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How I installed ChromeOS Flex in 30 minutes

Want to easily give your old PC a new life? Here's how to do it with Google's ChromeOS Flex.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Out of date Windows 7 PC

It's a very pretty screen, but notice something missing? That's right. There are no icons. This Windows 7 PC was functionally useless. 

Image: Steven Vaughan-Nichols

One of my favorite old PCs is a Dell Inspiron One 2320. This all-in-one (AIO) computer with a 2.4Ghz Intel Pentium Dual Core i5 processor, 6GBs of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M, and a 320GB hard drive is a great machine… for 2012. Ten years later? Not so much. 

But this one-time Windows 7 PC still has a good 23-inch HD display. What it can't do is run Windows 10 well, and let's not even talk about Windows 11. I could run Linux on it, but I already have lots of Linux PCs, so I tried something different: I decided to install Google ChromeOS Flex on it. 

Also: How I revived three ancient computers with ChromeOS Flex

I had left Windows 7 on this machine, which was a dedicated accounting system. I'd disconnected it from the internet, though, since running Windows 7 on an internet-connected PC is just asking to be hacked. Like most old Windows PCs, it had slowed to the point where it was essentially useless. Just booting it up would take -- I kid you not -- three minutes.

But ChromeOS Flex, which is at heart a Linux system, can run on low-powered computers. How low can it go? According to Google, ChromeOS Flex's  minimum requirements are:

  • Intel or AMD x86-64-bit compatible device (it won't work with 32-bit processors)
  • RAM: 4 GB
  • Internal storage: 16 GB
  • Bootable from a USB drive
  • BIOS: Full administrator access (you'll need to boot from the ChromeOS Flex USB installer and make some adjustments in the BIOS if you run into issues)

It boils down to the fact that if you have a PC that was built in 2010 or later, it should work. It might work with even older components if you're feeling adventurous. If, however, you're running a box with Intel GMA 500, 600, 3600, or 3650 graphics hardware, you're asking for trouble. 

If you want to be reasonably sure it will work on your old computer, you can check to see if it's listed on Google's ChromeOS Flex Certified models list. My Inspiron One 2320? Nope, I was taking the life of my computer in my hands. I was okay with that. 

Before you follow in my tracks, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, moving your PC from Windows, macOS, or whatever to ChromeOS Flex is a one-way trip. Everything -- applications, photos of mom, your QuickBooks files -- on your old drive is going to get vaporized. If you want to keep anything, back up your important files to another computer, cloud storage, or a Network-Attached Storage (NAS). Otherwise, kiss it all goodbye.

After backing up my files to my QNAP TS-253D-4G 2 Bay NAS, my next step was to create a ChromeOS Flex USB installation drive. With most Linux distributions, you can create and use a bootable CD or DVD disc. For one-off ChromeOS Flex installations, you must use a USB drive.

Your drive must be at least 8GBs in size; ChromeOS Flex isn't small. You also shouldn't try this with a Sandisk USB stick drive, since these drives don't always work for some reason. I used a PNY 32GB Attache 3 drive. Since these only support USB 2.0, they're not ideal for newer machines (for those, I'd use a PNY 32GB Turbo Attache 3, which supports the faster USB 3 standard). Since my old box only has USB 2.0 ports, however, the cheaper, slower USB drives will do just fine. 

One reason why I used such large USB drives was I wanted to test my machine before I committed to installing ChromeOS Flex on it. How? Google allows you to run ChromeOS Flex from a USB drive

It works just the same as a full installation. But instead of using your hard drive or solid-state drive (SSD), it runs off the USB stick itself, while still using your computer's processor, memory, network connection, and all that jazz. By doing this, you can be sure the new operating system will run on your PC without any danger of losing your existing setup. The only real difference is it won't be as fast as an installed version because you're using USB stick drives.

To create the USB installation drive, you don't need a third-party USB burner program. Instead, you can use any Chrome OS, Windows, or Mac device with the current version of the Chrome browser. Unfortunately, you can't do it on a Linux PC. 

On any other PC, just open up your Chrome web browser and add the Chromebook Recovery Utility extension by clicking on the extension link. That's all there is to it. 

Once that's done, make sure your USB pen drive is ready to go.  Keep in mind that by making it an installation drive, you'll be deleting everything on it. 

Then, take the following steps:

  1. Start Chrome Recovery Utility extension.
  2. Click Get started.
  3. Click Select a model from a list.
  4. Select a manufacturer, find and click Google ChromeOS Flex.
  5. Select a product, find and click ChromeOS Flex.
  6. Select your pen drive from the dropdown -- make sure you pick the right drive.
  7. Click Continue, followed by Create now.

That's simple enough. 

Downloading ChromeOS Flex will take a few minutes, depending on your internet speed. On my system with a 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) fiber connection, it took less than 10 minutes. The entire process of making the installation drive took 15 minutes. 

After that, I went to my old Dell and plugged in the USB drive, and turned it on. Next, I hit its boot selection key. 

Chances are you don't know what that is for your box; most people never have to bother with it. This key enables you to select an alternative way of booting your computer. Typically, you always use your PC's main drive. Here, though, you want to pick the USB drive. On my Dell, that's the F12 key. For other computers, check out Google's list of common PC keys.

Then, as I mentioned above, I suggest you try it out first to ensure ChromeOS Flex works for you. If it does, reboot your machine, choose to install ChromeOS Flex, and you'll be on your way. 

Not for you? Just take the USB drive out, reboot your machine, and use the alternative boot key to go back to your main drive. You'll be back where you started. 

On my older machine, it took me about 15 minutes from choosing to install it to running it.

If you want more than ChromeOS Flex, you can install Linux on it as well. You use the exact same technique as you would to install Linux on a Chromebook (this is optional; you don't need to do it). You cannot, however, install Android or a dual-boot operating system, such as Windows, on your new ChromeOS Flex system.  

Chrome OS Flex

I now have a fully functional ChromeOS Flex PC that doubles as a video-conferencing station. 

Image: Steven Vaughan-Nichols

I went from having a completely dysfunctional PC to having a useful ChromeOS Flex system. Indeed, it's become my default video-conferencing workstation. If you, too, have an older machine that needs a new lease on life, I can't recommend ChromeOS Flex highly enough. It's easy to install and can make even antique PCs useful again. 

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