The $100 Chromebook? Turn a Cheap, Dated Laptop into a Speedy ChromiumOS Device with CloudReady!

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It is no secret that I love Chromebooks!  Since first purchasing an early Samsung Chromebook, I have been impressed with the simplicity of the platform, coupled with the bargain price.  I have since then updated to a 2014 edition of the Dell Chromebook 11 and have carried around that platform as my daily driver since.

In fairness, I have access to a lot of other computers and most are much more powerful than the Chrome platform.  I have an iMac on my desktop at work, as well as a couple of powerful desktops running Windows 10 and Xubuntu Linux at home.  They are plugged into massive monitors and have premium keyboards and mice, and, I spend a good percentage of time working on those platforms, too.

But.  I am perfectly productive on the Chrome OS platform and can do most of the work of my day job without issue.  It helps that my program utilizes Google Apps for Education and Moodle, both web-based platforms, and I have worked hard to configure a set of web-based applications to do all of the regular duties of my job and beyond.

Lately, I have been considering updating to a new Chromebook, especially now that the platform has so many more choices.  Chromebooks now offer choices with larger, higher-resolution screens, faster processors, more storage and more working memory.  However, these platforms come at a price, with some approaching the $1,000 mark.  You can easily find $150-$250 Chromebook available for sale but these are less-than-premium options.  Yes, they are amazing deals, but, if you are a power user, they aren’t enough.

Last year, educational technology startup Neverware announced CloudReady, a specialized version of Chromium OS, the open-source version of Chrome OS.  For you nerdier types, the Chrome browser, and ChromeOS are Google products built on top of an open source framework, Chromium, that is developed by a larger community.  Chrome, the browser, and Chrome OS are both “free,” but come with a lot of restrictions. The Chromium project is considered free and open source, to install and use as you please, even modifying the software if you are so inclined.

ChromeOS, the core of Chromebooks, is not downloadable for any and all to use.  You need to have a compatible computer that has been cleared by Google.

Neverware, a company that has made a reputation taking older hardware and giving it new life for use in classrooms, has taken the Chromium software and tweaked it to install on hundreds of common laptops and desktop computers.  The result is CloudReady, which is not Chrome OS, but, you would be very hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Important note: this software is free “for individual and experimental use.”  I have used this platform in that context for the last six months.  To use this in schools, you are looking at $15 per year, per device, plus a license to the Google Management Console if you plan to use the powerful management system to manage these Chrome devices.

Installation is simple.  It requires an empty 8gb flash drive, and about an hour start to finish.  Dozens of great tutorials exist on YouTube walking you through this process, but, I am partial to this video from Codemic detailing the process:

(A piece of advice: I have successfully installed CloudReady on a Windows machine that allows me to dual boot into either Windows or CloudReady, depending on my needs.  It is technology heaven: I can spend most of the time in Chrome when I need a fast and simple platform and then reboot into Windows if I need applications like PowerPoint or Excel.  Google Drive helps me keep files accessible on both sides without messing with flash drives or SD cards.  It is divine!  But…  I don’t recommend trying the dual boot it unless you have some varsity-level-or-better tech-savvy.  I blitzed an old Windows laptop (no data lost… I use the cloud 🙂 ) in an early install experiment.)

Over the last six months, I have installed CloudReady on dozens devices, old and new, and it has yet to failed me.  It installs every time, and always makes the laptop or desktop faster and more responsive than it was before.  This includes a couple of dated Dell laptops sitting in the technology graveyard at the office, an old MacMini that became a fast and efficient CloudReady “box,” and an old iMac that has been transformed into a Chrome all-in-one with CloudReady.

With my experiments, I realized that even some very old computers are faster than many new, out of the box Chromebooks because the Chrome OS and CloudReady were built to run on very modest computers.  The reason why these devices are so inexpensive is because the hardware backing those laptops and desktops is cheap and widely available.  The $150 computer of today is often times way slower than the $1000 computer of 2009.

This got me thinking: Can a careful, crafty consumer buy a very dated machine that was a premium purchase in 2009, 2010 and 2011 for a cheap price and then install CloudReady to make it fast and efficient?  Business laptops and desktops are built to last much longer than “consumer”-level technology, and many feature bigger, clearer and brighter screens.  They often have better keyboards and touchpads than cheap hardware of today.  And… they are often available for a song.

So, I have picked up two laptops this summer, used, and turned them into amazing Chromebooks CloudReady laptops!  Here was my process:

I scoured eBay this summer looking for two laptops: a small, ultra-portable laptop and a larger, business-style “desktop replacement” laptop.  My goal was to find something five or more years old with an Intel chip and 4gb-8gb of memory for under $100.

After a few weeks of research, I settled on a Lenovo x201 laptop.  This laptop model was one of the first business-class “ultra-portables” that featured an Intel i5 chip.  After some light searching over a few weeks, I found a model with 4b of RAM from a seller that sold used laptops and had a 100% seller rating.  Their company also accepted returns.  My final price?  $65 with shipping.

I also purchased a Dell Latitude e6500.  These business-class laptops are even older, released in 2008.  Many Latitudes came with Windows Vista, the standard four versions of Windows ago.  I picked this laptop because it features a big, bright screen and comfortable and industrial keyboard, often costing well over $1000 in 2008.  However, it is a beast and clocks in at over 6 pounds.  This laptop is also commonly available cheaply or free from companies and government agencies looking to upgrade.  In this case, my laptop was $80 with shipping, however, it came with 8gb of RAM (unheard of in a Chromebook!) and a big, beautiful FULL HD screen!

The results?  Both of these devices are wonderful CloudReady ChromiumOS devices that could easily serve as my daily driver!

Many of the pain points of the low-end Chrome devices, including sluggish response and lack of multitasking ability, are solved with the faster hardware of older laptops.  Here are some demonstrations of my two CloudReady devices, including a benchmark test with the Google Octane score (feel free to compare your Chromebook’s score by going here).  Note that one of my GoTo tests is opening up 10 YouTube tabs.  This gives you a clear sense of how any computer will perform under the pressure of multi-tasking.

First, the Lenovo x201, running CloudReady:

Now, the Dell Latitude e6500 running CloudReady:

As you can see, both machines (again, six and eight years old!) are both responsive and able to handle multiple resource intensive windows.  Wow!!

What’s the catch?  There aren’t many, especially if you have access to cheap or free older computers.  First, if you are going to use it in a classroom context, you should buy a license.  It is free for “individual and experimental use,” but, if you use it in a school environment, you need to buy a license.  Second, older laptops and desktops are, indeed, older laptops and desktops and come with that baggage.  They are sometimes heavy (did I mention that the Inspiron e6500 is a beast?), lacking long battery life or might be in disrepair.  Some commercial Chromebooks offer light devices with stellar battery and others do not.  Finally, I did add one update to both the Dell and Lenovo CloudReady devices: a “solid state” hard drive to replace the older, slower standard hard drive.  SSD drives are one of the best updates you can make to speed up any machine, and I added a couple of used SSD drives I had sitting in a box.  You can do so for well under $50 bucks.

Last, newer commercial Chromebooks are about to get an AMAZING update, the ability to run apps from the Google Play store.  No word yet on whether or not CloudReady will run apps and they are taking a wise “wait and see” approach.

All in all?  CloudReady is amazing.  If you are an armchair technologist, take an old laptop and repurpose it as a CloudReady device.  Are you in a cash-strapped district but have access to corporate or state government castaway laptops or desktops?  Purchase this inexpensive license and revive those platforms.  Are your 8-year-old desktops choking on Windows 7, 8 or 10?  This might provide more life to that investment.

CloudReady from Neverware