How To Convert An Old Laptop Into A Chromebook

Do you have an old laptop laying around? Don’t chuck it, turn it into a Chromebook!

Over the last several years, Nerds Abroad has been refurbished computers and placing them in communities all around the world. More recently, the focus has been with placing computers with students in our local community of Albany, Oregon. Almost all of these computers have been running Chrome OS as converted Chromebooks. In this guide below, we will share how we refurbish old laptops with Chromebook software, and extend the life of this older technology for a few more years.

Why Chromebooks?

Chromebooks are simplified laptops that have become very popular in educational settings because they are relatively inexpensive, extremely simple, and easy to learn. They are generally fast machines due to the simplicity of the operating system and have long battery life. Chromebooks do have key limitations, however, this does not impact most users, especially in the educational setting. The biggest limitation of Chrome OS is that it does not allow for the installation of programs outside of the Chrome Web Store. So, most games and productivity software cannot be installed (including Microsoft Office) but many users make the switch to use Google Drive / Google Doc for productivity. Effectively, if you can work and play within the Google Chrome environment, a Chromebook should be a good fit!

Step 1 – Find and prepare your old laptop

Many folks have old technology laying around because they don’t know how to dispose of it properly either due to environmental concerns, or security concerns. For the machines that are donated to us, we generally remove the hard drives and give them back to the donor. Even if you are converting the laptop for yourself, we recommend doing this as well to ensure that none of your old files are lost. Take the old hard drive and pop it into a USB enclosure to easily be used later. This is an excellent time to upgrade to a solid state hard drive as well!

General Requirements: Most machines newer than about 2007 and be converted to run Chrome OS – this is when computers were mostly moving from 32 bit to 64 bit processing. The conversion tool we use is no longer supported for 32 bit machines. The manufacturer documentation should indicate if the laptop is 32 or 64 bit. The vast majority of laptops at this point also had Wi-Fi. An operating USB port is all that is needed to do the update. Certain features such as webcams may not work on all models, the official list of fully supported machines can be found here

Upgrade Considerations: if your laptop does not have at least 2 GB of RAM, it’s worth upgrading to 4 GB. For most older machines, RAM is not very expensive and can be easily replaced. For some machines it’s also very easy to replace the batteries, they can easily be found on Amazon or eBay for about $20 or $30. New chargers are about the same price. These are the hardware pieces we usually replace for all laptops donated to us. 

Solid-state hard drives also give a new lease on life for older machines in terms of speed and stability. Chromebooks do not need large hard drives, so you have many options for upgrades. We generally go with Samsung or PNY brands. If you are taking the old hard drive out of your machine anyway, it’s certainly a great opportunity to upgrade to an SSD!

Solid state hard drives, like the one pictured above, can bring massive performance gains to old machines. Click here for our Amazon Smile link to buy one today!

Step 2 – Prepare the installer

This guide is assuming you are converting your machine for personal use (CloudReady refers to this as “Home Edition”. If you are an Enterprise or Educational user, please purchase the appropriate licenses – you can see them listed here.

First, make sure you have a USB stick / jump drive of at least 8GB.

Second, find a computer with internet access and go to CloudReady’s webpage here. Note that the computer you are using does not need to be a Chromebook. We are simply using this to make the USB installer. If you are using a Windows machine, please use the automatic USB maker. If you are using a Mac or Chromebook to make the USB installer, please follow the instructions to build the installer manually. Don’t worry, it’s not hard!

This screenshot is of the Windows-based USB installer from CloudReady’s webpage.

Step 3 – Boot onto the prepared USB drive 

Even though this part is very easy, it can be tricky since it’s generally different depending on your model. In this step, you need to figure out what keys to press in order to boot into your bootloader. Usually we recommend searching “boot menu ____” or “boot options ___” where ____ is the model of your computer. Some computers also have options enabled in the BIOS for security or fast booting or straight into Windows that may need to be turned off – generally a quick search on Google will help you find what works on your machine. It may take a few try’s to boot into the boot menu. Many machines, particularly during the Windows 8.1 era, had boot options that makes this step difficult, but still can be done with enough patience. 

As an example, we work with a lot of Dell laptops – pressing and holding the F12 key the moment after pressing the power button opens the boot menu. On most, we look for “USB Storage Device” and select this for booting. Here is an article that explains this further.

Step 4 – Try it or Install it!

It takes a moment to boot into ChromeOS off the USB drive – once you’re in, you have the option to try out the software before you install it! This is fairly slow due to limitations of using an operating system on a USB drive, but it does give you an easy way to try using ChromeOS without making any changes to your machine.

At this point, you need to be 100% certain there is nothing on the computer you want to save because the next step involves formatting your hard drive which will delete anything on it! Data won’t be recoverable!

To install ChromeOS, click in the lower right corner and press install. You will acknowledge that the next step will format your hard drive and then all data will be erased, then the installer goes to work. In our experience, installation takes about 20 minutes depending on how old machine is. The computer will automatically turn off when it is done.

Image from the Home Edition Installation Guide from CloudReady.

Step 5 – Enjoy! 

Unless you made changes to the boot order in step number 3, your machine should boot into ChromeOS and ask for you to login with your gmail account.  Please note that the first email account used to log into this machine will be locked to this machine as administrator.  This means that they computer will need to be reformatted if you give it to somebody else in the future so the new owner can have full admin access.

We hope that this guy is helpful, it is certainly helped us serve many people and keep old machines operating in a new way. We put most of our donated machines through this process. If you have any technology that you’d like to donate to us, please see our donation page here.