Need Fast Web Access? Try Chromium OS on a Stick

We’ve all had those moments at an airport waiting room, hotel lobby or coffee shop when we just want to yank out our laptops, hop onto the Web, check our e-mail and get offline. Try that with a Windows notebook and you’re talking about a few minutes to boot up, and maybe even longer to shut down. Your plane could be gone by then.

The solution? Arm yourself with a USB flash drive loaded with Google’s new Chromium OS. Boot your notebook with that when you’re pressed for time and you’ll be on and off the Web in less than a minute each way. Don’t want to boot with Chromium right now? Just remove the USB drive before your next boot-up. Your Windows notebook will forget all about Chromium and boot up normally.

As we reported earlier, a Twitter user Hexxeh has brewed a version of Chromium that boots a Windows, Linux or Mac computer from a USB drive. The latest build requires an empty USB flash drive (installing Chromium will wipe it) with a capacity of as little as 1GB.

Unlike Microsoft Windows, which loads from your notebook’s hard disk, Chromium will run entirely from your USB stick. The Chromium OS assumes that all of your data is on the Internet, be it your contacts, e-mail, documents or other files. If all you need at the moment is Web access, Chromium on a stick provides a much faster route to the Web.

To my surprise, my vintage, 2007 Gateway MT3418 running Windows Vista Home was able to boot the current “Cherry” version of Hexxeh’s Chromium build from a 2GB USB flash drive with few hiccups. In about 50 seconds -- including the time it took me to enter my Google ID and password -- Chromium was ready for work.

By comparison, under Windows it took the same notebook almost five minutes from power on to the moment its Google Chrome Web browser became responsive enough for me to access my e-mail. As with any beta software, your mileage will vary; Chromium doesn’t support all hardware at this point and may not boot with your unit.

If you’re familiar with the Chrome browser for Windows, navigating Chromium will not be a problem. It comes preloaded with links to popular e-mail sites such as GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and other popular Web sites such as YouTube and Hulu. The current version of Chromium includes improved Wi-Fi support, which is managed from a tiny, easy-to-miss network icon in the upper right corner of the screen.

The steps for creating a bootable version of Chromium on a flash drive for a Windows PC are fairly easy:

  • Get an empty USB flash drive with at least a 1GB capacity. Bigger is better since later versions of Chromium may grow.
  • Download WinRAR (http://www.rarlab.com) or another utility that can decompress GZ archives.
  • Download Windows Image Writer from Hexxeh's Web site. UnZip the file. Windows can accomplish that by itself. Right-click on the file and click on “Extract All.” Go to the folder where the unzipped files were saved and click on “Win32DiskImager.exe” to start the program.
  • Download Hexxeh’s Chromium OS build from his Web site. It’s big, and will take a while on a slow connection. Instructions for Linux and Mac machines can be found here as well.
  • Using WinRAR or a compatible utility, decompress the downloaded GZ archive file onto your computer. Note the location of the extracted image file.
  • Insert the empty flash drive into your computer.
  • Use Windows Image Writer to open the extracted image file and install the image of Chromium onto the flash drive. Make sure you select the correct drive letter for the USB drive since writing the image erases all data on the selected drive.
  • Once the image has been written to the flash drive, it’s ready to go.

Set up your notebook so that it boots from the USB port first. This requires you to edit your notebook’s BIOS settings; something only experienced notebook users should attempt. In some computers the BIOS settings can be accessed by hitting the F2 key as soon as the computer starts booting up. Sometimes you can express directly to a one-time boot-order menu by hitting F10 instead. Check your computer’s manual for the final word.

With the flash drive in place in a USB slot, power up the notebook. Within a minute you should get a blue screen (no, not that blue screen) with spaces for your Google ID and password. Shutting down Chromium is easy. Use your notebook’s power button: There is no shutdown feature in Chromium.

Final word: Good luck. After all this effort it still may not work.

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