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Weird Flex, but OK: Now you can officially turn these PCs, Macs into Chromebooks

Just a feeeeew caveats to bear in mind, though

Google on Thursday officially released Chrome OS Flex, which aims to bring the web giant's mega-browser operating system to a wider range of systems.

Flex was unveiled in February as a version of Chrome OS that could run on any modern-ish Intel or AMD (sorry, not Arm) processor. Since that debut, the number of devices certified to run Chrome OS Flex has almost doubled, from some 250 to more than 400, according to Google.

Among certified models are several MacBook Air devices, Microsoft Surface, ASUS, Acer, and Lenovo machines along with a laundry list of Dell machines. Google plans to continually certify older devices for Flex.

To get the Chrome OS experience – which, as the name suggests, involves doing pretty much everything on your desktop through the Chrome browser – you would need to buy a Chromebook with it installed, or go through a bit of a convoluted process to put the OS on a system. Chrome OS Flex is supposed to make that easy, and work on a range of non-Chromebooks.

Chrome OS Flex got its start at NeverWare, which developed a version of the OS it called CloudReady that made it easier to install Chrome OS on unsupported devices. Google acquired NeverWare in 2020 and folded it into the Chrome OS team, and thus Flex was born. 

The installation of Flex is designed to be simple with fairly minimal hardware requirements to maximize the number of devices that can run it. You'll need a 64-bit processor, 4 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage and full admin access to the machine's BIOS. If those conditions are met, all that's left is to make a bootable USB drive, for which at least 8 GB of space is needed. 

Those specifications are enough to boot, say, a lightweight Linux distro, so if you're comfortable with that environment and only running a browser in it, you could make do with that. If you or users prefer the single-minded nature of Chrome OS, continue on. The specs are also pretty close to Windows 10's requirements so Google's offering is really targeted at people who just want to breathe Chrome OS into their kit.

If you want out of Windows 10 and your machine can't start Windows 11, and you don't want a full Linux environment, maybe Chrome OS Flex is for you.

Beware: Critical differences abound

Google designed Chrome OS Flex as an enterprise product, so it's able to be managed and deployed remotely like the standard version of Chrome OS. Many of the security features built into Chrome OS work in Flex too, but there are a lot of differences between the two versions of the Linux-powered OS. 

Businesses considering Chrome OS Flex for their older hardware, or even individuals installing it at home, need to be aware of some of the most critical differences between the two before installing:

  • Because it runs on hardware without Google's own security chips, Flex doesn't offer Chrome OS verified boot. Microsoft supports Flex's bootloader, so some Windows devices may allow UEFI secure boot in Flex.
  • Flex does not automatically manage BIOS or UEFI firmware updates.
  • Because Flex devices may not have a Trusted Platform Module, Flex won't store encryption keys at the hardware level.
  • Flex does not support Android apps or Google Play.
  • Flex does not support running Windows VMs through Parallels.
  • Flex support for Linux developer environment varies per model.
  • Non-Flex certified devices cannot be enrolled in the Google Admin console.
  • Flex does not support zero-touch enrollment or forced re-enrollment.

Additionally, Google notes that many hardware features on supported hardware haven't been tested. "They might not work as expected, or even not work at all," Google's support page says.

Optical drives, fingerprint readers, FireWire ports, IR and face recognition cameras, docks and connectors, styluses and pens and Thunderbolt are all unsupported. Google did say that USB-C and mini Displayport will both still work despite the lack of Thunderbolt support. ®

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