Will somebody make me a Chromebook with a 'real' graphics card?

Acer Chromebook Spin 13
Acer Chromebook Spin 13 (Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

Not too long ago, I would have struggled to find a good reason to buy an uber-powerful Chromebook with oodles of RAM and a high-end notebook CPU inside. Chrome OS just doesn't need it because it was built from the ground up to work with machines that have very modest specs. That was Google's secret weapon — build really cheap laptops that worked well so it can have your attention on every screen. It worked.

Chromebooks started as affordable laptops for everyone but now come in beefier versions, too.

The inclusion of packaged Linux applications for Chrome has changed that. Now, if you're a developer who uses a Linux desktop to write, compile, and test code, a Chromebook is an excellent choice. You'll appreciate a model with a new-ish Intel CPU (opens in new tab) and 8 or even 16 GB of RAM when it comes to doing all that, and when you're not being productive, you have the same entertainment options through the web and Google Play that every Chromebook has. It's a pretty sweet setup. But there's still one piece of the puzzle missing that would make a Chromebook even better: a high-end GPU.

A good GPU does more than make games look pretty.

I'm going to remind myself to not assume two things, and realize that not everyone likes to play games on a computer and not everyone understands what a graphics adapter does. A high-end GPU is beneficial even when you're not playing games because it's chock full of processing cores that can be harnessed to do "other" computing. These cores are fast, and if they are on a fast bus, they may even be better at doing some operations that the "regular" CPU in a computer is. Software like Adobe Premiere needs a lot of processing power to encode HD video without producing any artifacts, and it was designed to use GPU cores to take much of the load for the low-level computing. Other software can do the same, and a good graphics adapter with fast compute cores can be used in a lot of ways that aren't related to playing games.

Of course, games need a good GPU, too. The more complicated and intense the action on the screen is, the better it will look when driven by a stand-alone (or discrete) GPU. There are plenty of laptops made for gaming or for VR that include a discrete GPU from the same companies you think of when it comes to desktop cards — NVIDIA and AMD. They are specially built to be better at power management and run cooler without giant fans or water-cooled blocks and can provide an easy to see and much loved the boost in performance. This market has become popular enough that manufacturers are now building CPU assemblies that you plug in via USB or Thunderbolt if your laptop was built without a discrete card and you want the extra power.

My reason for wanting a Chromebook with a discrete GPU can be summed up with one word: Steam.

Linux apps on Chrome mean there's now a good reason to want that extra power thanks to Steam. Steam has a native Linux client that installs without any trickery onto a Chromebook that can run Linux apps. Any games available on Steam — and there are a lot of them — that were built for Linux will install the same way they would on any other Linux PC, and everything is great until you click the button to start them up and see the sub-par performance that an on-die GPU from Intel offers.

I've used beastly Chromebooks from Lenovo, Acer, HP, and others working here at AC. Each and every one of them were great at both regular Chrome OS things as well as something like running Android Studio or another programming environment. But they all were equally mediocre when it came to running games from Steam that are even slightly demanding. I don't expect to run the latest AAA title at 60fps on a 4K display using a Chromebook. If that ever becomes a reality I'll be happy, but I'm not banking on it. But I would like to play some more casual titles from time to time using my favorite computer and not setting all the options to their lowest setting.

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.

  • Patience: They're coming. ;) https://www.aboutchromebooks.com/news/meet-zork-a-chromebook-reference-b...
  • I wish the AMD chips weren't BGA. I still find it hard to purchase a laptop without having a CPU upgrade possibility.
  • Regardless of whether the processor is made by AMD or Intel, you can't upgrade the CPU in a Chromebook. All of the motherboards / CPUs / etc.... are configured and tested for specific Chrome OS software builds by Google and then certified. Put another way: The lack of CPU upgradability in a Chromebook shouldn't stop you from buying a particular Chromebook because none of them are CPU upgradable.
  • While we are at it, lets upgrade the rest of the chromebook. Or not.. What is the point of buying a Chromebook with more expensive parts if you can just buy a laptop? Its like taking an xbox one and being upset that it doesnt have pc functionality then spending hundreds of dollars extra to add functionality that is already built into a PC. Not worth the effort. Chrome was never meant for what you are trying to do with it. Use it for what it is meant for, a cheap wanna-be semifunctional laptop that is useful for surfing and a few apps.
  • Hans, thank you!! People are all the time are just wanting to monkey around with stuff that is fine just the way it is. If you want a hardware upgrade, go get a Windows machine!!
  • Because you can get an inexpensive Chromebook that runs desktop Linux really well and not pay the Windows tax.
  • What Windows Tax? The price increase for Windows is ignorable. Just buy the machine and replace the OS. Stop peddling FUD...
  • Doesn't that defeat the purpose of Chromebooks?
  • The prices of high-end Chromebooks are pretty ridiculous already for what you get, IMO. At the point you're at, why not just grab a good laptop? If anything, I'd love to see Chromebooks getting more Android-centric, with features such as expandable internal storage via SD cards.
  • Agreed, the prices of Chromebooks with Intel i chips are stupid. $700 to $1300 for what is normally a $450 Windows laptop is just a scam.
  • Dude Linux only supports GPU acceleration in a few chromebooks and you have to enable it each time. There isn't even sound yet. Maybe wait for the Linux support to develop so it can actually use the hardware already present before making any judgement calls.
  • Took the words right out of my mouth.
  • What Chromebooks really need is better Android app support....More specifically, Android App developers need to design their apps so that they scale properly on a Chromebook as well as work better using a track pad.
  • They scale fine though? I have not noticed any issue. There's a reason almost all chromebooks have touch screens these days.
  • That criticism is quite a bit off topic, but I'll bite anyway. Yes, Android apps are built to be manipulated with a finger or a stylus. When it comes to instead using a mouse or trackpad, there's still a significant usability gap that's much more noticeable with some Android apps than others. But Android apps seem to be just a little bit more at home with every Chrome OS update. For those of us who aren't Linux fanatics, it makes us slightly uncomfortable to see so much attention diverted into Linux when there's still quite a bit of room for improvement in the behavior of Android apps on Chrome OS. Still, we understand the crucial importance of the Linux piece and try to play the long game.
  • The past couple of weeks, I busted out a Chromebook for the first time in a couple of years and among other things tested out for the first time Android app compatibility. Of the Android apps that I like to use the most only ONE of them scaled properly on a Chromebook. Of the handful of Android apps that are my goto on my phone, TWO OF THEM don't even work on a Chromebook. I applaud Googles efforts in this area, however, like just about every other computing effort "to kill two birds with one stone" at this point for me the jury is still out on Android Apps on Chromebooks. I do think Chromebooks have their place -- Sub $300 Chromebooks that is (perhaps $400). Otherwise give me a $600 on sale Intel 5, Windows 10 laptop with a SSD and backlit keyboard. I will continue to recommend Chromebook to my friends and families for what they are -- a lockdowned large screen web browser with a proper keyboard and trackpad/mouse support.
  • Stadia + gaming Chromebook.
  • I'm waiting for a Chromebook with LTE and a backlit keyboard on AT&T.
  • Ryzen Chromebooks. Make them now.