School started last week and our youngest showed up for the first in-person session. The schools are mostly online but groups of a dozen or so come in every other day. This day, almost everyone had a Chromebook and the teacher made it clear there would be no handouts. Here’s how I took an old laptop and made a Chromebook over the weekend.

There had been talk last year about a shift to all digital teaching. Not online, but shifting all students to digital devices – Chromebooks or tablets with keyboards – to integrate the school district’s Google investment. The students use Google Classroom, Google’s various document programs, and now Google Meet. It’s not just school. Some of the after school activities are also using these tools as organizational extranets and for online meetings.

I’ve played around with DIY chromebooks over the years. I converted a Dell Mini to Chromium OS nearly a decade ago and have periodically updated my knowledge. A Chromebook can be a great answer for a lawyer who needs to cross borders without carrying client data.

But the basic point is this: if you have access to older hardware, you can make your own Chromebook.

Build or Buy

I debated whether to just purchase one because I’m fortunate enough to make that choice. But building your own Chromebook has never been simpler. You do not need a lot of technical knowledge to do it. Mostly you just need a laptop. The Chromium operating system can be free. And you’ll need about 2-3 hours of your time and an internet connection for downloading software and testing.

On the one hand, I always keep older working hardware. So I have two laptops that are about 6-7 year old vintages, replaced with newer models for kids or spouse who needed more powerful machines for work or school. They are useful for tinkering.

On the other, a Chromebook is priced for easy sales. You can get a brand name, brand new Chromebook for less than an Android tablet or any Apple device. In Canada, the price point seems to hover around $300 pre-tax. The predicament I had was that the less expensive Chromebooks were already sold out.

This moves the price point into the lower-end normal Windows laptop range. As much as I love Chromebooks, I wouldn’t buy one if I could get a laptop for the same $300. Chromebooks tend to be skimpy on some hardware. The additional features they bring – longer battery life, touchscreens – on higher end models just make them tablet adjacent.

My preferences then were this, in order from least expensive to most expensive:

  • Recycled laptop (sunk cost of laptop + 3 hours of time, most of which is waiting for downloads and for installers to run). Some thoughts below on if you are going to buy a used laptop.
  • Android tablet with Bluetooth keyboard (up to $200). You can get an 8″ Amazon Fire tablet for C$110 and a 10″ for C$200 and a keyboard for C$20-25. I mean, an Android tablet is just another Google OS on a portable device.
  • Purchased Chromebook (up to $300)
  • Purchased laptop (up to $500)

DIY Chromebook

You will need a laptop. If you have one lying around, great. If you need to buy one, make sure it comes with a hard drive. Used laptops on EBay and other sites may have hard drives removed. A used laptop without a hard drive isn’t worth purchasing, because the savings on the laptop will be eaten up by purchasing a hard drive.

You will also need a USB drive. It’s unclear whether 8GB is enough but 16GB is definitely enough. The installer says either/or but I think it’s just being friendly.

In the past, you’d then need to source your version of Chromium OS. You’d have to use one of Arnold the Bat‘s builds or someone like them who takes the time to create installable versions. While the Chromium OS is open source and free to download, Google doesn’t bother to make it useable by non-technical people. It’s different from the Chromium browser, which is also from Google and powers the Chrome and Microsoft Edge browsers.

In the past, I’ve tried alternate flavors like Flint OS. They were bought by a company called Neverware and this is where I went this time. They now have an offering called CloudReady Home, which is a free to install, community-supported version of their paid product. This is another decision point: if you’re leery about your own technical knowledge, consider paying the $20 to go to the company-supported version.

Next, you should check that your laptop is on the certified list. The list is part of the Neverware install guide. I typed in the make and model on the laptop I had – an HP 2000 from 2013 – and found it was unsupported.

I wasn’t deterred and you shouldn’t necessarily be. Chromium is built on a Linux. My experience with other Linux distributions has made me realize that they’re pretty flexible. At this point, I had nothing to lose in giving it a try.

Also, you don’t have to install the operating system to see if it works. Like most Linux distributions (or distros), you can run a Live copy. Once you have the installer on your USB, and boot up your computer, the operating system will run even without you installing it. It’s not definitive but it is helpful.

I downloaded the Automatic Installer and began the preparation of the installer USB. The installer requires a USB drive with 8 or 16 GB of space. It should be empty so that the installer can wipe it clean.

Neverware’s installer works just like other Linux installers. Unetbootin is perhaps the best known, and lets you select from a variety of Linux distributions to create a USB installer. The nice thing is that it takes care of both the download and the USB creation. A tool like Rufus requires you to finish the download and then identify the downloaded file (an ISO file) separately.

Another reason to use something like Neverware is that it comes with updates. Not perpetual but there is updating available. If you download a Chromium OS build, you will need to regularly update it yourself.

Once the installer was finished, I was ready to go. Older laptops are often still set insecurely to allow you to start – or boot – your computer from a USB drive. This is helpful, since that’s what I needed to do. If your computer doesn’t start and show a CloudReady screen, you may need to go into your laptop’s BIOS and make sure that the USB drive is in the boot order.

Even though the HP 2000 is not officially supported, it met the specifications for RAM and hard drive space on the Neverware site. And when I ran the installer, it loaded up and I had Chromium OS running. Our student was able to log in and access the Google resources for class. But I still hadn’t installed it.

At this point, you can stop. I was surprised that the portable version saved our student’s information. But this would have been enough for school, leaving the USB drive in the computer.

It’s better to go ahead and finish by installing the Neverware CloudReady software onto your laptop. It takes about 20 minutes, according to the site. I don’t know. I started it and walked away and the computer had shut down when I came back more than an hour later.

This was the only point at which I ran into technical difficulties. The laptop was running in a mode known as UEFI, which has to do with how the hardware interacts. When I restarted without the USB drive, the laptop did not recognize the hard drive. In my case, the laptop error code (not a Neverware error code) told me it didn’t find a bootable device.

I followed these instructions from Neverware on how to ensure that the laptop also supported legacy hardware. Then I rebooted with the USB installer and re-ran the installation of the software. This time, when I rebooted without the USB installer, the laptop booted – it looked exactly as it had when I’d used the installer.

Today the homemade Chromebook went into the backpack and off to class. We tested what we could – internet worked, camera worked, onboard-mouse, external mouse, and on-board keyboard were fine – and so we’ll hope that everything else works. If nothing else, it allows us to save up for a Chromebook if that eventually becomes necessary.