How To Reinstall, Recover Chrome OS When A Powerwash Isn't Enough

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Chromebooks are some of the most reliable laptops on the market but that doesn't mean users will never need to reinstall Chrome OS. Unlike many competing operating systems, That won't require navigation of multiple settings menus or long wait periods. Google has made the process nearly painless. It has also gone out of its way to ensure that it requires very little effort or interaction.

In fact, the steps to accomplish a full reinstallation of Chrome OS on any gadget using the operating system is almost entirely automated. That stems, at least in part, from the fact that Chrome OS is tailor-made to work on the devices that utilize it. But it also comes from the fact that Chrome OS has a dedicated tool for recovering. And the system takes care of itself when it comes to using the media that the tool generates.

When to perform a Chrome OS reinstall?

Before getting started, it's important to note that a powerwash is typically enough to fix errors that appear in Chrome OS. That's because, on a Chromebook, the ecosystem is effectively a walled-garden. So users will almost never need to perform a full restart as described in this guide. That absolutely does not mean that no users will ever need to completely reinstall Chrome OS and start over. There are, in fact, at least a few circumstances under which that's actually advisable.

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Fatal errors require a Chrome OS reinstall

The most obvious time to reinstall Chrome OS is if it suffers fatal errors. Namely, as with any operating system, sometimes things just go wrong and that makes the system unusable. In those instances, Chrome presents users with an error message. Google fills the screen with a white backdrop, an appropriate error icon, and words to inform users that "Chrome OS is missing or damaged."

If that occurs, users are essentially left with no choice but to reinstall Chrome.

No fix in sight?

Another situation that may present itself, requiring a complete recovery of Chrome OS, is errors that aren't otherwise fixable. That can include any number of problems from file system errors to quirks and bugs. In effect, these are going to be problems noted by users that can't be fixed via online troubleshooters.

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Google expressly recommends a reinstallation of the OS if they've followed those guides, talked with experts on Chromebook support forums, and tried a powerwash but still notice the errors. Most commonly, experts are only going to recommend recovery in the help forum if no other solution works. It's also a last-resort recommendation since it will clear away any and all local data.

Performing the reset

Installing Chrome OS on a Chromebook is a straightforward process. It's also relatively intensive in terms of its demand for resources. So users will want to plug their device in before starting to prevent problems later on. Bearing that in mind, Google made the process easy and are really only a few steps required. So, without further ado, let's dive into how to reinstall Chrome OS.

Finding and creating a recovery image

The first step to reinstall or recover Chrome OS is to create recovery media. There are two times when that can be accomplished. As is often the case, the best time to create this media is before any errors occur. For this guide, I created the backup using exactly the same Chromebook that it will be used for. But this can be created from any computer with Chrome installed, so it can be used after errors occur on a second computer.

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An SD card or USB flash drive is needed to accomplish this task as well. The tool for creating the recovery media notes that must be 4GB in size or larger. Google itself recommends an 8GB capacity or larger.

Regardless of the platform being used, users must first download and install the recovery app via the Chrome browser. Linux is the sole exception to this step but we'll discuss that later on. Found on the Chrome Web Store as an extension, Chromebook Recovery Utility is an easy to use wizard for creating the reinstallation materials.

Chromebook Recovery Utility can be installed on the Chrome Web Store by clicking the blue "Add to Chrome" button. Once it's been installed, tapping or clicking on the "Launch app" button on that same page will run the wizard. Users can also find and run that by navigating to the three-dot menu at the top-right-hand side of the UI, "More tools," and then "Extensions."

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On the second page of the recovery tool wizard, the utility presents users with a box to put in their Chromebook model number. That won't be the same as is printed on the box the gadget came in though. So most users will want to utilize the on-page link titled "Select a model from a list" instead. On the resulting page, they'll want to select their device manufacturer and then specific product model from the drop-down lists.

Conversely, following this process on a Chromebook will cause the tool to automatically detect the device in question. That will be shown as a link above the entry field for the model number without the need to use drop-box menus at all. Chromebook Recovery Utility will automatically enter the model number when that link is clicked.

The model number also appears on the error screen that leads to the need for this particular recovery tool.

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Tapping on "continue," once the model has been selected, will kick off the recovery media creation process. Users select the appropriate drive or card to be erased and formatted with the Chrome OS image. In the examples here, I utilized an SD card. Then the tool will create the recovery media.

It's important to note that creating the media necessarily erases all data on the SD card or flash drive. The SD card or flash drive cannot be used again for any other purpose until it's been formatted. Google's recovery utility does include an option to prepare the storage device for use elsewhere after a reinstallation is performed. That's found behind the gear-shaped settings icon in the Chrome extension.

What about getting a recovery image via Linux?

