Linux Fu: The Chrome OS Flex Virtualization

The Flex Desktop is user-friendly and responsive

You’ve probably heard about Google Chromebooks. Like Android, Chrome OS is based on some variant of Linux, but it is targeted at the “cloud first” strategy so Chromebooks typically don’t have a huge amount of storage or compute power. If you have a real Chromebook, you can also use it to run certain other kinds of programs via virtualization. However, Google has recently pushed out Chrome OS Flex which is meant to install on a spare laptop you might happen to have hanging around. Seems attractive to take that only Windows 7 laptop and repurpose it to run Chrome OS, especially if you can run Linux apps on it. Unfortunately, Chrome OS Flex has a very different use case and I would only recommend installing it if you meet the exact use case it addresses.

The other option, of course, is to just install Linux on that old hardware. There are several distributions that are made for that purpose and, honestly, even most of the major distributions will work fine on older hardware with a little tweaking to turn off some of the more resource-costly features. That assumes you know how to install, tweak, and maintain Linux.

That’s What It is For

That is, in fact, the exact use case for Chrome OS Flex. If you want to give Grandpa your old laptop, putting Linux on it can be very challenging, unless Grandpa is pretty tech-savvy. Even people who are pretty comfortable with Windows or the Mac can find the number of options, log files, and command lines daunting for Linux. Some distributions are better than others, but in the end, if you are having a bad day, you really need to know something about the system or be willing to learn it.

Chrome OS deliberately doesn’t give you much choice. The installation is painless but inflexible. You have to create a USB drive on a working computer and the installer gives you no options to, say, install as a secondary operating system. You can boot from the USB and either try the OS in live mode or install it, wiping out your hard drive. That’s it.

If all you want to do is surf the web and use Chrome-based applications, that’s great! The system works well and is pretty snappy. But what about running apps from other systems? Unlike real Chrome OS, you can’t run Android apps or much of anything else. You can, maybe, run Linux applications, but there are a few catches.

Real World

I installed the OS on an old HP X2 3-in-1 convertible I happened to have retired. I’ll admit it was easy and the performance was fine — much better than the Windows 11 I had force-installed on the old hardware. But I was disappointed to find there was no option in the Developer mode to enable the Linux subsystem. The hardware isn’t on the approved list so you had to accept that the front camera didn’t work. In addition, the fancy back camera had some issues, although it usually was workable.

Vivaldi running on Flex in Linux mode

The reason? Virtualization was turned off in the laptop’s BIOS. Once you turn that on, the option appears and you can install a basic Debian-based Linux OS. However, it is not running on the ChromeOS Linux instance. It is virtual. That means that you have your own root file system that is different from the “real” file system. There are a few other issues with trying to use Linux-based software. Some devices –notably the cameras — are not accessible from within Linux, for example. So you can’t videoconference with a Linux browser — at least not without tweaking; there may be some way to make it work.

Installing Snap, for example, required the addition of squashfs which did not occur automatically. Some installed software just doesn’t work. Vivaldi, a Chrome alternative, did work, but since it isn’t in the main space, it can’t replace Chrome in general.

No Android?

What about Android apps? Could something like AnBox allow you to run Android apps even on Flex? Maybe, but it would not easily install since you need kernel module support. So while you can run Linux on Chrome OS Flex, it requires a lot of tweaking and modification and still doesn’t support everything. At that point, why not just load Linux?

There’s really nothing Chrome OS Flex does that Linux can’t do at least as well, and perhaps better, other than the simple experience of installing, using, and maintaining. But once you try to install Linux software you are back to hacking missing packages and reading error logs. Why bother?

Is it Just Me?

But if you don’t care about running Android or Linux apps, it is a great way to revive an old laptop as a web appliance. Just don’t expect it to be your daily Linux drive. After my experience, I noted the YouTube video below called “Chrome OS Flex is a NIGHTMARE.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but his experiences mirror mine and you might want to watch to see how it handles some other laptops, Steam, and a few other applications. You can’t beat the price and, for just the right use case, it might be just the ticket. For everyone else, just install Linux.

