Gaming Chromebooks coming? First Chromebook with discrete AMD GPU spotted

Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 review
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Chromebooks have long been popular among students, teachers, and parents because they're usually durable, budget-friendly, competent laptops — especially when connected to a reliable high-speed Internet connection.

Productivity aside, Chromebooks have seldom been effective gaming machines. That could soon change, as Chrome Unboxed claims to have spotted a Chromium OS build configuration for a Chromebook (codenamed "Mushu") sporting a discrete AMD GPU. While not verified, this could be a big deal because it would be the first Chromebook ever released with a discrete GPU, and thus the first Chromebook with enough rendering power to run graphically-demanding PC games.

But wait, you exclaim — how could a Chromebook play the latest and greatest PC games while running the Linux-based Chrome OS, which (unless you execute some onerous workarounds) limits you to playing games off the Google Play Store?

The answer is that it couldn't, unless a company like Epic or Valve worked with Google to make PC game storefronts like the Epic Games Store and Steam accessible on Chrome OS. And according to a 2020 report from Android Police, Google has been working with Valve to do just that. While interviewing Google exec Kan Liu at CES 2020, the team at Android Police got him to confirm that the Chrome OS team was working to bring Valve's Steam client to Chromebooks, possibly with Valve's help.

Now that eagle-eyed Chromium watchers have spotted build configurations for a Chromebook with a discrete AMD GPU, Liu's comments make a lot more sense. While the current crop of premium Chromebooks (like the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2, pictured above) are capable of running many browser-based and Google Play games decently, thanks to the ever-increasing power of integrated graphics chipsets in modern Intel and AMD CPUs, getting them to run modern 3D games is a dicey proposition. And that's after you sort out the potential pitfalls of getting games running on Chrome OS using vectors like Steam for Linux or the Steam Link Android app.

However, that could all change if Google makes a concerted push to improve the state of PC gaming on Chromebooks. And it looks like that could happen as soon as this year, as the Chrome Unboxed team has been keeping tabs on a Chrome OS app branded Borealis that appears to allow Steam to run in a container on Chromebooks. Plus, they've noticed Chromium code comments that suggest Google is working on a "Game Mode" for Chromebooks that kicks in when players start running Borealis in full-screen mode. 

Of course, we have to wait and see how well any of these projects pan out before we start hailing Chrome OS as the next big thing in budget PC gaming. But if this all comes to fruition, we could start seeing Chromebooks standing toe-to-toe with the best gaming laptops in the near future.

Alex Wawro
Senior Editor Computing

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.