If you’re like me, you probably have at least one old laptop stuffed away in a drawer, together with a myriad of outdated mobile phones.
Ironically, that five-year-old laptop probably has more horsepower under its hood than many of the budget Chromebooks that are now available.
It may not have enough power to meet the specs needed by the latest Windows or OSX but it will certainly be able to run the Google Chrome operating system.
In the past, the best way to breathe new life into an older laptop was to install Linux on it.
This open-source OS has much lower hardware requirements than Windows so is ideal for older technology. It doesn’t need the latest quad-core processors, built-in GPU cards, or extra RAM of modern more advanced operating systems.
However, Linux for many people can be a scary proposition or simply overkill.
Unless you are wanting to run more sophisticated software packages, the choice of different Linux distributions—there are many to choose from—can be confusing.
A much simpler solution is to choose Chromium, a Chrome browser-based system like the one found on many of the best-selling notebook computers.
Before you start converting your old laptop into a Chromebook, you need to consider what exactly is a Chromebook – and is it right for you?
Chromebooks are a relatively new breed of computer.
If a few years ago you had said Chromebook to somebody who wasn’t particularly tech literate you would have just got a blank stare back in return.
But over the last five years or so, Chromebooks have started to become increasingly popular, especially in schools and universities. Only recently we looked at the 10 best Chromebooks available in 2018.
The main advantage of a Chromebook is the cost; they are cheap, with many models available under $200. It’s even cheaper still if you use an application like CloudReady to turn an old laptop you already have into a functioning Chromebook.
The main reason they are less expensive than other laptops is the operating system and the fact that most of the software is cloud-based.
When you first switch on a Chromebook, you will notice the only native app installed is Google’s Chrome Browser.
That’s basically all there is to most Chromebooks.
Pretty much all the other apps are web-based apps that deal with emails, photos, or documents, and apps that can run while connected to a network.
Google also offers 100GB of online storage with each Chromebook.
One of the obvious benefits of Chromium on an older laptop is all your data is saved on the web so you can access it from any other computer.
If that old laptop should give up and die you won’t lose your data.
Although it is designed as a cloud computer, there are many daily tasks it can perform offline, including reading or composing emails in Gmail Offline, working on documents in Google Drive offline, or even saving web pages to read offline.
As for gaming, it doesn’t matter that your old laptop doesn’t have the latest Nvidia 3D card because Google’s strong point isn’t really gaming. Simpler 2D games like Angry Birds are probably the best you can expect on Chromium – although that’s still pretty fun!
A downside of Chromium for more professional users, who rely on downloadable software suites like Adobe Photoshop, is that the web-based equivalents which are offered, like Pixlr from Google, don’t really match up.
Chromium doesn’t come with any codecs preinstalled either, which can make video content hit or miss.
You can, however, download flash, and then some Chromebooks will even run Netflix.
Many people find that the main disadvantage of a Chromebook is its reliance on a network connection.
If you have a strong internet connection at home and don’t mind using the cloud for your important work, then choosing to install Chromium on your laptop is a great alternative to throwing it away.
Many schools and universities have bought the professional educational version of CloudReady to install on older computers in their labs for students to use.
CloudReady is a package made by an NYC startup company named Neverware that uses a modified Linux distribution of Chromium.
This is the open-source version of Chrome that Google allows third-party developers to use.
Neverware originally started working with schools to help them make use of abandoned computer systems and turn them into working systems for students to use. But Neverware also offers a free home version of the software for private individuals.
Originally, choosing to install CloudReady meant having to get rid of your existing operating system.
More recently, CloudReady comes with a dual boot feature that allows you to choose between Chrome or the older OS on your laptop, every time you startup.
Before you start:
Although we have said to turn any old laptop into a Chromebook, there are limits.
Most of the older laptops from the last eight to ten years should work. Neverware provides a list of certified models that the software has been tested on. But don’t panic if your computer is not on the list; we have heard many stories of successful installations on other laptops too.
In general, if your laptop is Intel-based, you shouldn’t have too many problems.
You will also need to find a USB drive that is either 8GB or 16GB in size. Neverware is quite specific about this, stating it shouldn’t be any smaller or larger.
Head over to the following link, where you will find the free download of the Home version of CloudReady:
You will need to extract the .bin file from the compressed (or .zip) file you have just downloaded. On a Windows PC, this is as simple as double-clicking on the file to open it and then dragging and dropping the extracted .bin file into another folder for easier locating
On a Mac, it can be a little more complicated. A bug in Mac OS X (yes, they do happen!) means you must use some free software called the Unarchiver to unzip the CloudReady file.
If you don’t use the Unarchiver utility, the bootable USB installation will fail. Once successfully unzipped, you will end up with the .bin file the same as with a Windows PC.
You also need to ensure that you have access to a PC or Mac with the Chrome browser installed. You will need to download the Chromebook Recovery Utility to create a bootable USB drive.
Using the Chromebook recovery utility that you have just downloaded and installed, you are going to create your USB boot stick.
You will find the program located in either the Start menu in the Chrome browser or on the “chrome://apps” page.
When you launch the app, you will see the gear icon in the top right-hand corner of the window. Click on this and select “Use local image”.
From here you should locate the “CloudReady.bin” file you have just extracted and, when prompted, insert your USB stick and select it in the window that pops up.
WARNING: This process will delete the entire contents of the USB stick as it formats it, so make sure any important data is backed up before you proceed.
Simply follow the onscreen instructions, clicking “Continue” when requested and finishing with “Create Now” to make your CloudReady bootable USB drive.