Will you try Flex? If not, what would make you think about it? Android emulation? Windows emulation? Access to the underlying Linux system?

50 thoughts on “Linux Fu: The Chrome OS Flex Virtualization

  1. In case you are wondering, this sort of thing is done on purpose. Tech support is potentially a bottomless pit of money spending and staffing,. If a feature is supported then it needs an army behind it to understand it and document it and figure out how to teach people how it works. If they added features and didn’t support or document them, you’d still be whinging about not getting free stuff. Just look at apple m2.

    This is all free software. If you don’t like what Google has done and you think you can do better, go for it.

      1. Your data being harvested does not imply it is being used in a way that financially benefits Google, and by agreeing to the EULA you lose the ability to negotiate how you are being compensated for your data. Really the chances of your data being profitable are about as likely as the chances of a biography about you being profitable; greatly improved by being rich, famous, or otherwise influential in the first place.

        I could understand the criticism if maybe Google’s products were also becoming harder to use because of all the harvesting. But like it or not, they’ve been promising there is a serious upside in terms of speed and improved functionality to sharing data with them, and so far they haven’t failed to deliver.

    1. Sure, but the other part of that argument is that google is trying to insert themselves where they’re not wanted, for example, their recent push to do away with usernames and passwords as “insecure.” They keep pushing some kind of new online authentication, which of course requires giving Google a while lot of power, and signing up to those services that we used to be free to opt out of.

    2. With all the issues reported I wouldn’t try flex myself. I would just install ChromeOS, every system I’ve installed it on so far has only had minor things not work, like rotation and cameras. My child uses ChromeOS for school and their home machine is also ChromeOS using her managed account to login on the home machine and when I first read about flex and saw it doesn’t have android out of the box and Linux is probably a no-go as well I questioned what the point was, the author brought up the only point I could actually think of, a website reading, email checking machine. Oh in case anyone is curious, the homemade ChromeOS machines I have run ChromeOS121

  2. [quote]That assumes you know how to install, tweak, and maintain Linux.[/quote] You mean there are still people out there that don’t use Linux??? Strange. That said, I, for one, won’t try Chrome OS Flex. No need. I’ve got (K)Ubuntu LTS running on all my desktops, servers, and laptops (and older ones). Linux Lite on an old HP notebook. I installed KUbuntu on my dad’s old laptop and it suits him (really computer illiterate who just following ‘rabbit trails’ so to speak) just fine for browsing/email/docs/card/board games/view pictures/printing. It has been maintenance free too, other than going over and running updates for him now and then. Also I ‘really’ dislike cloud based OSs. In my mind, almost everything needs to be ‘local’. If web breaks/unavailable, service goes away, etc., I’ll still be running, accessing my data, and still have a ‘little’ control over my privacy as well. The ‘push’ to cloud is again ‘follow the money’ I think… pay a fee for service/convenience ( or another words nickel and dime to death so you become ‘reliant’ on the cloud and keep paying. Nope not me :) . To much I have to do on the net as is (tax documents come to mind as example as paper ones you can’t get now).

  3. Hi! I used ChromeOS Flex as my main driver for about 5 months (I’m a game dev, it even runs Unity on the Linux container). No problems at all besides my convertible not converting (no screen rotation and no suspend/resume). I’m using Linux distros as main OSes since circa 2000’s and would go to Flex again once these problems got solved on stable.

  4. I took an old core 2 duo small format system and installed Flex. It had Virtualization enabled but Flex would not complete the installation. Probably the system was just too old. I tried another retired system that I had built years ago and there was no enabling Virtualization in the Bios, so there is that. Other than that, the availability of Flex means that when the time comes I will only have to upgrade and by that I mean rip apart my main computer to put in a Windows 11 compatible motherboard and processor, I will only have to do it to one computer. My laptop and any other computer I have will work just fine using just Chrome and Gmail. I haven’t found any of the other available Flex apps worth anything to me, except Calendar and Calculator and maybe YouTube. I usually come across videos I want to watch as a byproduct of searching on Chrome how to do something, but I may find the app to be useful at some point.

