Report: Chromebooks lose their shine way too fast

FRANKLIN, Mass. — The technicians at Nerds To Go deal with all sorts of computers — whether they are malfunctioning or need a memory upgrade. But there’s one type of machine they can’t do much about: Chromebooks.

“We do try to help them where we can,” said owner Kevin Martin. “But by the time we go through that service, most of the time you could’ve replaced the system for a similar price or a little bit more.”

That’s because, to begin with, Chromebooks are usually cheap. Many can be had for less than $200 — and school systems usually pay even less with bulk purchases (higher quality Chromebooks can run upwards of $500).

“The intention behind the Chromebook is to put together a simple, inexpensive system that can be used primarily by students,” said Martin.

And students are using them — a lot. Education Week reported that in 2021, some 90 percent of high school and middle school students in the U.S. used Chromebooks — 84 percent of elementary students did.

But a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) said school systems could cut their costs on Chromebooks — and help the environment — if the creator of the operating system, Google, would extend the shelf-life of Chromebook software from four years to eight.

“It turns out that Chromebooks have expiration dates,” said Lucas Gutterman, author of the report. “Once that expiration date passes, they’re no longer eligible to receive software updates.”

Those updates help keep Chromebooks from getting infected by viruses or malware. Martin said that is a feature designed to help keep kids safe. But there’s a huge downside, as far as schools are concerned.

“It means that these expired laptops might not be able to access state testing websites,” Gutterman said. That’s because it’s risky for a secure website to allow access from an essentially unsecured computer.

The only choice for school systems?

“The update notification you get says, you’ve reached your last update,” Gutterman said. “If you want an update, go buy a new model.”

U.S. PIRG said that wastes money and harms the environment. The manufacture of electronics is a leading contributor to air pollution, the report said. If Google were to double the useful life of its operating system, the report claimed it could save the U.S. close to $2 billion a year — and cut emissions equivalent to more than 900,000 cars.

“The fact that we have perfectly functional laptops that should still work that are expiring and just ending up in crates is not acceptable,” Gutterman said. “We can’t afford, either our wallets or the environment, to be throwing out laptops that otherwise work just because they passed a certain date.”

As it is, Gutterman said Chromebooks currently have no resale value — as compared to traditional laptops, which can be refurbished and resold. And then there is the matter of electronics recycling.

“Only one-third of electronic waste is actually properly recycled,” Gutterman said — and even fewer components from Chromebooks are recyclable, he added.

So is it doable to double the operating system’s life?

“Google could fix that today,” Gutterman said. “They could just extend the expiration dates so those laptops could jump back into life again.”

Boston 25 News asked Google to comment on the U.S. PIRG report, but we did not hear back from the company by deadline. However, Google told the tech news website, Ars Technica, that “there are regular Chromebook software updates that add new features and improve security every four weeks.”

Google said older devices function until hardware limitations make it too difficult to update.

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