Steam on ChromeOS: “A win-win situation for both Google and Valve”?

ChromeOS

Following the recent release of our new podcast with Luke Short, please find the transcript below! You may not be familiar with him yet, but Luke Short is a former Red Hat employee and is currently employed at VMWare, specialized in cloud deployments (Kubernetes) – in his private time he happens to have a liking for Chromebooks and ChromeOS. Back in March 2021, he wrote a full article dedicated to the progress of several technologies that would make it possible at some point to run Steam directly on Chromebooks (x86 ones). We have therefore invited him to learn more about this topic. “Steam will run on ChromeOS” also happens to be is one of the most common predictions we had compiled for 2021 along with active folks on the Linux gaming scene.

Luke Short and ChromeOS

Note that the opinions of Luke are his own only, and do not reflect those of his former or existing employers.

Boiling Steam – Ekianjo: Hi everyone! Today we have a new podcast with a special guest named Luke Short, who is joining us from Colorado. Just to give you some background as to where this whole story comes from… Back in February we were discussing internally and also with other Linux gaming folks what kind of predictions we might have for this year. And the way we were doing that at the time, was to ask people who know in the little world of Linux gaming what are their five predictions as to what will be happening in the Linux gaming scene by the end of 2021.

Of course when you ask those questions, you have a lot of different ideas coming up. But there were common themes, and one of them was clearly identified as being the fact that ChromeOS may be leading the growth of Linux gaming by the end of the year. This was not the most common prediction, but at least three or four different people out of 13 mentioned this specifically. Soon afterwards, back in March if I remember correctly, Luke wrote an article on his blog regarding this very particular topic: that ChromeOS may be getting Steam support in the very near future, because of a number of technologies moving around at the same time.

And this is why we were very interested to talk to him today to further learn about this topic and to understand better how ChromeOS may be actually changing things for us in the future. Before we talk about ChromeOS and all the technologies that move along with it, I would like to ask Luke to introduce yourself first! Let us know who you are, what you are doing and what led you to be a Linux user in the first place.

Introductions

Luke Short: Thanks for having me on! It’s a pleasure to be here. I currently work at VMware as a senior Kubernetes solutions architect, and I previously worked at Red Hat for three and a half years. In my current day job, I help customers to implement and design cloud [systems] for customers and I also work heavily with our pre-sales team helping to showcase to customers the potential value of our products, and how we can help them on their journey from their legacy systems to getting everything to be as cloud native as possible.

I started my Linux journey way back when I was a teenager. I was looking for a free alternative to Windows XP. My family growing up, we were very poor, so the idea of a free operating system really caught my interest. Some random forum suggested “Hey, you should try OpenSUSE, it’s very similar to Windows, you will really like it!”. I installed it and I was blown away by the fact that there is this operating system: it was working and through Yast, this package manager GUI, I could just install hundreds if not thousands of Free and Open Source software. So that is where this kind of seed was first planted. Unfortunately, as I found out quickly when I put my Age of Empire 2 disk in the computer and tried to use WINE to run it, it did not really work too well. So not having gaming was a huge deal breaker for me.

After a long fun and stressful weekend, I reformatted the hard drive and put Windows XP back on. But ever since then, when I was 18, I started my career in the cloud industry and that is where I got really hands-on with Linux. I got on the command line, figuring out how the internals work and I eventually picked up Arch Linux which I just absolutely love. It has such a special place in my heart. I don’t use Arch Linux anymore; I use Manjaro just because of how easy it is to set up in the beginning […]. I mean, I am in a day and age where I want things to just work on my computer — Manjaro gives me just that. But for anyone out there who wants to learn Linux either as a hobby or even to help you out professionally with a career, Arch Linux is the way to go.

BS – Ekianjo: They have a great Wiki as well to learn about the internal system and how a package introduced with each other — it’s probably one of the best references out there.

Luke: Absolutely!

BS – cow_killer: I think Gentoo is a pretty good way to learn Linux.

Luke: I have thought about it, but I don’t have the time or dedication to do that, but kudos to anyone out there who’s using that! I have a few friends who do use Gentoo Linux on a daily basis. They have more free time than me.

BS – Ekianjo: So you mentioned you went professionally into Linux and it’s probably been also a single part of your main occupation. Since then when did you actually go back into being a gamer on Linux — was that more of a recent development?

Luke: Yeah, it was. Even before Proton came out, I was always very excited by the fact that WINE was starting to really mature. It was around 2014, I tried to make the full switch over to Linux but could not. They are just a few games out there that have those nasty anti-cheat software, it just does not work very well, so I have been I have been dual-booting ever since. But definitely once Proton came out it’s been such a life saver. I mean, everyone in the Linux community knows that it’s just such a huge quality-of-life improvement, and even talking to all my friends who do not use Linux they are very excited about the prospect of Proton. I have met a lot of people online who have said because of that they were able to switch over — get away from the monster that is Windows 10.

BS – Ekianjo: So as a gamer, do you do game also on other systems? I think you mentioned you are dual-booting but do you also play on consoles or mobile phones?

Luke: Gosh, I can’t get into mobile games. I don’t know, maybe that is not my generation […]. I am looking for more of a full experience when playing games. I remember very vividly as a child, I went over to my grandma’s house for Christmas and she got me and my brother an Xbox. I did not know what it was. I literally thought it was a cheap rip-off of a PlayStation. But getting to play with it and growing up with it, I was like “Wow, this was a cool console!”

I liked a lot of Microsoft games on the PC like Age of Empire, and Halo was one of my favorite games growing up as well. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, those were kind of big hits on both the Xbox and PC. I love the Xbox game pass too. I tried it out, that is incredible the value for $10 a month. You just get access to hundreds of actually good games on your Xbox and for a few bucks more you get access on your Windows 10 PC, so that is another reason why I got to keep dual-booting. I might dabble with that some more in the future.

