Before buying a Chromebook, check the expiration date

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Chromebooks — Google-powered laptops from popular PC brands that surged in popularity during the pandemic, when lockdowns created unprecedented demand for home computers — can lose essential features.

Sue Nielsen from Hurricane, Utah, was perplexed when suddenly, in December, the website she always used to sign up for volunteering stopped loading correctly. His son, Jim Nielsen, drove to inspect the browser of his Acer Chromebox, the desktop version of a Chromebook. He noticed that the software on the computer did not seem to be up to date. “I pressed the update button and found it couldn’t update,” Nielsen said.

The Nielsens didn’t know that Chrome OS devices have a limited lifespan. Google’s automatic update policy guarantees software updates and security support for a number of years. The Chromebox, which the Nielsens purchased in 2014, had passed its August 2019 expiration date.

Once a Chrome OS device expires, the device may continue to function as intended, a Google spokesperson said, but over time “there may be incompatibilities with certain websites, apps, or policies.” management without the possibility of correcting them”.

Older devices receive updates from Google for five years. Devices released in 2020 and later will be supported for up to 8.5 years, depending on the model.

People who trade in their smartphones for new ones every two or three years might think that even five years is long enough life for a reliable, 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 removes the plastic wrapper. It can be frustrating to turn a device in good condition into electronic waste. And unlike old Macs or PCs, which can be reused at the end of their lifespan, there’s not much you can do with an off-graze Chromebook.

Before buying a Chromebook, confirm its lifespan. If you already own one, check its longevity now, before it stops receiving updates.

How to check

If you only take one thing from this column, make it this: Before you buy a Chromebook, check the model’s expiration date on Google’s Auto-Update Policy website. Scroll down to the list of brands, then click on the brand to check the model you are interested in.

If you currently own a Chromebook, you can check it out yourself, even if it’s a little buried: click on the time in the bottom right. Go to Settings > About Chrome OS > Additional details. You will find the expiration of your automatic update in the “Update schedule” section. About a month before this date, you will receive a notification for your latest software update.

Buy smart

Retailers often sell Chromebooks that are past their expiration date at bargain prices, with no warning that a model is outdated. A third-party seller, listing an Acer C720 on Amazon, touted the model’s “speed, simplicity and security” and its ability to “automatically stay up to date”. Used units of the same model are available at Best Buy and the Back Market refurbished electronics 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 good working order. I could use Google docs and other Google services. I couldn’t stream movies on Netflix because the Chrome version was no longer supported. I also couldn’t use Android apps, as this perk is only available for newer Chrome OS machines.

A Back Market spokeswoman said the company plans to include auto-update expiration information on relevant listings by the end of the year. Google’s spokesperson said the company encourages partners to provide expiration information on devices for sale. Best Buy did not 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 before the expiration date. The company says it adds a label to boxes of products with an expiration date of less than a year, to remind customers of the shorter shelf life.

When it expires

Immediately after a Chromebook’s expiration date, you won’t notice much of a difference. In fact, you’ll probably be able to use the device normally for months. But some sites might start acting weird.

In the case of the Nielsens, the faulty website uses code that requires newer versions of the Chrome browser. This is a convenience for developers, who then do not have to write longer code compatible with older software. The assumption is that almost everyone who visits the site will have an updated browser.

Running an outdated version of Chrome OS can pose security risks, says Vitaly Shmatikov, professor of computer science at Cornell University. “It’s like sailing in a boat that accumulates risks. It won’t sink right away, but it will fill with water little by little, first gradually, then suddenly,” he said.

According to Professor Shmatikov, the main threat to the security of Chrome users is malware, accessible via a malicious website or by clicking on the wrong link, which tries to steal a user’s information or attack the computer. “When Chrome is up-to-date, it blocks these attacks quite well. Once it’s out of date, it becomes vulnerable to new threats,” he said.

It’s time to upgrade

The easiest thing to do after your Chromebook expires? Recycle the obsolete device and get a new computer.

Tech-savvy DIYers can revive their outdated Chrome OS devices by installing Gallium, a Chromebook-optimized Linux software package that includes a web browser, simple text editor, and image viewer. But it requires advanced hacking and if not done properly, you might permanently damage the device.

Obsolescence is not unique to Chromebooks: eventually all computers no longer receive support. The difference with Chromebooks is that the Chrome OS and the browser are tied together, which Google has said it wants to fix.

Macs and Windows PCs can download new versions of Chrome Browser, even though the operating systems can’t be upgraded. Chrome’s minimum system requirements for Macs are OS X El Capitan 10.11, which supports models as early as the mid-2007 MacBook Pro. That’s almost 15 years of up-to-date Chrome support. Of course, this Mac costs a lot more than Ms. Nielsen’s $150 Chromebox.

And when Macs and PCs stop receiving operating system updates, there’s Google-owned software you can use to turn them into Chrome devices. As my colleague Joanna Stern discovered, setting up CloudReady is a bit tricky. But you will be rewarded for your patience when your old computer is new again.

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