Building a Chrome OS PC Yourself: Is It Worth The Effort?

Posted on 19. May, 2011 by in Chrome OS

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We can all agree that Chrome OS is a rather awesome, unique idea- perhaps even revolutionary. We can probably also agree that the concept behind the Chromebooks is a pretty awesome one. I mean, who doesn’t want to worry about data being lost, right?  We can also collectively nod our heads at the fact that this news has been causing quite a few waves in the PC industry. One thing we might not be able to agree on though is this: while Google Chrome sounds like an awesome OS to pre-load onto a computer, is it a viable OS around which to build your own system upon?

Now, a lot of you will probably point to Chromium and say “Well…yeah, it does.” Thing is, Chromium and Chrome are two different operating systems. While both work on similar principles- namely, cloud computing- and both are derived the same source code, Chromium is completely open source- a whole different ballgame from Chrome OS.

Now, in order to determine whether a custom Chrome machine is a viable option, I’m going to have to look at several key factors. These are, in no particular order, hardware requirements, hardware optimization, and cost effectiveness.  Now, if you’re particularly astute (or just a huge tech head), you’ve already realized that these three are very much interrelated to one another- hardware optimization influences cost effectiveness and software optimization and so on. Just the same, these are the three deciding factors in whether or not this OS is suitable as a build platform.

Hardware Requirements

What are the most basic, bare bones requirements of a Chrome machine? What sort of stresses does Chrome OS put on the hardware involved? If Chromebooks are anything to judge this by, the OS doesn’t really put any terrible strain on the system.  To be safe, we’ll set the lowest benchmark for the system at 2 GB of RAM and at most, a 1.7 GHz dual core processor. Minimum processer benchmark, I’d say somewhere around 1.4 GHz. Hard drive space, we’ll set at 8-16 GB minimum.

Rather low end as far as custom builds go, and pretty easy to come by. Not particularly expensive too. So, as far as base hardware requirements, Google’s Chrome OS is looking like a good choice. Also, your system pretty much has to support OpenGL. That’s a given. Ah, but there are other things to consider.

Optimization/Other Requirements.

Here’s the deciding factor. If Google’s OS requires specialized hardware to run, building a rig on it will either be entirely pointless, or so much trouble that it’s not worth the effort.  Now, the trouble here is that…we don’t actually know a whole lot about what sort of optimization might be necessary to run Chrome. While we can infer from the Chromebooks that it’s not a horrendously memory-intensive OS, there’s really no way of telling whether or not the hardware’s been modified or optimized in some way to run with Chrome.

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See, the problem here is that we don’t really have all the information on the Chrome OS yet. There’s no real word on how the software is optimized, the highest grade system that could feasibly be run to its fullest extent, whether or not the OS requires special or modified pieces of hardware to properly run.The information simply isn’t there. I’ve done a bit of research about the OS, but the problem is, nobody seems to know the details. There are so many conflicting reports; it’s hard to tell what’s true and what isn’t.

I’ve heard people say that Chrome OS will only run with hardware that’s specifically optimized and manufactured to run Chrome. Others have said that it’ll run on pretty much any system. I’ve heard people say that if you’re running Chrome OS, you need a solid state drive on which to boot it. Others have retorted that it’s merely recommended that you have it.

There’s only one thing we know for certain. Fortunately, it’s all we really need to know to render our verdict here.

Pretty much the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that Google’s Chrome OS isn’t going to be intended for desktop PCs- at least, not at first. It’s optimized for x86 and ARM-based systems. So, that’s a point against its viability as a custom rig platform right there. I mean, seriously, have you ever tried building a laptop computer from scratch? Second question, how many gray hairs did you have after such an experience?  If Google’s new OS is optimized for laptop computers they are probably saying what they mean.

The Software

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Here’s the thing that pretty much breaks the Chrome OS as a viable alternative for a system build.  Here’s a direct quote from Google Support:

“Because Chrome notebooks are built for browsing on the web, desktop software cannot be installed. If your printer, keyboard, or another device requires you to install drivers, you will not be able to use the device on your Chrome notebook.”

I…wait, what? Alright, alright. Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit here. I mean, just because you can’t install software on a Chromebook, doesn’t mean that the Chrome OS doesn’t allow software installations, right? It could just be that the Chromebook itself is built in such a way as to disallow the installation of any other software, right? I mean, Chrome has a Linux OS as its base, so it should allow the installation of software, right?