  5. I generally find the editorial content at Hackaday very good. I’m not one of those people who gets bent out of shape over the occasional misspelling or punctuation error, so I have never had prior cause to comment on it. But then I read this:

    ” If you want to give Grandpa your old laptop, putting Linux on it can be very challenging, unless Grandpa is pretty tech-savvy. ”

    Let me say that the outset that it’s not intent to start one of those stupid Ford-vs-Chevy-type arguments. If you use Windows and you’re happy with it, I’ve got no issue with that. More power to you. But I am astonished to read this kind of FUD on a hacking web site. The last time that statement was remotely true was probably back in the 1990s.

    I stopped running Windows -anything- at my home about 15 years ago. All of my machines now run some version of Mint.
    It is no more difficult to sit at one of my computers and compose a letter, surf the internet, burn a CD, work a spreadsheet, scan a photograph, or what-have-you, than any other computer anywhere else.

    The state-of-the-art for Linux desktops (at least in the case of Mint) is now such that a casual or uninformed user might even assume it WAS Windows–except that my machines aren’t constantly breaking, constantly rebooting, and constantly lagging because of bloatware and antivirus engines.

    “Even people who are pretty comfortable with Windows or the Mac can find the number of options, log files, and command lines daunting for Linux.”

    OK…. You DO know that Windows has “options”, “log files,” and a “command line,” too, right… not mention a registry? I rarely need to mess with those kinds of things in Linux–certainly no more than I would with Windows.

    For that matter, are you aware that MacOS is a BSD/Unix variant?

    “Some distributions are better than others, but in the end, if you are having a bad day, you really need to know something about the system or be willing to learn it.”

    Are you kidding? Can you point to ONE modern appliance in your home that you don’t “really need to know something about” to operate? I had new heat pump installed in my home a couple of years ago. The user manual for the “smart thermostat” is a novella about 3/8″ thick!

    If I’m having a “bad day” with Linux, I can ping the Internet and in seconds find somebody who knows the solution to address my issue. When I have a “bad day” with Windows–like when the Windows machine in my ham station crashed on boot-up and apparently decided to de-installed itself–I get to speak with a helpful Microsoft associate whose only “solution” is an offer to sell me another copy of Windows for $150. Yeah… no thanks. By the way, that computer now runs Linux, too.

    I still laugh about the time I bought a genuine “Microsoft” mouse… plugged it into my Linux laptop and it worked fine… but when I plugged it into my WINDOWS machine at work… it couldn’t recognize it without a driver! There’s one of countless instances where a “Grandpa” end-user would have found Linux much more user-friendly.

    As the defacto IT guy for my family, I have found that (the right) Linux distributions require FAR LESS of my time to install and maintain than Windows. When my father, who is in his 90’s, gets tired of his old machine and asks me to set him up with a new computer, it will have Linux on it.

        1. The CD was invented in 1979 back in the last Century. At a time before before online music existed, it became the most sophisticated way to store and play music during that Century :-).

    1. If you stopped using windows 15 years ago, you would have those opinions.

      As much as I hate to admit it, in the last few years windows has got a lot better. It’s not constantly breaking, or bloating. It just keeps working, like a Mac or Linux machine. the problem is that – aside from prebuilt raspi images – getting Linux running and stuff installed in the first place is usually painful, at least on slightly older hardware.

      A client used chromeOS on a chrome book. It sucks. It wouldn’t connect to a mailbox that wasn’t gmail.

      Linux is hands down better, but no way my parents couldn’t install it and get it set up on an old device – hence why this might be a viable product for a niche market.

