How to turn an old laptop into a Chromebook with free ChromeOS Flex

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Google’s ChromeOS isn’t available to install on a laptop or desktop like Windows or Linux, but the next best thing is Google ChromeFlex OS. Formerly called Neverware CloudReady, the OS is designed primarily for business and education, but Flex is free for personal use and so lightweight it’s ideal for breathing new life into a computer struggling with the demands of Windows, MacOS, or Linux.

Google acquired Neverware in December 2020 and the result of that is ChromeOS Flex. While CloudReady was good, Flex is much closer to the experience you’d get with a Chromebook or other ChromeOS device. That includes things like the official Chrome browser, support for Family Link accounts, including school-issued accounts, and Phone Hub, which lets you connect to an Android phone to display notifications and share files between phone and laptop. The only thing you don’t get is access to the Google Play store and Android apps.

ChromeOS Flex works well even on older hardware. That’s why it’s a good option for repurposing a laptop that can no longer run current versions of Windows, MacOS, or Linux. However, Google only guarantees that Flex will work on a growing list of certified models. However, if your model isn’t certified, that doesn’t mean it won’t work, just that full functionality and performance isn’t a given.

Open MacBook Air on a desktop showing the ChromeOS Flex installation screen on the screen.

You can either wipe a laptop drive and install ChromeOS Flex or run the OS from a USB stick to try it out first.

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You choose: Test Run or Full Install

However, one of the best features of ChromeOS Flex is that you can run it from a USB flash drive or SD card to try it out first without completely overwriting your current operating system. For best performance it is not recommended to run Flex from a flash drive all the time, but it will let you see if it will work for your needs.

Installing ChromeOS Flex is quick and painless. The first step is to gather everything you need:

  • A USB flash drive or SD card of 8 GB or more
  • A Windows, Mac, or Linux computer to install ChromeOS Flex on

Please note that the installation ChromeOS Flex will completely erase your entire hard drive. Any important files should be backed up first. You’ll also need a ChromeOS, Windows PC, or Mac device with the current version of Chrome Browser installed. This will be used to create the ChromeOS Flex USB installer and does not need to be the same device you plan to install it on. The USB stick will also be completely erased when creating the installer.

To run ChromeOS Flex, the target laptop (or desktop) will need to support Intel or AMD x86-64-bit (newer than 2010 for best experience), have 4GB of RAM or more, have at least 16 GB of storage and You will need full administrator access to the BIOS. Once you have everything you need, it’s time to create the USB installer.

  • Open a Chrome browser window on a ChromeOS, Windows PC, or Mac device and add the Chromebook Recovery Utility extension through the Chrome web store. This is what you will use to build the USB/SD card installer.
  • Go to the Chrome browser extensions menu located at the top right of the Chrome browser window (it looks like a little puzzle piece). Click on it and a dropdown list of extensions will appear. Find the Chromebook Recovery Utility in the list and click it to launch it. You may also need to enable the utility, which can be done by clicking Manage Extensions at the bottom of the extensions dropdown.

In the Recovery Utility, instead of selecting a model to recover, you will select ChromeOS Flex.

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  • When the Chromebook Recovery Utility starts, you will be prompted to identify which model of Chromebook to recover. However, there will be a link labeled Select a model from a list in the dialog. Click on that link and from the Select a manufacturer dropdown list that appears select Google Chrome OS Flex. Below that dropdown is another one labeled Select a product from which you will choose ChromeFlex OS.
  • Next, insert your flash drive or SD card into the device you’re using to create the installer, select it as your destination drive, and then click Create now. The build process takes up to 20 minutes but mine took half that time. Once the installer completes, the drive can be ejected and is ready to use.

When the installer completes, your USB drive or SD card is ready to use to run or install ChromeOS Flex.

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You’re almost done. It’s time to grab the laptop you want to turn into a Chromebook. Make sure the laptop is powered off and insert the ChromeOS Flex installer USB stick or SD card.

The next step is to boot the laptop from the USB stick instead of the internal storage drive. This requires you to press a boot key while the laptop is booting up. Boot keys vary by manufacturer. For example, I converted a MacBook Air and its startup key is the Option key. Google has a list of boot keys for major manufacturers if you’re not sure what yours is.

Turn on the laptop and while it boots, press the power key to abort the boot process. You may need to hold down the key or press it repeatedly to enter the boot menu. If done correctly, the laptop should give you the option to select which drive you want to boot from, the laptop’s internal drive or your USB drive. Select the USB drive and press Get into.

Open MacBook Air showing the boot drive menu on the screen.

Once you get into the boot menu options, select the USB installation drive you created to get started.

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If you’ve done everything correctly, you’ll see the ChromeOS Flex splash screen followed by a Welcome to ChromeOS Flex screen. (If not, retrace your steps using Google’s installation guide.) From there, you can choose to try the operating system and run it directly from the flash drive or install ChromeOS Flex on internal storage. Doing the latter gives you the best performance; however, it also erases everything on the internal drive and the native operating system cannot be recovered. If you’re not 100% sure you want to use ChromeOS Flex, try running it from the USB drive first.

The full OS installation can take up to 20 minutes (however, my MacBook Air completed in less than 5 minutes). However you decide to run it, the setup process is the same: select a Wi-Fi network, agree to Google’s terms of service, choose whether the Chromebook is for you or a child, and then sign in with your account. of Google. Account information.

ChromeOS Flex installed on an old MacBook Air.

Sign in to ChromeOS Flex with a Google account and password, and you’re ready to go.

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Ta-da, Chromebook! At least close enough for most needs. Performance will depend on what your laptop has. My installation was on a MacBook Air from early 2015 and it is much faster than with macOS. The only downside to my particular model is that the built-in webcam isn’t supported, but an external USB webcam worked fine.

If you have a USB flash drive and an old laptop, it’s certainly worth the minimal effort to try and, again, it’s free.

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