I needed a new computer and a new tablet but didn’t want to spend a lot of money. I really like ChromeOS for simplicity and security as it has served my daughters very well through school and university. But I need something I can develop on as well as consume content so an Android tablet or Ipad is not very useful. I didn’t want to spend megabucks on an overpriced Mac or even £700 on a PixelBook or Pixel Slate. So I set about researching the possibility of installing ChromeOS on a cheap Windows tablet. The modern cheap Windows tablets like Fusion5 or Chuwi are interesting but appear to have locked down bootloaders and/or filled with chipsets not well supported by Linux. Also they tend to be lacking in RAM and have very low powered CPUs.
So I searched on eBay for something with at least an M5 and came across the Dell. This was a very expensive machine 4 years ago but now can be had for well under £200 2nd hand and just over brand new. It has a great spec too: M5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, 1080p display. Some components are even upgradeable like the SSD and Wifi / 4g card. There are also a large range of accessories like a proper keyboard converting it into a laptop, an active stylus and a docking station. The advantage of it being older hardware is that it’s mostly very well supported by the Linux kernel.
So using ArnoldTheBat’s Special Build R72 and Chromefy to install the official Google Pixelbook Eve R71 image (with Caroline for TPM bypass), I installed ChromeOS on the Dell. You can get all the recovery images here.
It works very well indeed, here’s what works well :-
- Wifi / Bluetooth
- Digitizer / Active Stylus
- Cameras (Front and rear)
- Power switch
And here’s what doesn’t work :-
- Headphone jack – the workaround is to use a USB adapter for headphones, these are very common and cheap now that many phones no longer have a 3.5mm jack,
- Accelerometer – creates an issue in Tablet Mode switching between landscape and portrait (see below)
So the first problem I had was getting the onscreen keyboard to pop up, as ChromeOS assumed it was in Desktop mode and not Tablet mode – obviously lacking the hardware switch which switches modes on the PIxelBook. You can operate it in this mode by using the accessibility options to enable the on-screen keyboard. I discovered however that this keyboard isn’t the same as the Tablet Mode keyboard which supports Swipe typing and pops up automatically when you click in an input field just like on Android.
Another problem with Desktop Mode is that the power button doesn’t actually do anything – ChromeOS ignores it in desktop mode. So the only way to get the screen off is to wait for the timeout.
The solution to both of these problems is to force the tablet into tablet mode which can easily be done by changing the flag: chrome://flags/#force-tablet-mode and now the power switch turns off the screen and you can disable the accessibility keyboard and use the tablet mode keyboard.
Power / Battery Life
Now that the power switch works, it became clear that pressing it causes the device to ‘sleep’ and this exposed another problem. It seems that when the Dell goes to sleep, it never wakes up. This meant the only way to revive it was to hold down the power switch to reset it and then cold boot – not a good experience. I tried researching this to see if kernel patches might fix it but it seems like this is a Dell firmware fault and it doesn’t work properly in Windows either. Luckily in ChromeOS settings you can configure the power button to just turn off the screen. This works fine but drains the battery whilst it’s off at a rate of around 6-7% an hour I found.
The claimed battery life of this device running Windows is 9 hours, however a number of reviews state that 5-6 hours is more realistic. In my experience, under ChromeOS, I’m finding that it’s about that too. The battery indicator seems to accurately reflect the percentage and predicted remaining time. After 3 hours of intensive usage, I was down to around 50% and 3 hours predicted remaining so it seems accurate.
The last remaining issue I had was switching between portrait and landscape. There is a key combination to do this which is Ctrl-Alt-Refresh but you can’t do that on the on-screen keyboard because it doesn’t have the ‘Refresh’ key ! I noticed though that if you run an Android app which only supports portrait mode then the entire device rotates into portrait layout and stays in it even when the app exits. So I used this fact to write an Android app with two activities (one in Portrait and one in Landscape) to automatically toggle the view when clicked :-
This works nicely and, for me, is actually preferable to auto-rotate because you don’t get the annoying spinning when you’re lying down.
I took a bit of a gamble going down this route and it could have worked out much worse than it has. I’m actually delighted with this tablet as ChromeOS works very well and almost all the hardware is well supported. It’s lightening fast, at least as fast as my wife’s Ipad Pro, the screen is amazing quality with deep blacks and lovely colour saturation. I can run Linux (and have developed two very simple Android apps on it so far :)) and Android. On top of this the active pen works very well indeed and handwriting is a pleasure on this device. It has a great spec, good connectivity (SD Card + HDMI + USB ports), a lot of accessories and was amazing value for money.
The only downsides are that it’s quite heavy compared with modern tablets at 700g and the battery life isn’t the best at 6 hours of constant use.
PS. finding a case is a problem but it’s almost the same dimensions as a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and so this case fits perfectly after adding another cut-out for the USB port.