      1. Probably not be able to install Windows either…. Remember Windows is usually installed when they ‘buy’ the machine. Linux doesn’t have that luxury…. And Linux usually is not harder to install than Windoze. But no fear. Usually there is a family member that can do the ‘install’ (M$ or Linux) for them, That’s what I did for my dad… and all he had to purchase was an internal SATA SSD (replace the slow HDD) for the laptop (no Windows license fees, no anti-virus fees, no office fees, etc…) . BTW, I also feel Windows is running a ‘lot’ more solid than I remember. Here at work we have 24×7 Windows servers and desktops…. and they just run (well, other than reboot for updates almost every week :rolleyes: ) .

      2. I had no trouble adding a non gmail address to Gmail with Flex. It actually has nothing to do with Flex. I added it to Gmail period and access gmail on Windows and Flex. The only reason I was using Thunderbird on my Windows computer was that I didn’t know I could set up a foreign email. If you are talking about accessing it through Chrome on the secondary emails web page, I have always been able to do that and still can with Flex.

      3. If you never tried installing Linux in the last 15 years, you would have those opinions ;)

        Installing Mint (or Ubuntu, etc.) is as simple as Windows or anything else – boot from a CD/DVD/USB stick, follow a nice GUI, pick all the default options and let it do its thing.

        I find the older the hardware, the better supported it is, but even pretty new stuff has worked flawlessly – I was expecting to have to install drivers for my mum’s crappy MFD wifi inkjet printer, but Mint spotted it on the network and added it without me doing anything – and no HP bloatware to nag you about ink.

        1. I had scaling issues last time I tried Linux and that wasn’t too long ago.

          The console and GUI would all render in a tiny square in the middle of the monitor no matter what I did.

          After a few hours of troubleshooting I gave up and switched to a totally different distro on the USB and… Same thing.

          There would probably be a way to fix it but trying to do anything on the machine itself was very difficult.

  6. Another way of trying out the experience of Chrome os on your own hardware instead of a Chromebook or a Chromebox is ChromiumOS.
    Similarly to the Chrome vs Chromium browser they share much of their basecode, but with certain differences to make it more adaptable.
    I have tried it on an old laptop and a Raspberry Pie 4, and found to be a nice way to re-purpose and older computer.

  7. This Grandp is running Pop-OS on two desktops and a laptop. Debian 10 on another desktop reserved for the home made CNC machine. Raspbian on a pi print server, OctoPi on the Pi connected to the 3D printer. And we have a Win 10 Laptop and a Win 8.1 Laptop that will someday move to linux once their Windows versions are obsolete and no longer work well.

    I’ld probably give my mom (A Great Grandma) a Chromebook but she likes her Win 10 desktop and doesn’t realize how convenient a laptop as a second computer would be. Thought about loaning her one of mine but I use them all.

    1. “Laptop that will someday move to linux once their Windows versions are obsolete and no longer work well.”

      IMO, the time of “no longer work well” is long past.

  8. Call me an old fuddy-duddy but I’d feel uncomfortable running a proprietary closed-source Operating system from a company who raison de d’etre is to harvest as much data and metadata as possible for marketing.

    Source model: Closed-source with open-source components
    License: Proprietary

    Yes t is derived from the open-source Chromium OS, but it is all the closed source stuff that I would make me uncomfortable.

      1. That’s a slightly different story because there are no good options out there (Let’s forgo the whole “just use a flip phone” or “just use a pine phone” conversation).

        Chromium OS is a little different, because there are good alternatives out there. I, for one, actually love the Chrome OS desktop and I really think it could have brought the “year of the Linux Desktop” if Google hadn’t encroached so badly with its greedy data-grabbing fingers. Nonetheless, other Linux distros aren’t that far behind in terms of usability for nontechnical people. It’s a different situation for cell phones.

