Chrome OS Flex, a free lightweight alternative to Windows, comes out of beta

Kip Kniskern

Back in February, Google introduced Chrome OS Flex in preview. The lightweight OS offers a free alternative to Windows without the security restrictions (or, umm, the security) of Windows 11, and a way to run a version of Chromebook OS on just about any old PC. Today, they’re taking off the preview tag and officially introducing Chrome OS Flex.

There are some important differences between Chromebook OS and Chrome OS Flex (which is a rebranded and updated version of Neverware’s CloudReady. Google acquired Neverware in late 2020), most notably that it won’t run Google Play or Android apps (as there is no emulation layer as there is in Chromebook OS), and that peripheral support might be spotty: “DVD drives, fingerprint readers, stylus & pen support etc “might not work as expected, or even not work at all.”

Google has provided a list of almost 300 supported devices, but even if your PC isn’t on the list, you can still try Chrome OS Flex to see if it works. Installation is fairly simple, you install a “Chrome Recovery Utility” Chrome extension on a PC (it doesn’t need to be the device you’re planning to update), create a USB key, and then boot the target device into Chrome OS Flex. From there, you can check things out to make sure it’s working, and then install it more permanently.

Google has partnered with Cameyo, an application that can run Windows apps in virtualization or in the browser, lessening the need for Windows to get at important files. Chrome OS Flex also can be easily managed using the Chrome Enterprise Upgrade in the Google Admin console (for a cost).

Google is promoting Chrome OS Flex as a way to continue to use old PCs that may reach their end of life otherwise, or as a way to recover from ransomware and malware attacks (although recovering your data will still be problematic). It’s the other end of the spectrum from Microsoft’s Windows 11 approach, which requires a modern CPU and TPM security, and it will be interesting to see how it does in the marketplace, even as Chromebooks are currently struggling.