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Chrome OS preparing Steam gaming support, starting with 10th Gen Intel Chromebooks

Earlier this year, it was reported that Google was working to bring Steam to Chrome OS. We’ve now discovered how Chrome OS will run Steam and which Chromebooks will support it to start.

For over a year now, Chrome OS has had support for running Linux apps, a project also known as “Crostini.” Under the hood, Crostini runs an entire Linux distribution in a virtual machine, vaguely similar to a developer running an Android emulator on their desktop. (You can think of a Linux distribution as a complete operating system package, usually with its own unique flair.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been tracking a new project within the Chromium open-source code under the codename “Borealis.” Based on some of the related code changes, Borealis seems to also be related to virtual machines for Chrome OS.

Through a fair bit of digging, we were able to obtain a copy of Borealis, which turned out to be another full Linux distribution. Unlike Crostini, which is based on Debian, Borealis is based on Ubuntu, another popular variety of Linux. Just like the existing Linux apps support, we believe Borealis will integrate itself with Chrome OS rather than being a full desktop experience.

However, we found one key difference between Borealis and a normal installation of Ubuntu, as Borealis includes a pre-installed copy of Steam. This lines up with what we learned at CES 2020, when Kan Liu, Google’s director of product management for Chrome OS, shared that the upcoming Steam gaming support would be based on Linux.

Of course, this raises a number of questions, the simplest of these to answer is “Why switch to Ubuntu when Debian has been working fine?”

Valve, the developers of Steam, have been very proactive in making gaming on Linux a reality. Their largest contribution is the development of Proton, a “compatibility layer” that helps Steam on Linux run games that were originally built for Windows. While Proton is intended to work on all major varieties of Linux, Steam’s install instructions lay out that Ubuntu is their recommended variety of Linux for gamers.

For now, we’re not sure if Google plans for Chromebook owners to switch from their existing “Crostini” Linux installation over to “Borealis” or if the two are intended to coexist. The latter seems unlikely though, as it would needlessly use up additional storage space.

What we do know is where Chrome OS’s Steam support is likely to appear first. A recent code change found in the Chromium Gerrit shows that Google is internally testing this Steam support as “hatch-Borealis,” where “Hatch” is the base codename for Chromebooks with 10th Generation Intel processors. “Hatch”-based devices range from high-end machines like the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook to more affordable options like the Lenovo Flex 5.

Putting it all together, we already knew for certain, thanks to a Googler, that Chrome OS is getting ready for Steam, and therefore, gaming. From what we’ve now discovered, Google appears to be preparing to do this by replacing or supplementing Chrome OS’s existing support for Linux apps.

Once live, Chromebooks, starting with those with 10th Gen Intel processors, should be able to play real games. Thanks to Valve’s Proton, those Chromebooks should support games built for Linux as well as some Steam games that were only intended to work on Windows.

With high-end Chrome OS devices becoming more common and AMD Ryzen-based Chromebooks on the horizon, it’s abundantly clear that Google is about to take gaming seriously on Chrome OS.

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Avatar for Kyle Bradshaw Kyle Bradshaw

Kyle is an author and researcher for 9to5Google, with special interests in Made by Google products, Fuchsia, and Stadia.

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