  9. Certainly a lot of mixed message statements here. I’ve run Chrome OS on a backup Dell laptop, I use it for developing software for older systems as it happens. Strangely enough it does have the virtualization assistance bits turned on which makes running Virtual PC rather fast. I’m surprised at this turning up because I wasn’t able to enable the Linux functions that show up on developer mode screens. Incidentally that Dell laptop was bought at the VCF East events for October last year.

    1. That was my problem also and I thought it was because of my processor a old core 2 Duo. It allowed me to start the install but then after a short time it told me the install failed.

  10. What is the moral standing in pushing an os made to spy on people ? A paragraph addressing this issue would make this article a little more legitimate. (Ready for the slap back…)

  11. I echo Observer’s comments – installing & using a modern friendly Linux like Mint or Ubuntu is as simple as it comes these days, the experience is as good as Windows or even Apple most of the time (but without the evil) – boot the disc/USB stick, give it basic config like your name & a password and pretty much just let it run.

    For basic computering stuff for folks who don’t really care about computers, Mint just feels like a nicer version of Windows, it works in a very familiar way, there’s no real surprises, and for web + email + office + photos it all just does what you need.

    When Windows Vista support ran out, I put Mint on my mum’s PC as an experiment (it was that or new PC + new windows + office subscription) and she continued very happily using that PC with Libreoffice to do everything she needs until it physically died of bit-rot this year.

    The replacement is a 10 year old iMac running the latest Mint, and aside from a single and easily sorted graphics driver glitch with the mouse pointer (which I suspect was due to the iMac’s bluetooth mouse hardware) she’s still trucking along very happily – and I’ve had almost no support calls in the last decade, which I’m sure would be the main dread for a lot of us who “know computers”.

    I’m pretty sure if I’d bought her a new Windows 7 machine back in 200x I’d have had more support calls by now – not least because Win 7 has since gone EOL too.

    1. It’s been a while since I installed windows, does it install peoductivity software? The Linux distros I’ve installed over the last few years all put LibreOffice, Firefox etc on there ready to go. So I would say Linux is EASIER to set up than windows, especially for the novice home user.

  12. I had an old Dell tiny laptop that came with Windows 10 Home x64, installed on a 32 gig EMMC. No other storage and the support chips and connector for the internal SATA drive were not installed.

    So I wiped it and installed Chrome OS Flex. It ran better than Windows 10 but like with Windows it wasn’t going do games or multimedia, not even YouTube.

    After being unable to figure out a way to put a shortcut to a local file on the Chrome OS Flex desktop, I hunted up a tiny, stripped down install of Windows 10 x64 and put that on it.

    Then I put an HTML bingo flashboard file on it and a shortcut to that file on the desktop. The laptop, a 50 foot HDMI cable, and an older flatscreen TV were donated to the local Elks lodge.

    The Bingo file worked in the default browser with Chrome OS Flex but without a way to permanently plant a shortcut *right there* in a spot the OS will never take it away from – for easy finding by senior citizens who are definitely not computer savvy – Chrome OS Flex was not the solution for that use case.

    As for the laptop itself, Microsoft needs to stop selling Windows licenses to OEMs for computers with less than 256 gig storage. 32 gig makes it impossible to install a major build update without doing a clean install.

    There has to be enough room for the installed Windows and apps, plus room to download the update files, plus room to do a full, new install of Windows, plus extra room for all the update workings to use. Then when it’s done the storage is down the space of the update download and for the old install of Windows – until they get automatically deleted or disk cleanup is done.

    But MS happily allowed OEMs to ship large numbers of computers on which it was completely impossible to update Windows.

  13. I still strugle to understand how can someone be so windowsed that he can’t use Linux and local apps because they are slightly different but find it easy to switch to cloud computing on equally different remote apps?

  14. My mother has use ChromeBox for a number of years – so long it is no longer supported. For this specific use case, the Flex variant is pretty perfect: I just took the ChromeBox into developer mode, removed the security screw to low me to install an open BIOS and then Flex on top. Suddenly the ChromeBox works seemingly as before, but is updated again. It might be slightly less secure but it should keep her happy for a handful more years or so: She has no need for the Linux subsystem or android apps, just need a pure updated Chrome to access her bank now and then with a classic keyboard and mouse – she is fine using a real Android phone for many things, but in some cases prefer a “real” computer.

