Google Wants You To Convert Your Old Machine Into A Chromebook
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Wednesday, 16 February 2022

ChromeOS Flex is a new implementation from Google that runs on x86 hardware and you can try it out for free. Converting old hardware into a modern Chromebook sounds attractive, so should you be tempted?

ChromeOS has made inroads into schools and other group situations. Essentially it's a Linux kernel with a version of Chrome acting as its user interface. At its most basic it lets browse the web and run web apps, but you can also run Android and Linux apps if you go to the trouble of installing them. A Chromebook-style machine is a good choice if you mostly want to use web apps such as Google's office suite.

Chromebooks are low-cost and low-powered - a reflection of the fact that ChromeOS isn't very demanding. This means it is also a good way to pep up old hardware. This is where ChromeOS Flex comes in. Two years ago Google bought Neverware which made CloudReady, a ChromeOS that would work on a PC. Now Google has released a first beta of a revamped system that in principle will run on old hardware.

Google's motivation has to be to increase the user base for ChromeOS as it has little else to gain from re-purposing old hardware, even if it likes to make reducing electronic waste a plus point. At the moment CloudReady is still available to buy while ChromeOS Flex is free to download in exchange for a registration.  A note on the installation page says:

"Chrome OS Flex is currently released for early access testing and is not suitable for production use. CloudReady is available for immediate stable deployment. Google will automatically update CloudReady devices to Chrome OS Flex, when Chrome OS Flex is stable."

So will the paid-for version become free or the free version become paid-for - we have to wait and see, but the invitation does say "Try an early version of Chrome OS Flex for free".


Installation is easy as it makes use of the Chrome OS Recovery Utility, which is an add-on to Chrome to write to a USB stick that can be use to boot any machine you want to try it out on. The USB stick has to be 8G or more. The machine you are going to boot has to be an AMD x86-64-bit compatible device with at least 4GBytes of RAM and be bootable from a USB drive. You will also find that some graphics hardware results in slow performance. There is a list of supported hardware, the Certified models list, and I found a machine that was listed but with "major issues". In practice the install went well and there were no issues that I could detect in a few hours of use.

What's strange is the way it still refers to itself as CloudReady rather than ChromeOS Flex - clearly it's a very early beta. It also doesn't support Android apps or Google Play which is a big negative. In principle you can run a Linux development system, but I couldn't make it work so perhaps that is the "major issue" the models list warned of. There are also a lot of perhiperals that are not supported - fingerprint readers, CD/DVD drives and more.

Overall my first impression was better than I expected, but not as good as I hoped for. It seemed fast and responsive, but essentially I was restricted to working with Google Workspace, i.e Gmail, Google Docs/Sheets/Forms - and of course I had to log in with my Google account to do almost anything.

So is this likely to make ChromeOS more attractive to the developer because it increases the user base?

Probably not.

It isn't an upgrade for very old hardware - there's no 32-bit support, for example, and while the list of supported machine is fairly long, there are too many listed as having issues. In addition when you get it working it has too many hardware and software limitations. You can think of it as turning old hardware into something very limited.

As Windows 11 doesn't support upgrade from a lot of hardware this could be a route to keeping you investment alive, but personally I'd prefer to use a standard Linux installation. The only advantage of ChromeOS Flex is simplicity of use, but this is coupled with a restriction of use. It's fine for web browsing and using Google docs.

Then there is the small issue of trust. Can we trust Google to stick by the new OS? The irony of upgrading old hardware from unsupported, or soon-to-be-unsupported operating systems to an operating system that Google is quite capable of "sunsetting" isn't lost. And there is also the issue of it not being clear if we will be charged for the final product. A free, not-so-capable, OS is worth considering - the same with a future cost isn't as tempting.


More Information

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 16 February 2022 )