Chromebooks could soon get Steam support — and MacBooks should be worried

Best Chromebooks:
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Back in January, it was reported that plans were afoot for Chromebooks to get an almighty gaming shot in the arm. ChromeOS users would no longer have to content themselves with Android titles: instead, limited support for Steam games was on the horizon. Now an investigation by Android Police suggests that plan is progressing nicely, and that the feature might not be too far off. 

As expected, it’s not something that should be oversold: games will be supported via a Linux virtual machine, which seriously impacts the quantity available. But while Chromebooks won’t rival even the cheapest Windows 10 gaming laptop in terms of variety, it’ll still prove a nice bonus for anyone who values the portability, battery life and responsiveness of Chrome OS.

So what has Android Police found? The site has been tracking the Chromium open-source code and has uncovered something codenamed “Borealis”. Borealis, it turns out, is a full Linux distribution based on Ubuntu. 

This may not sound like a big deal, given ChromeOS has had another Linux distribution — “Crostini” — included for over a year. But there’s one big difference: Borealis includes a pre-installed copy of Steam. Also, significantly, Valve’s Proton – a compatibility layer that helps Linux Steam run games originally built for Windows – recommends Ubuntu. Crostini, meanwhile, is a Debian build.   

Of course, not all Chromebooks are built equal, so performance is far from guaranteed. While Google makes high-end Pixelbook devices, the majority are cheap and cheerful laptops aimed at the education market. 

At the time of writing, Steam lists 2,007 games in its Linux section — not all of which will run nicely on meagre Chromebook hardware. But there are some low-spec options that ChromeOS users would no doubt love to try: Counter Strike, Hollow Knight and Stardew Valley to name but three. And while that number is only a fraction of the 24,000-plus Steam games compatible with Mac, this upgrade could make Chromebooks a slightly more viable competitor to the likes of the MacBook Air when it comes to gaming.

Chromebooks are big business, especially for students — a market that contains a whole lot of gamers. According to StatCounter, Linux represents just 1.84% of US OS installations, which isn’t a hugely significant slice of potential gamers — but that would more than double if it included the 2.75% of ChromeOS devices out there. Perhaps this will make developers work that bit harder to ensure their games perform well outside of Windows.

Then again, it’s probably not worth overstating things. The same stats show MacOS as holding 27.31% of the market, and while things have been getting better, nobody would seriously argue that the Mac’s native choice of gaming options is anywhere near as wide as that which PC owners enjoy.

Still, this is great news for Chromebook owners. The code gives no indication as to when this feature might be enabled for all, but hopefully we won’t have too long to wait.

Alan Martin

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.