With the acquisition of Neverware and its Chromium-based CloudReady-OS, the path for this progress was already paved in 2020. Now, Chrome OS Flex takes a final approach to revitalize older hardware and simultaneously aims at the Enterprise.
Although the pandemic has reportedly driven the adoption of ChromeOS in different sectors, Google’s implementation of a Chrome-based Operating System is still a niche-player somehow. This is about to change now as the Preview-stage of Chrome OS Flex has ended and the product gained the status of general availability, founding on Chrome 103 and even supporting ten-year old devices. The scenario is as simple as straightforward: Older and supported devices (even some MacBooks!) which aren’t capable or running any iteration of current Operating Systems anymore can easily be equipped with Chrome OS Flex to extend their lifecycles in terms of sustainability under the „Google“-moniker.
Technically, Chrome OS Flex has the same code base and release cadence as Chrome OS which ensures a consistent end user and IT-experience. The solutions delivers the official Chrome Browser, Google Assistant and cross-device features in the same user interface as Chrome OS. Paired with the Chrome Enterprise or Education-Upgrade, IT-departments are told to manage Chrome OS Flex devices and Chrome OS devices like Chromebooks side by side in the Google Admin console so especially the administration is kept at a single point of contact.
How to start
All you need getting started is to build your own Chrome OS Flex-USB stick and boot up the desired device. Chrome OS Flex runs straight from the stick but can (and should) be permanently installed once you want to use the system on a permanent basis. The behavior is equal to the well-known Linux Live-environments that boot from an external media and can be installed once you decide to stick with the distribution. You may enter some specific information to gain access to the official installation manual or directly use this link to head on!
As we may have expected from Google, creating the bootable USB-drive (you need an 8 GB-stick for that) is accomplished by an official Chrome-extension so you should have any kind of Chrome-compatible browser available (Brave worked fine here!). Generally speaking, I would have preferred the good, old ISO-way so that Chrome OS Flex can also be deployed for users who haven’t any connection to Google-products so far: Just providing a Chrome-extension doesn’t really lower the bar here and could - possibly - prevent users from checking out Chrome OS Flex!
Google only guarantees Chrome OS Flex functionality on certified models. Variants of certified models might have unexpected issues. Chrome OS Flex might work on non-certified devices but performance, functionality, and stability are not guaranteed. The minimum device requirements are:
- Architecture: Intel or AMD x86-64-bit compatible device
- RAM: 4 GB
- Internal storage: 16 GB
- Bootable from USB drive
- 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 guided process is easy to follow then and finally equips you with a bootable media to revive your old hardware and boot from it.
Rules & Regulations
While the approach towards sustainability is definitely great, Google also addresses that, albeit sharing underlying technology and management tools, Chrome OS Flex differs in some ways to the Chrome OS-based and certified devices we know so far. For example, Chrome OS comes with verified boot and a Google Security chip while Google takes also care of BIOS-updates. In cases of encryption, only devices with a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) are fully able to encrypt data on a hardware level - although this happens on a software-basis on Chrome OS Flex anyway. There is no support for ARM-platforms and neither for Android-apps or Google’s Play Store which may be a showstopper in some use cases - mentioning this, a dedicated Chrome OS-certified device should be your choice instead.
Additionally, some integrated hardware components may work on Chrome OS Flex, but aren’t neither maintained nor supported by Google:
- CD and DVD drives
- Fingerprint readers
- FireWire ports
- Infrared (IR) and face recognition cameras
- Proprietary connectors and docks
- Stylus and active pen input
- Thunderbolt functionality
It is especially noted that, although Thunderbolt-functionality is not supported, Thunderbolt-ports using USB-C or mini-Display Port can still be used for any USB 3, USB 4 and Display Port-functionality the port is capable of. Furthermore, Google also states that performance or reliability can’t be guaranteed if being compared the official Chrome OS-devices and there is no support for Zero Touch-deployment neither.
With Chrome OS Flex and the current state of our footprint on this planet paired with the term of „sustainability“, Google may, on the one hand, exit some niches this solution is still residing in. Depending on your use case, Chrome OS Flex may be a solution to stick with your old and beloved hardware or simply pass it on to someone who needs a Browser-encapsulated Operating System for doing some Office stuff, surfing the Internet and typing some mails. The fact that even ten years old devices are still capable of running the system could (and will) surely benefit Google’s solution to reach more possible end users.
On the other hand, there is still the „Google“-factor. If you don’t like the massive kind of data collection Google’s business model founds on or dislike the solutions from Mountain View, Chrome OS Flex won’t be a match for you. Additionally, in terms of privacy, a Google-based browser cloaked into an OS’ coat could be a personal nightmare and a no-go for everyone trying to avoid Google-services in daily life. As always, not every solution matches any use case so if you are aware that, with every Google-device there comes a certain aftertaste (and, you MAY be the product!), Chrome OS Flex may be a nice and fast approach to extend the life of PC-devices you would have dumped instead!