When the first Chromebooks hit the street in 2011 they came with a promise that Google would deliver regular software and security updates for at least four years. A few years later Google extended that to five years. But as I noted in 2018, that wasn’t nearly long enough for many users, especially since the countdown starts on the day a ChromeOS device is certified, not the day it’s purchased. So if you buy an older model, it might have just a few years (or months) of support left.

So Google extended its auto update policy again in 2020, this time promising that all new Chromebooks would receive at least 8 years of support. But even that’s causing problems. According to a report from the US PIRG Education Fund, many school districts that invested heavily in Chromebooks at the start of the pandemic are now finding the high price of buying cheap Chromebooks.

So here’s the thing, Chromebooks are attractive for educators for a few reasons. First, many of them offer decent performance at inexpensive price points. Spend $200 on a Windows laptop and you’ll often end up with a piece of junk. But spend the same amount of money on a Chromebook and while you won’t exactly get a premium experience, you can be pretty sure that it’ll be good enough for basic, mostly web-based tasks.

Second, Chromebooks are pretty stable and easy to manage. Google delivers software update on a regular basis. Most of your data is tied to a Google account, so if you need to switch to another laptop, you can sign in with your ID and password and pick up where you left off in a matter of minutes. And it’s fairly easy for IT administrators to manage a fleet of Chromebooks.

But… unlike Windows, Linux, or macOS laptops, Chromebooks have a built-in expiration date. While you can theoretically continue using a Chromebook indefinitely after it has stopped receiving updates from Google, you’ll be stuck on an older version of ChromeOS and, over time, some features may no longer work and you may not longer be able to access websites that require the latest versions of Chrome for security or functionality reasons.

Case in point: the PIRG report mentions a school district that found that Chromebooks that were no longer supported cannot access some state testing websites.

So PIRG is calling on Google extend its Automatic Update Expiration (AUE) for ChromeOS devices from 8 years to 10 years for “existing models,” which would have the effect of allowing school districts and individual users to continue using devices they already own for longer. This wouldn’t be the first time Google has made such a move: the company extended the lifespan of many models in 2019.

The PIRG report also calls on Google and PC makers that produce Chromebooks to make them easier to repair. Few companies offer replacement parts for the components that break most often, like keyboards, batteries, or displays. And many PC makers institute small changes year-after-year which makes it hard to replace parts even when they are available: for example, the report notes that some Chromebooks made by the same company have different screen bezel designs between models, even when the screen and bezel size are unchanged. These non-functional changes make it harder to source the proper replacement parts if you need to replace a bezel.

I’m a little skeptical of the report’s assertion that Google could pressure PC makers to have at least a “10% overstock of spare part available for purchase at reasonable prices,” or that “parts should be standardized across models and manufacturers,” allowing you to, for example, take the battery, screen, or keyboard from an Acer Chromebook and fit it into an Acer, HP, or Dell model. But if those changes did happen, it would certainly help extend the lifespan of Chromebooks, which could save schools and individual users money.

But it does seem feasible that Google could at least try to extend the software lifespan of more Chromebooks, ensuring that software lasts at least as long as the hardware.

Overall, PIRG estimates that “doubling the life of just Chromebooks sold in 2020 could cut emissions equivalent to taking 900 thousand cars off the road for a year,” by reducing the need to manufacture and sell new models, and “assuming no additional maintenance costs, in the U.S., longer lasting Chromebooks could save taxpayers $1.8 billion dollars across all K-12 students.”

One thing to note here is that when the report talks about “doubling the life,” we’re largely talking about the lifespan of Chromebooks after they’re purchased and set up by schools. Since many schools may be purchasing models that are not brand new with 8 years of support ahead of them, PIRG is talking about doubling the effective usage from around 4 years from the date of purchase to 8 years.

Of course, there is another option for extending the lifespan of Chromebooks: make it easier to install alternate operating systems on them. While it would be great if Google continued to offer software updates for all Chromebooks indefinitely, the company could also offer users with devices that have reached end of life the option to unlock the bootloader and install Linux, Windows, or other operating systems. There are some ways to do that with some existing models, but Google doesn’t make it particularly easy.

