A drawing of a laptop with the Chromebook logo superimposed on it.

Many families are grudgingly sharing computers to work, learn, and surf the web from home during the coronavirus pandemic. You might be happy to hear about free software that can turn an outdated laptop into a fully functional Chromebook.

As most families with kids know, Chromebooks have been a staple of educational computing because they use a cloud-based operating system that reduces the need for powerful processors and built-in storage. And that has paved the way for dependable devices priced as low as $200. (See models approved by our testers below.)

Free software created by Neverware, called CloudReady, takes that a step further, allowing consumers and school districts to install the Chromebook operating system on old laptops that lack the power and memory to run the latest versions of Windows or Mac OS.

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“If you have an obsolete computer lying around in your closet, the CloudReady software is a way to get another working machine for your family while spending little or no money,” says Antonette Asedillo, who oversees laptop testing for Consumer Reports.

To see how the process plays out in real life, I bought a decade-old Dell laptop for $59 on eBay. Using the free home version of CloudReady, I was able to transform the device into a functioning Chromebook in less than an hour.

I found the instructions to be pretty straightforward. Before you get started, though, there are a few things to understand.

  • In addition to an old laptop, you’ll need a USB thumb drive with at least 8 gigabytes of memory to complete the CloudReady installation process.
  • The installation process deletes all the data on the laptop. So back up the hard drive if there’s anything you want to save.
  • Neverware doesn’t provide technical support for the Home version of the software, although there’s a community troubleshooting board you can use to ask questions and search for solutions.
  • Laptops using the CloudReady version of the Chromebook OS have some limitations. For example, you can’t install Google Play Store apps. But the Chrome Web Store does provide browser extensions that let you access Chrome Apps such as Gmail, Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
  • As with any fresh operating system installation, there’s a small chance the operation can render the machine inoperable—“bricked” in tech-speak—so it’s best to use a laptop you can afford to turn into a paperweight.
A $59 Ebay laptop transformed into a Chromebook by free CloudReady software.
A $59 laptop from eBay was transformed into a Chromebook using CloudReady.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Choose a laptop. Before you begin, use the Certified Model Finder on Neverware’s website to make sure the laptop is compatible with the CloudReady software. It must also have at least 2GB of memory (RAM), which won’t be a big problem for most laptops manufactured in recent years.

If you don’t have an old laptop lying around, you can use the tool to identify models for purchase on eBay or elsewhere. There are about 350 options from companies like Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba on the list.

I settled on a Dell Latitude 2120 because it was well within my sub-$100 budget (the total came to $71 with shipping and sales tax) and came with a power cord, which is often sold separately on an eBay laptop.

Once you find a model, click on the link on the Model Finder for installation notes or any restrictions that may apply.

If the computer you own isn’t on the list, you can still give the installation process a try, but proceed with caution. “There is a good chance that it will still work with CloudReady,” Neverware notes on the website. “However, uncertified models may have unstable behavior, and our support team cannot assist you with troubleshooting.”

Either way, it's a good idea to back up the laptop before starting the conversion process, just in case you need to retrieve something that was on it.

2: Download the software. You need to create a CloudReady installer using a USB thumb drive with at least 8GB of memory. Neverware’s USB Maker software will guide you through the process, which takes about 20 minutes.

It’s easiest to do this from the Chrome browser on a functioning Windows computer. It does not have to be the computer you plan to install CloudReady on.

Neverware suggests avoiding USB drives made by SanDisk, which perform inconsistently in this application.

If you don’t have access to a Windows computer and must use a Mac or a Chromebook, follow the instructions on this page.

3. Begin the installation. Plug the CloudReady USB installer into the computer you want to convert to a Chromebook, making sure the device is turned off.

The next step is model-specific. Power on the machine while tapping or pressing the “special boot” key repeatedly.

On my Dell, I had to tap the F12 key when the Dell logo appeared on the screen, which is the case on most Windows models, except for HP, where you need to tap the F9 key. On an Apple laptop, you hold the Option key when the computer first turns on. For details specific to your laptop, check the CloudReady Installer page under “Initiate Custom Boot.” 

4. Boot from the USB. If you follow the directions above, a monochrome menu will appear on your screen listing several boot options. Use the arrow and enter keys on your keyboard to select the USB device with the CloudReady installer on it. It’s likely to be called USB Device, USB Installer, or a brand name that corresponds with the USB stick.

If you installed it correctly, you’ll soon see a white screen with the CloudReady logo.

5. Install the CloudReady software. Follow the installation instructions for the Home Edition.

Once you get to the welcome screen, click on the tiny digital clock on the bottom right of the screen, then select “Install OS” on the next menu.

You’ll receive a warning to back up all data on the device, because continuing the installation will wipe everything on the hard drive clean.

At that point, click on “Install CloudReady.”

You’ll get yet another warning about backing up the data.

Click on the box that says “Erase hard drive and install CloudReady.”

At this point, it will take 5 to 20 minutes to install the software. When the installation is complete, the machine will power down. Note that the display may dim or turn off first, so press a key on the keyboard to see if the laptop is truly powered off or simply sleeping.

On the first try, I got an error message after about 7 minutes that said the installation wasn’t completed. I simply started the installation again, and that worked. It took about 8 minutes, though I admit it felt longer. 

When I contacted Neverware afterward, the company said the glitch I experienced is rare—an engineer called it “weird”—so your installation may well go more smoothly.

Once you’re sure the machine is powered down, unplug the CloudReady USB Installer and power the device back on.

6. Set up your Chromebook. Begin by clicking on “Let’s Go” in the setup screen. You’ll be prompted to connect the computer to your WiFi network. (Have the name and password handy.)

When you’re done, click Next.

The following page allows you to choose whether to participate in Neverware’s anonymous data collection. You can opt out by unchecking the box on the lower left that says “Send Metrics to Improve CloudReady” and clicking “Continue.”

After that, sign in to your Chromebook using a Gmail address or an e-mail registered with G-Suite, and you’re ready to go. If you have any questions or problems, you can reach out to the CloudReady community for help.

Inexpensive Chromebooks

If you’d rather purchase a new Chromebook, here are some inexpensive options that performed well in CR’s testing.

Quick Take

Asus Chromebook C223NA-DH02

Price: $190

Performance
Ergonomics
Versatility
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Quick Take

Acer Chromebook CB3-431-12K1

Price: $180

Performance
Ergonomics
Versatility
Unlock Computer Ratings
Quick Take

HP Chromebook 14-DB0061CL

Price: $200

Performance
Ergonomics
Versatility
Unlock Computer Ratings