Deadlines have a way of sneaking up on you. If you have an old PC running Windows 10, the deadline you should remember is the end of support date for the operating system: October 14, 2025.
Unless you’re willing to pay Microsoft, that’s the day your old PC stops receiving security updates. And since it’s old, it’s also not eligible to upgrade to Windows 11 (although there are ways around that).
Also: How to screen record in Windows 10 or Windows 11
For some of the senior PCs with useful life left, one option is to change operating systems. My ZDNET colleague Jason Perlow raved about his success in reviving three old computers with ChromeOS Flex, and after testing it I agree that, for some use cases, it’s a is an excellent (and free!) alternative.
Don’t think, however, that because Google’s OS is lightweight and free you can make the switch without a headache. I’m here to testify: Yes, there are headaches.
First let me make a true confession: I did not do my homework before I try to install ChromeOS Flex for the first time. Mr. Perlow didn’t flag any issues with his installations, so it should be a piece of cake, right?
I have been in this business for many years, enough to know the answer to that question. No, it wasn’t easy. But many of the issues I encountered could have been easily prevented, if I had done a little research before diving in.
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Today, I’m here to share my experiences and advise you on how to avoid making the same mistakes I did.
But let’s start with a little background.
What is ChromeOS Flex, and what is it good for?
You can think of ChromeOS Flex as Linux Ultra Light. It’s very similar to the OS that powers Chromebooks, with a few key differences (notably the absence of an app store). It is engineered to be installed as a replacement for older, Intel-powered computers that were originally built to run Windows or OS X or MacOS
The ChromeOS Flex interface, shown below, has all the pieces you’d expect from a modern operating system. There’s a home button in the lower left, which you can click to open a menu of app shortcuts. At the bottom of the display is a bar with several shortcuts to apps and pinned files, and there’s a region in the lower right where you can click to pop up a display of system settings. If that sounds familiar, well … that’s the point, right? When you switch, most of your navigation skills are easily transferable.
On devices where you can remove the keyboard, ChromeOS Flex does a nice job of transitioning to touch-first tablet mode.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no app store with ChromeOS Flex, so you’re limited to built-in Google apps and anything that runs in a browser. That’s easy if your life is already organized in the Google ecosystem, of course, but it also works well with Microsoft 365 apps. The key is to install Outlook, Word, and others as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs).
Also: I turned my laptop into a desktop PC and I have never been more productive
I tested ChromeOS Flex on a Microsoft Surface Go 2 with an Intel Core m3 processor, and it performed well on core tasks as long as I didn’t put it to sleep. But if I ignore the system for a long time, it tries to enter sleep mode, which causes it to crash. The only way to recover is a hard reboot. I was able to work around the crashes by instructing the system to stay awake when I close the Type Cover and turn off the display but not sleep after inactivity. Needless to say, that resulted in less-than-surprising battery life.
There are other issues as well. For example, none of the built-in cameras (front or back) work, making this machine unable to handle even the simplest videoconference. The touchpad sometimes stopped working as well, but continued to function normally after being removed and then re-attached.
In the end, I was able to use this device long enough to appreciate its potential, but bad insomnia made it unusable as a mobile device.
And I would have known that if I had just done my homework. That was my first and biggest mistake.
1. Don’t ignore the documentation
If you have an old PC or Mac and you’re thinking about installing ChromeOS Flex on it, don’t do anything until you check Google’s official list of ChromeOS Flex Certified models.
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The list is organized by manufacturer and model number and is easy to navigate. Devices that have been tested and proven to work without issues get a green check mark. Each model also gets an End of Support date worth checking. It doesn’t make much sense to replace Windows 10 with the release of ChromeOS Flex which is also scheduled to end support in 2025 or earlier. According to Google, “After the Certified until the expiration date, some devices may still continue to receive updates. However, updates may have issues, and are not guaranteed.”
There is a fairly long list of features not supported by ChromeOS Flex, including CD/DVD drives, fingerprint readers and face recognition cameras, stylus and active pen input, and Thunderbolt functionality. For a complete list of features guaranteed to work, see this page: “About ChromeOS Flex certified models.”
There’s a full page on known issues, too. Under the “Unsupported hardware” section, it points out that “Mac devices with Touch Bar, T2 security chip, or M1 processor are not supported and may have major bugs even if they work.” In fact, any Mac or Windows PC with an Arm-based processor is out of luck.
And this paragraph stops me cold:
Unless listed as a certified model, Microsoft Surface products are not supported and may have issues with keyboards, touchpads, touchscreens, and webcams.
Only two Surface models are Certified to work with ChromeOS Flex: The Surface Laptop SE, an ultra-cheap 2022 model aimed at the education market, and the 10-year-old Surface Pro 3.
Some things you need to know
After spending a few days repeatedly installing ChromeOS Flex, wiping the system, restoring Windows, and then reinstalling ChromeOS Flex, I have a few more lessons to learn. forward:
2. Use Google Chrome to run the installer
To create a bootable USB installer for ChromeOS Flex, you need to install the Chromebook Recovery Utility extension from the Chrome web store. Even if this extension is installed and appears to be available in a Chrome-compatible browser such as Microsoft Edge, it will not work. Use Google Chrome.
Ignore the list of specific manufacturers and models. For the manufacturer, select Google ChromeOS Flexand for the product, select ChromeOS Flex.
3. Disconnect everything before you install
If you have an SD or Micro SD card inserted, remove it. Also remove any unnecessary USB devices. I had a lot of confusing errors until I realized that a Micro SD card was stuck in a hidden slot. In fact, only your system drive is available for the ChromeOS Flex installer.
4. Find out how your hardware’s boot settings work
Each PC has its own way of forcing the device to boot from removable media. On a PC running Windows 10/11, I found the simplest way to boot from the ChromeOS Flex USB installer is as follows:
- Go to Settings > system > Recovery > Advanced Getting Started.
- selection Restart now.
- In the Windows Recovery Environment menu, select Use a device.
- Select the Linpus a little option.
If you want to kick the tires, you can run ChromeOS Flex from a USB drive. But for a real test, choose the option to install ChromeOS Flex, which will wipe your current drive and all the data on it.
5. Have a backup plan in case things go wrong
Changing your operating system will erase everything on the system drive, so make sure you backup your data files before starting. I created a Windows recovery drive and a system image on my Windows PC before trying any of this. As a result, I was able to return my system to the previous state after running my experiment. If you decide ChromeOS Flex isn’t for you, your other option is to simply install your current version of Windows.