  15. I used Cloud Ready for years and when it became ChromeOS Flex I was very excited to upgrade. I figured that with Google support I would finally have access to ChromeOS apps. That didn’t really happen, but what has happened is that Chrome browser has now become available and it’s a lot stabler than Chromium browser that was there before. I still use it for the vast majority of my daily Internet browsing, but revert to my Windows machine for audio, video, or word processing needs. I can’t upgrade to Windows 11 on that machine so a new one will be procured. I still need the Windows software so that’s a must. My father needs a machine and I was thinking of getting him a Chromebook to replace the corrupted Windows machine he has. But I’m afraid that the old guy might not be able to switch to the Chromebook layout. So I’m going to install Linux Mint which is one of the closest distros to Windows 10. I’ve been testing it and it works well for me. We’ll see how this works out for him.

    1. Anybody that uses Chrome and Gmail should have no problem with Flex, those are the two icons appearing at the bottom of the screen. I also use calendar and calculator. Then there is Messages and Files and also YouTube. What could be easier. Most people will not have to go anywhere else

  16. If you have trouble installing linux on older or newer laptops, just buy the xtra-pc usb and plug it in and boot from it. It comes with libre office calculator, documents and all you need. All my laptops are on it for several years and micro-s is out the window with their endless updates and slowing the laptop to standstill speed.

  17. Tried the chrome OS flex. Messed with the virtualized linux kinda neat. For everyday use though a linux variant is my choice. Currently that is Mint. Very simple to use does everything that I need it to. The basic stuff all works right off the shelf. The problem becomes when you need some unique software or function. That does take a bit of work but I have always found the answer out there somewhere. I have been using linux as my daily driver and work horse for a few years now and would not go back to windows at this point. Even those who have minimal technical skills can work though it.

  18. I have used chrome os flex and I feel it is easier to teach computers with this os to a newbie. They can make it better but they might not do. The response is good. Unlike windows programs that respond after a few seconds chrome was very quick. I am going to remove it and use MX Linux.

  19. I use Linux often,
    My personal computer is dual boot (work related stuff on Windows only).
    And most of the machine in my house are on Linux(Mint and Ubuntu mostly).
    I do stuff on my multiple raspberry pi.

    But I have installed Chrome OS.

    Why : because I help at repurpose laptops for people that don’t have time or money to learn Linux.
    I’m sorry but when a friend that work more than 42hours a week, need something easy, free because he can’t afford to change computer now.
    He is happy with Flex, because yes : internet browsing on chrome is what 95% of the users do.

    When in a non profit I help you have 5 8y.o laptop and you need to repurpose it for people you don’t know the background, the capacity or the willingness to engage with Linux, this is a good solution.

    Sorry but everyone isn’t willing or have the energy or possibly to learn the Bash or the Linux files system.

  20. The problem with Chrome OS flex is the same with Chrome OS only worse. Some things just don’t even work in Flex and yes it can breath new life into a old Windows device but let’s face it if you were using even an older Windows it was far more of an operating system then Chrome OS flex. Yes, you do get an actively supported OS in Chrome OS flex, but you also loose a lot of what users like about the Windows ecosystem.
    Chrome OS flex also does not always support all the hardware on a device. They actually list tested and approved devices for Flex. In the end a Linux desktop OS will probably support more older hardware then Chrome OS flex.

  21. I threw Chrome OS Flex on a cheap Mini PC with a Celeron 4 core. Mostly because Windows 11 just is awful on such a weak CPU. Chrome OS Flex is certainly a less impactful OS for weak or older hardware. But it is also very much just a Google ecosystem OS for those who love Google. I think you can get way more flexibility installing a Linux desktop OS then something restrictive like Chrome OS Flex.

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