The folks over at 9to5google have spotted something that seems very likely to indicate that Steam is soon going to be officially supported on ChromeOS based devices like Chromebooks. This isn’t a massive surprise, we’d heard from the ChromeOS team that this was something they were working on earlier this year, and now there’s some indication that this could be on the way sometime soon.
A project titled “Borealis” is underway for ChromeOS. This is a virtual machine within the Chrome operating system that is essentially a self-contained Ubuntu installation. On Chromebooks today, there already exists a similar function known as Crostini, which lets you install and use Linux software on supported machines. The big difference between Crostini and Borealis is that Crostini is based on the Debian Linux installation, whereas Borealis is based on Ubuntu. Borealis also includes Steam pre-installed, heavily indicating that at least one of the goals of Borealis is to bring Steam gaming to Chromebooks. Borealis is also quite probably a reference to the ship of the same name, that appeared in Valve’s Half-Life 2: Episode 2.
Valve has already been huge supporters of gaming on Linux, with over 7,000 native Linux games currently available on Steam, plus many more Windows games now playable on Linux via Valve’s Proton compatibility layer. Expanding this to include support on Chromebooks via a virtual machine implementation for Chromebooks is a natural next step of this process.
Chromebooks come in a variety of price points and spec configurations, but signs here are that support for Steam is going to come first to the latest Chromebooks featuring Intel 10th Generation processors. This would make sense as they’re likely to be more able to offer users a solid gaming experience than any lower end or older Chromebook devices.
It’s going to be curious to see if any attempt is made to add support for Steam on Chromebooks equipped with ARM-based processors. It’s hard to imagine a technique for running software intended for x86 processors on ARM-based devices, without any performance issues or incompatibilities, would be developed by either Google or Valve specifically for this task. Microsoft has struggled to get the square peg into that round hole for Windows 10 on ARM, and we’re yet to see how successful Apple’s attempt to do the same will work out with Rosetta 2 as they transition MacOS to the ARM architecture. If you’re in the market for a Chromebook, and Steam gaming would be a big deal for you, perhaps hold off to wait until we hear exactly what specification will be required and which devices will be supported.
I suspect one hurdle for some games would be the install size. Even if you’re got a powerful enough CPU and GPU paired with enough RAM to run a game, Chromebooks notoriously have very little local storage, instead prompting users to save files and documents to the cloud. That’s not really feasible for game installs. Maybe users will have to stick to games will a smaller footprint, or maybe there are Chromebooks with larger storage capacity on the horizon.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which Chromebooks are popular devices specifically for gaming, where people buy a Chromebook specifically for its gaming capabilities. It’s fairly easy, however, to imagine a world where people who are Chromebook users play a few games on the side. Chromebooks are not in general high-performance machines, and certainly, they’re not typically equipped with a particularly capable GPU. These are general-purpose machines, that suit a wide range of tasks. Giving Chromebooks a boost for gaming by adding support for Steam is a great way to expand the functionality of Chromebooks. I don’t think anyone would try to replace a beefy gaming desktop with a lightweight Chromebook, but for playing on journeys or when you’re on the go, this could be a fantastic development. Especially since you wouldn’t be required to buy any of your games again, but would instead be able to, in theory, bring your existing Steam library over to your Chromebook.
Would official support for Steam interest you in picking up a Chromebook? Are there any particular games that you’d love to play on a Chromebook? Let us know what you think of this news in the comments section below. Seems to me like this could be a fantastic partnership that will benefit Google, Valve, and their customers.