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I revived three ancient computers with ChromeOS Flex, and you can too

Don't throw out your old PC; breathe new life into it with the sustainable and accessible Linux for everyone. It's easier than you think.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
glowing computer keyboard
John Lamb/Getty Images

Linux is a great operating system. I've expounded its virtues for over 20 years. I was the founding senior technology editor of the now-defunct Linux Magazine in 1999. In my professional technology career, I was a principal consultant for open-source data center technology at Unisys and IBM, and until recently, I was the Linux Foundation's editorial director. So yes, I get Linux.

I have used Linux desktops, such as RedHat Workstation, CentOS, Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, and every GUI for the platform you can imagine, including GNOME, KDE, XFCE, and probably a dozen other weird forks of all of these flavors.

Also: The best Linux laptops you can buy

None of these desktops have ever been exceptionally well-designed systems for regular end users. They are fantastic for developers and technology professionals, but if you are a typical office worker, a student, or just someone at home who wants to get on their sites and do their stuff, Linux desktops are… well, they aren't good. What do I use as a freelance journalist and corporate communications professional who writes about tech? I use a Mac and I have done so since 2018.

Now, it's worth noting that open-source pundits have been proclaiming the 'Year of the Linux Desktop' for a long time, but it's never arrived. While Linux has conquered the cloud, high-performance computing, the Internet of Things, the smartphone industry, and innovative technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, Linux desktops have never caught on. So, why is that?

Also: Why don't more people use desktop Linux? I have a theory you might not like

Is it a lack of motivation and technical skills needed to transition to Linux? Is it the need to learn something new? After all, if your current OS works fine, why switch? And if you need a tech guru to help you install the darned thing, why go through all that trouble?

Yet, change is in the air. I think the calculus might have altered -- but not with the Linux distros we're all familiar with. The flavor of Linux that will transform the industry is ChromeOS.

ChromeOS Flex just works for a lot of old hardware

Let's face it: ChromeOS is super-easy to use. Most people already know how to use that web browser, and the laptops that ship with it are inexpensive and in the $200 to $400 range. For your typical end-user, ChromeOS does the job -- especially for people who don't need Microsoft 365 and Windows or a Mac, are okay with Google Workspace, and primarily use web-based apps. That's probably 90% of the user population right there.

Also: 5 reasons Chromebooks are the perfect laptop (for most users)

These people don't want to worry about patches or being a systems admin; they just want their darned websites to work. They want their desktop to be responsive and they want to be able to watch their videos, make their video calls, access their documents and data, and use social networks.

But there is one huge reason why ChromeOS Flex will be big: many old PCs are sitting out in the wild that cannot run on current versions of Windows 10, Windows 11, or MacOS. There is fundamentally nothing wrong with these PCs, but they are just too old to be supported by their original manufacturers.

These devices are not only a support burden. In many cases, the older software running on these PCs isn't fully conforming with modern security standards and runs out-of-date browsers, and other crusty and risky stuff.

ChromeOS, by comparison, is very secure -- it isn't vulnerable to many exploits plaguing legacy Windows and Mac systems.

Also: What is a TPM, and why does your PC need one?

Yet the reality is that many old PCs and Macs are just sitting on shelves collecting dust, when they could instead lead productive lives again.

With Google's ChromeOS Flex software, you can now revive those old machines and make them secure to use. In fact, that's how I spent an entire weekend.

How I revived old PCs and Macs

I was intrigued by the idea of taking a bunch of computers just sitting in my closet and making them useful again. The process started with burning the ChromeOS Recovery Media onto an 8GB minimum USB flash drive (and the hardest part is choosing "ChromeOS Flex" as your Manufacturer and Product, as the recovery media also supports retail Chromebook re-installation).

Also: How I installed ChromeOS Flex in 30 minutes

The first test subject was an eleven-year-old Dell Inspiron 15R-5521 laptop, which originally shipped with Windows 8. With its Intel i7 and 16GB RAM, this older machine was a nightmare on newer Windows OSes.

After choosing the ChromeOS Flex drive as its boot source with the EFI, the device rebooted with the new OS, and to my surprise, it was a completely transformed beast -- fast, responsive, and efficient.

Then, I turned to an even older device, my mother-in-law's 2011 iMac. With its modest 4GB RAM and an i5-2500S processor, it was a relic by modern standards. But once I installed ChromeOS Flex, it sprang to life. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth peripherals, and even the Google Assistant were functioning seamlessly. Once considered a goner, the iMac became a fully functional Chrome device.

Also: Have an old laptop or computer? Give it new life with ChromeOS Flex

A 2011 Mac Mini was up next. Too old for the current MacOS versions, this little device was perfect for ChromeOS Flex. After a similar installation, it became a Chrome computer, now serving as a media center connected to my TV.

But not all systems are good candidates

However, my recent experience with a 2018-era Intel MacBook Pro was a reality check. The bootloader refused to load ChromeOS Flex. This issue highlighted an important lesson -- not every piece of hardware, no matter how powerful, is suitable for ChromeOS Flex. 

Google's certified models list is a must-check resource, detailing which devices are supported and which aren't. The distinction between certified and non-certified models on this list is crucial. Certified models guarantee core functionality, while non-certified models are unpredictable.

Also: 5 reasons why Chromebooks are the perfect laptop for most people

While many old systems have a good chance of working fine with ChromeOS Flex, there is one major caveat: the software only runs on 64-bit systems; 32-bit CPUs (increasingly rare, even 10 years ago) will not work.

For those of you wanting to test drive ChromeOS Flex without fully committing, you can run it from the USB media by selecting "Try it First" post-bootup. For optimal performance, use a USB-A port that supports USB 3.1 and ensure your thumb drive media is compatible with this standard. This option provides a temporary experience of ChromeOS Flex, allowing users to assess its suitability for their needs before making any permanent changes to their system.

The SSD advantage

A common challenge in my efforts to rejuvenate older computers is their outdated platter hard drives, which are prone to failure. Replacing these with solid-state drives (SSDs) is not just about reliability; it significantly boosts performance. 

Also: The best SSDs right now

A modest investment in a small-capacity, older-generation SATA SSD (often under $30 from top manufacturers) can greatly enhance a machine's capabilities, aligning well with the minimal storage needs of ChromeOS Flex, a cloud-centric OS.

This upgrade, where affordability meets performance enhancement, is typically more straightforward in desktops and older laptops. The upgrade usually involves unscrewing the case and disconnecting the old hard drive. However, ensuring that your specific model is designed for easy hard drive replacement before installing ChromeOS Flex is essential.

Looking ahead

In 2024, ChromeOS Flex is poised to redefine the tech landscape. More than just a quick fix for aging hardware, the OS promises a future of sustainable and accessible computing. This innovative platform is not only a lifeline for old devices, but also a testament to the untapped potential of existing technology. Whether for students, home users, or professionals, ChromeOS Flex offers a chance to rejuvenate and repurpose our digital tools. 

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