After years of rumors and early previews, Steam on Chromebooks is finally here. Over the past day, we’ve had a chance to play around with some of the games Steam has brought to the platform, and I’ve spent all night digging deep into the system. Overall, the experience was surprisingly good, as long as you come into the idea with certain expectations. And, if you want to try it yourself, it’s not that hard to install – just don’t do it on your “everyday driver”.
You see, today’s Chromebooks don’t come with discrete GPUs – like in the kinds of graphics cards that gamers salivate over from companies like Nvidia. While Chromebooks with dedicated GPU hardware might be on the horizon, for now we’re limited to integrated graphics built into Chromebook processors. In fact, it’s Intel-only for now, with only a few 11th Gen Intel chip models with Iris Xe-equipped graphics supported. Despite the performance penalties that come with setups like these, I can say that I played very well on an Intel Core i5 Chromebook (the Acer Spin 713-3W). The key part here is the integrated graphics.
If we look at the full name of the Intel processor of my Acer, it’s an “i5-1135G7.” That “G7” at the end is the most important part. There are three levels of integrated graphics ranging from worst to best: G1, G4, and G7. It’s safe to assume that if you see a “G7” at the end of your processor’s name, you Probably get Steam support sooner or later, though it may vary.
All of this ultimately serves to caution that while gaming on Steam works, the experience here is still like gaming on an integrated GPU and won’t compete with the chunky gaming PC you might have at home or even your console (again). We also have numbers to back that up.
Landmarks and anecdotes
Due to the restricted nature of the Borealis virtual machine it runs in, we were unable to install any third-party benchmarking tool, and I did not have access to titles that include benchmarking modes integrated comparison. Instead, I’ve relied on the FPS counter provided by the Steam interface in a handful of titles. That means there’s inevitably going to be a decent margin of error, but these numbers will at least give you a pretty real-world idea of what to expect when it comes to gaming on a Chromebook – or, at least, on my Acer Spin 713-3W.
Take these numbers with a grain of salt until we have more detailed benchmarks.
The resolution used for my Chromebook is comparable, though higher, to 1080p due to its higher aspect ratio. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Portal are native Linux games. Everything else was a Windows game running through a Steam Play compatibility layer called Proton. For our tests, we selected Proton Experimental. It may be more buggy compared to the stable version of Proton, but it may also offer better performance and better game compatibility.
One thing the numbers don’t fully capture is the feel Gaming. Most titles will be slow at first, and there’s actually a good reason for that. The Vulkan graphics that Proton relies on creates a shader cache to make games run smoother. This cache is slowly compiled through preprocessing before launching a game, as well as through gameplay. Ultimately, this all means you have to play a game to at least a few minutes before the slowdowns caused by the generation of this cache resolution. This is not a dealbreaker but definitely a pain point to be aware of.
All of our numbers were measured after the game felt “smooth enough” – there’s no hard and fast line as to when shader cache generation is complete, but you can sometimes feel it. Even then, it’s obvious that the frame rates fluctuate quite a bit. In Counter-Strike’s case, it would run at 130 FPS one second, then 25 FPS once I rounded the corner. It could always be partly caused by shader cache compilation (perhaps for environment or lighting changes) and might resolve over time. We’ll just need more time to see.
Then we have more relatively demanding games like Skyrim. Is it playable? Not exactly. It was one of the few games I tried that automatically selected a lower resolution and visual settings – 1200p and “low”. And, as the numbers suggest, it was probably right to do so. Frame rates ranged from “I can suffer from it” to frustrating.
In fact, auto-detected settings were ubiquitous, with some games opting for native 2K resolution and “high” fidelity options that weren’t justified given the hardware specs – but that’s more up to the games developers themselves than from Valve or Google. Still, if you plan to play around with this feature, be sure to manually configure the visual quality settings yourself and start low rather than high.
How to try it
Currently, the feature only works on seven Tiger Lake-based “volteer” Chromebook models:
- Acer Chromebook 514 (CB514-1W)
- Acer Chromebook 515 (CB515-1W)
- Acer Chromebook Spin 713 (CP713-3W)
- ASUS Chromebook Flip CX5 (CX5500)
- ASUS Chromebook CX9 (CX9400)
- HP Chromebook Pro c640 G2
- Lenovo 5i-14 Chromebook
I don’t recommend it to everyone, given the other bugs you might encounter, but you can hop on the Dev channel today to try out the new feature. It’s not a difficult process, but it’s a bit technical:
- Switch to Dev channel builds on your Chromebook.
- Navigate to chrome://flags#borealis-enabled and set it to “enabled”.
- Restart, open a terminal (ctrl+alt+T).
- Type “insert_coin volteer-JOlkth573FBLGa” without quotes and press Enter.
- Follow the installation process, which installs Steam on your Chromebook.
From there, you can launch Steam and start installing games. Note that not all games may be compatible with this one and you may encounter errors. Google has a list of well-functioning games you can start with.
There are currently many known issues with Steam on Chromebooks. There are issues with external displays, scaling across different screen resolutions, and devices with too much RAM can crash. I haven’t had any issues with the show stopping in the short time I’ve been with it, but you can do it. If you choose to hop over to the Dev channel to try it out, most of your favorite back-catalog Steam games will likely work (with a few tweaks), but newer titles might struggle. As an alpha, this is all to be expected, though.
Expect a more in-depth hands-on next, as we also delve into the technical details behind exactly how it all works – and how you might be able to create additional frames. But Borealis is finally delivering on its long-awaited promise of Steam support for Chromebooks. We just can’t wait for it to expand to more devices and come out of alpha as the issues are ironed out.
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