Hopefully, when it’s done, you should see a screen like the one below, which informs you that your Neverware CloudReady Bootable USB drive is ready for use.
You can now use this USB drive as a boot device, meaning you can take it wherever you go and boot up on any computer into Chromium or Chrome OS.
You now have a USB stick which you can use to boot up your laptop like any other removable media.
In the most simple of cases, you will just need to start your computer with the USB stick inserted and wait for it to boot from the drive when restarted.
Other systems may need you to change the BIOS of your computer to modify the order it boots in or use a boot menu to choose the USB drive.
Some laptops may require you to hold down a specific key to boot from USB. All systems vary; it is best to check the manufacturer’s page for advice before diving into the BIOS.
On Dell computers, it tends to be tap “F12” as the Dell logo is displayed, while HP computers usually require you to tap “F9” at the HP logo.
Lenovo also uses the “F12” key, while Apple needs you to hold down the “Option” key, next to the “Command” or “⌘” key as you turn the Mac on.
For other systems, you could try pressing the “Esc” key or tapping the “F1-F12” keys as the machine starts up – or holding down “Enter” during bootup.
When the system boots up, you will be greeted by the usual Chrome OS welcome screen but it will be branded with the CloudReady logo.
From here you can select your language, keyboard region, and network to continue.
Once you have set the basics, you will be prompted to enter your Google credentials. If you haven’t got a Google account yet, it’s simple enough to set one up.
After this, you will get full access to the Chrome OS desktop. It’s worth bearing in mind that you won’t get any of the pre-installed web apps like with a Chromebook, just the Chromium browser.
However, the Chromium browser is a good place to start, it’s a clean slate that you can populate as you like.
You could use the Chrome OS from the bootable drive and simply remove it when you have finished or just reboot your computer and choose the old OS when you want.
The only problem with using CloudReady from a bootable USB drive is that you don’t get the latest OS updates.
You need to download the latest image from the CloudReady website and go through the whole bootable USB creation process every time there is a newer version of Chromium released.
Running Chrome OS from a bootable USB drive is ideal if you want to just test-drive the system. Now that the CloudReady software offers a dual booting system though, there really is no need; you can keep your original OS on the laptop’s hard drive as well as the Chrome OS.
(Some models may not support this feature; check the list of supported hardware on the Neverware site we mentioned earlier.)
Installing it on your laptop’s hard drive is easy too, with clear on-screen instructions provided.
All you have to do is boot up as standard into the Chrome OS, using your USB drive.
Following this, click on the taskbar, which appears as a small tray in the bottom right-hand corner of the welcome screen.
Choose “Install CloudReady” from the list which pops up. You will then be guided through the process.
The next window will give you the choice of whether you want a standalone single boot system or a dual boot for your device. The other OS you want to dual boot with should be already installed on your laptop.
Just click on the instructions and the process will start. Depending on your processor power and the storage media used by your laptop, it can take up to 20 minutes.
When it has finished installing, your laptop will shut down. Remove the USB drive and boot it up again.
On reboot, you will be presented with the same welcome screen as booting from a USB drive into Chrome OS.
Fill in your language, keyboard region, and the network settings to continue. Once it connects to the network, the system will download any updates and offer you the option to install Flash from Adobe.
It’s recommended that you install Flash as it will make the majority of pages appear exactly as they would on a Chromebook.
Plus the all-important Angry Birds still uses Flash!
We would be lying if we said using CloudReady on an old laptop was identical to using Chrome OS on a Chromebook.
While the version of Chromium is generally the same as that used by Chromebooks, some parts of the licensed Chrome OS are not available to third-party users.
You can find a comprehensive and constantly updated list of what is missing by clicking here.
The deal-breaker for many people is the lack of support for media playing, especially media with Digital Rights Management (DRM).
When Google signed licensing agreements with the likes of Netflix, it was very dependent on the hardware they used – many older computers don’t meet these requirements.
You can try Widevine using a Switch Agent, both of which are available from the Google Chrome store, but many users report getting error codes with it.
Some of Google’s own services are not fully supported by the open-source versions of Chromium.
In Hang Outs, for example, the effects and screen sharing don’t function as they would on a Chromebook. Location services are not fully supported and any Android apps that are designed to work as a layer on top of Chrome OS don’t work in Chromium either.
The integration of Google Docs with the file explorer is not as thorough as in Chrome OS. MS Office documents with extensions of .docx or .xlsx are not able to be opened in Docs in a file manager, but rather have to be opened from in the Docs app itself.
Another major disadvantage of the CloudReady version of Chromium is in the way it handles updates.
In general, the updates tend to be 12 to 18 weeks behind the official Google updates of Chrome. However, Neverware argues that this was a conscious decision to promote more stability, rather than have to deal with buggy new features as soon as they are released.
Despite all the faults we have looked at, you are still basically getting a new modern operating system for your older laptop – and for free.
Your computer may still be able to run some version of Windows or OS X but it will definitely be much faster on Chrome OS.
You can still use the USB to save pictures and files.
If your laptop’s hard drive is unreliable for saving data, you will also be able to save your files to the cloud. With dual booting, if you miss Netflix, simply boot up in your older OS for your film fix.
For schools who have started to use Google apps more, it is a cost-effective way of using their older hardware.
For those individuals at home, CloudReady may not offer the flexibility of some Linux distros, but it can be an interesting way of bringing life back to an older, unused laptop.
What else was it doing anyway, acting as an expensive paperweight?
Marcus has a graduate degree in computer engineering and has many years of experience in cutting-edge technology research and development in both startups and Fortune 500 corporations. In his free time, he enjoys RTS gaming.