What is it?
Back in 2011 Google released a new take on the desktop operating system which threw away everything you knew from Windows of OSX and basically gave the user a desktop based web browser and a few core features. It was lightweight, it was functional on very low hardware specs, it did what it said on the tin and most of the leading media agencies slammed it as pointless.
Fasf forward almost 10 years and ChromeOS on Chromebooks are still here, they now support Linux Containers, give the user access to the Android apps on the Google Play store and vary in price from £150 to £1000. Its an OS that isn't going anywhere.
Googles official spin on the ChromeOS however needs to be run on certified, purpose built hardware. Chromebooks. While this means that like Macs there is a known, supported upgrade path.. It seems a shame that such a robust, low point of entry Operating system can't be run on that old Windows PC which runs like a dog but is only 3 years old.
Queue Neverware and the CloudReady OS, based off the same code as Chrome's however CloudReady runs on ANY PC hardware. It will run on that old Windows PC or it will run on a Mac.
With the OS being so lightweight it will run happily on a 2Gb RAM machine with a 20Gb Hard disk and a slow CPU, and it will run better than Windows does on the same hardware. Give the OS more grunt and it will run better and better..
In this post i'll be explaining a bit about CloudReadyas I have been running it on my Dell XPS 13 (512Gb SDD, 16Gb RAM, i7 Processor) for the last month.
Spoiler, as it stands right now, I don't think i'll be going back to a standard Linux distro.
I am not a professional blogger, there will be spelling and grammar errors on this content. If you want to be my unpaid copy editor please reach out. the opinions here are my own, not my employer, not the product owner and I write about the experiences I have had, not your experience.
Within this blog post I refer to CloudReady and ChromeOS as essentially the same thing. I'm doing so from a user and usability perspective. CloudReady is built off the ChromiumOS project. Which is also where ChromeOS starts.
Who are Neverware?
Up until a few weeks ago I would have written (or at least) copy and pasted the following:
Neverware was founded in 2011 by Jonathan Hefter, who began developing the core tech behind our first product in 2009, after he graduated from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Jonathan was driven by a simple question: “How can students, teachers, and consumers get the experience of using a new, powerful computer without buying one?”
After several tries (and a lot of grit and determination from Jonathan and the team he built along the way), Neverware’s second product, CloudReady, launched to market in 2015.
However in Dec 2020 one of Neverware investors Google bought them... So now Neverware are a Google Company.
A blog post at the time stated that there wouldn't be any immediate changes to how Neverware operates.
Considering Googles Commitment to ChromeOS and Chromebooks over the last 10 years, and as more and more hardware suppliers are releasing Chromebooks. As Chromebooks make headroads into the Education space and the 2nd screen for many working from home, this is an understandable commitment by Google.
As Conjecture I could suggest that Google see an inroad here to those school districts which have old Windows or Mac hardware still in use, who cannot afford the investment of new hardware. Using CloudReady to repurpose that hardware for possibly years to come (Google announced recently some very long support times for up to 8 years).
Home, Education and Enterprise
CloudReady comes in 3 editions, 1 free 2 you pay for.
I've been using the Home variant..
Home is the free version, anyone can download and install on an old laptop or mac. It connects as a Chromebook would to your Google Account and provides ChromeOS (based on chromiumOS) and a Linux container. At the time of writing it doesn't have Android support (more on that later)
Education is Home plus the ability to link the ChromeReady devices to Google Workspace (GSuite) Admin.
With Chrome Education Upgrade, you can manage your CloudReady devices right alongside your Chromebooks in the Google Admin console, giving you greater security and control while simplifying deployment.
The Admin console offers administrators full control for managed access and security for all network devices:
- Apply policies across all your devices at the touch of a button—like automatically applying wifi settings across all devices.
- Customize device settings so you can enable and disable specific sites and content, such as social media sites, according to grade or year groups to map to school policies.
- Quickly establish an exam mode to lock down devices to specific sites or apps.
Enterprise like Educations is based off the Home Variant and like Education will link to a businesses Google Admin account where its possible to add remove features from the central console directly onto peoples Devices. There is also a Mass Deployment feature (which i guess Education has as well) where WDS, SCCM, Landesk, Ghost can be used to deploy ClourReady to multiple devices over a network.
the main driver in the increase in cost between these three however is the support. The more you pay, the better the support.
