How to turn your old laptop into a Chromebook for free

A laptop on a table surrounded by small clouds
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Most businesses will have a stack of old laptops considered obsolete and of little use. They might be kept for use in an emergency, but they’ll most likely be written off and recycled. Equipping your workforce with new laptops every few years is an expense, both financial and environmental, that most companies will want to mitigate and that’s where Neverware’s CloudReady steps in. This software turns your old laptop into a Chromebook.

CloudReady is in fact based on Chromium OS, the open-source version of Google’s Chrome OS, replicating many of the same features you find on newfangled Chromebooks. There are some important differences between the two that are worth bearing in mind, but essentially, the experience is very similar to any Chromebook you might buy today, save for any hardware limitations of the original laptop (or desktop PC) you’re looking to repurpose.

CloudReady is absolutely free for personal use and costs US$49 per device per year for businesses with a discounted $25 price for schools. The business licence also gets you enrolment in the Google Management Console and technical support.

As Chromium OS is designed to be lightweight compared to an operating system like Windows or OS X, your old hardware might well surprise you. Our Samsung NC10 netbook came with Windows XP, 1GB of RAM (since upgraded to 2GB) and a very first-generation Intel Atom N270 processor so it’s certainly showing its age.

Installing CloudReady on your old laptop is thankfully an easy task and we’ve outlined the instructions below using the free personal version. All you need to get started is a USB flash drive 8GB or larger in size and a PC with the Chrome web browser installed that you can use to create a bootable recovery image.

CloudReady obviously can’t support all of the numerous laptop configurations available, but most laptops released within the last five years with more common Intel components should work and a list of certified compatible computers is available on Neverware's website. The list isn’t extensive, however, so it’s worth trying even if your laptop isn’t listed. In our case, no Samsung laptops are mentioned at all yet our NC10 works well. Even two-finger scrolling on the touchpad, which was never officially supported in Windows XP, works perfectly.

Create a CloudReady bootable image

First you’ll need to head over to the Neverware page where you can download the free personal version of the CloudReady operating system as a zip file. There’s no need to extract it. Then download the Chromebook Recovery Utility from the Chrome Web Store.

Open up the Chromebook Recovery Utility. The utility will warn you that the flash drive will be erased to create an image, so make sure you’ve backed up anything important. Don’t hit Get Started.

Instead, click the gear icon at the top right of the screen. This will bring up a menu where you want to select ‘Use local image’. This will open up a file browser window where you’ll need to locate the CloudReady zip file you downloaded earlier.

Insert your USB drive if you haven’t already done so, then select if from the dropdown list. Make sure you select the correct one as it’s about to get wiped. Click Continue when you’re sure.

The Chromebook Recovery Utility will then begin creating a recovery image. You’ll get a Chrome security prompt pop up during the process - click Continue to go ahead. Don’t be alarmed if the percentage progress bar goes beyond 100%. Just leave it running and the whole process should take about 15 minutes in total. After that, your USB flash drive should be ready.

Booting from your USB flash drive

Now, it’s time to turn your attention to your old laptop. First you’ll need to make sure it will boot from a USB flash drive. This will differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Usually, you’ll need to press a specific sequence or combination of keys on the keyboard immediately after powering on. This will give you access to a boot menu where you can choose the flash drive.

Alternately, you might need to jump into the BIOS settings and change boot priority so that your system boots first from the USB flash drive rather than the internal hard disk or SSD. Accessing the BIOS is usually either through pressing F2, F10 or Del while the system turns on. In the case of the Samsung NC10, you need to hit F2.

Install CloudReady

After you’ve got your old laptop primed to boot from a USB flash drive, turn it off, insert the flash drive and turn the computer on again. You should be greeted by the CloudReady logo, which will stay on your screen for a few minutes while it does things in the background.

You’ll need to set your operating system and keyboard language on the next screen, as well as connecting to your wireless network. The next screen will install Adobe Flash, which doesn’t come as standard with Chromium OS. The next step is to sign into your Google account.

After this is all done, you’ll be at the Chromium OS desktop. You might find everything feels a little unresponsive for now. This is because if you’ve used a Chromebook before, or use Chrome as your desktop browser, Chromium OS is synchronising all of your extensions and web apps. Annoyingly, there’s no option to choose what to sync when you first sign in. So just leave it for a few minutes to download in the background.

Once things become a bit moe responsive, you’ll need to actually install CloudReady on to your system. You see, at the moment, Chromium OS is running off the USB flash drive. To install Chromium to your laptop’s hard drive or SSD, click the bottom right of the system tray to bring up the menu. Now, select ‘Install CloudReady…’ from the list of options.

This will start the CloudReady Installer. You’ll be warned that you might lose the data on your hard disk/SSD if you install. If you have a compatible computer, you can dual boot CloudReady alongside your existing Windows installation. This gives you a choice of operating system whenever you turn your system on and also means you won’t lose your existing data.

