There’s has been a lot of buzz this week around Google’s announcement of ChromeOS Flex.

Lots of the usual suspect reviewers telling you about it, installing it and then moving on to the next clickbait article.

I’m here to let you know I’ve been using this for a few days now, I’m a user of 2 “actual” Chromebooks as full-time devices (recently sold a Mac M1 in favour of my Chromebook)

So I’d hope to bring a real-world user’s perspective to Flex.

What is it?

A few years back, Google bought a company called Neverware which had a version of ChromeOS based on the open-sourced ChromiumOS which could be installed on any Mac or PC. The idea was a simple one that businesses and schools could repurpose old hardware into a centrally managed OS which would extend the life of the old hardware.

This release of ChromeOS Flex builds on that and moves the OS from ChromiumOS to full ChromeOS.

It’s also well worth remembering this is pre-release software, it’s running off the ChromeOS Dev branch at the moment rather than the Stable branch. This isn’t uncommon for Google and while there will be issues it’s not unusable.

As RepublicWorld stated

  • While the Chrome OS is exclusively available for Chromebooks, Chrome OS Flex can be downloaded and installed on any computer with Windows or macOS.
  • Chrome OS devices contain a Google security chip that helps to protect the system but Chrome OS Flex devices do not as the OS is downloadable on third-party systems.
  • Chrome OS devices directly manage their updates while Chrome OS Flex updates are provided by original equipment manufacturers.
  • One of the biggest differences and downside to Chrome OS Flex is that it does not support Android applications or Google Play.
  • Since Chrome OS Flex is installed on devices that do not have a similar layout as those of the Chrome OS devices, some shortcuts might not work while using Chrome OS Flex.
  • Yet another disadvantage of Chrome OS Flex is that it does not support fingerprint readers, face recognition cameras, stylus and other pen-related inputs, and CD/DVD drives.

Install

Installation is pretty easy, you will need a USB stick of 8Gb or more.  a Fast USB3 stick makes more sense as you are installing an OS.

Head over to the Chrome Web store and download the Chrome Recovery Utility

Before you continue

In Chrome browser, launch the Chrome Recovery Utility extension.

Click Get started.

Click Select a model from a list.

For Select a manufacturer, find and click Google Chrome OS Flex.

For Select a product, find and click Chrome OS Flex (Developer-Unstable).

Click Continue.

When prompted, insert your USB drive.

From the dropdown menu, select the USB drive.

Click Continue.

Click Create now.
Note: During the process, it is normal for Chrome Recovery Utility to show unusual percentages.

When you get a message that your recovery media is ready, remove your USB drive from the device.

Next you’ll need to boot the PC or Mac you want to try Flex on, I say try because you can boot Flex to run off the USB stick to make sure it works BEFORE you install it. This is the same as Linux distros like Ubuntu.

This will probably be the most difficult part of the install

Turn off the device you want to run Chrome OS Flex on.
Note: Make sure the target device is completely powered off, and not asleep or idle.

Insert the Chrome OS Flex USB installer.

Boot the device from the USB drive. If you’re unsure which key to use,

Finding the USB Boot key is not always easy and you might need to google it. Common keys are.

Manufacturer Boot key
Acer F2
Apple Hold Option (next to the  key)
Asus Del
Dell F12
Gateway F1
HP F9
Intel F2
Lenovo F12
Toshiba F2 or F12
Other Try pressing Esc, any of F1F12 keys, or Enter

  • Boot keys might be different on some models.
  • Some models display their boot key info on screen at the beginning of startup. For example, on some Lenovo models you’ll see To interrupt normal startup, press Enter.

Press the power button.

Immediately begin repeatedly pressing your device’s boot key.

Select your USB installer as the boot device using:

One-time boot menu—If your interrupt triggers a one-time boot menu, you’ll see a list of boot options on your screen. You can use arrow keys, or mouse in some cases, to select your USB installer.

BIOS or UEFI menu—If your interrupt opens the full BIOS or UEFI setup menu, you’ll need to find settings related to Boot or Startup. Then, follow the on-screen instructions to set your USB installer as the first, primary, or preferred boot device.

Other menu—If you see other options on screen, navigate to an option that matches one of the menus described above. Then proceed as described in those steps.

