Most Mac users wouldn’t dream of replacing macOS with anything but the latest update, but Google wants you to at least consider another option: Chrome OS.
Google describes its new Chrome OS Flex as a “free and sustainable way” to install Google’s online OS on any Mac or PC. The target audience is cash-strapped schools and businesses looking for “modern computing with cloud-based management,” but it’s pretty tempting for regular users too. Chrome OS Flex offers the same breezy interface as you would get on a Chromebook (minus the Android apps) with Google’s expansive library of web apps and extensions running the show.
It sounds crazy but it’s not. Chrome OS Flex isn’t made for the performance of today’s Apple silicon Macs. Rather, it’s for the thousands of Macs and PCs collecting dust on shelves and tucked away into drawers that haven’t been turned on or updated in years. They’re slow and clunky with not enough space or memory but still have some life left in them. And Google wants to squeeze every last bit out of them.
Chrome OS has never cared about specs in the way Macs and PCs do. Sure you can get Core i7 Chromebooks with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, but high-end specs are largely unnecessary. Chrome is designed to be a speedy cloud-based OS that won’t get bogged down with log and cache files. As such, Chrome OS Flex only needs 4 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage, so any old Mac will do. Google says Chrome OS Flex can be installed in “a few minutes” and has been tested on Macs as early as the 2009 MacBook, though basically, any relatively recent model will work as long as the Mac has a working Internet connection.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted that it brings “the same speed, security and simplicity of Chrome OS to existing hardware,” and it sounds like an amazing solution. Chrome OS Flex is perfect for an old Mac that can’t properly run Big Sur or Monterey that you want to give to a child or elderly parent. Google’s apps are obviously the focus, but you can still access your iCloud apps too: Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Photos, Drive, Notes, and Reminders, as well as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.
To get started, you can sign up for early access on the Chrome OS Flex site. After registering and downloading the Chrome Recovery Extension Utility, Google will provide instructions for how to create a bootable drive on a USB stick with at least 8GB of storage that can be used to either permanently install Chrome OS Flex on your Mac (and replace the version of macOS that’s already on it) or run directly from the USB drive. To boot from the drive on your Mac, hold Command-R at startup, select Startup Security Utility, and select Allow booting from external or removable media. Then restart while holding down the Option key and select the Chrome OS Flex drive.
I’m a longtime Mac user but I also have a Chromebook. Chrome OS is extremely lightweight compared to Windows and macOS, with most of the heavy lifting taking place in the cloud. Booting up takes seconds, apps open in a flash, and there are no slowdowns to speak of ever. Where even the newest Macs can struggle under heavy loads and take a half-hour or more to update, Chrome OS devices need little maintenance or know-how. In short, they just work. And now, your dusty old Mac will too.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He’s still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.