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Steam for Chrome OS would make Chromeboxes even more awesome

ASUS Chromebox
ASUS Chromebox (Image credit: Android Central)

Once upon a time, there was this small-form-factor PC you could buy called a SteamBox. It was designed to hook up to your television and give you access to the almost 40,000 games at Valve's Steam storefront.

I bought a SteamBox. It worked surprisingly well until I bricked it trying to install Windows 7.

After several reinventions and a revolving door of partners, the only way to find a SteamBox today is looking for a very overpriced used model on eBay or Amazon. It was a shame, really, because the idea was a good one — an inexpensive way to get Steam into your living room. All Valve needed was a partner with deep pockets and that wasn't afraid to keep dipping into them.

Hello there, Google.

That's the first thing I thought of when it was revealed that Google might be trying to work with Valve to build a native Chrome OS Steam client. You can install Steam on almost any Chrome OS device right now if you care to enable Linux apps, but the experience is really bad. And Google has already shown that it is working on things that can make that experience so much better.

All about the hardware

There are a lot of Chromebooks and Chromeboxes and Chromebits and what-nots out in the wild, but almost all of them are lower spec cheaper models. You can install Steam on most of those, too, but the experience is even worse than it is on something more powerful. That's what Google needs to make better.

More: Installing Linux applications on your Chromebook is easier than you think

You do that by enabling hardware acceleration while running Linux applications. Google is already working on this, because it really wants GPU acceleration and an Android Virtual Machine that's worth a damn to run in the Linux version of Android Studio on Chrome.

Google needs to get hardware acceleration working in Linux apps for Chrome if it wants developers to actually use it.

Once that happens, better GPUs need to appear that don't drive the price up too much. Someone would probably spend an extra $50-$75 on a Chromebook if it could better play Steam games, but only the dedicated (or foolhardy?) are willing to spend $1,000 or more on a Chromebook. That's happening, too, thanks to a collaboration with AMD.

The AMD APU (Application Processing Unit) isn't that different from Intel's CPU (Central Processing Unit) but it does sacrifice a bit of computing power in exchange for better graphics performance. But only if it's supported.

The Radeon R4 isn't a barn-burning GPU, but it's a lot better than no GPU at all.

It's supported when using Chrome OS natively and you can buy a Chromebook with an AMD A-series APU and Radeon R4 graphics right now from Acer (opens in new tab).

With a little help from Valve — who would love to find more ways to get Steam into more products — it's not hard to see a version of Steam you can download and install on your Chromebook or Chromebox without enabling anything extra. With support for decent GPU acceleration, most of Steam's Linux games would be at least playable if not great. Great requires work from the actual game developers, as we have seen from Stadia.

Speaking of Stadia...

What about that whole cloud gaming thing?

Stadia Announcement

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Steam is like the total opposite of Google Stadia.

Google is a cloud company and wants nothing more than for you to store all your data in its cloud where it can anonymize and analyze it to death. Nerds gonna nerd — especially when it makes billions of dollars. But what's wrong with doing two things at once?

Steam is what Stadia would be if we were in Bizarro World.

Google and Valve working together could data-mine so much more than Google can alone through Stadia. Users who want to download a copy of a game they have bought could do so through Steam. ISP's who limit your monthly data because they are greedy/evil/both (I'm looking at you, Comcast) aren't a problem if you're not streaming your games and eating it all up the first week of the month.

More: Can I play Stadia on my Chromebook?

Putting Steam games on Chromebooks and Chromeboxes means everyone wins, most of all Google and Valve, which means that both have the incentive to do it.

Maybe I'm wondering aloud or having a flashback that's making me think all looney. But maybe I'm right, too. If anything at all happens that makes it easier for me to play AAA games on the laptop I already love or a cheap console without a Sony or Microsoft label on the back, I'm all for it.

If it half works, I'm happy. If it lets me stream Skyrim, look out, Twitch.

Make it so I can play Skyrim on a Chromebox and I'll live stream it all day, every day, and become one of those famous Twitch streamers who make lots of money to spend on buying more games.