It’s unclear if Google will take any of PIRG’s advice. For now, I’d just offer Chromebook customers the same suggestion I made a few years ago: make sure to check Google’s Auto Update Policy website for the model you plan to purchase before spending any money. This will tell you whether that $200 (or $1000) laptop you’re about to buy has at least 8 years of life left in it, or just a few years (or less).

Update: Acer issued a response to the PIRG report, indicating that while it may be difficult to find spare parts for acer Chromebooks through an online search, most of the company’s Chromebook sales ‘are to K-12 schools/school districts” and they are “primarily supported by the Acer Premier Support Team,” which provides access to spare parts for free for in-warranty devices. For Chromebooks that are out of warranty, spare parts are available at discounted prices.

Acer says it provides spare parts to education customers for at least 4 years for in-warranty products, and there are currently more than 3.5 million Chromebooks are still covered by a warranty.

 

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  1. Laptops and Notebooks are a manufacturers dream come true because by default, all parts are proprietory (or at least a significant percentage. Fine, but create the father of boot camp (if it can be called that) and provide 2 daughter boards instead of one mainboard (leave one vacant if need be). That daughter board is simply a mini mainboard with it’s own CPU, RAM and storage (soldered to save space). So essentially we can upgrade only the things that need and upgrade (and reuse the chassis, screen, keyboard, trackpad) and can also run two daughterboards alternately (or simultaneously).

    1. An updated take on the father of boot camp mentioned in the last comment: Father of boot camp is the notion that we could be better off using independent mainboards rather than boot options and partitions. In the previous comment, I though independent daughter boards sharing the resources of a notebook could do the trick and make notebooks upgradeable and resistant to oblescense. However that implementation is quite messy and still proprietory aka not really worth the trouble. So I made two changes: The daughter boards need to be in the form of self contained cassettes and be generic ie interchangeable. the latter feature is the key. So we can have generic docking stations in the form of notebooks and generic cassettes and then we can take one or two of these and start using the generic notebook. So how exactly should we package the cassettes. Let’s take the two base form factors: a 7 in table and a 12 inch notebook so ideally we need two standardized cassette sizes. A 7 in tablet should be able to take one of the smaller cassettes. A 12 in notebook should be able to take two of the larger cassettes. A 7 inch tablet is about 11cm by about 19cm so the cassette could be something like 6mm by 7cm by 15cm. A cassette would have the mainboard, wifi, bt, storage, ram, processor AND battery in a dense package with very fine vents that open only after the cassette in inserted and running. What if generic tablets take off then maybe we might get more variety in terms of form factors, and especially depth. So clearly we need to be prepared for that by adding two standardized addon panels of 2mm each so (assuming the generic tablet is deep enough) we could use a cassette with thickness of 6+2+2 mm. The addon can have a peripheral say additional storage or enhanced graphics, or simply additional battery. The base of the cassette would have a 10mm bezel and standardized connectors for host display, keyboard, touchpad and charger. there would also be connectors for host based additional storage, graphics etc. So essentially there is scope for a half cassette with fits between two cassettes on a laptop and can contain additional battery, storage or graphics.

  2. They should provide a toolset that allows people to install whatever OS they like, e.g. linux, or android

  3. I certainly understand the desire and push to make Chromebooks have longer lives….But selfishly, I love being able to buy an EOL chromebook for $20-$40, put linux on it, and have computers dedicated to a certain project/use case

  4. What ever happened to the effort to decouple the Chrome browser from ChromeOS? I haven’t heard anything about it for a while now. LaCros was its name and one could use it by effectuating some experimental flags. It seems like it would be the answer to the stated problem if the ed Chromebooks could use it.

  5. I think that Google should totally extend the life cycle of education oriented chromebooks. We’ve seen on multiple occasions that specific models are made for the school market so increasing the lifespan of those would be a great help.
    And while I don’t think Google can force any manufacturer to adopt a standard, much less across brands, I do think they might be able to put some pressure on them to standardize some parts within the same brands, at least, again, with the education oriented models. I might not fill these companies’ wallets but it can surely get them some good press and some good will.

    This could especially help schools in poorer districts.

