Last Updated on March 13, 2021 by Dave Farquhar
Chrome OS is a great alternative operating system for secure, modern computing. But did you know you don’t have to just buy a Chromebook or Chromebox? Did you know you can install Chrome OS on an old laptop or PC? Here’s how, and why you might want to do so.
If you have an older PC that no longer runs Windows well, it might still have what it takes to run Chrome OS. Once you free the machine of the overhead of antivirus, an aging PC can run better. You might also have a slightly older PC that’s more powerful than what Google offers. So you can build your own Chrome OS machine with a more powerful CPU, more memory, or more storage than you can just buy outright.
An older Core 2 Duo CPU is usually about comparable in speed to a Celeron N-series CPU from 2018 you’ll find in current Chromebooks. So an aged laptop won’t run Chrome OS any worse than a current Chromebook. And you may be able to outfit the older laptop with more memory. You certainly can put a better SSD in it than the eMMC SSD most inexpensive Chromebooks have. Once you get into Core i3 and i5 CPUs, even first-generation i3s and i5s outrun the mobile Celerons in production today. Plus, those older laptops often had really nice keyboards.
Is Chrome OS for you?
A lot of people don’t use their computer for anything but going online. They read their e-mail on Gmail or another web-based e-mail service. They visit social media sites. They shop on Amazon or Ebay. If that sounds like you, you can probably get by with Chrome OS rather than an end-all, be-all OS like Windows or Mac OS and save a fortune.
Even if you occasionally create documents, you can use Google Apps to create and edit Microsoft Office-compatible documents and store them in Google Drive. This protects your documents against ransomware, which is nice. And Google gives you 16 gigabytes of storage for free.
Security professionals have long recommended using Chrome OS-based computers for banking to protect your financial security. What I didn’t like about that was the need to spend $200 on a computer for that purpose. But if you can reuse old hardware, that recommendation becomes a lot more practical. Install Chrome OS on an old laptop or PC you don’t use anymore, and then you protect yourself while keeping that equipment out of a landfill.
Is your hardware compatible?
Cloudready works best on hardware certified for it, and quite a bit of hardware is, including old HP T610 thin clients. But even if your hardware isn’t certified, it may work. I loaded it on an HP Z210 workstation for giggles. It looks just like an HP Elite 8200, which is certified, but the hardware inside is different.
Neverware provides a searchable list of compatible hardware. Many of the more popular home PCs are on the list. The most common business PCs and laptops for the last 10-15 years are on the list too. So you can get something that’s compatible for $50-$100, install a $25 SSD and have something pretty nice.
Neverware markets a business edition of its products, and for a cloud-first organization, or an organization that’s willing to shift to a cloud-first approach, it could really decrease total cost of ownership.
Turn a laptop into a Chromebook. Or desktop into a Chromebox
Sold? Good. It turns out it isn’t an especially difficult project to install Chrome OS on an old laptop or PC.
Step 1: Download Neverware Cloudready
Neverware offers a Chromium-derived OS equivalent to Chrome OS called Cloudready. It’s free for home use. So the first step is to download it. The wizard offers to write the image to an 8 or 16 GB USB stick. Neverware recommends against using a larger drive, and also recommends against Sandisk drives. Run the download and follow the steps.
Even though Neverware explicitly recommends against Sandisks, the only 8 GB drive I had on hand was a Sandisk so I tried it. It worked for me. It may or may not work for you as well. Neverware warns that it takes 20 minutes to build the installation media. They weren’t kidding in my case. It may have taken a bit longer, for that matter.
Step 2: Test your hardware
Once you write the image to your USB stick, boot your old computer off the USB stick. Here’s how to boot HP and Compaqs off USB.
The USB stick boots into a live environment, assuming your system is compatible. It prompts you to log into Gmail, and after you do, you’re presented with a web browser, an intro, and not a lot else. Assuming you got this far, before you commit and install Chrome OS on an old laptop or PC, it’s a good idea to test your printer.
Click on the icon in the lower right and click on the gear icon to open settings. Scroll down all the way down and click Advanced Settings, then click Printers. There’s a button called Add Nearby Printers that may work if your printer is new enough. If you have a USB printer, plug it in. Some printers may not work with Chrome OS, but if Chrome OS has a driver, choose it from the dropdown if it doesn’t autodetect it.
For old HP Jetdirect printers like mine, enter the IP address followed by :9100 (e.g. 192.168.1.25:9100), and pick Appsocket as the protocol. Then pick the manufacturer and model number from the dropdown. Here’s some more detail on HP printers with Chrome OS if you need it.
If your printer doesn’t work, you’ll have to decide whether you want to continue.
Step 3: Install Cloudready
The next step to install Chrome OS on an old laptop or PC is to install Cloudready. Click your icon in the lower right and select Install Cloudready. It will warn you that it’s going to erase your hard drive (or SSD) and ask if you’re sure. Confirm if you’re really sure, then come back in about 20 minutes.
When it finishes, it will shut down the machine if it finishes successfully. I got cute and tried to install Cloudready on a 16 GB SSD. It got stuck in a boot loop. When I replaced it with a 120 GB Samsung SSD, it worked the first time and I didn’t have any problems. Cloudready boots off that SSD in about eight seconds, and after you log in, you’re at the desktop in about four more.
I know Cloudready installs on some systems with 16 GB of storage, so you may have better luck than I did. I wasn’t using a certified system and I used the type of flash drive they said not to use, so I deserved whatever I got.
The result is a super-simple PC. It boots into a user interface that gives you a web browser and not a lot else, though the number of things you can install in Chrome OS is growing. I loaded Chrome up and visited my favorite web sites and everything was super quick.
Step 3: Enable plugins
This step is optional if you’re just going to use the computer for things like online banking. But for a good user experience as a general purpose computer, you probably need some proprietary plugins enabled. Click on the icon in the lower right and click on the gear icon to open settings. Scroll down to Proprietary Media Components and click Install. Then click the icon in the lower right, click the power button and select Restart. Now you’ll be able to watch Netflix and do most other things we expect from a modern computer.
What about your printer? It should already be there from when you tested it earlier.
And that’s all it takes to Install Chrome OS on an old laptop or PC, and turn a laptop into a Chromebook, or a desktop PC into a Chromebox.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.