On Tuesday, the company announced plans to launch Chrome OS Flex, an entirely free version of the Chrome OS operating system that you’ll often find on inexpensive laptops and all-in-ones. The difference? Instead of relying on new hardware, Chrome OS Flex is designed to run on PCs and Macs around 13 years old. This means that some of the computers collecting dust around the house can be put into use as web-browsing machines, this time with up-to-date security and new features.
Google says Chrome OS Flex is technically for “businesses and schools,” but ordinary people will be able to download it themselves. And with just a little tinkering, it should be easy enough to get the software to work on ten-year-old machines – assuming they’re still powering up, that is. But should you take the plunge and install this thing?
Over time, maybe. Chrome OS Flex is now available as “early access” software, which means it probably won’t be as stable as the full version coming in a few months. Still, the software may be just what some people need to get their aging PCs working reliably again. Here’s what you need to know about how Chrome OS Flex works.
Probably, unless you bought it well before 2010. Google hasn’t specified what the minimum requirements are, but Neverware – the company whose work would eventually become Chrome OS Flex – has hinted at them in the past. If your computer has at least 2 gigabytes of RAM and a hard drive with at least 16 GB of storage space, your new operating system will probably work just fine.
“The team has definitely gotten some very obscure and old devices working,” Peter Du, communications manager for Google’s Chrome OS, said in an email.
Beyond that, some obvious caveats apply. The computer should still turn on and be in good working order – Google cannot magically fix physical problems.
Google says yes, but we’ll have to test that claim for ourselves. In theory, however, the process is simple: you’re supposed to download the software to a USB drive, which you then plug into the old computer in question. Once you configure this computer to search for USB drives first when powering on, it should load software from the USB drive and allow you to test out Chrome OS Flex before committing to anything.
If you decide to make the switch to Chrome OS Flex permanent, you’ll use the same USB drive to install that software onto whatever’s already on that hard drive. This is a permanent change, so now is a good time to back up all your important files and media from your machine if you haven’t already.
Unlike your typical Windows or Mac computer, a machine running Chrome OS Flex is primarily intended to allow users to get up and running in a web browser. It sounds pretty limited – and it may be – but it still means you can stream music, binge videos, edit photos and do some writing.
If you or your family spend a lot of time browsing the Internet, an extra computer running this software might come in handy. A few uses come to mind: maybe it becomes a dedicated machine for kids, which you can manage remotely with Google’s Family Link app. A Chrome OS Flex computer would also make a great “guest” machine for people who stop by and need to do something online that their phone can’t handle. (I keep a beloved laptop in my living room for this reason.)
As this is the Google software we’re talking about, it also comes with a handful of familiar features, like support for Google Assistant and the ability to connect to your Android phone to receive incoming on-screen notifications. from your computer. That said, not all of these new features will work on all older computers, so it’s worth keeping your expectations in check.
By far the biggest downside is the software support. There is basically none.
Unless the company behind your favorite software has a version that works in a web browser, you’re probably out of luck. And while modern Chromebooks have the ability to download and install Android apps from Google’s Play Store, you can’t on an older computer running Chrome OS Flex. (If you’re familiar with services like Citrix Workspace, you can use software in virtual versions of Windows in Chrome, but that gets messy fast.)
There are also some things Chrome OS was never really designed for, like playing music or movies from CDs or DVDs. (Yes, that means your computer’s built-in CD or DVD drive won’t work.) The same goes for the fingerprint scanners, facial recognition cameras, and styluses your computer was supposed to work with. . Google’s software just doesn’t know what to do with it.
If Google’s software isn’t for you, there are plenty of other things to use your old computers for.
Turn it into a server: Got a collection of home movies and, uh, legitimately obtained digital movies? If they can fit on your old computer’s hard drive, install an app called Plex and use that machine as the cornerstone of your personal Netflix.
Recycle it: If your computer isn’t super old, this could be a worthwhile gift to someone else who could use it. Type your postcode into Digitunity’s search tool – it will show you nearby nonprofits looking for tech you no longer need.
Sell it: Believe it or not, there’s no shortage of people willing to buy old computers from services like eBay and Facebook Marketplace. Some of them need extra parts. Others are looking for period-specific machines to play older games. Either way, chances are someone will find as much value in your old tech as they did before.