BS – cow_killer: Apparently in recent times Linux gamers can have access to the Xbox game pass through their web browser. I haven’t looked at it in detail, but I have seen some posts on Reddit of people being able to do that on Linux.

Luke: That is literally going to be a game changer!

BS – cow_killer: So you said you’re based in Colorado… Are you close to System76? Have you ever had a chance to tour around that place?

Luke: Oh gosh, I would love to! The thoughts definitely crossed my mind. I do want to email them, however COVID makes things a little more complicated, they probably don’t want to open up their doors. As much as I have been wanting to get a System76 laptop for the longest time, now that it seems like we’re on the brink of gaming Chromebooks coming out, I have to hold off. I have to give Google my money and support their efforts, but after that I will buy a System76 laptop [Laughter].

Life at Red Hat

Life at Red Hat

BS – Ekianjo: You mentioned earlier you worked at Red Hat for a couple of years. Can you tell us a bit about Red Hat, their philosophy, as you were inside the company? I think they were really focused on doing everything Open Source / Free Software before they were purchased by IBM, so can you share anything around that?

Luke: Definitely! When I started off my career, I worked at a company that used a lot of Red Hat products. Actually that company is very much a cheapskate company, so they use all the open-source as in the free versions of all of Red Hat’s products. And so I was like “It is my dream to work at Red Hat, I am going to go work at Red Hat because they are the leading open-source company in this world” and I got the opportunity to do that and it was an amazing experience. I have no regrets going there. It was such a fun time.

It’s very interesting that Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of IBM now, but previously CEO of Red Hat, wrote a whole book about the open management where Red Hat would take things beyond just open-source software, they took it towards management level as well. Everyone in Red Hat, we’re all smart people, we know that. Everyone has their expertise in their own areas and it’s about the best ideas: it does not matter if you’re hired on as an intern; if you have a cool idea then you can pitch it and it could potentially go up to the CEO and become a product one day. Everyone is treated very equally and I thought was that was very interesting.

BS – cow_killer: So that is kind of like how Valve works.

Luke: There are a lot of companies out there, Valve definitely seems to be very open and receptive to employee feedback and if you’re not working at a company like that, you got to leave, honestly. Those are the best places to work for. It is kind of funny because my friends and I would all joke that we make a living selling free software, which is kind of true: we are trying to pitch to businesses to close multi-million dollar deals, saying “Hey, here’s this software that is free but if you pay us money you’ll get the added support, better features, more stability.”

BS – Ekianjo: How important is the actual support for companies? Is it something that your enterprise clients actually really need?

Luke: It’s huge. I mean, a lot of companies starting off think “We can get by with just CentOS or now like Alma Linux instead of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)” but crazy situations happen. Actually, I had left one company to go work for Red Hat. I got a call a month into my job from my old boss, and he said “Luke, oh my gosh we are having an emergency, we have this network file system cluster that is broken and we are going to lose customer data and we need help, we don’t know what to do.” He is like “Can you help us? Can Red Hat help us?” and my first question was “Well, are you using the Red Hat product or are you using the open-source version?” They said “We are using the open-source version.” So because there is a disconnect in features and it is not necessarily binary compatible, I talked to Red Hat and they are just like “Yeah, we just we can’t support them because they are not using our actual product” as the open-source stuff hasn’t been tested as much and does not have QA approval. So at the end of the day, they lost out because they weren’t paying that support subscription. If they had that — it was one of their biggest customers too — they could have been saved.

Thoughts on the IBM-Red Hat Acquisition

IBM Red Hat Acquisition

BS – Ekianjo: Interesting story. I don’t want to take too much time on that, but what do you make of the IBM acquisition? Do you think it’s ultimately going to be a good thing in the long term for Red Hat and what they stood for, or do you think this would create trade-offs going forward?

Luke: A lot of people had concerns about the IBM overlord taking over Red Hat, stripping out all of its values. If anything, I am hoping long term quite the opposite happens. I think that IBM over time will become Red Hat. They will continue to embrace the open-source philosophy of Red Hat. My ultimate dream — and I have no insight or knowledge of this — would be if IBM is going to continue with their Power architecture and open-source it. That would be really cool if they could provide both open-source software and hardware.

BS – cow_killer: On the topic of CentOS — I know this was at least a few months back — when IBM bought out Red Hat, they kind of changed the model of how CentOS works. Now you have to use the experimental branch or something like that. I don’t use CentOS but I was seeing some discussions on this on the Internet. How do you feel about the way IBM handled CentOS — now people are migrating to things like Rocky Linux?

Luke: I don’t want to necessarily place the blame — everyone’s always quick to point the finger to IBM. Red Hat actually is very independent from IBM and they can kind of still do their own thing. There is a lot more collaboration between the two companies, and IBM is really more so trying to say, “Hey, you don’t have to use Red Hat software, but it works best with IBM software and hardware.” You get that kind of synergy there.

But more specifically to the CentOS stream thing — I actually I wrote a blog post about why I had switched all of my servers from CentOS to Debian, and actually I did this before. I did not even know this whole cinderella stream was going to be the default and you no longer get a stable release, but I am definitely noticing a negative impact in the overall community. People feel cheated — they got a rug pulled out from underneath them because originally CentOS 8 was supposed to be supported for 10 years. But now they are saying that for 8.2 I believe is now only getting two years of support total, and I can tell you from experience I have worked in upstream communities where we have used CentOS heavily for CI CD testing.

There is a big difference between what is kind of a rolling release versus having a stable point release, so I see a lot of headaches for a lot of open-source projects. I would imagine a lot more people continuing to look at other alternatives and definitely I am very interested to see what happens with Alma Linux and Rocky Linux as well.

Luke’s Fascination with Chromebooks

Chromebooks

BS – Ekianjo: Now onto the meat of the subject. So we invited you to talk about what ChromeOS is and what’s been happening recently on this field. First, can you let us know a little more about why you’re so interested in increments in the first place or maybe Chromebooks in general?

