Chromebook as a Lawyer’s Clean Laptop

Google’s Chromium OS, an open source operating system built on Linux, powers the proliferating Chromebooks.  It has always struck me as a good alternative for a lawyer who needs a cheap, clean laptop when traveling.  A clean laptop can be lost, inspected at a border, and confiscated without causing professional liability problems, since the clean part means it is devoid of client information.  Any information, really.  I decided to fire up a version of Chromium to see.

Get Chromium OS

Google developed a browser called Chromium (different from Chrome) and also an operating system by the same name.  The Chromium browser is the core for both Google’s Chrome browser, but also a number of others:  Amazon’s Fire, Brave, and Opera to name a few.  The operating system is the basis for Chromebooks.

You can get them for free, so you don’t really need to buy a pre-built Chromebook.  You can make your own.  I’ve been fiddling with Chromium OS on Dell mini notebooks, as well as normal laptops, for a couple of years.  It’s a bit like installing Linux, because you need to get hold of the operating system, put it on a USB device, and then install it on your laptop.  If I want to install Ubuntu, I’d download a copy of UNetBootIn, which has a list of available Linux distributions and will download them, then burn that image to your USB device.  An all-in-one, easy solution.

Chromium OS is harder to come by.  First, you can’t just download a Chromium image off the Chromium OS page.  You have to find someone, like Arnold the Bat, who has built an image.  Or, in his case, a couple.  His vanilla build is just straight up Chromium OS, but he’s added some extra drivers to his special build.  You can download those files, use Win Disk Imager to burn it to USB, and you’re ready to go.

The thing about these images, as you can see from comments on Arnold’s site, is that sometimes even the special build doesn’t have everything you need.  Then you need to know how to navigate turning on such basics as wi-fi drivers, even when you have a Dell laptop and a Dell chromebook file.

That’s why I was so pleased to find that maturity in the Chromium OS space has led to things like [soon to be renamed] Flint OS.  It’s a Chromium build that comes with a broader package of drivers, and that is maintained in a way that is as close to a normal Chromebook as possible.

Installing Flint OS Chromium

This works just as described for other Chromium builds.  Download an image, use software to burn it to USB, boot your computer up so that it reads the USB as your boot drive.  I had been running into some problems with Win Disk Imager so I decided to give Etcher a try instead.  It’s a new open source tool that does the same thing: burns .img files to USB.

Even better, the Flint OS image is designed to be used – without any unzipping or extracting – directly with Etcher.  I will offer a couple of tips on using Etcher, though:

  • Once installed, right-click and run as administrator.  Otherwise it can hang
  • Sometimes it appears to want to start but then will not actually do anything.  I started to make sure I always selected my USB device, even though it looked auto-selected and there was only one.
  • Also, if you have a USB 3 drive and it is ejected after Etcher or Win Disk Imager starts writing the image, I found plugging the USB 3 drive into a powered USB 2 hub seemed to fix this.  Also, the free Minitool Partition Wizard is a great tool for returning your USB to a pristine state (without 8 partitions) in case your image tool balks.

By the time I grabbed the Flint OS file, I’d sorted out Etcher.  The download and image was very smooth and the installation of Flint OS is very simple.  Much more like a typical Ubuntu install but with fewer prompts.

Chromium as a Clean Laptop

I may already have spent enough time that it’s cheaper, from a billable hour standpoint, to just go out and buy a Chromebook.  Personally, if I had $500 to spend on a laptop, I’d just buy a newer Windows laptop rather than a newer Chromebook.  But if you’ve got a bit of time (like 30 minutes), can follow my directions, and have an older, no longer in use laptop, you might give it a try.  In my case, I’m using a 7 year old Acer 15″ Aspire.

Flint OS has everything you would need to do your work on the road.  First, you’ve got the Chrome browser so anything on the web is accessible.  You have to login with your Google Account to get Chromium working.  That’s pretty much the same as WIndows 10 now, where you log in with a account.  I immediately logged in using my Google account and then my Microsoft account in Chrome.  This gives me access to:

  • Microsoft OneDrive.  Since you’re in a Google world, you also have Google Drive (and Docs, etc.) but I still primarily live in a Windows environment and I might as well stay in it.
  • Microsoft Office 365 and / or the Microsoft Office web apps:  minimalist versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc. available for free.
  • Skype on the web.  There’s no separate app for Chromebook, but you can do video and audio conferences via the web site.
All of my Microsoft tools loaded into my Chrome browser on Flint OS

I set these as my default starting pages, so first thing I’ll see are my Office tools when Chrome opens.  Getting to a Word document and editing it is easy.  None of this requires additional software.

Microsoft Word web app with document open

Since this is Chrome – even through Chromium or a Chromebook – you can do all the things you would normally do with Chrome.  I added the uBlock ad blocker and Stylish to get rid of cruft.  But because it’s Chromium, you can also focus in on offline apps.  On the left side navigation bar in the Chrome Web Store, where you download extensions, this is an option.  Also note that Chrome Apps will appear there, so you are able to use apps that do not normally appear in the Chrome browser-only web store.

Examples of offline apps in the Google Chrome store

So if you need additional tools but want to run them offline, you may find them here.  Frankly, the only one I use in this list is a Keepass-compatible offline password manager.  I can download my encrypted password file which is synced with OneDrive and store it on the Chromebook.

There are all the other nice tweaks you can use for Chrome, like custom search engines.  Once you’ve used a web site’s search engine, it should appear in the list of available search engines in your Chrome settings.  I visited the Great Library’s discovery layer search, ran a search and then tweaked the custom search.  Now, if I type lsuc and a space, I can run another search on Infolocate without having to return to the site.

Leaving Traces

This is where it can start to get tricky, because it’s important to know that a Chromebook isn’t just online storage.  You have a file storage location as well.  So you can potentially leave behind files.  I don’t worry about a locked Keepass file but other files are as accessible there as they would be on any Windows laptop.

The File Manager on Chromium

If you were going to go truly clean, then this is the rub.  You’ve got to make sure you’re not leaving any traces on this either.  I would avoid downloading any files.  And for sites like Microsoft Office, where you might keep your client information, I wouldn’t save those passwords and I would make sure you’re using two-factor authentication.  That way, if you lose or have your device confiscated, the person powering it up won’t just automatically see your information.

There’s a guest mode but, if you’ve saved your Google credentials, your account will appear (just as in Windows 10) as a login prompt at the start up screen.  If you don’t have client information in your Google accounts, then it could be invasive but it won’t affect your professional obligations if someone gets access.  But you might consider, before traveling, using the Powerwash function, which resets the Chromebook to its bare start up.

What’s Missing?

One reason to buy a Google-branded Chromebook is that they have started to embed the Android app store in the operating system.  And Microsoft has announced that its full line of apps will now run on Chromebooks.  They’re much stronger than the web apps, even if they’re still not as powerful as the full Windows versions.

Self-built versions of Chromium, like Arnold the Bat’s, or custom versions like Flint’s will not include the Android functionality.  This will provide some limits for people who are trying to use the Chromebook as more than just a clean laptop.  Also, there’s no Flash.  So even things like Google Play’s own Music store and player do not work on the Chromebook.

Not everything Google works on a Chromebook.  Flash player needed for Google Play Music.

I think Chromebooks can be an inexpensive – particularly if you’re reusing an otherwise out-dated laptop – solution for lawyers needing a clean laptop.  Using a distribution like Flint OS eliminates all of the startup driver headaches that may have existed in more DIY compilations of Chromium.  This means that you can download it once, use Etcher to burn it to USB, and you can reinstall as many times as you like.