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I just tried Steam on a Chromebook — here's how it works

Steam on Chromebook showing Skyrim running w/ Xbox gamepad nearby
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition running on an Acer Chromebook 515. (Image credit: Future)

After months and months of rumors, leaks and will-they/won't-they speculation, Google and Valve have at last brought Steam to Chrome OS. 

That means you can now play Steam games on Chromebooks, albeit only on a select handful of models and only when you switch them over to the Dev channel of Chrome. That's because Steam for Chrome OS is still in a very early alpha state, according to Google. 

How early, you ask? Very early, says Google in its Steam on Chrome OS guide, which outlines the steps involved and warns against trying Steam out on any Chromebook you can't afford to mess up.

"Alpha means anything can break. Due to the inherent instability of the Dev channel and the in-progress nature of this feature, we don’t recommend trying this on a Chromebook that you rely on for work, school, or other daily activities," Google warns. "You will encounter crashes, performance regressions, and never-before-seen bugs — that’s part of the fun!"

"Fun" is the watchword here, as if you own a Chromebook that can run Steam you can now take it for a spin as a PC gaming platform. While you've long been able to stream PC games to Chromebooks using services like Google Stadia, until now there hasn't been an easy way to install games directly to a Chromebook and play them directly off the device, no streaming required. 

That makes a lot of sense, as Chromebooks are defined by the expectation that they'll be regularly (if not continually) connected to the Internet. While Chrome OS has been evolving to offer users more useful tools for managing their Chromebooks in the absence of Internet access, they still lose most of their utility if you don't have a regular Internet connection.

Steam has finally arrived on Chromebooks  (Image credit: Future)

However, now that Steam is coming to Chrome OS you'll be able to at least play some games on your Chromebook the next time you're stuck somewhere without Wi-Fi. While the list of supported Chromebooks is still quite small — we include it below — we expect it to grow over time as Steam for Chrome OS inches closer to full release.

I spent some time yesterday (March 24) installing the Steam alpha on one of the supported Chromebooks, an Acer Chromebook 515 with a Core i5 CPU and 8GB of RAM. As I write this I'm downloading a few of the 48 games which Google suggests (based on internal testing) are best supported right now, including Hades and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition. I've already downloaded Disco Elysium and played a bit of it, and I can say it runs pretty well once you get past the long initialization process.

I'll also be trying out a selection of other games in the days ahead with an eye toward seeing how well this Chromebook performs as a gaming machine. While it probably won't compare to the best gaming laptops on the market, it may end up being a more viable Steam gaming machine than your average MacBook, given that many of the Steam games which now run (sort of) on Chrome OS don't run natively on Steam for Mac.

Steam on Chromebooks: System requirements

To run Steam, Google says a Chromebook must meet the following minimum system requirements:

  • 11th Gen Intel Core i5 - i7 CPU w/ Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics
  • 8GB of RAM

I suggest you also try to free up some hard drive space, as many Chromebooks don't come with much and Steam games regularly take up between 3GB to 15 GB of space.

Steam on Chromebooks: Supported models (as of March 25)

Here's the latest list of Chromebooks which Google has confirmed will support Steam for Chrome OS. Note that even if you have one of these listed Chromebooks, it may not be the right model: Google specifically says Chromebooks with a Core i3 CPU or 4GB of RAM will not run Steam. That's why you need a Chromebook with at least an Intel Core i5 chip (a Core i7 is even better) and more than 4GB of RAM. 

However, Google warns that Steam for Chrome currently has a number of issues which may prevent even a qualifying Chromebook from running games well — or at all. Notably, Steam for Chrome has trouble running games that require 6GB or more of RAM on Chromebooks with 8GB of RAM, and games sometimes have trouble scaling correctly on Chromebooks with display resolutions higher than 1080p. 

So if you were hoping to get in some 4K gaming on your Chromebook between classes, I'm afraid you'll have to hope a little longer. Google says its currently working on these issues and will be adding more supported models to the list over time, so we'll try to keep this list as up-to-date as possible. 

Steam on Chromebooks: How to install it

Getting Steam running on a Chromebook is a pretty quick process, but it's hardly simple during this alpha testing period. To pull it off you'll need to be comfortable changing your Chromebook system settings and enabling experimental features, which could have a negative impact on your system. So before you get started, make sure you've backed up any critical documents and files to another system.

All set? Let's inject a little Steam into your Chromebook. Here's how to install Steam on Chrome OS:

1. Switch your Chromebook over to the Chrome OS Dev channel. To do that, open your Settings menu (one way to do this is click the clock in the lower-righthand corner, then click the Settings gear icon at the top of the menu that pops up), navigate to the About Chrome OS tab in the left-side menu, click Additional details and then hit the Change channel button in the Channel menu. 

(Image credit: Future)

2. Restart your Chromebook.

3. Open a Chrome browser window and type chrome://flags into the navigation bar, then hit Enter. This will take you to Chrome's page of experimental features, which you can enable or disable at will. Use the search bar at the top to find and enable the #borealis-enabled flag, as that allows Borealis (the codename for Steam on Chrome OS) to run on your machine. 

Google also recommends you enable the #exo-pointer-lock flag, as that locks control of the mouse pointer to Linux apps (like games) which request it. However, you only need the Borealis flag enabled to run Steam.

(Image credit: Future)

4. Restart your Chromebook.

5. Open a crosh (short for Chrome Shell) terminal window by pressing Ctrl+Alt+T. When it appears, type insert_coin volteer-JOlkth573FBLGa exactly as written here, then press Enter.

6. Follow the prompts to download and install Steam on Chrome. Once it's finished, you can start downloading and installing games to see how/if they run on your Chromebook!

Note that Steam will try to run the Linux version of a game if it exists, so you'll want to enable Steam Play, which taps into Proton to try and run Linux games on non-Linux machines.

(Image credit: Future)

7. To enable Steam Play across all compatible titles, navigate to your Steam Settings menu, then open the Steam Play submenu. From there, make sure the "Enable Steam Play for all other titles" setting is switched on. You'll have your choice of which software to use, but Google recommends Proton Experimental. 

(Image credit: Future)

If everything went smoothly, you should be well on your way to playing Steam games on your Chromebook. Remember that it's still alpha software and prone to crashing, freezing or causing strange bugs, so stay on your toes!

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. He currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.