Chromebooks—the Google-powered laptops from popular PC brands which gained popularity during the pandemic, when lockdowns created unprecedented demand for computers at home—can lose critical functionality.
Sue Nielsen of Hurricane, Utah, was perplexed when suddenly, in December, the website she always used to sign up for volunteering stopped loading properly. Her son, Jim Nielsen, drove over to inspect the browser on her Acer Chromebox, the desktop version of a Chromebook. He noticed that the computer’s software didn’t appear to be current. “I hit the update button and found out it couldn’t update,” Mr. Nielsen said.
The Nielsens weren’t aware that Chrome OS devices have a limited shelf life. Google’s Auto Update policy guarantees software updates and security support for a certain number of years. The Chromebox, which the Nielsens purchased in 2014, was past its August 2019 expiration date.
Once a Chrome OS device expires, the device might continue to function as expected, a Google spokesman said, but over time “there could be incompatibilities with some websites, applications or management policies with no ability to fix them.”
Earlier devices receive updates from Google for five years. Devices released in 2020 and later will be supported for up to 8 ½ years, depending on the model.
People who swap their smartphones for new ones every two to three years might think even five years is a long-enough lifespan for a reliable and relatively cheap Chromebook. The problem is that many Chromebooks stay on the market for years, so the lifespan can be much shorter when the buyer takes off the plastic wrap. It can be frustrating to turn a device in good condition into e-waste. And unlike old Mac or PC computers, which can be repurposed at the end of their supported lives, there isn’t much you can do with an out-to-pasture Chromebook.
Before you buy a Chromebook, confirm its lifespan. If you already own one, check its longevity now, before it stops getting updates.
How to Check
If you take only one thing from this column, make it this: Before buying a Chromebook, check the model’s expiration date on Google’s Auto Update policy website. Scroll down to the list of brands, then click the brand to check the model you’re interested in.
If you currently own a Chromebook, you can check it yourself, though it’s a bit buried: Click the time on the bottom right. Go to Settings > About Chrome OS > Additional details. You’ll find your auto-update expiration in the “Update schedule” section. About a month before this date, you’ll get a notification for your final software update.
Retailers often sell Chromebooks that are past their expiration dates at cheap prices, with no warning that a model is outdated. One third-party seller, listing an Acer C720 on Amazon, touted the model’s “speed, simplicity and security” and ability to “automatically stay up-to-date.” Pre-owned units of the same model are available at Best Buy and on the refurbished-electronics marketplace Back Market. None of the sites mention that the computer stopped receiving updates in mid-2019.
If longevity is a consideration, you should think twice about buying a refurbished or used Chromebook, or at least take care to check the expiration date.
I bought the Acer laptop from Amazon, for $69, to experience an expired Chromebook for myself. The laptop’s battery, screen and keyboard were in fine working order. I could use Google docs and other Google services. I couldn’t stream movies on Netflix, because the version of Chrome was no longer supported. Nor could I use Android apps, because that perk is available only to more recent Chrome OS machines.
A spokeswoman for Back Market said the company expects to include auto-update expiration information on relevant listings by the end of the year. The Google spokesman said the company encourages partners to provide expiration information on devices for sale. Best Buy didn’t respond to my request for comment, and Amazon declined to comment.
An Acer spokeswoman said the company’s policy is to stop manufacturing products 3½ years ahead of the expiration date. The company says it adds a label to the boxes of products that are within a year of expiration, to remind customers of the shorter lifespan.
When It Expires
Immediately after a Chromebook’s expiration date, you won’t experience much of a difference. In fact, you’ll likely be able to use the device normally for months. But some sites might start to act funny.
In the Nielsens’ case, the malfunctioning website uses code that requires more-recent versions of the Chrome browser. This is a convenience for developers, who don’t then have to write longer code compatible with older software. The assumption is that pretty much everyone coming to the site will have an updated browser.
Running an outdated version of Chrome OS can come with security risks, says Vitaly Shmatikov, a computer-science professor at Cornell University. “It’s like sailing in a boat that’s accumulating risks. It won’t sink right away, but it’ll fill with water by and by, first gradually, then suddenly,” he said.
The main security threat to Chrome users is malware—reached through a malicious website or clicking on a bad link—that attempts to steal a user’s information or attack the computer, according to Prof. Shmatikov. “When Chrome is up-to-date, it does a pretty good job of blocking these attacks. Once it is no longer updated, it becomes vulnerable to new threats,” he said.
Time to Upgrade
The easiest thing to do once your Chromebook expires? Recycle the outdated device and get a new computer.
Tech-savvy tinkerers can revive their obsolete Chrome OS devices by installing Gallium, a Linux-based software optimized for Chromebooks that includes a web browser, simple text editor and an image viewer. But it requires advanced hackery and, if done incorrectly, you could permanently damage the device.
Obsoletion isn’t unique to Chromebooks: All computers stop receiving support, eventually. The difference with Chromebooks is that the Chrome operating system and browser are tied together, something that Google said it is working to fix.
Macs and Windows PCs can download new versions of the Chrome browser, even if the operating systems can’t be upgraded. Chrome’s minimum system requirement for Macs is OS X El Capitan 10.11, which supports models as early as the mid-2007 MacBook Pro. That’s nearly 15 years of up-to-date Chrome support. Of course, that Mac costs a lot more than Mrs. Nielsen’s $150 Chromebox.
And when Macs and PCs stop receiving OS updates, there’s Google-owned software you can use to turn them into Chrome devices. As my colleague Joanna Stern discovered, CloudReady setup is a little tricky. But you’ll be rewarded for your patience, when your old computer is new again.
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