Steam on a Chromebook works better than I expected

Don't count on playing new AAA titles, though.

Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

For about as long as Chrome OS has existed, gaming has been one of its most notable Achilles' heels. Most Chromebooks have lower-power hardware, and the OS is built on web technology, so playing AAA titles found on Windows has simply not been an option. The rise of cloud-based gaming services like Google's own Stadia have helped the situation, but perhaps the biggest advance in Chromebook gaming came in late March, when Google announced that Valve's Steam platform was in an early alpha phase on Chrome OS. Just as you can on Windows, Mac and Linux, this lets you download and install games from the vast Steam catalog. As a Chromebook fan who also loves a good game, I had to give this a shot.

So Google provided me with one of the seven Chromebooks that can run Steam, an ASUS Chromebook CX9 with Intel's 11th-generation Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage space. These are hefty specs for a Chromebook, but Google specified that Steam required a device with at least a Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. While Steam may eventually work with lower-powered devices, it's clear that many Chromebooks simply won't be able to cut it. But if you do have the right hardware, the Steam experience is pretty good, so long as you keep your expectations in check.

I didn’t have any problems getting Steam installed, but it’s a lot more complicated than setting it up on a Windows computer. You'll need to switch your Chromebook to the Dev channel, so don't do this on a machine you rely on for daily use. After that, you'll need to enable a specific flag in Chrome and type a few commands into the Chrome OS Crosh terminal. Once that's done, Steam will download to your machine, at which point you can login and start downloading games.

Right off the bat, any game that is supported in Steam for Linux can be installed without any compatibility issues. As I'm a massive Half-Life fan, the first two games I tried out were Valve's own Half-Life 2 and Portal 2 — two old games that don't require powerful hardware. Both, unsurprisingly, played like a charm. There were rare frame rate drops, but the experience felt identical to playing them on Windows or on a Mac.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I decided to get crazy and install 2018's God of War, originally released for the PS4 and ported to Windows in January of this year. It was a totally unplayable slideshow. That's no surprise, though, as God of War calls for either NVIDIA's GTX 960 or AMD's R9 290X graphics cards with 4GB of memory. The Chromebook's integrated Intel Iris X graphics aren't in the same league. This is no real knock on the Chromebook, though, because a Windows machine with the same specs wouldn't be able to run God of War, either. I was mostly surprised that I was able to install it at all.

To install games like God of War, or any other titles that don’t have a native Linux version, you’ll need to turn on the experimental Steam Play compatibility tools. Once I did that, though, I could install just about any game I came across. Obviously, demanding games like God of War aren't going to work, but there are still tons of titles in the Steam library that are worth checking out. Both Hades and Cuphead ran flawlessly, and Fallout 4 worked pretty well too. It wasn’t as smooth as the other games I tried, but the first few hours were definitely playable.

The main catch is that the first time you run games using compatibility tools, they’re extremely slow to load. Steam has to "process Vulkan shaders" for a lot of titles, and this can take five to ten minutes or more on some games (like Fallout 4). Fortunately, this only happens the first time you launch a particular title.

Most of the games I tried were from Google's own list of recommended titles that had been tested on Chrome OS, and those experiences were almost all solid. The one game my Chromebook couldn't quite keep up with was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Google recommended playing that one with graphics on low, and said that only Chromebooks with an i7 processor would work. Even then, frame rates and control responsiveness was poor enough that I didn't want to play after a few minutes.

While Google and Valve will certainly improve the Steam experience from this early alpha, it's fair to say that Chrome OS will never be the place to play cutting-edge games. Chromebooks just aren't built with that kind of hardware.

But, Steam's library is vast, and there are thousands of titles across any genre that you can think of. Bringing that catalog to Chrome OS is a huge step forward for those who love games but don't necessarily need to play Cyberpunk 2077 with settings on high. Whether it's for replaying older classics like Portal 2 or trying newer releases like Hades, Steam for Chrome OS vastly expands the gaming you can do on a Chromebook. And if you really want to play The Witcher 3 or God of War, a streaming service like NVIDIA's GeForce Now can plug the gap. So far, the alpha build of Steam for Chrome OS is promising, and I hope that Google and Valve can make it work on more Chromebooks before long.