Google Adds Two Lines, Makes a Huge E-Waste Difference

Google Adds Two Lines, Makes a Huge E-Waste Difference

It was just two lines of text in an obscure support document. But by adding them earlier this week, Google took a big step toward longer-lasting devices, fighting e-waste, and setting a new tone for how we think about buying a “cheap” computer.

They also ruined a rant I was going to write, but I’m good. I’d rather people have better access to an ecosystem of simple, affordable devices for school and work and whatever, whether they’re buying new or used.

Supporting software is saving hardware

Hand removing the battery from an N21 Lenovo Chromebook
Replacing the battery in a Lenovo N21 Chromebook requires just one screwdriver and an opening tool.

Here’s what happened: Google added a couple new models of Chromebooks to its Auto Update Policy, the page where it lists every Chromebook and how long it can expect to receive updates to its operating system. A Chromebook technically still works without updates, but it won’t receive the latest security patches and bug fixes. That’s bad news for businesses, schools, or anyone, really.

Specifically, Google added:

Pro c645 Chromebook Enterprise Jun 2029
ThinkPad C13 Yoga Chromebook Enterprise Jun 2029

As the blog Android Police spotted and noted, that means that Google plans to support those just-released devices with updates for a bit under nine years. Nine years is an impressive amount of support, and it brings Chromebooks in line with the more traditional purveyors of computers. Microsoft supported Windows 7 for 10 years, and will do the same for Windows 10. The mid-2012 MacBook Pro I’m typing on works with macOS Catalina, released in October 2019, but will not work with this year’s Big Sur—still a decent eight-year run, and critical security updates will likely continue for a while.

There’s a chance the nine-year update limit only applies to enterprise devices, like the two cited by Google. Even still, Google has quietly improved the support life of all Chromebooks this year, while our focus was on … other things.

Motherboard of a Chromebook Pixel being removed by ESD tweezers.
The motherboard of a Chromebook Pixel. Many Chromebooks share the same board designs (and expiration dates).

Chromebooks initially had a roughly 5-year limit as of 2016, bumped up to 6.5 years in 2017. But that number only looked good on paper. The expiration date starts ticking for every device with the same board inside as soon as the first device ships, which stings for people who bought a cheap Chromebook used or on sale, since the board inside might have just a year or two of updates left by that point.

What’s more, Chromebooks are not the cheap, semi-disposable devices they once were (not that we’re ever here for “disposable computers,” mind you). Wirecutter’s pick for the Best Chromebook right now is a $400-plus Lenovo model, with responsive performance, a 360-degree hinge, and “a great keyboard and trackpad” (believe me, the author of that guide, a close friend, only writes that if it’s true). This is a quality machine that, given the task of opening Chrome tabs, and occasionally running an Android or Linux app, should be allowed to live for nine years.

Google might have sensed this, changing the default to eight years earlier this year, and now starting out some devices with nine. That’s a boon to buyers looking to save with a used device, families holding onto perfectly functional casual-use laptops, recyclers eager for the resale profits that keep them going, and, of course, the Earth, which has enough circuit boards, batteries, and plastic cases inside her, thank you very much.

Even better longevity could be coming

Chromebooks, stacked vertically

Nine years might not even be the end of a Chromebook’s life. Out on the bleeding edge of Chrome OS development, Google is working on the awkwardly camel-cased LaCrOs, or Linux and Chrome OS. Not every Chrome OS dev project comes to pass, but this one makes a lot of sense. It would decouple the browser (Chrome) from the underlying operating system. Chromebooks currently get their browser, security, and operating system updates as one package; this could potentially allow for basic security updates to keep coming to the browser portion when the OS underneath is past its end of life.

Kevin Tofel at About Chromebooks doesn’t think it’s a longevity move, Kent Duke at Android Police thinks it might be. My take: It can’t hurt. Even just having the ability to update Chrome could allow Google to patch ultra-critical security flaws on technically non-supported Chromebooks. Apple, for example, patched older Macs affected by the Meltdown and Spectre flaws

From “Shame on you” to “That’s the way”

A little over two years ago, I was peeved to see a red warning message pop up on my Chromebook Pixel. The 2013 Pixel was Google’s attempt to make manufacturers consider a premium Chromebook experience: beautiful screen, great trackpad and keyboard, solid aluminum build. An overwrought 2013 Chromebook worked great as a personal/couch laptop for my wife and I in 2018, but it would no longer be secure—and it warned us constantly about it).

Chromebook Pixel showing the installation screen of CloudReady, next to a keyboard, coffee mug, and iFixit toolkit.
Chromebook Pixel (2013) running CloudReady, a free third-party version of Chrome OS.

I learned how to install a third-party Chrome OS clone on it, and thought I had found a decent solution for people in my situation. Then I chatted with two of the leading Chromebook hackers, Mr. Chromebox and CoolStar. The work they do is amazing, and allows some Chrome OS devices to be useful long after their expiration date, or even switch to different operating systems.

Yet Chrome devices are getting harder to port to Windows or Linux with intact hardware and drivers, as the boards running Chromebooks contain more proprietary bits and fewer standard parts. Where removing the write protection on a Chrome device used to involve simply removing one screw on the inside, it now relies on a proprietary cable and some complex terminal commands. Coders inside Google, the Chromebook hackers told me, have made some efforts to encourage tinkering; you can see some of it on the Chromium wiki. But it’s just not easy for someone without patience and experience to get a modern Chrome device unlocked and running anything else, not even an off-brand version of Chrome OS.

I was ready to call out Google for pushing devices into the market with an irresponsible end-of-life timer running, one that most people didn’t even know about. Then a global pandemic hit, people were desperate for anything that could run Zoom and access work or class portals, and this screed got even more important in my head. Then, like a writer, I procrastinated, waiting for something to happen that would justify my ire.

Then Google ended up doing the right thing—for customers, for everybody, really. So I wrote this instead. Here’s hoping Google sticks to, and maybe even expands, this effort.