Sadly, no. From CNET:

Chrome OS, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to the Internet. Although a traditional operating system–an embedded version of Linux–is under the covers, the applications on the system run within its Chrome browser. They’re Web applications, using Web languages like JavaScript and Web interfaces like AppCache to store data, and WebGL to show hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. Though properly written applications will be able to run while a Chrome OS laptop is disconnected from the network, cloud computing is mandatory….One big problem, though, is what you can’t do: run Microsoft Office, play Portal 2, make a photo book in iPhoto. Or, perhaps more to the point for people considering a supplement to the PC they probably already have in their homes, play the wealth of games on an iPad.


So….any of you who were considering Google’s new OS as the platform of choice for your gaming rig….tough break. The fact that the OS, at its core, runs on the web and uses only web-based apps is a damn near fatal blow to its suitability as a platform for a custom PC. From the sounds of it, Google wants the Chrome OS to be more of an experience than an operating system. And the problem with that is, well…you can’t really build your own system on an experience.

Cost Effectiveness

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Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Google’s OS is a lost cause as a custom PC platform. Google could very well release a retooled version of Chrome designed for people who want to build their own systems on it. Seriously, though, as far as cost effectiveness goes, there’s no way any other OS will beat Chrome. You’ll more than likely be spending less money on a hard drive, for one. And chances are it’s going to be cheaper than a lot of traditional operating systems out there, too.  So, ignoring all the other problems…the Chrome OS is pretty cost effective…Yeah, that doesn’t change much, does it?

Final Thoughts

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Don’t get me wrong – the new Chrome Operating system is shaping up to be awesome. I really, really like the idea of cloud computing, and I’m very excited about the release of the Chromebook. But as an OS for the technologically inclined, Chrome kind of falls short. You’re probably not going to be building any amazing gaming rigs or custom desktops using Chrome as a platform. To put it simply, that’s just not what Chrome was designed for. So…sadly, the conclusion is that it’s not worth the effort.

If you’re heartbroken at this news, and had your heart set on building a cloud-based custom computer, you can always give Chromium a look. It’s got the same base code as Chrome, but it’s also open source- meaning you can tweak it to your heart’s content.

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Related posts:

  1. Where to Download Chrome OS
  2. Is Chrome OS Just a Web Browser?
  3. Chrome OS Manager: “We’re Really Trying to Avoid the Idea of a Walled Garden”

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4 Responses to “Building a Chrome OS PC Yourself: Is It Worth The Effort?”

  1. Cougar Abogado

    19. May, 2011

    Nicholas, I’m feeling confused. To be upfront, I read the article assuming we were talking about installing Chromium OS (rather than Chrome OS). On the other hand, based on the last paragraph, I assume I was wrong, and we were really talking about Chrome OS.

    Moreover, regarding Chrome OS, I thought it was impossible for anyone other than Google-licensed OEMs to install Chrome OS, anyway, and everyone else would have to use Chromium OS for custom builds.

    Thanks for the article, and I hope my comment makes sense.

  2. JamesL

    25. May, 2011

    “…we’ll set the lowest benchmark for the system at 2 GB of RAM and at most, a 1.7 GHz dual core processor…. Rather low end as far as custom builds go…”

    2GB is low end???? Not in *MY* hardware collection. If that’s the standard I need to go by, GhromeOS is already out of the running. I have some old ThinkPads I’d try out as “Chrome Terminals”, but they’re limited to 512M memory and whatever processors would come in a T20-series system.

    Next suggestion? (remember, my hardware budget is around $1. Whatever I have for equipment is whatever I can scrounge up used)

  3. Peter

    22. Feb, 2014

    Simply put Chrome or Chromium OS are neither an operating system or an application, so how can it possibly qualify itself as such. It is merely a specialized series of Open source code with one purpose in mind, navigating the WWW. Since there’s no real tangable installation except that which is available only on itty bitty devices calling themselves, Chromebooks. Why tout a pretty web portal or in tech speak “terminal emulation software” that will only be madeavailable for such devices. If say I wished to watch a video let’s say …why would I waste my time watching on an 11″ scrren when I have a 40″ one at home. At least with my cell phone said video could can broadcasted or “bluetoothed” onto my TV screen. Secondly this nonsense is primarily for portable use only …so what possibly usage would it be at home. Nothing applicable to appliances or PCs in the home.

    Apple and Microsoft already offer such capabilties and much more on their compliant appliances, so whats the use of buying another appliance that only does web browsing ….with an “OS?” that does only one thing?

    Lastly, Why does an OS require another OS (Ubuntu) to operate? Just seems redundant to me.

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