ChromeOS Flex May Struggle to Appeal to Everyday People

Linux would be better for them anyway

  • Google’s ChromeOS Flex is a new, freely available, cloud-centric OS designed to extend the life of older but fully-functional devices.
  • Experts think the OS will attract institutions with hordes of such devices, who don’t mind its limited nature.
  • The OS would have trouble attracting people who are probably better served with a full-fledged OS like Linux.
Close-up of logo for Google Chrome on the corner of a compact Google Chromebook laptop on a light wooden desk surface

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

Google wants to help you squeeze a little more service from your old, underpowered computer, but it appears it's bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Google's free operating system, ChromeOS Flex, is now available for anyone to install on their resource-starved Windows and Mac machines. However, just like the version on Chromebooks, ChromeOS Flex is a cloud-centric offering that's severely feature-strapped, unlike other full-fledged, do-it-yourself (DIY) operating systems like Linux. But experts believe there's more at play here.

"I think it's a mistake to view ChromeOS Flex as a DIY OS in the same way someone might, for example, view someone reviving an old laptop by installing Linux," Chris Thornett, former editor of Linux User & Developer magazine, told Lifewire over email. "Chrome OS Flex's [primary] audience is big business, schools, and the education sector."

Saving From Landfills

Graham Morrison, former editor of Linux Format and Linux Voice magazine, concurs and believes ChromeOS Flex will be popular enough to sustain itself.

"There are many organizations with old hardware they can't otherwise use, and Linux distributions for such hardware require some expertise," Morrison told Lifewire via email.

ChromeOS Flex has been available to early access users since February 2022. Google has certified about 300 devices from all the popular vendors to work with Flex and is working on appending more devices to the list.

"Just like too much sun, software bloat, clunky hardware, and security vulnerabilities can cause unwanted damage," explained Thomas Riedl, Director of Product, Enterprise, and Education at Google, while announcing Flex. "Thankfully, ChromeOS Flex is just the sunscreen your legacy devices need."

Riedl argues that ChromeOS Flex will help businesses and schools extend the life of the many fully functional devices in their inventories that are unable to keep up with the growing demands of modern operating systems like Windows 11 and macOS 12. 

"It's better [that] those devices are put to work rather than go in a landfill," said Morrisson.

People can deploy ChromeOS Flex just as easily via bootable USBs as IT departments can install it through a company's network on multiple devices. If coupled with the Chrome Enterprise Upgrade, these new Flex devices give business users the advantage of remote management.

Limited Appeal

Despite all its benefits, Thornett points out that ChromeOS Flex is even more limited than ChromeOS on Chromebooks, and unless the extensive list of limitations is dealt with, it’s unlikely to join the league of DIY operating systems like Linux. 

He specifically points out the lack of support for the Play Store and Android apps, adding that its support pages also document many hardware components that won’t work on supported devices, like fingerprint readers, certain ports, connectors, and much more.

stack of old laptops

Manfred Rutz / Getty Images

Thornett is also perplexed at ChromeOS Flex's system requirements, which need a computer with a 64-bit processor, at least 4GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. He argued that this is the kind of specification you'd expect for Windows 10, which makes sense if Google's target is all the unsupported Win 10 devices. 

"But why would a tech-savvy DIYer put a more restrictive version of ChromeOS on their old laptop when they could install a lightweight version of Linux such as Lubuntu?" asked Thornet rhetorically. "It's like owning a house and deciding to live in a tent in your kitchen. Quirky, but not exactly sensible."

As things stand now, Thornett doesn't think ChromeOS Flex will set the world alight as a DIY OS. Although our experts don't see any signs from Google that it is going after non-corporate people, Thornett believes that if Google does see a home-grown consumer ecosystem emerging around the OS, it'll be quick to adapt to cater to their requirements.

"There will be some people content to work within ChromeOS Flex's limitations and work predominantly through the web browser just so they can squeeze out a few extra years from an old Windows laptop," opined Thornett. "But with a little effort, you could have another version of Linux running with more features and functionality."

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