Dev Channel

What has been installed on the PC is the ChromeOS Dev Channel. There are three Channels a Chromebook can run on

  • Stable channel: This channel is fully tested by the Chrome OS team, and is the best choice to avoid crashes and other problems. It’s updated roughly every two to three weeks for minor changes, and every four weeks for major changes.
  • Beta channel: To view upcoming changes and improvements with low risk, use the Beta channel. It’s updated roughly every week, with major updates coming every four weeks, more than a month before the Stable channel gets them.
  • Dev channel: To view the latest Chrome OS features, use the Dev channel. The Dev channel is updated once or twice weekly. While this build is tested, it may have bugs, as we want people to see what’s new as soon as possible.

What this means is this is not the most stable platform, and what works today, may break tomorrow. So this is not something you want to run as your primary OS just yet. When Google release this properly they will build off the Stable Channel.

That being said, I’ve not had any issues this week.

At the time of writing, Flex was running version 100 my Acer Flex Chromebook on Stable runs 98

What is the difference between ChromeOS and Flex?

From a users perspective, there are some key core differences between the two variants.

No Android Apps

ChromeOS has the ability to run Android Apps as part of the OS. This is currently not enabled in Flex, so if you read about running Android Apps on ChromeOS, you can’t do this on Flex.

Personally, I don’t use a huge number of Android Apps in my personal workflow which has evolved to using WebApps where possible.

Linux Shell

The Linux Shell however IS included, works as expected and is something i make a lot of use of running applications like VSCode, Termius and NoMachine

New Features

Because this is running on Dev Channel Version 100 there are also a couple of new features I unearthed which are not on my Chromebook

Native Wireguard VPN Client support

Historically ChromOS has supported LT2P and OpenVPN, the OpenVPN was a nightmare to get working because it doesn’t support OVPN files. I gave up using OpenVPN years ago and moved to Wireguard.

Because Flex doesn’t support Android Apps, this was going to be an issue for me as Wireguard on ChromeOS is supported via the Android App. This is no more. It’s supported as a native VPN by the OS under ChromeOS Settings..

New Screen saver

ChromeOS also has a screensaver of sorts which displays photos from GooglePhoto which is a nice feature. A new flag (opened by typing chrome://flags in Chrome)

chrome://flags#ambient-mode-animation

When set to enable gives a very pretty washing line type screen saver showing your Google Photos..

Performance

So the installation and trip down the new features are nice. What does it work like?

I’ve been running this on a 2020 Dell XPS 13.  16Gb Ram and 512Gb HDD. I’ve been flipping between OpenSuse, Ubuntu, Linux Mint over the that few weeks and each of them felt very slow and gloopy on this device. Not something you can put a finger on just not quick and responsive.

Flex runs like a hot knife through butter on this device. It’s smooth, fast, responsible and far more usable than say Ubuntu 21.10.

I have a DisplayLink hub with an ultrawide and a 4k monitor attached to them and that works out of the box with no problems. Bluetooth works fine on my MX 3 mouse and Logi keyboard and the connector to my Bose speakers.

The wifi connects as expected…

Using this all day for 3 days I had no crashes, no lockups and the biggest problem I can find is when I reboot the system asks for a password, not a Pin even though I’ve set it to ask for a pin..

It is worth noting Flex won’t run currently Fingerprint readers, Face recognition

The Chrome Flags I set also work as expected.

Battery

This was interesting, I actually replaced the battery in the XPS last week. On installation, the battery said it would last 1hr and the fan was going loud and I was thinking uh oh.. on exactly 40 minutes the fans stopped and the battery went up to 7hrs remaining.  Since then I think I’m getting about 5hrs battery usage.

Worth it?

So is it worth it? Does that depend on what “Worth it” means to you?

If you’re looking today for a full working ChromOS substitute to run on your own hardware you’re going to have a mixed result bag. However, if you are looking to repurpose some old Mac or PC hardware that has been stuck in a drawer somewhere then this project is something that may turn that hardware back into something modern and usable.

Thoughts

I’m very much already in the camp of ChromeOS so I love this project. I can see the advantages of the low impact highly usable OS. I’ll happily keep the XPS on the Dev channel moving forward even after release as I have the stable channel on my Acer.

The primary driver for this project however isn’t me, it’s schools and businesses. I can see schools taking this onboard I still think Active Directory integration and GPO templates (somehow) are what’s needed to drive this OS in business initially. IT teams are stretched and flipping between Microsoft’s AD and Googles Gui for managing devices is a pivot too many for most (I’d love to use a Chromebook where I work)

As Mircosoft bet on 11, one of the primary reasons for launching was to drive sales of new hardware, having flex in these times of austerity and green tech might be  a great bonus for Flex.

By davidfield

Tech Entusiast