What? A man can dream.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

5 Comments
  • I am not a gamer, however, Google has to do something to get Chromebooks in the hands of folks that buy higher end computing. Android apps on Chromebooks is a disaster.
  • Until Manifest v3 that is.
  • I wish I could build my own official Chromebox.
  • You can build something with Chrome OS from something like Intel NUC (or anything else) by making your own package and sideloading it. Google for "Project Croissant" or "Chromefy", you'll find how to do it.
  • Yeah, I disagree here. Remember the original thing was by Marc Andreeson at Sun back in the day: cloud computing using cheap hardware and a simple UI to make computing more accessible from a financial and technical standpoint. The idea failed. Sun blamed Microsoft's monopoly but the reality was the lack of high speed Internet and cloud applications. Because Google and Sun were buddies back in the day - and had a common enemy in Microsoft - Google tried again with ChromeOS. That failed too because - when Google launched ChromeOS in 2011 - high speed reliable Internet still wasn't available outside most major cities (and was extremely expensive where it was available) and there still wasn't a suite of cloud applications beyond Google Docs. Google dropped the ball by refusing to develop any themselves, hoping that third party developers would fill in the gap. They might have ... had the iPhone and iPad come along and sucked up all the developers. Eventually Google found a niche - cheap devices for public schools plus something for those of us totally invested in the Google ecosystem - but that was it. Ironically, it is only public schools who uses Chrome OS as it was intended: as a cloud/web computing platform. The rest of us basically use it as a hybrid iPad/Windows replacement device - call it a Google Surface I guess - and Google essentially threw up its hands and accommodated us by first allowing real onboard storage options, increasing the local processing power plus adding Android apps and finally making Linux support official. Adding Steam support is dumb. First off, Google could have worked with Steam to get support on better Android devices - including, gasp! Android TV ones as well as (Samsung and Nexus/Pixel and I guess better Motorola/LG too) phones and tablets that have had screen mirroring and HDMI out for ages - to their mutual benefit ages ago. Now gaming has changed (Fortnite + Nintendo Switch ... a concept Switch type device that can run Steam and Epic games was at CES plus new PS and XBox consoles with increased cloud capability are on the horizon) and this is too little too late. Second, the only reason why you were able to run ChromeOS on cheap hardware was because it was supposed to be a thin client for applications and data that relied in the cloud. But if you are going to run Steam or anything else natively on ChromeOS it is going to need the same requirements - RAM, CPU, GPU, storage - as a Windows, Linux or Mac device and therefore is going to cost the same. Not to mention that it would undercut Stadia, which is exactly the sort of cloud application that ChromeOS was built for that Google never provided. So ... why bother? Look, Chrome OS is a failure. Google has spent 9 years propping it up at the expense of its far more successful Android platform - especially Android TV and Android tablets which compete directly with Chromecast and Chrome OS - and what has it gotten them? I guess there is value in keeping it around for the education market - the enterprise not so much as barely no one bought the Chrome based enterprise devices, the original intent of Chromeboxes were videoconferencing devices and the Chromebit that no one even talks about anymore was supposed to be a kiosk device - but otherwise just pull the plug. Google should A. come out with their own full blown commercial Linux distro that has a community distro like Ubuntu or Debian at is core for compatibility but has Google's proprietary libraries on top of it so they will have a PC operating system that is as capable as Mac OS and Windows except one that people will actually like (as opposed to Windows) and where the hardware won't cost double its worth (like macOS) or better yet B. quit dawdling and just come out with Fuscia OS as their multi-platform operating system for IoT, mobile, PC and perhaps even servers if you can run node.js, Java and Python on it. Let me just say it ... you'd be nuts to buy a Chromebox for Steam. You can build your own Ubuntu-based Steam machine that will perform fine at 1080p graphics including an Nvidia or AMD graphics card for basically half the price of a Pixelbook. Or you can buy a Windows equivalent of that Ubuntu Steam box from Asus or Acer for 70% of what a Pixelbook costs. Also, what is going to happen when Google announces offical Steam support? People are going to think that the same $250 laptop that they can get on sale is going to be able to play Destiny 2 or Monster Hunter World. When they find out that the 4 GB of RAM and Celeron or MediaTek processor that doesn't even have an integrated GPU won't even be able to play the $4.99 titles on Steam that are either essentially mobile games or are 15 years old and were originally created for 32 bit Windows XP devices they won't be happy and it will just make the Google ecosystem look worse. Bottom line: it is a terrible idea.