Linux apps on Chrome OS in 2021: A complete guide

Linux apps on Chrome OS in 2021: A complete guide

Chrome OS is incredibly powerful and versatile, running on a variety of hardware and can also run a variety of apps. In addition to running Android apps from the Play Store, it’s also possible to run full Linux apps. For many users, the basic Chromebook functionality is just fine. However, if you find yourself wanting an app or service your Chromebook doesn’t offer out of the box, Linux apps may be for you.

What exactly can you accomplish running Linux apps? Chrome OS by default is a cloud computing platform, which leaves out some desktop-class apps you might see on a Mac or PC. For instance, if you need to run Photoshop natively, that’s not possible on your Chromebook. Video editing is also quite difficult by default on Chrome OS. Both of these problems are addressed by Linux apps.

In addition, if you’re a developer, you undoubtedly need Linux for coding tools. While not all Chromebooks support Linux apps (there are some baseline system requirements), most modern Chromebooks will have the option available. In this guide we walk through precisely how to enable and install Linux apps on your Chromebook, and run down the best Linux apps available on Chrome OS.

How to enable Linux apps on Chrome OS

As mentioned before, you need to check that your Chromebook actually supports Linux apps first. To do this :

  • Open up the Chrome OS settings (by clicking the time area in the lower-right corner of the desktop and then clicking the gear-shaped Settings icon).
  • Click on the Advanced tab and select Developers.
  • Turn on the Linux (Beta) option seen in the menu below. Currently Linux is in beta testing on Chrome OS (as it has been the past three years), but Google says it will exit beta soon.

Linux Beta on Chrome OS

  • Follow the on-screen prompts to install Linux on your Chromebook. During the setup process you will choose a username for the Linux environment. The username can be just about anything, so don’t worry about this too much. You’ll also need to decide how much of your available storage to devote to Linux, but this can be modified later. Installation will take a few minutes, so a little patience is needed at this step.
  • When the installation concludes you will see a terminal window like the one below. Now you’re finally ready to download and install some Linux apps.

Linux username screen in Chrome OS

basic terminal after installing Linux on Chrome OS

How to download and install Linux apps on Chrome OS

There are two fairly simple ways to download and install Linux apps on your Chromebook. If you’re a command-line veteran, the terminal offers a quick method for installing any app you might want. However, if you prefer to point and click, that’s also possible for many apps. Let’s take a look at both options.

Install Linux apps using Debian (.deb) files

The easiest way to install Linux apps is by using the Debian extension file. You’ll find this installation package on the webpage of most popular Linux apps you’re interested in. Slack is one of the most popular Linux apps, which is a full-featured teams communication tool. If you navigate to the Slack Linux download page, you’ll notice the option to download as a .deb file.

Downloading this file to your Chromebook will place it in the Downloads folder. If you open the Downloads folder and double-click on the given file, Chrome OS will install the software for you. The new app will now appear in your app drawer and can even be pinned to the dock.

This is certainly the easiest way to install Linux apps, but occasionally a Debian file might not be available for an app you want.

Slack download page on Chrome OS

This screenshot shows the Debian package install on a Chromebook.

Install Linux apps from the terminal

Using terminal commands isn’t that familiar for most Mac and PC users. The command line interface is at the heart of Linux productivity. For apps without a Debian download, you can use quick commands to install them with ease. Before starting, it’s worth updating Linux using:

sudo apt-get update 

Now you can install some apps. Suppose you want to install the popular Photoshop replacement GIMP? Simply run the command:

sudo apt-get install gimp -y 

You’ll notice a wall of text scroll down the command line — this is normal during installation. At the end, GIMP will be placed in your Linux apps folder inside the Launcher. While using the command line isn’t too much work, it can occasionally be annoying to Google for the exact name of the program you need. You must enter the name precisely in the command line, or this approach won’t work.