Luke: Oh gosh I love Chromebooks! I remember when they first came out — I was in college at the time. I got one of the first Samsung Chromebooks and I thought it was ahead of its time. It was less than two pounds, it was running an ARM-based processor, and we’re on like ChromeOS version 5 or something. It was very new and at that point in time it was very simple — it literally was that it was just a web browser. That is all I needed for school — I can get my work done with Google documents and even when it came to my coding classes there would be different websites online where you can actually run your code remotely to test it out, which is very useful.

So fast forward to today, a lot of the same benefits I see are there, where you get this lightweight, portable device, you get this battery that was all day, even back in the day — they got that with the ARM processors that they were using, and they’ve just been continuing to grow and add on features. The fact that you can now run Android applications, and touch screens are very common on Chromebooks. I don’t see a need for a tablet anymore because I just use my Chromebook. It fills that void for me. I even use it for development work — the majority of the time I am actually coding on my Chromebook thanks to one of its Linux environment that it provides.

One of the key features too is that security is the biggest focus point for Chromebooks. The file system is read-only for Linux and soon Android as well. They are running virtual machines to help isolate them, so there is this layer of abstraction that is actually very similar to how Google handles the data center. All of their applications run in containers in virtual machines running on bare metal, so if there is a malicious application or malicious user in the system, they first have to break out of the container, which is really difficult, and then they’d have to try to break out of the virtual machine, which again was very difficult to near-impossible. And then even if they are on the bare metal, then that system itself is locked down. So there is basically three layers of extraction and security there, and that is part of why gaming on a Chromebook is taking so long to implement, because they are focusing on that security aspect.

You can actually today use crouton, which installs chroot of a Linux distribution of your choice onto the system, and using that is almost like a container. Basically you can run Vulkan applications today, you can run Steam with Vulkan support, but the thing is you have to jump through a lot of hoops, you have to disable all the security settings, so what we’re going to be talking more in depth about today is talking about how Google is implementing this new approach to expose Vulkan in a secure way to that virtual machine and into the container.

BS – Ekianjo: One of the surprising things when I heard about Chromebooks being potentially a target of a gaming platform was that I had the image that Chromebooks were always very limited machines in terms of memory storage, and I would say even processor-wise, it used to be in the beginning pretty limited. Nowadays we have definitely seen more capable hardware coming up, like the Google Pixel. I think they released like some very nice Chromebooks which is not ARM-based anymore but actually Intel-based a couple of years ago, and now I think there is a possibility that you could have some more powerful Chromebooks going forward. Do you think that is going to be the case, that you will see some really capable hardware being released by Google or other partners in the future?

Luke: Absolutely! Yeah when I was first kind of reporting on this I got a lot of backlash from people — very understandable — people were saying, “Oh Chromebooks suck, they are not powerful, you can’t game on a Chromebook,” and I totally agree. The Chromebooks that are out today are not gaming machines. The Chromebook that I have — I actually boot it into Linux through a flash drive which has Manjaro installed and I have been using that over the weekend actually, even to do Steam in-home streaming. And I see that once Steam’s officially supported they are also working on controller support and pass-through in their virtual machines as well.

For Linux, I see for old Chromebooks the use case is you can stream from your gaming computer to your TV or even just to your laptop, just play in bed, which is really cool. But yeah, we’re starting to see a lot more Chromebooks with AMD processors, and AMD has historically been pretty good about having good integrated graphics on their chips. Of course the new Intel Tiger Lake processors — although they’ve been out for a while — supply has kind of been limited but it looks like a lot more laptops in general and also Chromebooks specifically are going to be coming out soon with that Tiger Lake architecture.

It’s very interesting as well because Chrome-Unboxed did this excellent review over this new Asus Chromebook that has a Tiger Lake — it doesn’t have the fastest graphics. It’s like a G4 instead of a G7, but still it has the best benchmark of any Chromebook ever. That model and many other models coming out are going to have G7, which is more of a capable gaming device, so I am excited to see how far we can take these integrated graphics. There has been a lot of optimizations in the Intel graphics driver recently, and Collabora has also been doing a lot of performance testing with OpenGL and Vulkan, making sure they are as fast as possible for GL renderer.

There is at least one Chromebook we know of in development that does have a discrete graphics card, so I am hoping to hear more news about that soon. Google I/O in a couple weeks! Maybe they’ll announce something with that.

BS – cow_killer: So you don’t know what kind of GPU it’s using?

Luke: No. All we’ve seen through their public repository is there is a commit mentioning they’ve added additional code to support a discrete graphics card in the Linux VM. So there is generic support. We don’t really know too many details beyond that.

BS – podiki: Wonder if would be one of those new Intel cards!

Luke: I was wondering that as well!

BS – podiki: As long as it’s not anything Nvidia, because Nvidia and laptops is always such a pain.

Luke: Someone reached out to me on Twitter — they are like, “Do you think Nvidia graphics cards will be supported?” And I think that is a hard no. I think Google is really going to be investing in the open-source drivers because they are so much easier to maintain and manage. I mean, it just works out the box, so I think as far as gaming Chromebooks it would mainly just be Intel and AMD graphics.

Vulkan Support Coming to ChromeOS

vulkantop

BS – Ekianjo: So regarding ChromeOS’s support for making Vulkan application work in a safe way, in your blog post you were mentioning several pieces of technologies that are needed to make this work. Can you go into more details and maybe explain it for the layman audience too so they can understand how it works?

Luke: Yeah, let me give the layman explanation, then I can get more into the details of it. But basically a lot of different components need to be updated to understand and know how to take Vulkan system calls from the virtual machine and hand those off to the Chromebook itself to the bare metal. So there is a lot of pieces involved. I have been reporting and talking a lot about the GL renderer specifically, but you also need updated patches in Mesa in the Linux kernel and also crosvm, which is their virtual machine monitor. It creates, monitors, and manages virtual machines. It’s basically an alternative to QEMU, which is what most of us Linux users are accustomed to.

