This brilliant free tool turns your ancient laptop into a Chromebook

Google's free ChromeOS Flex brings old hardware right up to date – and it's completely free

ChromeOS Flex
(Image credit: Google)

If you find it hard to part with trusty old hardware, you'll be familiar with this problem: the hardware works fine, but the software doesn't cut it any more. Google has the solution, and it's free.

With ChromeOS Flex you can turn an old PC or Mac into a Chrome-powered device that's safe, secure and completely up-to-date with all the latest security patches. From Google's point of view it means more ChromeOS users; from our point of view it means a whole new lease of life for older computers and some environmental brownie points too. It effectively brings your old PC or Mac back as a device to rival the best Chromebooks.

ChromeOS Flex is free from the Flex website (opens in new tab), but there are a few important things you need to know before you download it.

What is ChromeOS Flex?

ChromeOS Flex has been around for a while, but until now it was an early access beta. Now it's available to everyone without the usual beta caveats. What Flex does is create a bootable ChromeOS installer on a USB drive. You then boot from that drive to make sure everything works okay, and if it does then you can go ahead and install ChromeOS on the device.

Google has been aiming this mainly at businesses and schools, and that means it's been tested on hundreds of different models of laptops with fairly modest hardware; because ChromeOS is a cloud-based operating system, PCs and Macs don't need to do so much heavy lifting as they would with native apps. And because the operating system has been designed to be lightweight, it doesn't need the same hardware that you need to run Windows 11 or the latest macOS. 

Google has been testing ChromeOS Flex on old Macs – it'll run on a 10-year-old MacBook – as well as Windows PCs from the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and more. Google has published a list (opens in new tab) of the 400-plus certified devices; if your PC or Mac isn't listed that doesn't necessarily mean it won't run ChromeOS; it's just that Google hasn't tested it. Look for the red stop sign, though: if that's next to your hardware it means Google has encountered a serious issue and doesn't recommend installation.

I think Flex is a brilliant idea: all too often hardware ends up gathering dust because it can't run the latest OS or isn't eligible for the latest security patches. Rather than risk infection or ransomware or consign it to the scrapheap, ChromeOS Flex brings it bang up to date. So if you've got an old laptop kicking around, it's time to bring it back.

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written thirteen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote another seven books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (havrmusic.com (opens in new tab)).