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How to: Hacking the Chromebox for maximum performance

Samsung Chromebox

Google’s forward push with Chrome OS has been slow and steady. They’ve released several new pieces of hardware, giving companies more options to choose from. Most recently, Samsung and Google offered a desktop solution with the Chromebox Series 3.

This $330 small form-factor desktop is quite the package. It offers tons I/O, including a pair of HDMI ports and DVI, 4GB of RAM, and an Intel Core i5 CPU, making this Chromebox significantly more powerful than previous Chrome OS hardware. Still, with a piece of hardware like the Chromebox, you begin to wonder what is actually going on in that little box.

Breaking into the Chromebox

I was beyond surprised to find that it requires absolutely no effort to open the Chromebox. You don’t need tools, and you don’t really even need to know what you are doing. The bottom pan pulls right off, it’s not even held in with clips. As far as I could tell, there’s not a single “warranty VOID if removed” stickers anywhere on the device, so I decided to take a further look and see what was going on.

Once I opened the cover, I could see that everything on the board was mounted with regular Phillips screws. No special tools needed — you could take the Chromebox apart with an eyeglass repair kit if you wanted to.

Samsung Chromebox

It didn’t take me long to realize that basically everything was removable and replaceable. This included the Intel Core i5 processor, the pair of 2GB RAM cards, and the 16GB mSATA SSD on the other side of the board. The Atheros WiFi card was replaceable, and even the USB 2.0 card was only screwed into place. It seems like, despite the limitations of Chrome OS as an operating system, the Samsung Chromebox had some serious potential.

In fact the only serious limitation was the power supply, and that is only a limitation for as long as I wanted the Chromebox to maintain the original form factor. So assuming that I did want to keep everything in this tiny box, and assuming that I still wanted to run Chrome OS for now, I decided to give the RAM and the SSD on this machine an upgrade.

16GB of RAM… because we can

The pair of 2GB RAM cards that came with the Chromebox are more than enough to run Chrome OS. In fact, unless you compile your own version of Chrome OS, the maximum that the operating system can support is 4GB. If you’re the type to want to dual-boot with Linux, or just blow away Chrome OS altogether, maybe you’d like some more RAM.

Thanks to the team at Kingston, we received two 8GB sticks of DDR3-1333 SODIMM RAM to put in the Chromebox. If all you are doing is putting more RAM in the box, there’s very little left for you to do. The shielding leaves the RAM exposed, and they just pop right out. Replace the RAM and you’re all done — it’s as easy as upgrades get.

Samsung Chromebox

Supersize the storage

The SSD is on the other side of the board, so that requires a little more work. The shielding comes off very quickly, exposing the board. From here you need to disconnect the speaker and power supply, both of which come out very easily. You need to unscrew the Atheros WiFi card and detach it from the board too, but you can leave everything else attached. When you unscrew the motherboard from the plastic mounting frame, the whole board lifts out very simply. Here you have the entire computer, sans power supply and WiFi, on a single board.

Flip the board over and you will see the SSD connected to the mSATA port. With a single screw the spring loaded port releases the chip, and allows you to slide another in its place. I put a Kingston SSDNow mS100 64GB SSD in its place, just to give us a little more elbow room for installing the OS and a few programs. The new unit slides right into place and screws back down. Everything on this board looks like it was intentionally designed to be extremely user serviceable.

Final Thoughts

We’ve really only scratched the surface of what this box is actually capable of. There’s an empty mSATA port, for example, that could hold anything from another SSD to USB 3.0. The heatsink and the processor are both completely removable, which means you could put an Intel PGA988 quad-core Core i7 processor in there if you really felt the urge. In fact, the i7 would probably make it so you could install more than 16GB of RAM. Chances are that most of these modifications would exceed the capabilities of the tiny power supply that is offered, not to mention the casing would likely no longer be sufficient for your use.

Samsung Chromebox

The open nature of this hardware lends itself very nicely to Google’s early declarations that they wanted the hardware platform to be easy for system administrators to manage. With boxes like these, it would be nothing to replace parts that were damaged over time, especially when these pieces require very little skill or time to install. All told, replacing the RAM and SSD only took about 20 minutes, and that was without ever having done this before. With experience, swapping hardware on a Chromebox would take absolutely no time or effort.

As we move ever closer towards sealed computing, with machines that don’t really have user serviceable parts, opening the Samsung Chromebox was a breath of fresh air. The next step is somewhat more complicated. Since the Chromebox lacks a typical BIOS, there are only hacks and workarounds for getting something other than Chrome OS on the system. Recently, ExtremeTech showed us how to dual-boot Chrome OS and Ubuntu, and if you look around in some of the Google Groups for Chrome OS it looks like support for crazy people like me isn’t that far away.


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