You’ve probably not heard of ChromeOS Flex. It’s Google’s program for turning crusty computers into Chromebooks — which sounds like a neat idea as a concept. But it’s primarily been marketed toward businesses and classrooms.
I wanted to give it a shot, though. I have an older Windows laptop that was dying to be converted into a fresh, snappy Chromebook. As someone who’s been primarily using Chromebooks for almost half a decade, I was ready to take on the challenge to see if ChromeOS Flex might be a serviceable way to bring old laptops back to life. Despite some limitations in the end product, it’s a pretty intuitive way to breathe some fresh air into an otherwise unused laptop.
Chrome OS Flex is all Chrome, all the time
With ChromeOS Flex, any laptop can be your Chromebook. That’s the idea, but in reality, there are a lot of limitations here when it comes to which devices are supported — and how it all plays out (more on that later). But the key thing here is that ChromeOS Flex expands the platform to essentially any laptop.
Google says it’s working on certifying Chromebooks for Chrome OS Flex, but you can pretty much test it on any device of your choice if you want to. My personal “Chromebook” has been a 2020 Asus Zenbook 14. Powered by a Core i3, it wasn’t the fastest thing on Windows and would often lag, hang, or crash. Slapping Chrome OS Flex on it makes the device feel as speedy as it should be. Apps open and close swiftly, and even Linux apps, from office suites to video players, run with aplomb (though they kick the fans into high gear).
The appeal for me here, as someone who loves Chromebooks, wasn’t that I could get Chrome OS on cheap Chromebooks. It was that I could expand my Chromebook search to devices with the specs and price range I cared about and get a premium Chromebook for a fraction of the price. With a Chromebook with 256GB storage, you should be able to hoard every meme you see if I want to without paying for anyone’s cloud. Or not. What’s important is to have the choice.
One thing you’ll notice about ChromeOS Flex is that its classic ChromeOS. It’s not like CloudReady with some weird blue Chrome logo (the Chromium logo) — it’s bona fide ChromeOS. All your passwords sync over,= and you get updates the same as you would on regular Chromebooks — including the latest features.
As a result of it being a bare-bones version of ChromeOS, it runs pretty fast.
It’s also a certain, purer vision of ChromeOS. ChromeOS as it exists right now is a hodgepodge of capabilities aimed at hitting a broad range of audiences. These include the Chrome browser, the Linux subsystem, the Parallels support, and the Google Play Store. With the exception of Linux, Chrome OS Flex is stripped of all of these.
As a result of those exclusions, though, it’s pretty fast. Though Chromebooks are often touted as fast no matter the price range, this often means fast for their price range. Anyone who’s owned a low-end Chromebook and a high-end Chromebook can tell that there’s the difference in speed. This means that most modern-ish Windows laptops being pushed to ChromeOS should net you a decent speed boost.
My biggest issue with ChromeOS Flex has been drivers. It’s a weird one because drivers are like aglets. You only tend to notice them when they’re not there. It’s especially weird because before ChromeOS, there was the aforementioned CloudReady. When running CloudReady, though not as feature-full as Chrome OS Flex, Bluetooth worked.
Upon updating to ChromeOS Flex, Bluetooth drivers were killed for some users, myself included. That meant some of the Android features like Nearby Share, Phone Hub, and remote unlocking your Chromebook with Smart Lock no longer worked.
To be clear, it’s not like these features don’t exist in ChromeOS Flex. They actually do, and if Bluetooth works for you, you’d be able to use them. This isn’t limited to non-certified devices running ChromeOS, as Google says, and it’s not even the same issue each time. That makes troubleshooting the problem a nightmare.
Using a ChromeOS Flex device feels like using a Chromebook from the early days of the platform.
You’re also missing Android apps and the Google Play Store. It’s not necessarily clear why you can’t install any Android apps on ChromeOS Flex officially, though we can hazard a guess. The Google Play certification process that all companies shipping products with Google Play preinstalled have to pass likely makes the Play Store itself a no-go. ChromeOS’s containerized nature also means that it could take more work than Google would care to do compared to the potential profit. There’s no point in dithering; the feature doesn’t exist, and that’s a shame.
Sure, you can do a lot with web apps — and that’s something you’ll notice even if you were using Windows or macOS, but sometimes an offline app would be better. Yes, you could play Cloud games on Stadia — but the Play Store has a wealth of games. Streaming music through Spotify or YouTube Music and video is convenient, of course, but what if you were on a long trip with spotty Wi-Fi and wanted to preserve the battery on your phone? Tough luck. Using a ChromeOS Flex device feels like using a Chromebook from the early days of the platform.
ChromeOS Flex is a fantastic idea, and it has a lot of promise. After using it for half a year, I came away impressed at how well it runs on a system that it’s not designed or certified for. It’s that platform-agnostic, freewheeling spirit that Google has always embodied when it’s at its best.
But there are certainly warts along the way. The more recent your hardware, the fewer warts you’ll encounter, but don’t bank on Google working to fix each and every issue with ChromeOS Flex that comes up. In the end, that means having a ChromeOS Flex device as your main computer probably isn’t the best idea. You’ll miss those newer ChromeOS features, and you’ll want the support that comes with a properly certified Chromebook.
But if you have an old computer sitting around that would otherwise just collect dust, it’s worth giving it a shot, especially if you like the idea of having a Chromebook as a secondary device.