6 important things you might not know about Chrome OS upgrades

We’ve been talking about Chrome OS a lot these past couple weeks. With the arrival of Google’s wildly impressive new Chromebook Pixel luxury laptop and now Acer’s affordable Chromebook 15 desktop replacement, I’ve been hearing from plenty of people who are considering whether cloud-centric computing could make sense for them.

One aspect of Chrome OS folks often ask me about is how upgrades work on the platform — and the answer involves some interesting points even current Chromebook users may not be aware of.

Whether you’re already using Chrome OS or just thinking about giving it a whirl, here are some important things to know and remember:

1. Chrome OS upgrades happen automatically and quietly, with no annoying delays or notifications.

The first rule of Chrome OS upgrades is that your device doesn’t talk about Chrome OS upgrades. Google’s software updates itself automatically in the background while you’re using your Chromebook; the system won’t pester you to reboot or make you wait for 20 minutes while it applies new software at startup (with the exception being the very first time you power up and sign into a new Chrome OS device).

You’ll see a small arrow icon in the lower-right corner of the screen, near the clock, when a new update has been downloaded and is ready to go. If you open it, the system will offer you the opportunity to apply the update immediately; otherwise, it’ll just take effect on its own with no fanfare the next time you restart.

You can force your device to manually check for updates by going into its Help screen (chrome://help), but unless you’re just impatient and itching for something new, there’s really no need to do that; the updates will always show up and take care of themselves in short order.

2. Chrome OS upgrades arrive every two to three weeks — sometimes even more frequently — regardless of what device you have.

Chrome OS is pretty different from Android in that upgrades are delivered multiple times a month — and since they’re sent to all devices directly from Google, they generally show up for everyone at more or less the same time. Third-parties can’t modify the operating system as they can with Android, so there’s no real variance in the software from one device to the next and thus no need for manufacturers to be involved in the upgrade delivery process.

Officially, the regular stable version of Chrome OS is updated every two to three weeks with minor fixes and every six weeks for more significant revisions. Often, though, upgrades are even more frequent than that: In the past month, for instance, the stable version of Chrome OS was updated on February 10, February 25, March 3, and March 10.

3. You can step up your Chrome OS update schedule and get early access to new features if you want.

Like Google’s Chrome browser, Chrome OS has three different “channels” from which you can choose: the Stable channel, which provides fully tested and polished software and is the best bet for most users; the Beta channel, which is updated every week or so and gets new features more than a month early; and the Dev channel, which is often updated multiple times in a week and includes cutting-edge stuff that’s still actively being developed. 

If you want to try out a different channel, just head into your Chromebook’s settings and click the link labeled “About Chrome OS” (or simply type “chrome://help” into the address bar of a new browser window). Click “More info,” then click “Change channel” and select the channel you want.

Just be aware that anything other than Stable is — by its very nature — potentially less stable, since you’re using software that’s still being tested and developed instead of a polished final release. The Dev channel in particular comes with a warning that it’s subject to bugs and should be selected only by advanced users who are interested in seeing what’s in the works and don’t mind the occasional glitch.

4. You can always find out what’s new in a Chrome OS update — if you know where to look.

Even though Chrome OS itself doesn’t typically jump and shout about incoming upgrades, Google does make detailed info about what’s new readily available for the curious among us. All you’ve gotta do is keep tabs on the company’s official Chrome Releases blog; just look for the posts involving the Chrome OS channel you use (“Stable Channel Update for Chrome OS,” for instance), and click inside to find out what’s changed. 

5. Chrome OS devices don’t receive updates forever, but they do get them for a pretty long time.

Google says all Chrome OS devices will receive ongoing upgrades for a minimum of five years from their launch dates. In some cases, the window will end up being even longer.

6. You can check to see how long any Chrome OS device will receive updates right now — or even before you buy it.

Google maintains a Chrome OS End of Life informational page that lists exactly when each Chrome OS device will stop receiving OS updates. The company says it’ll provide advance notice of every device’s scheduled end-of-life date there as soon as its hardware launches. Dates could end up being pushed back later than what’s initially listed, but Google promises they’ll never end up being sooner than what’s posted on that page.

And with that, congratulations: You’re now officially a certified Chrome OS Upgrade Expert. Please pick up your certificate of completion on the way out (optional) and bring me a cookie and/or freshly baked pie (strongly encouraged).*

* Hey, it’s part of the job description. Don’t look at me — I don’t make the rules.

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