One important thing to note right there is that QEMU does not support Vulkan with the Virgil renderer right now. It’d be fairly easy for the developers to add in the support now that it’s baked in, and crosvm proves that it works. So all the foundational work is there, it would be interesting to see how that benefits the wider Linux community once QEMU also has this as well. See, mentioning these species are coming together, so how far are we from having a Chromebook that I can actually detect the Vulkan calls and through a VM and run it underground metal in a proper way without too much loss of performance? I think we are so amazingly close right now.

I have been asking for help and working with a few people in the community, and on Arch Linux we were able to prove that it works; we were able to at least run tests with Virgil renderer and show that they work in this virtualized environment with crosvm. The latest unstable the canary channel of ChromeOS is currently 92. It’s finally compiled in the Vulkan support, but it’s disabled by default, and that is one of the pieces I am trying to crack right now — how do we at the very least create a new virtual machine and enable that Vulkan flag and see how that works?

So I posted a prediction out there. I think ChromeOS 93 will have this for two reasons: a) the fact that it’s already compiled in to 92, I think they will continue to do further testing and then perhaps in 93 they might enable Vulkan by default and b) based off of a previously leaked timeline, we’re looking at September-October for when they want to do a beta test. That is right around the time when ChromeOS 93 will be coming out. So I am excited! I am keeping a close eye on development updates for that. Unfortunately my Chromebook that I have right now is actually going end-of-life so it stopped getting updates. I have to switch to an upstream ChromiumOS build; not even sure if that would work but the smoke can work. I will be keeping a close eye on it and I hope to pick up a new Chromebook soon to continue hacking away at this.

ChromeOS and End-of-Life

BS – Ekianjo: When it comes to ChromeOS — you mentioned that some devices will be end-of-life (EOL). So how do you actually plan for supporting existing devices versus newer devices from now on? How do others actually work compared to a regular distribution?

Luke: Google really locks down their system — it all goes back to that security thing. So if your Chromebook is EOL, that is it. There are rumors that there is this work they are actually doing where they are trying to take the Chrome web browser and extract it from ChromeOS. So the current rumor — Chrome Unboxed has been talking about this a lot — is that even when ChromeOS itself goes EOL, your Chrome browser will continue to get updates. So that is something! However, in my regard as a tinkerer, I have unlocked everything — I have disabled all the security features on my Chromebook, so I can be a power-user on this thing. It’s a normal computer — you can just wipe the operating system and install something else on.

Borealis – Steam for ChromeOS

steam on ChromeOS with Borealis

BS – Ekianjo: There is one thing you mentioned — technology-wise from ChromeOS 93, you think it will be possible, technically speaking, to run this VM that enables you to pass Vulkan through the VM and to the bare metal. How about the delivery itself of Steam on the ChromeOS platform? How is that taking a similar approach to how Linux is isolated in some virtual machine?

Luke: There is a lot of reference in the source code — there is a lot of talk about it on some of the Chromium bug and feature reports. Borealis — a nod to the famous vessel in the Half-Life series — is the name of this new feature, so it should be as simple as it’ll just be another application on the ChromeOS dock at the bottom, and then you launch it. As to what we can tell from the source code, it is an Ubuntu 18.04 virtual machine that has a few tweaks to it and has Steam pre-installed. So combine that with the recent Vulkan work — there is a recent commit that has it set so when you open up Borealis, it turns on GameMode so it prioritizes the related processes for your game. They want to make sure that your games are running as fast as best as possible.

BS – Ekianjo: Who is developing this Borealis image?

Luke: Well, that is a good question. I don’t know the specifics of it but it’s being worked on in the Google repositories. So I can only imagine that there has to be some kind of heavy collaboration between Google, Valve, and also Collabora to get all this working.

BS – cow_killer: So when we’re talking about Steam through this virtual machine — are those games actually being played directly through the virtual machine or do those games have to be streamed to another machine?

Luke: So a very interesting thing from the Virgil renderer work was that there were a few comments from the developers, where they were actually testing out playing a bunch of Steam games using the new Vulkan pass-through. The main one they were testing was DOTA 2. So are they are actually playing a game — they are playing one of Valve’s babies too! It’s up and running. The latest benchmarks we actually got are very promising — we’re looking at only a 10% penalty for running it in the virtual machine versus bare metal, which is insanely impressive!

BS – cow_killer: Oh, that is nice! And this is on a Tiger Lake processor?

Luke: I don’t think it was a Tiger Lake. It was an Intel processor — I think it was a few generations old but I mean results are going to be even better on Tiger Lake for sure!

Google and Valve Collaboration?

BS – Ekianjo: Do you expect Valve to actually publicize all these kinds of efforts, or do you think this is more of a Google project and Valve is simply helping them out there? What kind of collaboration is actually happening behind the scenes?

Luke: I think it’s going to be a win-win situation for both Google and Valve, and I think they are both going to market the heck out of it. I imagine that on the Steam store page, just like back in the day when you can buy Steam Machines, I bet you could buy Chromebooks that are optimized for gaming. It’s an interesting idea. We’ll see.

What’s very interesting, is going to the 2021 predictions that you have up on Boiling Steam — the CEO of CodeWeavers, they are the main contributors to Wine as most folks know. A lot of what he had to say I think directly co-relates to Chromebooks becoming the gaming powerhouse. I mean, he’s talking about how he expects Linux gaming and Chromebooks to kind of be more popular than Stadia in 2021. He said we can look back to this year in the future and say this is kind of the start of Linux gaming. The third thing he said, he’s like, “Hey, I predict by the end of the year that we’ll be able to understand kind of a timeline in the future will be likely that Linux gaming is actually a viable option,” and I think these all kind of line up with Chromebooks. I mean, if you’re able to game on a Chromebook — that is as mainstream as we could possibly get in this day and age. So excited to see what further announcements and what everyone at Google and Valve have to say!

BS – Ekianjo: One of the interesting things with having container utilization is this would that make it possible, for example, to stop right in the middle of a game. When you would restart the container at any point in time, you would find it exactly in the same state that you left it.

