Chrome OS. This operating system, long-trumpeted as a the first user-friendly cloud-computing platform, features a wealth of open source software options beyond the obligatory LibreOffice.
Common Linux apps such as Gedit, GIMP, and Picasa sit alongside sound and video tools, and even WINE is present. This last inclusion is surprising, as Chrome OS was supposedly designed to low-end systems. A Windows emulation environment is perhaps the last thing you might expect to find!
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Once you have downloaded the image file there are various ways in which you might load Chrome OS onto your computer. For instance, you might use a virtual machine to enjoy the OS, or perhaps copy it to a USB stick to install it on a netbook or similar device. If you're wondering "how do I get Chrome OS onto my computer?" then the answers are right here.
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How to Download Chrome OS
Before installing Chrome OS, you will of course have to download it. This is a simple enough task, but you must make sure that you choose the correct option. Downloads for Chrome OS can be found at chromeos.hexxeh.net/vanilla.php, and you should always choose the most recent version (the one at the top of the list).
You will notice that three download types are available – these are for the different installation methods, which we will explain in detail below.
VMware – this download allows you to run Chrome OS as a virtual machine in VMware Player or VMware Workstation
VirtualBox – this download is suitable for running under the open source VirtualBox virtualization software.
USB – finally, you can install Chrome OS onto a USB stick and boot your computer from this instead of the usual operating system. This will give you the chance to enjoy the full Chrome OS experience as it is meant to be.
Sadly, there is no Live version of the operating system available at present. Live CDs of Linux-derived platforms are a popular method of trying out new operating systems either within Windows or loaded directly into a computer's memory from a reboot, and its omission from Chrome OS is quite notable.
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Installing Chrome OS on USB
This method of installation is the most complicated, but allows the most realistic Chrome OS experience away from a Chromebook.
Begin by visiting the Chrome OS Vanilla page (via the link above) and download the version designed for USB sticks.
While this is downloading, head to https://launchpad.net/win32-image-writer to download Image Writer for Windows, which you will find under Downloads on the right-hand side.
Wait while your downloads complete, and find a suitable, empty USB flash stick (also known as a thumb drive or pen drive) and insert it into your PC. Open Start > Computer and find the device, then right-click and select Format. In the format window, click Start to begin the disk format process – this shouldn’t take too long, but note that any data on the device will be deleted. Once this has been done, find the downloaded Chrome OS file (which is in .tar.gz format) and extract the contents to a folder than you can easily find.
When the Image Writer for Windows software has downloaded, unzip the contents and find Win32DiskImager.exe – right-click this and select Run as administrator.
In Image Writer, select the correct drive letter for your USB flash device and then select the blue folder to browse for the Chrome OS image that you previously downloaded and extracted. Once you have found this, double-click to assign it to the USB flash device, and then select Write. A few minutes later the process should be complete, so click Done, and then restart your computer. You will need to open the boot menu (often accessed by pressing F8 as the PC starts) to instruct your computer to boot from USB, and a few moments later Chrome OS will quickly boot!
You will need to use the following credentials to login:
…but as soon as you have logged in you will be able to create your own account and password.
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Installing Chrome OS in a Virtual Machine
If you don’t fancy messing around with USB flash card drives there is an alternative, in the shape of running Chrome OS as a virtual machine.
How you do this depends entirely on which virtualization software you use. You can download the free VMware Player from www.vmware.com, while VirtualBox is available from www.virtualbox.org. Both applications offer versions for Windows and Mac OS X, while VirtualBox can be installed in Linux and Solaris.
After installing your virtual machine application of choice, you should download the corresponding Chrome OS version.
For the VMware compatible download, once saved to your computer, browse to the file and double-click it to open – as long as VMware Player is installed then the virtual Chrome OS should be detected – click the Play button to boot up!
If your download was for VirtualBox, open the application and go to File > Import Appliance > Choose to find the download on your computer. Select the file and click OK – Chrome OS will be imported into VirtualBox, and all you will need to run the virtualized version of the operating system is click Start!
Any of these three methods can be used to enjoy Chrome OS and see what all the fuss is about – let us know if you enjoy using it!
- Security Overview, http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/chromiumos-design-docs/security-overview
- Screenshots by author.
- Author's own experience.
- How to Install Google Chromium OS: A Hands-On Overview, http://www.thetechlabs.com/tech-tutorials/os/download-google-chrome-os/