Linux install command for GIMP

Updating Linux apps

Occasionally you’ll need to update your Linux apps. Unlike apps on Android or iOS, you need to manually check for these updates. Conveniently, Linux allows you to check for updates for all of your installed apps simultaneously. To do this, open the terminal and type:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade 

This dual command will check all of your apps for updates and then proceed to download any that are available.

Linux app folder on a Chromebook

Uninstalling Linux apps

You might also decide you no longer need certain Linux apps on your Chromebook. Uninstalling apps is also done from the command line. For instance, if you want to uninstall GIMP you would open the terminal and type:

sudo apt-get remove gimp 

It’s really that simple. You can repeat this process for each app you want to uninstall.

Best Linux apps for Chrome OS in 2021

GIMP

  • Download using:

sudo apt-get install gimp -y 

GIMP is a full-featured photo editing suite, similar to Photoshop but without the high price. If you’re a graphic designer transitioning to Chrome OS, you’ll find that GIMP is an indispensable tool. The functionality and file types are precisely aligned with what you would expect in other photo editing software. There are many advanced tools like layers, lasso and plenty of brushes to keep advanced users satisfied. If you need a photo editing app on your Chromebook, this is the only way to go.

GIMP running on a Chromebook

Libre Office

  • Download using:

sudo apt install -y libreoffice libreoffice-gtk3 

Microsoft Office is the king of word processing on both PC and Mac, but your Chromebook comes with Google Docs as the default word processor. Perhaps you’d like a more robust program for editing documents and spreadsheets? If you need all of the functionality that Microsoft Office offers, Libre Office is a solid replacement. You also get a presentation app, similar to Powerpoint. Libre Office supports a large number of file formats ranging from Microsoft Word to Apple Pages and Keynote. With Libre Office, you’ll easily be able to continue business as usual on your Chromebook.

Libre Office running on a Chromebook

Visual Studio Code

If you’re going to use your Chromebook for coding applications, Visual Studio Code is an excellent code editor. With support for several popular coding languages, you get auto-complete functionality and Git support for version control. With a slick UI, optional extensions, and theme support, this is a robust code editor that developers need on Chrome OS. Frequent coders might also consider picking up a nice docking station for their Chromebook, to enhance productivity.

Visual Studio Code running on a Chromebook

Audacity

  • Download using:

sudo apt-get install audacity -y 

For the creators out there, you might need a nice app to record or edit audio. This is an advanced audio editor and recorder that comes in handy when you want to play around with various audio files. Audacity has a lot of features that allow you to create your own unique tracks or remix other songs. There are also many plugins available for Audacity which will allow you to connect to sound equipment and other audio programs. Overall, this is the best audio editing app you can get on your Chrome OS device.

Audacity running on a Chromebook

Kdenlive

  • Download using:

sudo apt-get install kdenlive -y 

Video editing is a big deal these days. Millions of people upload videos to Youtube, Twitch, and Tiktok every hour. If you’re serious about video editing, moving to Chrome OS can be a bit scary. Thankfully, Kdenlive is a nice video editing program for Linux that can run on your Chromebook. Those of you that are used to running Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro will pick up the intuitive interface in no time. It’s worth noting that while Kdenlive does run well on Chrome OS, you’ll need a fairly powerful Chromebook to take full advantage of this app.

Kdenlive running on a Chromebook

These are our favorite apps to get you started with Linux on any of the top Chromebooks. There are countless other Linux apps that can also enhance your experience with Chrome OS. Perhaps the most exciting part of enabling Linux apps is the exploration of all the new possibilities. Linux has something for everyone, whether you need productivity apps, pro editing apps, or just want to enjoy media on your Chromebook.

Now that we have shared our favorites, please chime in with your go-to Linux apps on Chrome OS in the comments below.

About author

Jeff Springer
Jeff Springer

Applied mathematician with a love for Android. I am interested in inverse problems for imaging and integration with camera software for mobile phones.