How to install ChromeOS Flex the hard way

Now that Google ChromeOS Flex is generally available and supports more than 400 devices, I decided to give it a try. I grabbed my daughter’s old MacBook Air from 2013, which was collecting dust. And I went through the process, which is about as easy as it can be. Still, I learned how to install ChromeOS Flex the hard way during this process.

Before sharing the often frustrating experience in this particular case, I want to be clear. I love what Google is doing with ChromeOS Flex. The ability to repurpose old computers from running macOS or Windows so they can continue on with ChromeOS is brilliant. It will reduce e-waste while also saving both consumers and businesses money since they can reuse computers they already own.

Having said that, I’d like to see Google add a clarification or two to its ChromeOS Flex install documentation. Why? Because the process took me far longer than I expected, mainly due to limitations I found out only during the process. I could have (and should have) avoided these, but apparently, I like doing things the hard way.

What you need to install ChromeOS Flex

Essentially, to install ChromeOS Flex on a computer, you need one that already runs Chrome. It’s also probably wise to check in advance if your computer is supported by ChromeOS Flex. There’s a list of models here and thankfully, the 2013 MacBook Air appears as “fully certified”. There is one caveat in this case: Google says the Air’s webcam won’t work. I can live with that.

You also need a USB drive with at least 8 GB of storage so you can download the installation files. These files are downloaded through the Chromebook Recovery Utility, which is a Chrome Web Extension.

Right off the bat, the name is deceiving because you’re not recovering a Chromebook. You’re installing ChromeOS Flex. That’s a small nitpick though and didn’t impact the ChromeOS Flex install. So I went to install the Chromebook Recovery Utility on the old MacBook Air. No problem. Until it was.

It’s better to use another computer for the ChromeOS Flex files

I immediately ran into an issue that isn’t Google’s fault. When I tried to install the recovery utility on the MacBook Air, Chrome said it wasn’t compatible. It turns out, you need at least Chrome 88 running for this extension.

And to be fair, the ChromeOS Flex install instructions do say you need the current version of Chrome on your device. So that’s on me.

Since the Air hadn’t been used in a very long time, it had Chrome 67 on it. Ok, that’s an easy fix, right? I just went into the Chrome browser settings and updated to the latest version. Or so I thought.

With my newly updated Chrome browser on an old Air, I tried to install the Chromebook Recovery Utility again. And again, it failed because it was “incompatible”. I checked the Chrome version to make sure the software update took effect and it did.

Right up to Chrome 87, or exactly one version lower than what the recovery utility supports. And when I saw the version number, I also saw a message saying any future versions of Chrome would require macOS 10.11, aka El Capitan.

I decided to check the macOS version on the Air and of course, it was 10.10, which is Yosemite. To proceed with the ChromeOS Flex install then, I would have to upgrade the Air to at least macOS 10.11. And that’s what I did.

OS X El Capitan

I downloaded the nearly 6 GB installation file directly from Apple and ran through the upgrade process. That’s 45 minutes I won’t get back. After the macOS upgrade, I was able to get Chrome up to version 103.

Again, it’s not Google’s fault that we haven’t upgraded the operating system software on a Mac we haven’t used in five or more years. However, there’s nothing in the ChromeOS Flex install documentation with requirements for macOS 10.11 or better to get a version of Chrome for the process. And I think there should be if you can’t get the current version of Chrome from your current operating system on a certified device.

After all, the entire premise of ChromeOS Flex is to use old devices. And old devices are less likely to have the most current software versions installed on them. So the expectation of a simple installation process will be a letdown in cases like this.

The best way to manage that expectation? Update the ChromeOS Flex install documentation with these specific requirements. This is also extremely good information to know (in advance) for IT admins undertaking a ChromeOS Flex fleet conversion.

There is a simple workaround for this if you see it in the instructions. Of course, doing things the hard way, I didn’t see it until it was too late.

Google says “The device that you use to create your USB installer can be different to the device you plan to install Chrome OS Flex on.” If you have a more modern machine running Chrome, you can use it to create your ChromeOS Flex install media.

While that’s good, I wonder how many people will take the same path I did and try to use the old device for the installation. Yes, Google does state you need the current version of Chrome to create the ChromeOS Flex media. So I shouldn’t have gone down this path, and neither should you unless you want to do this the hard way. I’ll take the blame and full responsibility for this one.

Using the Chromebook Recovery Utility

With my updated MacBook Air, at least to meet minimum requirements, I installed the Chromebook Recovery Utility extension without incident. And when I searched for Google ChromeOS Flex in the menu, it appeared (as Google Chrome OS Flex). I clicked a few buttons to move through the process and in about 20 minutes, my ChromeOS Flex bootable media was ready. Although Google says you need a USB drive, I didn’t have one with enough storage. I was able to complete this process with a 16 GB microSD card in an SD card adapter.

I rebooted the MacBook Air via that media storage and crossed my fingers. Success!

install ChromeOS Flex MacBook Air

This allowed me to test ChromeOS Flex as it runs directly off the USB drive; it doesn’t wipe the original operating system at this stage. I signed in to the temporary operating system to kick the tires and after a few minutes decided to proceed with the full installation. In my case, this wipes macOS El Capitan (sorry you didn’t last long!) on the internal storage and replaces it with ChromeOS Flex. This took another 5 minutes or so.

Note that if you choose the option to test the software, it won’t run as fast as it would if you had it installed. That’s because the internal storage of your computer is very likely faster than external storage. So don’t be too disappointed if while testing ChromeOS Flex it runs slow. You can expect a performance boost if you do the full installation.

What’s ChromeOS Flex like on a 2013 MacBook Air?

After using my shiny new operating system on a banged-up old computer from 2013, I’m pretty satisfied.

You have to realize that even a few years ago macOS was a sluggard on this hardware. It has a dual-core Intel Core i5-4250U CPU running at 1.3 GHz, a scant 4 GB of RAM, and a more-than-enough 250 GB SSD. Given the 4th-gen CPU that’s now 9 years old and the minimal amount of memory, ChromeOS Flex performs better than I expected.

The MacBook Air is essentially now a Chromebook, so it’s simple, speedy (as speedy as it can be), and secure. I’m able to browse my everyday sites and use my typical web apps. And it doesn’t feel like I’m using a ChromeOS laptop from 2013; trust me, I remember what it was like. The experience is more akin to an entry-level Chromebook from around five or six years or so. That’s all I need it to be. It would be an unreasonable expectation to think that ChromeOS Flex will magically make 2013 hardware perform like 2022 hardware.

So the experience isn’t remotely comparable to “the MacBook of ChromeOS laptops”, which is what I dubbed the HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook in my recent review.

How could it be when that device has a 12th gen Intel CPU and 8 GB of RAM, for example? I wouldn’t want to keep more than 10 browser tabs open on the refreshed Air when there is only 4 GB of RAM to work with. And I don’t expect to see blazing fast window management by comparison. But it’s not terrible by any means.

Short of the webcam, everything seems to be working fine. By the way, I was incorrect about ChromeOS Flex: Earlier this week I said it didn’t support Android or Linux apps. A few readers mentioned that was only partially true: Certified devices do have Linux support. Sure enough, the ChromeOS Linux container is running just fine on the MacBook Air.

Like I said, I just ChromeOS Flex to repurpose the Air into a usable, secure computer. It is and it will likely be for some time. Google says this model of the MacBook Air will get software updates through the end of 2026.

Well done, Google. But next time, I’m doing this the easy way. You should too: Read the instructions and fully understand them before taking your first step!