Luke: I don’t know if they are going to bake that support in. I can tell you on an enterprise level that is something I see a lot, and that is very common where mainly the use case in the enterprise is that you need to move a workload from one cluster to another. You can actually just save that state of RAM to a file and then migrate everything over to a new virtual machine. In terms of Chromebooks, yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t heard of any work being done on that, but you never know.

BS – Ekianjo: That could be possible, though, right?

Luke: Yeah, it’s totally possible.

Luke’s Chromebook Wishlist

BS – Ekianjo: So let’s say tomorrow we have a new ChromeOS build/Chromebook coming up. What will be your wish list as to what kind of hardware or capabilities you’d like to see to make it into a viable gaming platform?

Luke: Funny you asked. I actually have a list of things I want in my dream Chromebook. I actually don’t necessarily want a graphics card myself, though I do hope that they really do come out with Chromebooks with graphics cards. I see a Chromebook as the ultimate portable traveling machine. I used to travel a lot for work — I expect to travel some more once COVID lets up a little — so the Tiger Lake graphics with their G7 Iris Pro graphics are just really good.

My friend actually came over to my house yesterday — he had a dedicated graphics card, and his laptop was actually my first gaming laptop I gave to him. I looked it up — his graphics card was an 850m and was just as powerful as this new Tiger Lake processor in terms of graphical processing power! It just kind of blew my mind, because I was happy playing on that thing, low to medium settings, just fine. Like traveling on the go.

Beyond that though I really hope to see more in terms of storage expansion. There actually has been work — and I have tested it myself — you can basically plug in an external hard drive and add it as additional storage to your Linux virtual machine in ChromeOS. So I have always thought of that as like, “Oh, well that makes sense that they added that feature,” like you can have your entire Steam library on an external hard drive and just plug it into your Chromebook if you happen to be low on space, and that is actually something I do. I have most of my games installed onto a hard drive that I just switch between different computers at any given time.

BS – Ekianjo: Anything else you’re missing from what’s on a regular notebook versus the Chromebooks?

Luke: Not really. I would say especially a lot of the really good Chromebooks are… I haven’t got the exact term of it, Intel keeps changing it… but basically Intel has strict standards for what can be classified as an ultrabook. Nowadays you need USB-C and needs to be able to charge through that, it needs to have a processor that doesn’t suck, any nVME storage and all these really strict requirements. Well we have actually seen that has come over to the Chromebook world as well, where this strict standard is applied. So you see premium Chromebooks such as the Galaxy Chromebook — which is really nice — that sets such a high bar. In terms of hardware Chromebooks are good. The hardware at least for entry level gaming we will be seeing real soon.

ARM vs. x86

arm vs intel

BS – Ekianjo: Now the interesting question is, what do you make of additional competition from ARM in the space of processors? We’ve seen Apple moving to the M1 and M2 platforms, where they are able to actually execute x86 code as well through an emulation layer. So what do you think this means for Chromebooks going forward? Do you think you will still see x86 as being the main platform for Chromebooks? Is there a chance that we may see a renaissance of ARM Chromebooks with some kind of emulation layer that enables most of the x86 binaries to run on it? Especially for games it’s really important.

Luke: Yeah, that is a really great question! That is something I have given a lot of thought to as well. In the short term there is going to be a clear kind of separation, especially if you want a gaming Chromebook you have to go with the traditional Intel or AMD processors. But then ARM is really going to take off and there has been rumors that Google is making their own silicon. They are probably going to go that route on their phone, and might even go on their next official Chromebook. That will be interesting to see. I am especially curious to see if they are going to come out with gaming — like are they going to try to play the angle of going with Intel and then saying it’s a gaming Chromebook, or do they go with ARM and say, “Hey, this has longer battery life!” I don’t know where they would go but long term Google probably would drive the way for getting traditional x86 applications to work on our ARM platforms and stuff. But probably nothing we would see for at least a few years.

Why Would Google Support Other Companies?

Stadia from Google

BS – Ekianjo: So you mentioned Google may be interested to publicize the fact that they can run Steam and so on. But how does it play with Google’s gaming strategy? As Google expands on Stadia — which is their cloud gaming solution — as well as on Android with the multiple games they have on the Google Play store. With the Play Store they already have their own ecosystem where they distribute their own games, or at least games from third parties on their own platform. So why would they go out of their way to support another company’s platform like Steam on their own devices?

Luke: It puzzles me too. But I have a few predictions. One thing I do want to say is, you keep hearing about executives leaving Stadia and Google closing out their own studio and stuff. I do wonder if one of the executives — who just recently left the other day — if it’s because in a few weeks they are at Google I/O, they might announce those Steam Machines. Because it is in a sense shooting them in the foot. On the other hand, though, I see this as an opportunity of Google just trying to expand their user base as much as possible. So there is recently some kind of hardware survey that went out, where they were able to deduce that Chromebooks have taken over Mac in terms of popularity, and I think a lot of that has to do with the price of them. Especially I see schools are the major target for them right now, gobbling that up, so I think they are just trying to do whatever they can to provide as much features into their platform to make it as appealing as possible for people to move on over.

BS – Ekianjo: Are we sure it would be limited to laptops? Isn’t there a possibility that Google expands to having this kind of Mac Mini hardware that can also play games?

Luke: Yes, that is a really great thing you bring up right there. So Chromebooks have Chrome boxes — which is basically like a Mac Mini. You can buy those. More of those come out all the time. I definitely see that as additional market they can tackle. What’s even more interesting is that they just bought out a company called Neverware, and what they did was they provided a redistributable — they took the open-source code for ChromeOS, which is ChromiumOS, and they rebuilt it to provide their own operating system. With that you can try it for free or can you can pay a subscription for enterprise level support. So I see long term that they are going to take that a step further.

