With Chrome OS Flex, breathe new life into your outdated laptop

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You’ve always had the option of running Linux on such machines, and as time has passed the free OS distros have definitely made the whole installation process a much easier experience. The likes of Ubuntu(opens in new tab), Zorin OS(opens in new tab), Arch(opens in new tab) et al. make for a similar enough environment for anyone coming from Windows to not be too freaked by the whole experience.

Shame that installing it requires some excellent graphics gear. I’m sure we all have them—old laptops that have seen better days. Machines that were once essential to our work and gaming are now relegated to gathering dust under a couch or in a drawer. Systems that once ran Windows without issue are now unable to keep up with Microsoft’s operating system’s bloat. They might not even be able to upgrade to Windows 11(opens in new tab), and Windows 10 is also a little bit too demanding on their worn-out hard drives.

Highlights

  • Google has certified close to 400 devices with Chrome OS Flex, including laptops from the likes of Acer, Asus, and even Apple. The minimum requirements are very lenient, albeit with one important proviso on the GPU front: BIOS: Full administrator access. You’ll need to boot from the Chrome OS Flex USB installer and make some adjustments in the BIOS if you run into issues. Processor and graphics: Components made before 2010 might result in a poor experience. Note: Intel GMA 500, 600, 3600, and 3650 graphics hardware do not meet Chrome OS Flex performance standards.

  • The very fact that Valve’s Steam Deck(opens in new tab) runs on Linux and somehow isn’t a dumpster fire shows what Linux is capable of and also proves that plenty of us are willing to step outside of our operating system safe zones. Well, that’s good, because another option has popped up recently, Google’s Chrome OS. Specifically, Chrome OS Flex(opens in new tab) is a version of Chrome OS that has been tested on a fair amount of hardware already and was released last week. This is Google’s proprietary code, by the way, not to be confused with the open-source project, Chromium OS(opens in new tab). What you lose in terms of open-source goodness, you potentially make up for in ease of use.

The good news is you can try Chrome OS Flex without actually installing it. At boot time you get the option to either install it or run it straight from the USB drive. Go for the latter to try it out. This is a good way of making sure that it actually works on your hardware. Plus you get to see if Chrome OS is for you. There’s no point replacing Windows if you discover turning an old laptop into a Chromebook is not something you actually need or want in your life.

I’ve tried Chrome OS Flex on a couple of old laptops, with mixed results. The HP Pavilion 15 I tried it on clearly wasn’t happy about the graphics drivers and produced a corrupt display on boot. 100% unusable. The slightly newer Acer Aspire V5 worked flawlessly. Note that not everything is guaranteed to work: things like webcams, fingerprint readers, and even function keys may be tricky. Definitely try it out first. The good news is you can try Chrome OS Flex without actually installing it.

The actual installation is a little odd, in that you create the boot image by way of a Chrome browser extension, not from a standalone app. Because Google, obviously. Still, it works, and it’s always on hand should you ever need to create a boot USB in an emergency—yeah, I’m not convinced either.

Head to the Chrome web store in Chrome and search for Chromebook Recovery Utility(opens in new tab) and then add the extension. Now click the extension’s icon in Chrome (it looks like a jigsaw puzzle piece), and select Chromebook Recovery Utility from the drop-down list. Click Get Started, and on the next screen elect to Select a model from a list. Click the Select a manufacturer box at the top and pick Google Chrome OS Flex from the list.

You’ll need an 8GB USB stick to hold the image, so once you’re sure there’s nothing on there that you’ll need, you can pop that drive into your machine and hit the Continue button. Once the image has been written to the drive, you can eject it and boot your laptop with the USB stick in place. You will probably need to get into your laptop’s BIOS and allow it to boot from the USB stick, as many have this turned off by default. How you do that depends on your machine: for some, it’s F1, F2, or Del. For others it may be different. Do a search using your search engine of choice. Once in your BIOS, simply set the boot option to scan for USB drives first. Save the changes and reboot with the USB stick in a port and you’ll be asked whether you want to install Chrome OS Flex or just boot into it.

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