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Turn an old laptop into an awesome classwork Chromebook for your kids

If your children use Google Classroom, this simple switch will make life easier.

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A computer and an 8GB flash drive are all you need to go Chromium.

Sarah Tew/CNET
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The coronavirus dumped a whole mess of wrenches into the machine of everyday life. I suddenly have three kids at home all doing schoolwork online through Google Classroom and other services, and only one of them has a school-issued Chromebook, which is a laptop running on Google's Chrome operating system

Back before their school year started, though, I knew we might eventually need an extra laptop, so I converted an old Windows 7 HP netbook into a Chromebook. It wasn't especially fast when I bought it in 2011, and I made the mistake of updating the laptop's OS from Windows 7 to Windows 10 in 2016, which essentially turned it into a battery-powered paperweight. This has now turned out to be lifesaver given the current circumstances.

Google's Chrome OS isn't available for consumers to install, so I went with the next best thing, Neverware's CloudReady Chromium OS. It looks and feels nearly identical to Chrome OS, but can be installed on just about any laptop or desktop, Windows or Mac. And, although Neverware has paid versions for enterprise and education users, its Home Edition is free for personal use. You don't get tech support and it can't be managed with the Google Admin console, but again, free. 

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To be clear, you do not need a Chromebook or Chrome OS to access Google Classroom -- any web browser will work. However, it's easiest to use Google's free Chrome browser and your child just needs to sign in to their Classroom account aka G Suite for Education. If you do this in Chrome, though, you can install the Classroom web app to simplify things for the next time they sign in. 

Switching to a Chromebook or Neverware's CloudReady will give your child a more secure, controlled environment than working in a browser on a Windows PC or MacBook, though. They're not going to inadvertently install malware or a virus, or access things your school district has blocked. Plus, since everything stays synced with their account, it's easier for multiple kids to use one computer. 

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You can boot CloudReady from a flash drive if you want to try it out first. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

You choose: Trial run or full install

Installing CloudReady is completely painless. In fact, you don't even have to overwrite your current OS first to test it out. If you have a Windows 7 PC or newer all you need to get started is an 8GB or 16GB flash drive to create a bootable USB drive. (SanDisk drives are not recommended because some, but not all, don't work for one reason or another. There is a workaround you can try if that's your only option.) The basic steps are below so you can see how little is involved, but you can head to Neverware's install page for full instructions. Note, however, older Windows PCs and Macs require a manual install.  

  • Download and install CloudReady on the flash drive (it takes about 20 minutes and you don't need to babysit it). 
  • Turn off the laptop or desktop you want to run CloudReady on and plug in the flash drive.
  • Turn it on and press the function key needed to enter your computer's boot menu options. (CloudReady has a list of function keys for different manufacturers in case you're not sure.)
  • You should then see a screen giving you the option to boot from either internal storage or the flash drive (see photo above). Select the USB drive and hit Enter. 

CloudReady will live boot from the flash drive and you can use the OS just as if it was installed on the computer. You can keep using it that way, too, though it will slow down the performance. Or you can wipe your internal drive and install it. Instead of overwriting my laptop's old drive, I simplified the process by slipping in a $28 120GB Kingston SSD. I just removed the old hard drive -- a few screws and a cable -- and replaced it with the SSD, and then booted from the flash drive again. Plus, this way I still have the original Windows install if I need it for some reason.

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If you want to install, click on the clock in the lower right and click Install OS. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Once you're in CloudReady again, you can click on the clock in the lower right corner of the screen. The settings menu will pop open and you'll see an option to install the OS. After it's installed you don't need the flash drive, it will just boot from the internal drive. 

Ta-da, Chromebook! At least, close enough for my kids' needs. It doesn't start up as instantly as an actual Chromebook, but it's still quick at about 30 seconds to go from off to sign in. Performance is going to depend on what your PC has in it. With the Pavilion dm1z's netbook specs, it can take a few extra seconds to load sites and open web apps, but it's noticeably faster than when it was doing the same tasks on top of Windows 10. 

If you've got a USB flash drive and an old laptop, it's certainly worth the effort to test out and, again, it's free. 

Have you given CloudReady a try? Or would a different Linux OS be better for an older laptop? Let me know in the comments.