Chromebooks have been shaking up the PC industry since the first CR-48 model arrived nearly nine years ago. Thanks to a combination of a custom Linux-based OS and solid state storage, Google managed to hit netbook-like prices while (thankfully) outpacing netbook-like performance. Most of the limitations that initially held back Chrome OS, like poor offline support and a limited software library, have largely gone away.
In the past two years or so, PC makers have embraced Chrome OS as more than just a platform for low-end hardware. Google's original Chromebook Pixel started the trend, but only recently have Asus, HP, Lenovo, Dell, and others finally decided to make Chrome OS laptops with comparable hardware to Windows PCs. However, as Chrome OS arrives on more high-end (and pricier) hardware, it's time for Google to re-evaluate how updates are handled.
Smartphone-like updates, but on your PC
Chrome OS has taken plenty of inspiration from mobile operating systems. Most of the file system is inaccessible, applications must ask for permissions, and there's native support for touchscreens and high-DPI displays. Chromebooks also adopted a smartphone-like approach to system updates, which has had both positive and negative ramifications.
All Chrome OS devices use one of several hardware platforms developed and tested by Google. For example, the CTL Chromebook Tab Tx1 and Asus Chromebook Tablet CT100 both use the 'RK3399' platform with the 'scarlet' base board. Much like smartphone companies that take white-label reference designs and create new phones around them, PC manufacturers take these platforms and build computers based on them.
All Chrome OS devices use one of several hardware platforms developed and tested by Google.
Each hardware platform consists of a specific processor family, as well as a specific version of the Linux kernel (the low-level OS component that directly interacts with hardware). Google sends Chrome OS updates to each platform for 6.5 years after they are released, and after that point, any computers based on that hardware no longer receive updates. This is one of the main differences between Chromebooks and traditional PCs — updates are delivered on a per-device basis.
Before I get into why this approach isn't great, it would be unfair not to mention the main advantage: sticking to the same Linux kernel version for a device's entire lifespan vastly reduces the chances of an update causing hardware and driver-related problems. Faulty Windows updates on my former laptop (a flimsily-built Lenovo Yoga 730) caused my speakers and touchpad to stop working on two separate occasions; that type of occurrence is extremely rare on Chromebooks, because the drivers almost never change.
Six years of updates isn't actually six years
Google used to only promise five years of Chrome OS updates for each hardware platform, but sometime in 2017, this policy changed to 6.5 years. You might be thinking to yourself, "six and a half years is plenty of time, most people don't use laptops for that long!" While that might be correct, it's important to realize the six years doesn't start when you buy the Chromebook. The support cycle starts when Google completes the hardware platform, which can be months before a Chromebook based on it is released.
The Asus Chromebook Flip C434
For example, the Asus Chromebook Flip C434 was the first model to use Google's 'rammus' platform. Even though the C434 only started shipping in March of this year, its end-of-life date is set for June 2024, when the laptop will only be 5 years old. Some other Chromebooks released this year actually have the full six years of support, like the Chromebook Flip C214, but that's one example of a brand-new model that isn't living up to a policy enacted two years ago (for reasons I'm unsure of).
So in reality, most Chromebooks sold right now are still on the five-year support cycle, and the delay between the platform and the finished product usually takes away a few months. There's one more factor to take into consideration: most people purchase Chromebooks months or years after the initial release date.
If you did a web search right now for "best chromebooks," you'd see lists from a few sites with the Asus Flip C302 near the top. While the C302 is a great machine, it's now over two years old, and it only has three years of updates left. The first non-promoted result when I search "chromebook" on Amazon is the Samsung Chromebook 3, which has two years of support remaining.
Taking all these factors into account, most Chromebooks available for sale right now have somewhere between 2-4 years of usable life left. Even some models released this year, like the Asus Flip C434, don't seem have the 6.5-year support policy that Google introduced two years ago. Meanwhile, Windows 10 works on almost every PC released in the past decade.
The limited lifespan was more acceptable when most Chromebooks were under the price of $300 and used low-end hardware, but now that there are plenty of models directly competing with Windows-based ultrabooks, the existing support cycle just isn't enough. Much like Android phones, the official updates will end before the hardware becomes unusable.
No Windows for you
When the support cycle ends for a given Chromebook, it will continue functioning with whatever version of Chrome OS is installed, but using a computer that isn't receiving regular security updates is a very bad idea. It is possible to install alternative operating systems on Chromebooks, but your options are limited, and the process is a grueling one.
First, you can probably rule out running Windows. There is a semi-active effort on r/chrultrabook to get Windows 10 (and macOS/Linux) running on some Intel-based Chromebooks, but there are no drivers available for most models released after 2015-2016. Even when installing Windows did work, drivers for touchscreens often weren't available, so Linux-based operating systems are the only practical options for most Chromebooks. GalliumOS is specifically designed for Chromebooks, with support for a wide range of models.
macOS running on a Chromebook Pixel 2015 (source: FragileClick)
While installing a new OS on a PC is usually as simple as booting from a USB drive, the process on Chromebooks is much harder. Developer Mode has to be enabled (which means you get a giant warning on every boot), and because legacy BIOS has been broken on most Chromebooks for years, a custom firmware usually has to be flashed. There were rumors earlier this year that an 'Alt OS' mode was coming to Chromebooks, but that never materialized.
These roadblocks are a direct result of Google's effort to harden Chrome OS security, a commendable effort that has been successful, but it still leaves Chromebooks with few realistic options once their original support cycles end.
Something has to change
So, with all this in mind, what can Google do to fix software updates on Chrome OS?
Ideally, Google should revamp the operating system so updates are no longer tied to specific Chromebooks. That would be a substantial engineering effort that could introduce more technical overhead, but there are still far fewer hardware configurations running Chrome OS than there are Windows PCs.
Another option would be to extend the support cycle to 8 or 10 years, which would more closely align with the maximum usable lifespan of high-end Chromebooks. This would require back-porting security patches even more than the company already does, since even "longterm" Linux kernel releases are only maintained for 2-6 years.
Regardless of what changes are made to the support cycle (if any), Google absolutely needs to make it easier for anyone to install another OS once updates are finished. Perhaps once a Chromebook is dropped from future updates, a one-click option would in the Settings to disable all security features and enable the BIOS.
Many of these complaints could also be said for Android, where devices are also tied to specific kernel versions, and the support cycle is almost always too short. While that is also a problem, running an outdated version of Android isn't quite as bad as an outdated version of Chrome OS. The web browser, Google Play Services, and countless other parts of Android can be updated outside of OS upgrades. As a real-world example, our own Ryne Hager shared what it was like to use a five year-old Nexus 5 last year.
As high-end Chromebooks become increasingly popular, we're going to see more and more cases of models losing software support long before the internal hardware becomes outdated. That's something Google needs to address, before other companies beat Chrome OS at its own game.