Last week in Las Vegas while at CES, I spoke with Kan Liu, Director of Product Management for Google's Chrome OS. In a wide-ranging discussion about the Chrome platform and ecosystem, Liu dropped something of a bombshell on me: the Chrome team is working—very possibly in cooperation with Valve—to bring Steam to Chromebooks.
Liu declined to provide a timeline for the project, but did confirm it would be enabled by Chrome OS's Linux compatibility. The Steam client would, presumably, run inside Linux on Chrome—a platform for which it is already available. Liu implied, though would not directly confirm, that Google was working in direct cooperation with Valve on this project. Valve's motive here is largely in being the first major gaming storefront on a platform that, to date, has had no compatibility with mainstream PC or console releases. Valve also seems like a good fit, as the company has no particular loyalty to any one platform, and is increasingly facing competition from players like Epic and Microsoft on its most popular OS, Windows. Currently, it is possible to install the Steam Linux client on Chrome OS using the Crostini Linux compatibility layer, but there's no official support, and performance has been pretty lamentable even when comparing identical Linux-native systems to Chrome. Even getting games running in a remotely playable way is kind of a nightmare.
Currently, most Chromebooks have extremely limited 3D acceleration performance.
The next question, of course, is just what sorts of games would even be worth playing on a Chromebook when run directly on local hardware. Currently, most Chromebooks have extremely limited 3D acceleration performance, with only the most recent devices like Samsung's Galaxy Chromebook possessing vaguely passable GPUs. Liu said we could expect that to change: more powerful Chromebooks, especially AMD Chromebooks, are coming. Liu would not explicitly confirm that any of these models would contain discrete Radeon graphics, but told us to stay tuned.
With local storage on Chromebooks growing with each passing generation, and more and more powerful Chromebooks being released with each year, I think it's fair to say that we're nearing a point where at least a good number of casual, less visually-intensive PC titles (or simply older games) could feasibly be played on Chrome OS. Liu says that gaming is the single most popular category of downloads for Play Store content on Chromebooks, so it would logically follow that adding support for Steam on Chrome could be deeply attractive to the audience already playing games on the platform, even if that would mean practical limitations on the titles available.
This is probably the most exciting news about Chrome OS I've heard in a long, long time.
As for whether we could expect Nvidia (or Qualcomm) GPUs on Chromebooks any time soon, Liu wouldn't budge, saying only that Google had nothing to announce at this time. Additionally, details on how Google would surmount obstacles that might come up regarding performance and compatibility for games inside Crostini were not provided. It was equally unclear how much work, if any, Google would have to undertake with individual game developers to ensure that compatibility and often critical performance optimizations. Liu seemed confident, however, that the project was feasible, especially given the increasingly cross-platform nature of games and the middleware enabling them (like Vulkan).
So, when can you expect a gaming Chromebook? That's probably going to be a tough sell to laptop OEMs for a good, long while. It could be years before this project reaches fruition for all I know, or it could just fizzle out and never happen at all. One thing's for sure, though: this is probably the most exciting news about Chrome OS I've heard in a long, long time.
Google was twice given advance notice of this story and did not comment prior to publication.