Installation (from USB)
If you're a Windows User you're in luck as there is the cloudready installer which can be downloaded from the CloudReady Home - Free Download page just scroll down a little till you see the USB Maker option
there are pretty comprehensive instructions on the Neverware Docs site on how to use this
If you are running something not Windows there are also instructions for manually writing the downloaded bin file to a USB stick which mainly revolve around the dd command on Mac or Linux.
The installation will wipe whatever is on the USB stick..
Once the software is on the USB stick its time to boot..
In order to have CloudReady run on the device you'll need to let it know it needs to boot off a USB stick. On Mac's this is quite simple, Put the USB Stick in the USB slot, turn on the Mac, when you hear the startup Dong press and hold the Option key and you will be presented with the ability to boot from either the Hard disk or the USB, choose the USB and wait a few seconds.
Windows PC's are a little more of a pain, if youi're really lucky your machine will default to boot from USB when you turn it on. However you may need to consult the manufacturers guide. Usually F12, F2 of F9 will bring up a one time boot men where you can boot off the USB stick.
Once you've figure out how to boot off a USB, the next step is an interesting one.
CloudReady will run off the USB stick so you can try this without installing to your hard disk. If however you choose to install CloudReady to your devices hard disk there is something you need to be aware of.
CloudReady will 100% replace the operating system that is currently on the PC, it will overwrite all of it, OS, data, files etc. You cannot dual boot 2 Operating systems with CloudReady
Once booting up after a few seconds of the Cloud Ready spalsh screen you'll be presented with a series of questions
If you click on Lets Go here, the installer will boot 100% off the USB stick. If you left click on the clock in the bottom left hand corner you can select the Install OS option.
My recommendation here would be run off the USB stick first, see if everything works ok, that Install OS option is available later.
Whichever you choose there will be some additional questions
Once rebooted you will see the followin screens
For this use your Google Login
And you're done.
There is an optional Media Extender to isntall with instructions to install it should you wish to.
If you booted off the USB stick, you can again click on the Menu ans will see Install OS which looks back over the above pages.
Your First boot and Login will bring up the basic ChromeOS style interface
There is an app bar at the bottom which "apps" can be pinned to. Clicking on the clock area in the bottom right brings up a "Settings" type Menu very similar to Android or Apple IOS. Clicking on the small circle in the bottom left opens a search bar and an apps type menu again very similar to the Android or ISO interfaces.
Clicking on the Cog in the above menu will bring up the ChromeOS settings application where settings are set or changed.
Interface wise thats about it really. Its designed to be simple..
What about the apps?
As CloudReady/ChromeOS is based off a web browser as the core interface, most of the apps for the Operating system are Web based and can be found at the Chrome Web Store
On CloudReady your App options are
I class ChromeApps as either Webpages, Apps installed from the Chrome Web Store or Progressive Web Applications (PWA)
Webpages can be booked marked and I would strongly suggest using where posible the Web version of apps on EITHER CloudReady or ChromeOS.
The chromeWeb store however has some great web based apps (most of which work offline too)
A really good example of a Web App is Polarr
A photo editing suite which is web based, works offline however acts like a standalone application independent of the web browser.
Office365 Outlook, Google Drive, google Duo and Stadia are good examples of PWAs which are self contained apps independent of the web browser.
Under the hood ChromeOS in all its form is based on Linux, just like Apple try and remove you from the underbelly of the BSD which it runs on, ChromeOS wants to keep you as far from the underlying OS as it can.
However as an option for those who like such things (me) Linux is available, however its not the underlying OS Linux, this is a container (think Docker, but this is LXD) based on Debian Linux.
Setup is pretty easy
- At the bottom right, select the time.
- Select Settings (cog).
- Under 'Linux (Beta)', select Turn On.
- Follow the steps on the screen. Setup can take 10 minutes or more.
A terminal window opens. You have a Debian 10 (Buster) environment. You can run Linux commands, install more tools using the APT package manager, and customise your shell.
The Linux container runs apt, will install Deb packages and for now Flatpak images (not snaps).
Applications installed in Linux will appear on the ChromeReady Desktop in a folder called Linux Apps
Out of the bos on CloudReady the Linux container is 5Gb which is ok for tinkering around, however you'll quickly run out of space if you get a few applications running.. Under Settings linux should you hit that space limit you can backup the linux container to your hard disk (or an external disk) and then delete the container, build a bigger one, and restore the backup.
