In a perfect world, computers would require zero setup and always work. Chromebooks come close. For example, with my HP Chromebook 11, a cold boot takes less than a minute. In that short amount of time, the system starts, I login, and work can begin. Resume-from-sleep takes just a few seconds.

But Chromebooks can fail.

One day, you might press the power button and see a “Chrome OS is missing or damaged” message (Figure A). When you see this message, the system is in recovery mode. You can’t use your device until you restore the system.

Figure A

In recovery mode, insert a USB memory stick with your previously stored recovery image.

Fortunately, the Chromebook system recovery process is simple. When you see the error message, follow these steps:

  1. Insert the USB memory stick with your recovery image
  2. Wait a few minutes for the restore process to complete
  3. Remove the USB memory stick when prompted

The system should boot into the initial Chromebook setup sequence. If it doesn’t, you likely have a hardware failure to diagnose.

You can also force your Chromebook into recovery mode. This is handy to test your USB recovery image, or to restore Chrome OS on your device after experimenting with Linux installations on your Chromebook.

WARNING: Don’t do the following unless you have a USB recovery stick prepared for your system.

To put a Chrome device into recovery mode, either press a “reset” button or hold the following three keys simultaneously: [Esc]+[F3]+[Power button]. Typically, early model Chromebooks have a physical button, while more recent Chromebooks support the key combination.

Create a USB recovery image

You need a USB memory stick (or SD card) with at least 4 GB of memory to create a Chromebook recovery image (Figure B).

Figure B

Create a Chrome OS recovery image with any USB memory stick with 4 GB (or more) of storage.

Here’s how to create a USB recovery image:

  1. When ready, enter the following in Chrome’s omnibox (where you normally type URLs):
  2. Insert your USB memory stick. The system will detect it and then notify you that all files on the memory stick will be erased. Select OK to continue (Figure C).
  3. Wait several minutes. You’ll see a series of prompts as the system downloads, extracts, and copies the recovery image.
  4. Remove the stick when prompted.

You now have a USB memory stick with a recovery image for your Chromebook.

Figure C

Wait for the system to download, extract, and copy the recovery image.

Tips for system administrators

Recovery images are unique to each Chromebook make and model. A recovery image made for one HP Chromebook 11 will work on another HP Chromebook 11, but not on a Dell Chromebook 11. You should make at least one recovery image for each make and model of Chromebook you manage.

Label — or otherwise identify — your USB memory sticks by system. I like to use USB memory sticks with colors. I keep the USB memory sticks in an envelope and write the system and color on the envelope: e.g., blue – HP Chromebook 11, red – Samsung Series 3. (Lately, I’ve used the Verbatim clip-and-go 4 GB memory sticks, because they’re small and easy to store).

Be prepared

For mass deployments, Chromebook recovery images are not critical in the same way they might be with legacy laptops. If a Chromebook fails, just hand the person a new device and have them login. They can get back to work quickly.

I’ve been fortunate, because I’ve only used a Chromebook recovery image when testing or after experimenting with Linux installations on Chrome devices. Otherwise, I’ve never encountered a Chrome OS failure that required a restore. However, I’m prepared in case I do.

If you’ve managed Chromebook deployments, what tips do you have for creating recovery images? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.