Steam gaming could be a game-changer, once Chromebook hardware catches up

someone holding an xbox controller in front of a laptop
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Arto Tahvanainen)

In 2022, I was exposed to the concept of a gaming Chromebook, which immediately piqued my interest. When you think of a Chromebook, reliable, affordable, and portable come to mind, but certainly not a ‘gaming machine'. And that concept had naturally been met with suspicion and even outright derision from my peers.

However, after test driving the Acer Chromebook 516 GE in early 2023, I was mostly convinced that this was a worthwhile sub-category of Chromebook thanks to its excellent display and battery life (especially compared to even some of the best gaming laptops), as well as a level of portability that easily matched the best thin and light gaming laptops. I was hungry for more but for nearly a year, there was very little news concerning any more gaming Chromebooks, including on the Steam Borealis that would open up native gaming to Chrome OS.

Imagine my surprise when Google announced the Chromebook Plus line of laptops, which not only standardized specs including a 1080p resolution display and a certain level of CPU and GPU, but also fully supported Steam Borealis. Even taking the Acer Chromebook Plus 515 for a spin, which is technically not a gaming Chromebook (though a Google rep assured me that the tech giant is working on more in that sub-genre), it performed quite well with smooth gameplay and the lovely display and audio system enhancing the visuals and sound even more.

GeForce Now

(Image credit: Nvidia)

Nvidia GeForce Now continues to be king

I’ve said this repeatedly when it comes to gaming with a non-gaming machine, but the best way to do so is with a subscription streaming service like Nvidia GeForce Now. Subscribing to the highest tier, Ultimate, nets you gaming performance comparable to using an RTX 4080 graphics card.

And when I tell you that gaming performance is stellar no matter what you use, I truly mean it. For instance, when playing Baldur’s Gate 3 on the Acer Chromebook Plus 515, my framerate is locked in at 60fps with a stable internet connection. It doesn’t even have to be particularly great, as long as it holds a good enough connection to play a fighting game online, then it’s more than adequate for GeForce Now. 

And this goes for any of the best PC games out there including AAA titles like Cyberpunk 2077, Starfield, Far Cry 6, and even competitive titles like Fortnite, League of Legends, Apex Legends, and more. And the list grows every week, so there’s a good chance that even if your game of choice isn’t on there yet you’ll see it soon. 

Steam logo

(Image credit: Valve)

Steam Borealis has potential

When I reviewed the Chromebook 516 GE, Chrome OS didn’t have Steam compatibility which was a downer as it did put a kibosh on the whole ‘gaming Chromebook’ shtick. But since then, Google has been hard at work developing its Steam Borealis app, which allows for native gaming on any Chromebook as long as it fits a certain specs level. Switching my Chromebook OS to the beta channel, and then downloading Steam through Chrome Shell was much simpler than I previously thought. Through this method, I can access and download any title from my Steam library, as long as the Chromebook has the space.

The first title out was fittingly Minecraft and naturally, it played incredibly smoothly. Same for another favorite indie title of mine, World of Horror. But there are more demanding titles available for Steam Borealis, so how do those stack up? I was able to download Dirt 5 perfectly and attempted to play but, unfortunately, that and other very GPU-heavy games like Cyberpunk 2077 aren’t compatible with most Chromebooks – including the current Plus lineup – due to not having gaming GPUs. 

However, I was able to test out both the first of the reboot Tomb Raider titles, as well as Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The former at Normal settings (essentially Medium) managed to maintain 30fps on average, which is quite impressive considering that the CPU was almost entirely supporting it. The latter struggled quite a bit more, even crashing before it could run a benchmark despite it being on the Lowest graphics settings. But when it ran properly, it was able to run at around 14fps.

A Google Chromebook on a grey background

(Image credit: Future)

Final thoughts

Naturally, Nvidia GeForce Now runs smoothly on any Chromebook that has solid internet speeds and connectivity available. Any title runs at 60fps locked, including AAA games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Baldur’s Gate 3. If you’re gaming on a Chromebook then you’ll want to use this streaming service, as it offers the best and most consistent performance.

I’m more impressed with how Steam Borealis ran games natively. It's able to handle low-end titles with ease and even more demanding games at around 30fps without a dedicated GPU to handle them. It’s disappointing that some titles can't be played due to a lack of specs. But the rapidly improving Steam Borealis app does prove that once the Chromebook hardware improves, we could get some genuinely good performance on more advanced games.

I’m looking forward to how Google will continue to evolve the best Chromebooks into something great, as more competition against the best Windows laptops and even the burgeoning gaming scene on the best MacBooks and Macs can only make PC gaming even better.

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Allisa James
Computing Staff Writer

Named by the CTA as a CES 2023 Media Trailblazer, Allisa is a Computing Staff Writer who covers breaking news and rumors in the computing industry, as well as reviews, hands-on previews, featured articles, and the latest deals and trends. In her spare time you can find her chatting it up on her two podcasts, Megaten Marathon and Combo Chain, as well as playing any JRPGs she can get her hands on.