Google’s Chrome OS isn’t available to install on a laptop or desktop like Windows or Linux, but the next best thing is Neverware’s CloudReady OS. I stumbled upon it when I wanted to see if I could for my kids to use for school. CloudReady is mainly built for businesses and education, but the OS is free for personal use, and it’s lightweight enough that it’s great for breathing new life into a computer that’s struggling from the demands of Windows or MacOS.
Google acquired Neverware in December 2020, but there didn’t appear to be any big changes coming for the OS. It turns out the company’s been busy, though. On Tuesday it announced Chrome OS Flex, a rebuilt, more robust version of CloudReady. And it’s still going to be free for home use.
While CloudReady delivered a lot of the value of Chrome OS, the feel and some key features were still missing. Chrome OS Flex fills in many of those gaps, starting with the browser.
“The biggest difference, but it sounds smaller than it is, is that the official Chrome browser is going to be built-in here,” said Forrest Smith, product manager for Chrome OS Flex. Features such as geolocation, which were done differently in CloudReady’s Chromium browser, will now be handled just as they are in Chrome on a Chromebook. Another important addition is support for Family Link accounts.
“One of the things we heard in the pandemic that we really wanted to solve is supporting those Family Link accounts,” Smith said. With Chrome OS Flex, you’ll now be able to convert a PC or Mac into a Chrome device for younger students and be able to manage their student accounts.
Other Chromebook features making the jump into Flex include Phone Hub, which syncs with your Android phone to see the last couple of tabs you viewed on it, see its battery level and wireless connection strength and get notifications from chat apps, and you’ll have support for Google Assistant, too.
Also, since Chrome OS Flex is primarily designed for enterprise and education, there are major updates for better management through the Google Admin Console and remote desktop access of kiosk devices. Plus, Chrome OS Flex has the same code base and release cadence as Chrome OS, so available tools, features and security will be in sync.
“In terms of the user experience, what it feels like to open it up, log in, get started, and those administrative controls, one of our center pillars was to minimize the differences,” Smith said. “It really is meant to feel like it’s one and the same.”
However, there is one Chromebook feature that won’t be in Chrome OS Flex: Android apps. Because the development team’s main focus is managed enterprise fleet deployments, it concentrated on making that experience the best possible.
“Launching a new operating system is already a lot,” said Thomas Riedl, director of product for enterprise and education for Chrome OS. “Managing and launching an operating system on top of an operating system, which is effectively what Android apps are, is a whole other game.” Riedl didn’t rule out Android apps in the future, but it’s not a priority at the moment.
A stable release of Chrome OS Flex is expected to roll out in the second quarter of 2022. At that time computers already running CloudReady will automatically update to Chrome OS Flex. Until then, you can download and use an early version, though the company cautioned that while it’s constantly improving, you should expect bugs.
One of my favorite parts of CloudReady is the option to run it from a USB drive, and that’s still possible with Chrome OS Flex. All you need is a drive and a PC or Mac to try it out and, again, it’s free to download. If you decide you want to install the OS, you can do it straight from the USB drive, which also improves the performance.