Linux users must instead navigate to a platform-specific download page. Then, they'll need to change script permissions via the command "$ sudo chmod 755 linux_recovery.sh" before running the script with root privileges. That can be accomplished via the "$ sudo bash linux_recovery.sh" command.

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Once the resulting on-screen instructions have been followed to create the recovery media, the remaining steps here are the same.

Getting into recovery mode (referencing bottom sections of this… remove this link after)

Now, there's a good chance that anybody who arrived at this guide did so because their Chromebook displayed an error message. Namely, that's an error message that appears during startup or otherwise which reads "Chrome OS is missing or damaged."

Chrome OS is missing or damaged from HP support page
Chromebooks and other Chrome OS gadgets show a screen such as this when the operating system needs to be recovered

Once that error's been spotted, performing a recovery or reinstall in Chrome OS is effectively the only option. The message pushes users through the final recovery steps. Inserting the recovery media SD card or flash drive from that page will automatically launch the appropriate UI and process.

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On the other hand, users may also simply want to reinstall Chrome OS because they've bought a second-hand gadget and want to start with Chromebook that truly works like new. Or they may want have encountered errors that a powerwash just doesn't fix. If that's the case, Recovery Mode will need to be entered manually.

In either case, users will want to start by backing up any files they want to save — just as they would if they were performing a more straightforward powerwash. Then they'll need to hold down the "ESC" key before also pressing the "Refresh" key. The latter is shaped as a circular arrow in the top row of the keyboard. Then, users need to press the power key to shut off the device before letting go of the power button and continuing to hold down the other two keys.

A message will appear on-screen and then users will need to release the "ESC" and "Refresh" keys.

Chrome OS will present users with a message on their Chromebook. The message will either read "Chrome OS is missing or damaged" or "Please insert a recovery USB stick or SD card."

14 How to reinstall Chrome OS
Chrome OS shows a page like this one when reinstalling without system-breaking errors

The process is somewhat different for Chromebox, Chromebit, and tablet users. So users of those devices won't be pressing the "ESC," "Refresh," power button keyboard shortcut listed above. Instead, users will need to press the appropriate hardware keys.

Chromeboxes and other non-laptop or -tablet Chrome OS gadgets, as well as some older Chromebooks, feature dedicated reset buttons. Those are typically found in a recess in the device's frame or build, only accessible via push-pin, paper clip, or similarly-shaped object.

On tablets, users will need to press the physical volume-up, volume-down, and Power keys simultaneously for more than 10 seconds. Releasing the keys will load up the recovery screen.

Follow the wizard

As noted on both the critical "missing" OS screen and the manually-entered recovery mode screen, the next part of this process is exceptionally easy. In fact, Google would be going a bit far to call it a recovery wizard.

To start with, all the user needs to do is insert the recovery media, whether that's installing via an SD card or a USB stick. Chrome OS should automatically detect that media and start the process. Overall, that should take around 10- to 15-minutes from start to finish. The longest portion, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the content verification segment.

After the content has been verified, it will install. Again, the entire process takes around 10-15 minutes typically. It can take longer than that, depending on a variety of factors but it generally won't.

Once the installation is complete, the next step is displayed on-screen. Users need to remove the recovery media drive, whether that's the USB flash stick or the SD card. Once again, Chrome OS will recognize the media has been removed and the entire system should restart. After the Chrome OS gadget has rebooted, it should start up just like a fresh-out-of-the-box Chromebook.

Now, that does mean that users will need to log-in and re-download any files or folders they had backed up prior to the reinstall. That's if the Chromebook had already been in use or if the user is coming over from another Chrome OS gadget. But as long as Chrome is being synced, it should automatically re-apply just about every setting. It should also download just about every app that's already been installed before.

So there really shouldn't be much more effort required than that.

If this Chrome OS recovery/reinstall guide doesn't work…

Errors during recovery with Chrome OS are not likely but also not uncommon. There are effectively two scenarios under which that could happen. The first is if users have any accessories are attached to the Chromebook being recovered during the process. If there are any external keyboards, hard drives, or other accessories hooked up — including SD cards that aren't the recovery media — the process will fail.

In that case, the accessories will need to be unplugged and then the recovery steps will need to be followed again.

The second likely scenario comes down to the recovery media or the device storing that. Namely, that's the SD card or flash drive in question. Some brands and models of those storage devices simply aren't going to work here and that's a somewhat random list. In fact, Google doesn't provide a recommended list at all either of the devices that work best or of those that don't.

If errors occur, users will need to start from creating the recovery media again. But recurring errors will most likely require users to install the media with a different SD card or flash drive.

Finally, if recovery is blocked by a "The security module on this device is not working" message, users will need to contact the Google Support team for assistance with recovery.