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Dell Chromebook 11 3120 -- by Xylon 2017

From Savvy Humans Know Tech

This laptop is distinguished by it’s low cost, portability and good construction. It has an interesting keyboard but is otherwize just a standard laptop (no touchscreen or other strange stuff).

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The Dell Chromebook 11 3120 is a “Chromebook”. This means it comes pre-installed with a very silly operating system called “ChromeOS”. This operating system tries to make you use Google services for everything.

However, it has an x86 processor and it’s easy to unlock the BIOS, so it can run almost any operating system you want.

I bought it to use as my portable computer for:

  • reading and responding to email
  • writing blog posts
  • programming
  • research

I got it second-hand from some guy for £100 GBP. After laughing at ChromeOS I enabled developer mode, removed the write-protect screw, flashed SeaBIOS and installed Debian. There are several guides: Debian guide & Arch guide.

Candy circuit.jpg

Everything went fine except for the following caveats:

  • the WiFi requires proprietary firmware. The Debian NetInstaller I was using can’t even install without internet connectivity, and the device has no ethernet port, so I had to put the .deb on a flash drive and plug it in so the installer could load it. The Debian installer makes this easy by telling you what firmware you need and automatically scanning any flash drives for a .deb.
  • couldn’t get sound working. Not that I tried very hard as I don't really need it.

Now after installing Debian and setting it up how I wanted I noticed that the keyboard is very silly.

Candy keyboard.jpg

  • No Caps-Lock
  • “SuperKey” aka “Windows Key” aka “ModKey4” is moved to the location of Caps-Lock. It has a picture of a magnifying glass on it. Alt and Ctrl are extra wide to use the extra space.
  • Missing Home, End, PageUp, PageDown and Menu
  • The F keys are wider than usual, and have random pictures on them instead of correct labels. F11 and F12 are missing.
  • There is no Delete key
  • In the normal place of the Delete key, there is a power key, which Systemd (Debian 9’s init system) responds to by instantly shutting down the computer without saving my work.

Apart from all that, the keyboard is a normal British keyboard. Now the “deadly delete key” that loses all my work is obviously a problem. Luckily it’s easy to change it’s behaviour by editing “/etc/systemd/logind.conf” and restarting.

I was able to use xmodmap to remap keys and create shortcuts such that the keyboard was usable.

Graphics acceleration works, and it can drive a 1920x1080 screen just fine over HDMI.

On the back is a chrome logo to advertise that you do all your computing with Google Chrome. I covered it up with a political sticker:

Candy sticker.jpg

This is very funny as the whole idea of the chromebook is that you put all your stuff in the cloud. It's a great match for the laptop's color scheme too!

So, here’s the over-all conclusion:

Pros

  • Strangely quiet as it has no fan.
  • More than double the practical performance than my old Asus EeePC 1001px.
  • So cheap it’s not worth stealing.
  • Non-shiny screen means it’s easier to see.

Cons

  • Requires a non-free firmware package to make the WiFi work.
  • I couldn’t work out how to make sound work in Debian.
  • Not much storage, and as SD card doesn’t go all the way in there’s no good way to expand it.

Candy final.jpg

Specs

Condition: second-hand, works fine though
Base model: Dell Chromebook 11 (3120)
Year released: 2015
Processor: Intel Celeron N2840 @ 2.16GHz
RAM: 4 GiB DDR3 non-upgradeable
Integrated Graphics: Intel HD graphics
Storage: 16GB eMMC Flash, non-upgradable
Connectivity left:
  • power socket
  • 1 x USB 3.0 port
  • HDMI port
  • headphone port
  • SD card slot
Connectivity right: 1 x USB 2.0
Optical drive: none
Networking: Intel Corporation Wireless 7260
Screen: 11.6 inch, 1366x768, non-glossy
Battery life: great
Dimensions:
  • width: 297mm
  • height: 21mm
  • depth: 218mm