Lacros rescues Chromebooks by extending their lifespans
'Play sports and live longer' apparently now applies to ChromeOS as well as sedentary geeks
The Lacros project – a contrived acronym for Linux and Chrome OS* – is an internal Google development project with a goal that may sound bizarre: to run the standalone Linux version of the Chrome web browser on top of ChromeOS. According to reports, it looks like this feature could go mainstream after ChromeOS release 116.
Lacros has been around for at least a couple of years†. The Reg FOSS Desk is mainly interested in ChromeOS Flex, rather than dedicated Chromebooks, partly because of our documented fondness for clicky keyboards. Even so, we enabled the LACROS functionality on a friend's Chromebook over a year ago.
The reason is very simple: every Chromebook comes with a pre-determined best-before date, after which it will stop receiving automatic upgrades. Enabling Lacros makes it possible to install newer versions of Chrome after a Chromebook's Automatic Update Expiration (AUE) date, effectively prolonging the device's useful life. It's even somewhat officially endorsed in Google's support forums.
The reason that it's taking Google some work to achieve is also the reason that the company is trying to do it. The goal is to be able to update the browser separately from the underlying operating system. This is currently tricky because they are very tightly integrated together – as per the project's documentation:
On Chrome OS, the system UI (ash window manager, login screen, etc.) and the web browser are the same binary. Lacros separates this functionality into two binaries, henceforth known as ash-chrome (system UI) and lacros-chrome (web browser).
As it stands, there are three stages to Lacros. Step one installs the new browser, which can be distinguished by its all-yellow icon. Step two migrates the user's profile into the new browser and makes it the default. Step three hides the old, integrated Chrome.
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Up until now, while Lacros was still in testing, it looked like it would only install Chrome versions up to two releases later than the underlying OS. Since the browser's release cycle is only about four weeks long, this wouldn't give you much of an extension. However, the underlying ChromeOS does have long-term support versions with a six-monthly release cycle, which is rather more promising… and of course the cadence may change if Lacros becomes a standard feature. And it must be said, any is better than none.
The short support lifetimes of Chromebooks has attracted criticism, but there are other ways around the AUE date, if you're determined enough. It's possible to install ChromeOS Flex on an date-expired Chromebook: you lose the Android environment, but you do get updates for as long as it keeps working. Alternatively, you can replace its firmware altogether, and then run an ordinary Linux distro – or even Windows if you're masochistic. ®
*To be fair, there is some precedent for the usage of "CrOS" as a shorthand for ChromeOS. For instance, the built-in Linux containers are code-named crostini.
†As opposed to lacrosse the sport, which has been around since the 12th century, long before the conquistadors.