Cheap classroom Chromebooks can now double as high-end gaming computers

A service from Nvidia significantly changes what you can do on these education-focused machines.

Chromebooks are in a spotlight right now. With schools about to re-open with large contingents of remote students, these mostly cheap, typically tiny, Google-powered machines are currently selling at roughly four times their typical rate. While Chromebooks are a solid choice for productivity and web browsing, gaming options are mostly limited to Android apps meant for tablets and phones, or Google’s own Stadia cloud gaming service. But this week computer hardware-maker Nvidia brought its GeForce Now cloud gaming service to Chromebooks—significantly improving their ability to game.

GeForce Now as a service isn’t new. It has been around in different forms since 2013 and already runs on smartphones, laptops, and Nvidia’s own set-top box. It works similarly to Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate (currently known as xCloud) in that the game’s performance doesn’t rely on the hardware inside the computer. Instead, remote machines in the cloud handle the gameplay and graphics processing and streams the on-screen action back to your machine in a small fraction of a second. Your computer is essentially acting like a remote terminal attached to a mega-powerful gaming PC sitting somewhere in a data center.

Unlike Game Pass Ultimate, GeForce now doesn’t give you access to the games for free. Instead, it lets you get to games you own through other online stores like Steam or Epic so you can play titles you’ve already purchased. Of course, that also includes free-to-play games like the behemoth Fortnite or Ubisoft’s upstart battle royale game, Hyper Scape.

When you sign up for the GeForce Now beta, you can try it for free, but your gaming sessions will be limited to one hour and other paying members will get priority to the games they want to play. With a free account, I had to wait in some short queues before I could start streaming a game. It was just a couple minutes, but if I was playing regularly, I’d jump to the $5 monthly Founder membership, which grants priority access, longer sessions, and improved graphics.

Most of the games on the service could never run natively on the Chromebook’s hardware, but Nvidia has done ample work to make the high-end titles work on even crummy machines. I tested it on my daughter’s old academic Chromebook—a nondescript HP device with specs intended to create Google Slides about George Washington and not power through a graphically intensive title like Death Stranding.

Even on that old machine, the games I tried were snappy and responsive. I’m lucky to have extremely fast Wi-Fi (400+ Mbps down), which is crucial for the streaming to work in real-time. Nvidia suggests plugging straight into a router if possible using a USB-C to Ethernet cable if need be.

The company suggests a Core M3 CPU and Intel HD 600 graphics card or better if you want to get an optimal experience, but you can try it on whatever machine you have and see if the results meet your needs. Even the suggested requirements only need 4 GB RAM and 25 Mbps of download speed on your internet connection.

In order to play, head to play.geforcenow.com on your device’s browser. It will automatically tell you if it’s supported. There, you can try it out or sign up for a paid account. You’ll want to hook up a controller to play—Nvidia has a list of recommended game pads, but most Bluetooth pads will work.

With Chromebooks now much more capable and Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate ready for wide release in the coming weeks, the later half of 2020 should be a breakthrough moment for cloud gaming on a broader scale. And if you’re a parent, it’s worth knowing that it just got a lot easier to play Fortnite on a school computer.