Chromebooks don’t have a reputation for lasting forever—it’s well-known that they have an expiration date, one that sometimes trips up parents and schools alike and creates tons of e-waste.Now, Google is taking steps to ensure the deadline is at least a little further out in the future.On Thursday, the company revealed that all new Chromebooks, along with any machine released from 2021 on, will have 10 years of automatic updates from the date of manufacture, up from eight years previously. Older machines dating back to 2019 will also be able to get the benefits of extended support time as well.
“For Chromebooks released before 2021 and already in use, users and IT admins will have the option to extend automatic updates to 10 years from the platform’s release when they receive their last automatic update,” ChromeOS Senior Directors of Engineering Ashwini Varma and Prajakta Gudadhe wrote in a blog post.Additionally, the company has taken additional steps to better ensure that the machines, produced by a variety of major PC manufacturers, will last longer and be more sustainable. This includes a combination of software features (such as a forthcoming adaptive charging feature that aims to extend battery life) and supply chain improvements, including the increased use of post-consumer-recycled materials. Google also plans to make it possible for authorized repair centers and technicians in school districts to repair the machines without the use of physical USB keys, which can slow down the repair process.The decision to extend the effective life of the low-resource computers, popular in classrooms, comes at a time when the Chromebook model is gradually growing more controversial thanks to its strong uptick in use during the pandemic. During this period, many consumers bought Chromebooks that were already years old at the time of purchase, only to find that the devices had a limited shelf life.
School districts, meanwhile, tend to be more aware of the expiration dates—but when budgets are tight, that doesn’t make the loss of functionality easier to swallow.A report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund last spring raised serious concerns about Chromebook sustainability, particularly around physical incompatibilities between different models and parts-supply limitations that tended to make the devices harder to repair.Lucas Gutterman, the director of PIRG’s Designed To Last campaign and the author of the “Chromebook Churn” report, welcomed the changes.“I know that the teachers, the parents, and students that have been part of this effort to extend the life, they’re going to be really excited to hear that their wishes have sort of been granted here,” Gutterman, who led a campaign over the summer to get Google to extend the shelf life of older devices, said in an interview.Adding two years of support time to Chromebooks is not trivial for Google, as the Alphabet subsidiary has to put each machine through a rigorous testing process to ensure that they continue to work after each given update—something the company emphasized by sending Motherboard photos of an array of testing racks, on which hundreds of Chromebook models go through rigorous automatic and manual checks before updates go out in the wild.
Over time, update speed has increased significantly, with Chromebooks now getting monthly updates—and the company is additionally taking steps to separate the operating system’s update cycle from that of its browser.On the manufacturing and support end of things, the company says it’s working with a variety of partners earlier in the process to ensure everyone is on the same page and using consistent parts, with the goal of meeting the promises it sets for consumers. Recent models like the lower-end Acer Vero and high-end HP Elite Dragonfly Chromebook have taken steps to increase the use of sustainable materials.While there are some ecosystem challenges still left to fight—for example, the tendency for out-of-date Chromebooks to linger on retail sites like Amazon well past their expiration date, which this decision will have a limited impact on—this move gives additional breath to a right-to-repair movement that is building momentum around perfectly functional devices with long shelf lives.“There’s definitely still room to improve—not just Chromebooks, but our entire digital economy,” Gutterman added. “We are on this disposability treadmill—we’re buying more laptops, and phones and tablets and appliances that die. It’s really a step in the right direction—it just shows Google’s leadership in actually making devices that last for as long as possible. “Ten years is a really great place to start,” he said.