If it’s an old system that’s not been used in a long time, you probably don’t really care what’s on there and the old operating system might be sluggish. If so, select Install ‘CloudReady Standalone’ to install Chromium OS. You’ll get a second warning screen telling you this will wipe everything on your hard disk, so it’s important to have a back up of any existing data that you do care about before you proceed.

Once you’re sure you want to proceed, the CloudReady installation will start. You can leave your laptop alone at this point. The whole installation will take about 20 minutes and the system will automatically shut itself down. Go brew a cup of coffee and come back. If the system is turned off when you get back, the job is complete. Boot it back up.

Now you can remove the USB flash drive. It’s probably a good time to jump back in the BIOS to set booting from internal storage as the first priority option as well. Once that’s done, the system should boot into Chromium OS by default. You’ll be presented with the language selection and wireless network selection screen again. You’ll also need to sign back into your Google account.

This time, however, the system will check for updates to CloudReady before you arrive at the desktop. This ensures it’s up to date with bug fixes. The latest update is important if you want to watch Netflix, which we’ll come to below. Once all of the updates are done, your system is finally ready.

Enabling Netflix in CloudReady

Until recently, Netflix wasn’t supported by CloudReady even though Netflix works absolutely fine in Chrome OS. This was because the DRM resources needed to securely play Netflix content was not available. Fortunately, this has now changed but you do have to go through a few steps to get there.

First, ensure your CloudReady is on the latest version. Then, open up the settings by clicking the bottom-right of the system tray. Then click Settings. Under ‘Widevine Content Decryption Module’ click ‘Install’ to install the module. Once it’s installed, reboot your system.

Next, you’ll need to install the Chrome User Agent Switcher extension from the Chrome Web Store. Once the extension is installed, you’ll see its icon in the top right of the Chromium browser. Right click it and select ‘Options’.

On the next screen, use the form to add a new User Agent with the following details (without the quotation marks):

  1. Name: "CloudReady Widevine"
  2. String: "Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Fedora; Linux x86_64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/46.0.2490.86 Safari/537.36"
  3. Group: "Chrome" (should be filled automatically)
  4. Append: "Replace"
  5. Indicator Flag: "IE"

Now when you open up Netflix in your browser, left click the User Agent Switcher icon, go to Chrome, then select ‘CloudReady Widevine’ and Netflix should be able to play perfectly. With all of these steps followed, you should have your very own fully functioning Chromebook.

Using Chromium OS and Performance

If you’ve used Chrome OS before, everything should feel familiar. The only nuances you’ll encounter are the fact that your keyboard is likely a Windows keyboard and one not specifically designed for a Chromebook. Your manufacturer’s keyboard shortcuts for volume, that normally need a Fn modifier to be pressed as well, won’t work in Chrome OS. Chromebooks also don’t have a function row of keys, but the F1-F12 keys will operate as though they were on a Chromebook keyboard. They translate as follows:

F1 - Back

F2 - Forward

F3 - Refresh

F4 - Reload

F5 - Full screen

F6 - Switch window

F7 - Brightness down

F8 - Brightness up

F9 - Mute

F10 - Volume down

F11 - Volume up

There’s no lock screen button, but your laptop’s power button should lock the system instead. Your Caps Lock key should function as the Chromebook’s ‘Search’ key – you should be able to choose which function your prefer, Caps Lock of Search, in the settings. All of the keyboard shortcuts worked exactly as they would on a Chromebook. You can also hit Ctrl + Alt + ? to bring up a list of the other keyboard shortcuts that use Ctrl and Alt as modifiers.

In our case, hardware-wise, everything worked perfectly after installation. WiFi was fully operational, two-finger scrolling worked on the touchpad and the speakers were correct and present. Bluetooth paired without a hitch. Everything just worked perfectly.

Given that the Samsung NC10 is an eight-year-old netbook dating from 2008, performance is more than acceptable when working within the limitations of Chrome OS. The Samsung NC10 only has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 single-core processor with 2GB of DDR2 memory and a 160GB 5400rpm hard drive after all.

Running a few benchmarks that we use for Chromebooks, it managed a SunSpider score of 2,062.5ms and a JetStream score of 17.6. Compared to the Acer Chromebook R11 we reviewed recently, that’s a SunSpider score three times slower and a JetStream score just over twice as low. So obviously don’t expect miracles, but for simple web browsing it performed fine.

Obviously, performance will be dependent on what system you decide to use but converting an old laptop into a Chromebook could certainly give your old hardware a second wind. As it's so easy, there's no reason to not give CloudReady a go rather than letting your old laptop gather dust. You don't even have to commit straight away, just run CloudReady off a live USB drive to see how you get on.