Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Turning an old PC into Chromebook

A Chromebook isn't for everyone. Indeed there are many drawbacks. Whilst printing is usually not an issue, scanning a document is no easy task. Ripping music from a CD is of course impossible since Chromebooks don't come with CD or DVD drives. And for those who edit photos and video, tools are relatively simple compared to what one might use on a regular PC.


However as a second machine a Chromebook can almost be a distinct advantage over a conventional PC or Mac. One of the biggest advantages is boot time which can be as little as 10 or 15 seconds. In practical terms it may in fact be about 30 to 40 seconds, but this is a distinct advantage over a laptop that may take several minutes to boot up especially if it's a few years old.

So within a minute you can be checking your Gmail, reading the news, watching Sky News online, editing a document or sending a tweet. Indeed for most people the work carried out on a PC is online, and for all such tasks using a Chromebook is a distinct advantage.

Internet connection required

Of course you need an Internet connection, but how many people use a PC that's not connected to a network? Occasionally perhaps such as when taking a trip by plane. But even here Chromebooks can still be used for some limited tasks such as composing or checking Gmail or writing and editing Google docs if offline apps or settings have been applied.


It is only for heavy duty tasks that a Chromebook falls flat. If you take a lot of photographs on anything other than your phone and want to run them through Photoshop then a Chromebook can prove to be somewhat limited. And when it comes to downloading music or films there are also similar issues since there is generally very little storage on most Chromebooks. For such tasks it is perhaps best to have a PC. And as already mentioned one cannot rip music or play DVDs since CD/DVD drives aren't installed in Chromebooks.

But for general browsing and other work that can be done online a Chromebook is fast and  convenient. In fact it can prove to be far more efficient and smoother to work on, with few if none of those hangs and freezes that can be so commonplace on a conventional PC or even Mac.


But there is a financial cost. And even with the cheapest Chromebook selling at  around £200, one might not wish to take the plunge only to find it doesn't come up to all expectations.

So why not turn an old redundant laptop into a Chromebook? Given the life of some laptops, many people have a spare one sitting in the back of a cupboard, discarded after it became too slow and unresponsive or simply out of date as Microsoft ended support for old operating systems like XP and Vista.

Turning a PC into a Chromebook

With a little time and a very small amount of technical knowledge one can turn that otherwise useless laptop into a swift Chromebook thanks to a US company called Neverware.

Neverware have made available a downloadable package which. given everything goes swimmingly, can turn that old machine into a Chromebook within an hour.

Of course not everything goes according to plan. And one has to be a little patient. There are instructions on the Neverware site itself, though they are a little confusing. Indeed the best instructions we found were on [CNET].

We turned an old Dell Inspiron 1525 32-bit laptop running Vista into a Chromebook however there were a few problems along the way. Downloading the zip file from Neverware was not an issue, nor was the installation of the Chromebook Recovery Utility into the Chrome browser which is required to create the bootable USB. However when attempting to unpack and write the image to the USB stick we constantly received an "unknown error utility process crashed" message which as it turns out is an issue relating to Chrome 50 and Windows which prevents one from writing to a USB due to User Access Controls, Window's security settings [Neverware]. Disabling UAC and running Chrome as administrator made no difference.

This wasted a good couple of hours as we searched out information to resolve the problem. Finally a Google search provided an alternative solution published on the Neverware site which suggested downloading Win32DiskImager software, unzip the package and writing the resulting .bin file to the USB thumbdrive [Alternate Instructions - Neverware PDF]

Even then it was only on the second attempt that we were able to write the image to the USB stick.

After setting the old PC to boot from USB - by hitting F2 and changing boot options - we finally got Chromium to install.

After a few weeks of use there have been no major problems. Surfing is extremely fast. The browser is quick and responsive and not crashed once. Apps works well and we can identify only one slightly annoying bug in that thus far in that webpages won't translate or auto-translate as they normally would in the Chrome browser. Indeed this appears to be a known issue which Neverware are attempting to resolve [Neverware].

Of course this is perhaps to be expected given the version of Chromium offered by Neverware is NOT an official Google release. But it is perhaps the best one is going to get without spending out on a new Chromebook with an official Google release of Chromium.

In summary the computer doesn't technically become a "Chromebook," as that's a trademarked name for official Chrome OS products released with Google's direct involvement, but it's extremely similar in both form and function.

And should you take the plunge you will at least have a working laptop rather than a black box taking up space in that cupboard. Though of course if you do mess things up with the installation you could end up bricking it. Indeed we had extreme difficulty getting the software to install on a much newer Acer machine.

Finally there are some things to consider before you turn that old PC into a 'Chromebook'. As one article in Computer World highlights, not all the functionality seen in an official Chromebook exists, and indeed there are some bugs - as mentioned above regards the translate feature - but given it's free and may breathe new  life into an otherwise redundant machine it may be worth exploring. It may even prompt you to buy a real Chromebook! In fact Chromebooks for many are fast becoming the PC of choice with sales in the US overtaking those of Macs [Daily MailThe Verge / ZDNet].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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