ChromiumOS has a few limitations — the biggest one is it does not support Android and it does not support the Google Play store, because there are some weird licensing issues with that. So now that Google just bought them out and they own them, I think we can see the adoption of ChromeOS outside of Chromebooks, where you are able to install ChromeOS on any machine and be able to play games, or just use it for your day-to-day life. That is a huge market they could potentially tap into now.

BS – Ekianjo: That would be a kind of sanctioned Google distribution of ChromeOS: outside of the pure hardware related distribution, that would mean a lot more work as well to maintain this across a lot of different configurations…

Luke: I would say definitely; as it stands today Neverware does not even support Chromebooks. They say if you have an EOL Chromebook, it’s EOL, end of story. But they basically support almost every Mac, especially older Macs, which is very interesting, and also a handful of… I don’t remember the exact partners, but a few manufacturers. So I see a lot of opportunity for partnerships for expanding that out. It would be really complicated to just hand out ChromeOS, because just like any Linux distribution, it’s not necessarily going to work on everything. So it’s just something to keep an eye on for now and see how Google plays its cards with this acquisition.

The Pinebook Pro – Alternative to Chromebooks

BS – cow_killer: How do you feel about devices like the Pinebook — which are kind of branded to be this alternative to Chromebooks — have you ever had a chance to use a Pinebook Pro?

Luke: I have used a Pine64 single board computer — similar to Raspberry Pi and they are great for clusters. I use them for Kubernetes clusters at home and little projects. I am actually working on a Christmas tree light project for the holidays right now, starting early. I did not start early last year and all the supplies I needed ran out, so I am starting early this time. Pinebooks are really fascinating, I have almost bought one myself. They are so cool but every review I ever read about them is kind of the same: it’s like Raspberry Pi and any other single board computer, they just have not got to the point where they are powerful enough to be your daily driver and part of that is you get what you pay.

For a Pine64 it is $20, incredibly cheap and even the higher-end Rock64 is like $60 maybe $80 at most. Compare that to a Mac Mini, the starting price for that is like $800 for the M1 chip. You are paying $300-400 for a single board computer basically, plus the casing and other accessories. So I would love for either the Pine company or Raspberry Pi foundation or someone to just come up with a M1 competitor and sell that. I would love to see it but as it stands today, yeah, you get what you pay for. A lot of the single board computers are just cheaper ones out there. I think it’s probably coming because even on Android we see really powerful hardware behind the mobile phone, so I think it’s only a matter of time, and until some of that crosses over to being an actual PC platform, whether it’s Windows or something else, yeah…

Honestly on that note I actually think laptops are a waste of resources […]. I just want a phone — I want my super powerful phone and I want to be able to just hook it up to some kind of clamshell dummy device that just has a screen and a keyboard and then just use that as my laptop, because especially when phone prices are costing you over a thousand dollars, why not just use that as your computer? And so I am hoping to get a Samsung phone next, which they have this Dex feature where can you can do just that — have a desktop environment. As a developer myself this is a great way for me to do ARM development, especially when I get all these cores and they are super powerful; I can compile my code in no time.

BS – Ekianjo: That is true, you can actually run SSH to your own mobile phone with Termux for example and run a lot of programs directly through a terminal. Essentially it can be very powerful to compile or even do development on the phone itself.

Luke: Totally, yeah, that is a great use case right there.

Gaming on Chromebooks: Will it Help Linux Gaming?

BS – Ekianjo: So coming back on the subject of Steam and Valve — you mentioned that Google is probably going to announce something later this year. What does this mean for the rest of us?

Luke: I would say for regular Linux distro gamers there has been such a big focus on them, like performance optimizations at so many different levels in the graphics drivers and the Linux kernel, all these different areas that they need to touch in Mesa. I mean, it’s all upstream work. This is all going to trickle down to us, the Linux gamers, they are supporting GameMode with Borealis, it is probably going to get more tested, more features hopefully. So it’s really exciting because this is the start of another huge corporation who’s not just Valve; we now have Valve and Google helping to lead the way for new features and more innovation in the Linux gaming space.

BS – Ekianjo: So you would say it’s going to be very positive as well for regular Linux gamers?

Luke: Absolutely! I have read a lot about how Google, for both the Android and their Chromebook segments, and they want to start trying to make more of their work upstream and available for all Linux distributions. It makes it easier for them and also helps out the community, so things can only get better from here.

BS – podiki: Great to hear that you’re on the same page for Chromebooks. The most experience I have seen is a lot of students and educational places have it. So you were talking earlier about the prospect of it becoming an easy game machine. I think you get the games, especially the popular kids who have Chromebooks from school, whether or not they can officially put Steam on it or what. If that becomes possible that is a huge market of people that grow up maybe using Chromebooks as gaming devices. So I thought that was really interesting. When you mention that, just thinking about that space and thinking of games like DOTA 2 or something which are popular, especially in those age demographics, that will be really interesting to see. I mean, I haven’t used ChromeOS before so a lot of this is kind of new to me. I know Steam as you mentioned before about the container — they’ve been moving more to this containerized Linux runtime for Linux games. Which has been a bit of a change, and I know it’s caused some people issues with getting things to work. I think it’s because the environment is now separated from your main environment. Do you think those things will also come in Steam on regular Linux in terms of that compartmentalization and virtual machine work?

Luke: I think if you want to put in the elbow grease you could set it up for yourself. However, I think it’s a very ChromeOS-specific implementation because behind the scenes it’s not using QEMU; it’s using crosvm, and also there is just a few other layers of abstraction that ChromeOS kind of has mainly just for that security kind of aspect. So as far as a normal Linux gamer, we won’t see too many changes except through the various different projects they are touching. Those are just going to continue to get better with time.

I also think it is funny that you brought up the kids at school with Chromebooks. One of my best friends — he’s actually a middle school teacher and every student in the school is fortunate enough to get a Chromebook to help them with remote education during COVID. My friend says he has a lot of trouble dealing with the kids because they always want to play Minecraft and other games on the Chromebook. So it’s only going to get worse for the teachers. I mean, it’s always the battle.

