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Google Chrome OS Flex: What it is and why you should use it

Android Police logo Android Police 7/11/2022 Manuel Vonau
© Provided by Android Police

Google recently introduced Chrome OS Flex, a new version of Chrome OS that you can easily install and run on almost any computer – even one relegated to the back of your closet. The company presented Flex as an environmentally friendly way to recycle devices that are too old to properly run Windows or macOS.

However, Google Chrome OS Flex isn’t 100% the same as Chrome OS. There are also some significant differences between it and CloudReady (which we’ve enjoyed a lot), its predecessor that was created by Neverware. Google acquired Neverware in 2020 specifically to develop this retrofit technology.

Let’s dive into what makes Chrome OS Flex special and some reasons to give it a try.

What is Google Chrome Chrome OS Flex?

Chrome OS Flex is the successor to Neverware’s CloudReady operating system, which brings Chrome OS to virtually any outdated computer, Mac or PC. Like regular Chrome OS, CloudReady and Chrome OS Flex are based on Chromium OS, the open-source foundation for Google’s desktop operating system. However, unlike CloudReady, which skipped every other version of Chromium OS due to the added development overhead of forking the open-source project, Chrome OS Flex will get updates just as fast as regular Chromebooks — a big plus over its predecessor.

Chrome OS Flex does almost everything that the regular version of Chrome OS is also capable of. The Chrome browser is front and center, allowing you to surf the web in a lightweight and safe OS environment. Thanks to the lack of native application support, which is usually what enables malware to do the most damage, you’ll be hard-pressed to come across any computer-breaking viruses; of course, that also means you may not be able to use some apps unless you're connected to Wi-Fi. Even with a lack of native apps, you can use all the usual web apps you likely already rely on, such as Gmail, Google Drive, Microsoft Office Online, and tons of other great productivity tools.

How does Google Chrome OS Flex compare to Chrome OS?

There are some key differences between Chrome OS Flex and regular Chrome OS. Most notably, Flex doesn’t include native support for Android apps. However, just like on regular Chrome OS, in the future it will be possible to mirror your Pixel phone’s screen for Android app access. And right now, you can already use Phone Hub to its full extent. In contrast to CloudReady, Chrome OS Flex is also capable of running Google Assistant.

Another key difference between Chrome OS Flex and Chrome OS is the partial lack of Linux app support. While Linux for regular Chrome OS only recently exited beta, it remains marked as experimental on Chrome OS Flex, and some older computers lack the appropriate hardware to run Linux virtualization altogether. Chrome OS Flex is truly more like Chromebooks of the past have been — cloud-first machines that almost exclusively rely on web technologies.

An old HP laptop running CloudReady

Chrome OS Flex solely supports Intel and AMD processors. Computers that ship with ARM chipsets won’t get in on the sweet Chromebook-like experience, so Microsoft’s Surface Pro X and the latest M1 Macs are left out in the cold. That said, if you're an Apple enthusiast with an Intel MacBook that no longer gets MacOS updates, you may want to give Google Chrome OS Flex a shot. Since most ARM computers are new and capable enough to run their original operating systems just fine, we doubt an ARM-compatible version of the OS will be released in the near future.

Chrome OS Flex doesn’t support a few ports and features, which may not work as expected or, in a worst-case scenario, not at all. Potentially affected components and ports include CD and DVD drives, fingerprint readers, FireWire ports, infrared and face recognition cameras, Thunderbolt, and styluses or other pen peripherals. There's also a chance some functions like shortcut keys may not work properly.

Google is also working on a collection of certified devices that Chrome OS Flex officially supports, complete with details on which features will work and which won’t. However, in most cases, you can expect Chrome OS Flex to run just fine, whether you have officially certified hardware or not. It’s definitely easy enough to try out without committing to it.

Why should you use Chrome OS Flex?

Chrome OS Flex is probably the simplest way to breathe new life into your aging computer, whether it’s been running on Windows or macOS. While these traditional operating systems with all the support for native applications can be considered more powerful than Flex, they’re also more taxing on hardware. They might simply not run well enough to provide a great experience after your computer has reached a certain age. Since Chrome OS Flex is essentially just a glorified browser capable of running web apps (and, depending on your hardware, Linux apps), it inherently needs fewer resources.

For many people, web apps are everything they need on the computer they use at home. When you take gaming, coding, and creative activities like photography or videography out of the equation, a browser is all you need to get by. Word processing, basic image editing, emailing, shopping, and even taxes can all be done through a browser. A lot of web services also offer an installation shortcut, allowing you to pin them to your taskbar and launch them just as you would start a native application.

Surely, the technically inclined would argue that you could throw a lightweight Linux distribution on your computer, and it’s a fine solution for anyone who is fairly good at troubleshooting their devices. But if you’re looking for a no-frills solution that needs little to no maintenance and tinkering, Chrome OS Flex is the way to go. It’s definitely the route to take if you want to fix up a relative’s or friend’s computer — especially if they don’t know much about their machine and need it for nothing more than web browsing.

Even if you’re not convinced that Chrome OS Flex is the right operating system for you, you can still give it a try on the computer you have at hand right now. Simply create a bootable USB drive as per our instructions and test out the OS right from it. Chrome OS Flex might not be as fast this way as it will be once you’ve installed it on your computer, but it’s sufficient for a first look. Dual booting is officially not supported on Chrome OS Flex devices, though, so you have to go all-in once you've decided to install Chrome OS Flex.

Can you install Chrome OS Flex on an outdated Chromebook?

Google doesn't recommend installing Chrome OS Flex on Chromebooks, saying that it doesn't support any Chromebooks that have reached their Auto Update Expiration (AUE) date. This is the moment when Chromebooks stop receiving updates from Google, usually after 6.5 years of service. However, it is possible to install Chrome OS Flex on an otherwise increasingly insecure Chromebook.

The process isn't as straightforward as it is on Macs and PCs, though. You have to disable key security features such as firmware write protection, which usually involves cracking open your precious hardware and losing access to automatic bios updates.

When we tested the process on a Google Chromebook Pixel 2015, which reached its AUE date back in June 2021, we were reminded of what Chrome OS of old used to look like. Gone were the Android and Linux apps, with web apps remaining our only friends. The Pixel also proved to us just how finicky installing Chrome OS Flex on a Chromebook can get. Our unit's speakers and headphone jack wouldn't make a sound anymore due to driver issues, having us resort to using Bluetooth headphones. This might be an issue that future, more stable releases of Chrome OS Flex can solve, though.

Google Chrome OS Flex may breathe new life into your old laptop

Chrome OS Flex is the easiest way to repurpose your machine without having to sink into the Linux rabbit hole. Chrome OS Flex also gives you a usable experience right out of the box, with all of your browsing data neatly synced up with the rest of your Chrome-friendly devices. It may take just a little time until all the kinks are ironed out, with Chrome OS Flex currently in early access and positioned as a developer-focused preview, but once it'll reach its stable release, there should be little to no complaints left.

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