How To Run Chrome OS From a USB Drive and Use It On Any Computer

By Chris Hoffman on November 11th, 2012

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Google only supports running Chrome OS on Chromebooks, but don’t let that stop you. You can put Chrome OS on a USB drive and boot it on any computer, just as you’d run a Linux distribution from a USB drive.

If you just want to test Chrome OS, your best bet is running it in a virtual machine. This ensures that you won’t run into any hardware-related issues. Your computer may not be able to run Chrome OS properly.

Note: You’ll need a USB drive with at least 4 GB of space for this.

Hardware Compatibility

Chrome OS is based on Linux, so it comes with drivers for a wide variety of hardware devices. Chrome OS may work properly on your computer even if no one has ever tested it on your hardware before.

Google’s Chromium Projects website has an official developer hardware list. This page lists computers that have been tested with Chrome OS – if you’re lucky, you may find your system on the list.

Note that Wi-Fi does not seem to work properly on many computers. You may have to use a wired network connection (in other words, plug an Ethernet cable into your computer) to use the Internet after booting into Chrome OS. However, you can also try a build of Chrome OS with improved Wi-Fi support.

Putting Chrome OS on a USB Drive

Google doesn’t provide official builds of Chrome OS, so we’ll be using unofficial builds of the open-source Chromium OS. There are two options: Vanilla and Lime. At the moment, Vanilla is the most current version, while Lime hasn’t been updated in several months. If you want the latest Chrome OS software, you can try using Vanilla. If you have hardware issues, you should try using Lime, which is just the Vanilla version with improved hardware support – it includes drivers for Broadcom, Ralink, and Realtek Wi-Fi chipsets, in addition to nVidia and AMD graphics support.

Head over to Hexxeh’s Chrome OS website and download the USB build of Chrome OS you’re interested in: Chromium OS Lime or Chromium OS Vanilla. This download is less than 300 MB – fairly small for an operating system.

If you have a Mac, you can just download the Builder application instead. Linux users can use the dd command after downloading the image; there are instructions on the download page. Be careful when using the dd command however – you could overwrite a hard drive if you use it incorrectly.

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Next, open the downloaded ZIP archive and extract the IMG file to a folder on your computer.

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Download Windows Image Writer to your computer – make sure you download the binary.zip file, not the source.zip one. Extract it on your computer in the same way as above and launch the Win32DiskImager.exe application.

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Insert your USB drive into your computer (make sure it’s at least 4 GB in size), select the IMG file, choose your USB device, and click Write.

This will erase the contents of the drive – back up any important files on it before doing this! You should also ensure you select the correct device in the Device box, or you may end up wiping the wrong drive.

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Changing Boot Order

Once the write process is complete, you can now reboot your system into Chrome OS. Just leave the USB drive plugged in and restart. If you’re lucky, your system may be configured to boot directly from USB. If not, you’ll often need to press a specific key to access the boot menu, where you can choose to boot from your USB drive. The exact key you’ll need differs from computer to computer, but it’s generally mentioned on-screen during the boot-up process. You can also find this key in your computer’s manual. (Look in your motherboard’s manual if you build your computer yourself.)

If your computer doesn’t have a boot menu, you’ll need to enter its BIOS and change the boot order instead. To access the BIOS, press the appropriate key – often F2 or Delete – during the boot-up process. (The BIOS may be referred to as “setup” during the boot-up process.) This key is also generally displayed on-screen. If you don’t see it, you can locate it in your computer’s manual.

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Booting Into Chrome OS

With the USB drive selected as your boot device – or the computer’s boot order changed – you can now boot directly into Chrome OS. Chrome OS won’t boot quite as fast as it would on a Chromebook, as the USB drive is slower than an internal solid-state drive (SSD).

You’ll see the initial set-up wizard the first time you boot up, but you’ll go directly to the log-in screen on future boots.

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You can insert this USB drive into any computer to run Chrome OS on it in the same way. This doesn’t actually install Chrome OS on the computer’s hard drive – we’re just running it from the USB stick. You can reboot your computer and remove the USB stick to leave Chrome OS.


Remember, if you have any hardware issues, you may want to try Lime instead of Vanilla – it’s more out-of-date at the moment, but it includes support for a wider variety of hardware.

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+.

  • Published 11/11/12
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