How Try Chrome OS in VirtualBox Before Buying a Chromebook

Google’s Chromebooks run Chrome OS, a lightweight operating system based on Linux that provides you with a full Chrome browser and a basic desktop environment. Before buying a Chromebook, you may want to play with Chrome OS in a virtual machine in a window on your desktop.

What You’re Getting

Here’s the thing: You can’t get an official version of Chrome OS without buying a Chromebook. Google doesn’t offer a version of Chrome OS you can install on existing hardware, whether in a virtual machine or on a full laptop or desktop PC. You can only get the full version of Chrome OS on a Chromebook.

However, Chrome OS—like the Chrome browser itself—is based on an open-source project. The open-source project is named Chromium OS. It includes most of Chrome OS, aside from some extra features Google adds later, including support for Android apps.

We suggest using Neverware CloudReady for this. Neverware takes the Chromium OS code and modifies it to work on existing PC hardware. They then add additional enterprise management features and sell their solution to schools and businesses who want to run Chrome OS on existing PCs.

However, Neverware offers a free version for home use and free virtual machines for VirtualBox and VMware. This software is based on Chromium OS and is almost exactly identical to Chrome OS. It’s just missing a few bells and whistles you can only get on a Chromebook.

How to Get the Virtual Machine

First, you’ll need a virtual machine application installed. We suggest the free VirtualBox software, but you can also use a VMware product like VMware Workstation if you prefer that or already have it installed.

Once you’ve installed a virtual machine program, head to Neverware’s CloudReady virtual machine images page. Click the appropriate link to download the virtual machine image for either VirtualBox or VMware, whichever you have installed.

Next, import the downloaded virtual machine appliance into your virtual machine program of choice. In VirtualBox, click File > Import Appliance and browse to the virtual machine file you just downloaded, which will have the .OVF file extension.

VirtualBox or VMware will set up the virtual machine’s virtual hardware according to the specifications in the file. You don’t have to configure anything or even install the operating system—it’s already installed. Just click the “Import” button to continue.

To launch the CloudReady virtual machine, just double-click it in your virtual machine library.

Using Chromium OS

Despite the Neverware CloudReady branding, the words “Chromium OS” will appear throughout the operating system, indicating that you’re primarily just using the open source build of Chrome OS.

Everything will work fairly similarly. You’ll see the usual Chrome OS setup screen, although it will be branded with a “CloudReady” logo.

When you boot up the virtual machine for the first time, it will offer to automatically download the Adobe Flash plug-in for you. This is something that’s normally included on Chrome OS, but can’t be included here. On a Chromebook, you won’t see this window. However, this wizard still helps you install it in a single click.

You’ll sign into the operating system with a Google account, just like how you’d normally use a Chromebook. In fact, when you do, you’ll receive an email alert from Google that there was a new sign-in from Chrome OS.

You can click around and use the environment like you’d use a normal Chromebook. You’ll find the usual things: A desktop environment with a taskbar, tray, and launcher, apps like the Files app, and of course the Chrome browser itself.

Some features will not be present. You won’t find any support for Android apps, a feature that’s been appearing on more (but not all) Chromebooks lately. You may encounter issues with multimedia or DRM-restricted websites.

The operating system won’t receive updates from Google, but it will automatically update to new versions of CloudReady released by Neverware. These tend to lag behind new versions of Chrome OS released by Google itself, as Neverware has to modify them once they’re released.

When you boot up the virtual machine in the future, you’ll see the usual Chrome OS sign-in screen where you can enter your password, sign in with a new user account, or sign in as a guest. In guest mode, your Chromebook will give the guest a blank slate and automatically erase their browsing data when they sign out.

While this is a preview of the experience of using Chrome OS, it can’t substitute for the real thing. Not only is it missing a few features, but the performance of Chrome OS on real hardware should be much better than in a virtual machine.

What’s more, the experience of using Chrome OS inside a virtual machine is kind of missing the point. Chrome OS is supposed to be simple and lightweight, getting out of your way and giving you an easy-to-use laptop that doesn’t need system maintenance or software installation, something you can easily use and hand to guests with its guest mode.

You can’t actually have the whole Chrome OS experience without trying a Chromebook, just like you can’t have the experience of using an Android phone by installing Android in a virtual machine on your PC. You may want to visit a local electronics store and play with a Chromebook in person if you’re still curious. That will let you experiment with those Android apps on Chrome OS, too.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.