BS – podiki: For us, we didn’t have Chromebooks, but at the computer lab it was putting on Quake or something and trying to play during class or whatever. Not that I ever did that of course!

Luke: Oh yes, I have very fond memories of putting Counter-Strike on my school’s computer and I was smart enough — I renamed the executable to be Windows diagnostic tool and screensaver or something. Yeah, something bogus, and then they did a scan of all my friends’ accounts and mine. I was the only one who did not get caught because I renamed it. Those good times…

BS – podiki: That would be interesting to see, thinking about kids growing up more and not realizing they have contact with Linux and stuff like that. They are used to tweaking and trying to break out to play games or whatever it is. They will learn that kind of experience. We learned it on Windows, right? On how to tweak files to get things running or on calculators. Right, the TI calculators that was always a big thing to do.

So I wonder if in the next bunch of years kids growing up and they are hacking on Chromebooks and stuff like that, what that will mean going forward. That alone could do a lot more for mainstream Linux gaming and hacking and stuff than any of the stuff we’re always going on about on Steam and desktops and stuff like that.

Luke: Absolutely, yeah, as it is today if you walk up to a stranger on the street and you’re like, “Do you know Linux?” and they are like, “What are you talking about?” [Laughter] That could very well change. It’s very interesting, I have talked to a lot of my friends — on one side of the spectrum I have my friends who are frugal and they just need to save some money. On the other side of the spectrum I have some friends who are really diehard Apple fans but they both can really appreciate talking about this gaming work, and they really appreciate that. They both want to get a Chromebook now. They are like, “Wow, this is cool! I can game on a Chromebook and also get the benefits of the portability, the long battery life,” and then on the Apple side of the spectrum it’s like, “Hey, Apple doesn’t actually care about gamers,” and it’s becoming increasingly harder to game on Mac. So Chromebooks is this alternative avenue for them, which is very exciting that we all have options.

Even Luke Doesn’t Know What’s Going on at Valve

BS – Ekianjo: What do you see outside of the realm of Chromebooks? Where do you see Valve taking things forward from there on regarding Proton and more? Do you have any picture of where it’s going?

Luke: Yeah, that is a very good question. Very open-ended too. Everyone wants to know, what is Valve thinking? What is going on in Gabe Newell’s head? If nothing else they honestly don’t want to be tied to one platform; they don’t want to be tied to Windows. They don’t believe in the privacy nightmare Windows 10 has become, the update nightmare has also become. So I think branching out into these different ecosystems will help them stay around and be relevant as a company.

Beyond that you see a lot of news, a lot of investment, and they’re improving their streaming efforts. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some kind of Stadia or Microsoft project xCloud competitor, where you can just stream games off of their own servers.

BS -Ekianjo: It’s not a big secret that they are working on that.

Luke: The streaming stuff is big. I mean, Mac gamers — my brother has a Mac and the other day decided to try out the Nvidia GeForce streaming, and he was up and running in a few minutes. He put himself in the queue, bought a game, and we’re playing Valheim just like that. Really quick. For Macs, you’re pretty limited these days and what you can do for a lot of games. So that is seeing the Chromebook as a cheap option of, “Oh, here, just have this to play some games,” I think, yeah, that is definitely a possibility.

BS – Ekianjo: For Valve it makes total sense to move to cloud gaming as additional stream of revenues. Because then the platform doesn’t matter anymore. It can be virtually on anything out there — phones, Windows, laptops, or whatever, Mac as well. So either you don’t really have to make any particular client for each machine out there anymore, basically only a one cloud gaming client that would be the main thing. So I think that is why it makes the most sense for Valve to be there as well, to not be tied to a single platform anymore.

Luke: Definitely, and on that Mac gaming front I actually have a project up on my Github called Mac Linux gaming stick. I have basically just set up Ubuntu in such a way that it’s heavily optimized for gaming — it has all the tools that I need to help remotely troubleshoot my friends’ devices. So I have been setting up and installing flash drives and handing out to friends. I have been getting a lot of great reception from that!

One of my main friends — I gave it to him so that we could play Halo together, and it’s been working amazingly! We’ve been playing the Master Chief Collection — he just boots into Linux from his Mac and it’s like, “Well, this is cool!” It works most of the time. Linux can be finicky but I can go in and troubleshoot and fix the hard issues.

Once project xCloud comes out to the masses from Microsoft I am hoping to get him a subscription to that too to see how that is in comparison, because as much as I personally don’t want the cloud streaming future — I like owning my games and having them forever — I think I will have to throw in the cards and just accept that is our future.

BS – Ekianjo: I don’t think everything is going to be cloud gaming in the future. It’s probably going to be fragmented. Just like several years ago there was the tablets craze, everybody was saying that the tablets are going to replace the PC and the laptops and so on. It never happened. I was already saying at that time it is never gonna be one platform taking ever everything else. It’s always going to end up to a point of equilibrium between several choices, because every kind of platform out there has its own uses and purpose to be. So you can’t replace everything by a single solution. One-size-fits-all does not work very well. It’s the same thing for gaming. I think you will have cloud gaming that will work very well for certain applications or certain limited devices, on the other hand I still think the very powerful home PC that you build will still exist and maybe thrive even more. We’ve seen the PC Master Race communities expanding with the social networks. I would not be surprised if it remained a very powerful force in the future as well: maybe the more mainstream gamers move to cloud gaming, but a very core audience of gamers would keep buying their games, owning their games, and their hardware too.

Luke: Yeah, there is always gonna be a market for selling people thousand-dollar graphics cards.

BS: I mean right now yeah they wish [Laughter]

Luke: I look forward to continuing to build gaming computers as long as I can, and hopefully forever.

Conclusion + Additional Questions

BS – Ekianjo: Thanks again Luke for all your time! Maybe we can reconnect later in the year as Google unveils their plan. I will be really looking forward to talking to you again and see how much of what what you thought was going to happen actually come true, and maybe how it was different from what actually you thought would be happening. It would be really great to have this conversation again later on this year.