  6. If the PIRG is concerned about e-waste and greenhouse gas emissions, they should look at Microsoft and the billion computers that became obsolete with the introduction of Win 11.

    Oh well, we can always switch to Linux.

  7. I used my first Chromebook for 7 years, which was incredible. Hitting 3 years on this one. So I’d push back on the longevity piece – it depends how you treat the device, whether you were smart enough to buy mil-spec rating, and whether you chose an OEM like Lenovo or HP that designs for ease of repair. Not sure I would expect a low end Windows laptop to hold up any better in the hands of my kid 😛

    The software support is an issue. But Microsoft doesn’t support Windows forever, not anymore. I just got a Windows 10 mini PC. MS is saying they’ll support Windows 10 until October 2025 .. only 18 mos from now. Not a problem for me, but for a school … the smart ones will buy Win 11, just like a smart school will also buy Chromebooks with EOL >5 years out …

    1. There is a bit of a subtle difference here: the browser being rejected by websites is what’s causing the issue for the schools. On a chromebook, you get browser updates only as long as you get OS updates. On a Windows machine, you get browser updates a considerable number of years after the OS stops getting updates from Microsoft (although that could change overnight with windows 12 for no good reason really).

    2. Also remember that schools can have quite limited budgets, especially when buying equipment for all students and not just the computer labs of yore so it’s quite understandable when they don’t buy the brand new models in order to stretch their buck. Which unfortunately in this case ends up stretching till it tears from buying near EOL equipment.

    3. The problem here is that education laptops aren’t exactly bleeding edge. Most education models of Chromebooks are using processors/SOCs that are several years old already. Google’s lifespan for Chrome OS updates is based on the age of the processor/SOC being used (the date that the processor started receiving support on Chrome OS), not the age of the laptop model.

      Go to https://edu.google.com/intl/ALL_ca/chromebooks/find-a-chromebook/ and look at the Chromebooks that Google recommends for education-use. The first one on this list is an Asus CX5500, which has an i3-1115G4, which came out in 2020. It’s already 3 years old.

      So instead of getting 8 years of use, a school is actually getting 5 years of use. And it’s not as if they can keep using them, because the browsers actually stop working.

      You can’t compare this to Windows, because an unsupported version of Windows is still free to use a supported browser for a very long time.

      The most recent Windows OS to end support was Windows 8.1. It ended extended support after 9.5 years of updates from Microsoft. BUT, Microsoft offered Windows 10 to Windows 8.1 users for free, so many users are still receiving support on Windows 10 today. And even if they didn’t take that upgrade, Windows 8.1 users are still free to use whatever browser they want, and they will continue having access to a functional web browser for a very long time.

  8. Using standardized firmware could make extending support actually feasible. I’d like to see this snowball into a bloodthirsty pressure campaign that at least pushes through a rule or regulation requiring standardized firmware, e.g. Systemready or UEFI, for laptops, desktops, and cell phones, but if New York’s right to repair bill can get that line item vetoed out of it I don’t see that happening, and so this situation will continue forever (and indeed get worse if more people buy ARM devices) and leave a bunch of half-deleted flamewars with nothing to show for them but more stress.

  9. If you want to make devices that create less e-waste, simply make them repairable and the batteries removeable.

    The support lifecycle of products is another issue too as you mentioned. But isn’t that mostly an android device issue? I noticed so many phone makers push out a product and might release one update at most and that’s it, you’re stuck with it. That too is a problem.

    But really, getting at the e-waste problem can be mostly solved at the hardware level. Make them repairable. Simple, and computer makers used to make computers that way. Now more and more you buy laptops where you can’t upgrade them as much. Onboard RAM, or even worse like what Apple does, integrate everything. SSD dies? You can’t just remove it and replace, now you have to send the entire system back to Apple, and they have to replace the whole motherboard. So wasteful.

    1. The support lifecycle of products is another issue too as you mentioned. But isn’t that mostly an android device issue?

      Making sure the machine is repairable is an important issue, of course – but no, software updates are also an issue for Chromebooks. Like with Android phones, the support lifecycle of a Chromebook is tied to the model. Past a certain point it’ll just stop getting updates, just as an Android phone would.

      It’s silly, but… that’s what schools are dealing with now.