I wrote a post a while back which covers the ChromeOS Linux shell which may answer a few questions.
No Android Apps
Somewhere ChromeOS and CloudReady do not offer parity is with Android apps, Cloud Ready doesn't support them. The reasons are covered in this Neverware KB article
This does make for some interesting omissions however I have found that even on my ChromeOS tablet i'm pulling further and further from Android apps and using where possible the Web versions.
I do however hope that with Google Buying Neverware this becomes supported soon.
Love them or hate them the use of VPN's has skyrocketed during lock down. This is an area ChromeOS is particularly poor at. Out of the box the OS only supports L2TP or OpenVPN VPN formats, however OpenVPN only supports the ONC format. I think this is another "Google knows better" format which there are converters available for but makes the whole process of setting up a VPN pretty tedious
What makes it more so on CloudReady is the lack of Android Apps, on Full blown ChromeOS i can isntall the OpenVPN or Wireguard Android apps or the android apps for a commercial system like NordVPN, VyperVPN or ExpressVPN and these would appear as Native Available VPN's in the menu. I can't do this in CloudReady
On my own setup i've got Cisco Anyconnect working using the Anyconnect Web app, ExpressVPN using L2TP I got round the calling home VPN biut by purchasing a seperate router which connects back home using Wireguard tethered to my Mobiles Wifi hotspot
This is however something Google need to get much better at and i'd suggest considering the security mobel, native support for WireGuard would be a simple fix as its supported in the core OS kernel.
If you've got this far, kudos to you..
As i said at the start, I moved full time to the Cloudready Home version on my Dell XPS 13 about a month ago.
I've not had many issues doing this because i've been using ChromeOS since it came out in 2011 so my workflow is setup around Web apps and the like. If i need to do any heavy lifting I do have a spearate Macbook Pro for that.
The OS in any of its forms is perfectly setup for an average user who opens thier computer, fires up a browser and does banking, searches, mapping, photos etc online.
Out of the box its designed to be more secure than Windows and OSX, and its designed to be minimal. Things like updates are done for you, there are no AV issues because of the OS design, sandboxing and low trust security design. this takes a lot of the issues with Windows specifically off the table.
Most of the apps I use are available on the paltform however this is probably because i've slowly moved to such apps over the years. I try and be OS agnostic where possible.
In todays world most of what we want is web based and accessible from these devices.
What's a pain?
The VPN setup for those who run thier own VPN is a pain however most of the bigger commercial suppliers have some level of Chromebook support.
The lack of Ansroid apps is missed even if I don't use that many. this hopefully will change.
Not being able to run some software can be a right pain in the neck, however a bit of research can solve that most of the time. Its suprising whats out there in the land of web based software.
Who is this for?
CloudReady is for the remote worker, thinks like the office suite run fine on this OS.. Teams, Word, Excel, Cisco Anyconnect, 2FA apps, zoom etc all run native on CloudReady.
Edcuation makes perfect sence the Google classroom idea is very slick.
Gamers, yup Stadia rocks on this platform and its not hardware dependant..
Second screeners, the family laptop, Google users and people who want minimal fuss and want to recycle some old Windows PC's
Who's this not for?
This is however not the platform for you if you're into as Steve Jobs might say "driving a truck". If what you do needs heavy lifting, grunt or specialist tools like Adobe for example then stick to your Mac. CloudReady is not for youi..
From a personal perspective i've spent the last year looking for the perfect Linux setup, i started the year with OpenSuse Tumbleweed for 4 months and then flitted between several distros until i ended up on Kubutu 20.10.
Considering the issues with Fonts, codecs and realising that i was actually spenting most of my time on the command line or in a web browser the transition over to CloudReady has been very smooth and was up and running in an hour or so and that includes things like importing certs for home, setting up VPNs and the like.
I think if you're coming to this new its a transition, and one which might be a bit too much for some, which is OK.
there will always be that Windows or Mac app you can't live without, however are there ways round it? With the Money you save could you host a windows PC on AWS Workspaces or Azure? Are there alternatives to that app?
Time will tell what google does with this software, gut feeling is that it won't be bought and tossed aside, the core concept of being able to run it on any PC of almost any age is huge.