Luke: Yeah that’d be so fun. I am so excited, and honestly I am almost more excited about the journey rather than the destination. So this is just a lot of fun, just speculating and kind of seeing and guessing and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. So yeah, I am interested to see what was right, what was wrong, was different than we thought and totally, it’d be great to reflect on this conversation and everything that happened.

Anyways, yeah, it was a lot of fun. I am glad I got to hang out and honestly I would love to just chat even outside of podcasts. I just love geeking out about this stuff. This is why I want to do a podcast. I just love talking to people about these things.

BS – Ekianjo: Yeah, I mean, even your blog post was really interesting. I have read more articles after that. I really like the fact that you were trying to explain how things work and how it’s changing and things are progressing. I really see the passion in your writing.

Luke: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it’s funny […] my main goal is actually to brand myself as the Kubernetes cloud expert, and along the way I have just accidentally or maybe on purpose also rendered myself as the Chromebook guy.

BS – podiki: Gotta have a brand!

Luke: Gotta have the brand…yeah that was so funny but hey, I love Chromebooks. I actually work out of a Chromebook most of the time and I can’t believe how useful they are these days. It’s coming along. I don’t think I mentioned this while we were talking, but Chromebooks cover like 90% of my use cases for using it. The only 10% is it doesn’t support some file systems like btrfs and opencfs, not even ext4 doesn’t mount that automatically. So I don’t know those little limitations; they bit me in the butt while traveling.

BS – cow_killer: Do you do your gaming on your Chromebook too?

Luke: Okay, I don’t do my gaming when I am traveling though you can game. It has OpenGL acceleration, so I was on a road trip the other week and I was playing Shakes on a Plane, like an Overcooked rip-off, it worked great. Just tell Proton to use OpenGL.

BS – Ekianjo: How do you feel about the fact that you need to have Google account and that potentially they are tracking a lot of things that you’re doing in the browser and things like that?

Luke: To take a step back, I actually I did not understand Apple fanboys. I was like, “This is ridiculous, you have a lockdown ecosystem, why would you want this?” and now it’s like hindsight 2020. I am this Google Chromebook/Android fanboy and it’s like, “Oh, well it’s kind of the same thing on Chromebooks too.” So who am I to diss Mac users? So I have accepted the Google overlord. The convenience they provide with a lot of their products is awesome. So yeah, it’s definitely a trade-off, but I don’t know. I would rather have Google have my information than Microsoft. If that is anything, yeah, someone is going to have your information one way or another.

BS – Ekianjo: Yeah, because especially if you’re browsing they pretty much track what you are doing.

Luke: Yeah, although I actually have multiple browsers installed on my Chromebook through Linux — I have installed Firefox and Vidvaldi and stuff. So I found some limitations in Chromebook — like there is this really nice plugin I use to download videos, and Google has blocked it because they don’t want you downloading YouTube. So I have to use Firefox through the Linux VM to download things and access a few websites, and do you have a working terminal in the Chromebooks. It’s in the Chrome eyes. I mean, you don’t even need to install their Linux feature — there is natively a terminal you can only do a little in it but if nothing else you can use SSH.

BS – cow_killer: Does it use bash?

Luke: Yes, it uses bash.

BS – Ekianjo: Can you install…I don’t know how it works in ChromeOS, but can you potentially add repositories to install packages from there, or how does that work?

Luke: Oh totally yeah. So because everything’s running in a container in the virtual machine, right you have root level access to that container. It’s Debian tin currently. So yeah, I have a bunch of custom repositories in there too so you you can do whatever you want. You don’t even have to use Debian; I have spun up Arch Linux and use that as my default container before and was that was fun. You can spin up other containers, which is useful for my job, because the Kubernetes platform I use, it’s all about, how do you orchestrate and scale containers? So I am working with containers on a daily basis.

BS – Ekianjo: For Chromebooks, do they use a BIOS to boot, or is that a different kind of hardware setup?

Luke: Yeah, it uses UEFI. By default it’s more specifically…okay yeah I don’t know. They have some weird custom version of it. Maybe it’s open boot manager, I don’t know. But it’s very locked down by Google, and as I am working on what I have to do with my Chromebook, now it’s EOL. Once you unlock disabled security features, you can have write access to your hard drive, so then you can install something like SeeBIOS. SeeBIOS is the recommended one, and then you can install anything BIOS or UEFI, it doesn’t matter. You can just install either open-source Chromium or Neverware’s version of it, or Manjaro. Whatever you want, it doesn’t matter.

BS – Ekianjo: When your Chromebook device is EOL, you can still use it as a regular Linux distribution, right? Through the containers you mentioned — which is basically a spawner container and then using it as a Linux machine basically.

Luke: I mean if you want to, yeah, you’ll just get an annoying pop-up that says, “Hey, you’ve reached EOL; go buy a new one!” But otherwise it still works. I think the reason they may or may not be well they are abstracting Chrome from ChromeOS, and I think part of that is you can continue to use your web browser. Getting the security updates is probably way more important than ChromeOS itself, because it’s so locked down. I have never heard of a virus ever happening on the Chromebook and even if it did it’s easy to fix and get rid of.

And that is all! Stay tuned for more episodes in the near future, by registering to our podcast feed (RSS).


BoilingSteam lets you access our content for free, but writing articles is a constant investment. We don't use ads or sponsporship, help us make our activities sustainable by donating via Patreon or LiberaPay if you prefer it anonymous. You can follow what we do via our newsletter, our RSS feed, our Mastodon profile or our Twitter feed. We also have Peertube, Youtube and LBRY channels. If you'd like to chat, you can also find us on #boilingsteam:matrix.org. (what is Matrix?)

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
1 Comment
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] friends at Boiling Steam sat down with me earlier this year and we had a chat on their podcast about the huge gaming support coming to Chromebooks. There were two related topics we talked about: […]