RGB gaming Chromebooks have arrived

Google and several laptop manufacturers have teamed up for an announcement this morning that will excite some and puzzle others: you can now buy a gaming Chromebook.

Actually, you can buy three. Starting today, you can order Acer’s Chromebook 516 GE for $649.99, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook for $599, and Asus’ Chromebook Vibe CX55 Flip for a to-be-announced price. These are Chromebook models specifically built and marketed for gaming.

What’s a bit counterintuitive about these “gaming” machines is that they, being Chromebooks, do not have discrete GPUs. We generally don’t consider a laptop to fall into the “gaming” category if it only has integrated graphics (and even today’s entry-level GPUs are a tough sell for many gamers).

Google’s intention here is that you will game on these Chromebooks using Nvidia’s GeForce Now service, which will come preinstalled. (RIP Stadia.) This platform can, theoretically, bring the performance of an RTX 3080, including bells and whistles like ray tracing, to machines that don’t have the hardware to produce it themselves (a Chromebook with integrated graphics, for example). It’s “a great technology to make it feel like you’re playing on a local computer,” Phil Eisler, the head of GeForce Now, told The Verge last year.

Chrome OS enthusiasts can take advantage of other cloud gaming services as well, including Xbox Cloud Gaming and Amazon’s Luna (if they’re among the five people who use that regularly). It is, of course, a bit awkward that this announcement comes right after Google’s cancellation of its own Stadia platform — one has to wonder how much of a loop that announcement threw to the teams who’ve been engineering these products.

Of course, aspiring cloud gamers can run GeForce Now on whatever computer they want to — a gaming Chromebook is hardly necessary. So what makes these devices “gaming” Chromebooks?

Well, they are certainly named like gaming laptops are named. (I mean, “Chromebook Vibe”? Come on.) They also look convincingly like gaming laptops. Both the Chromebook 516 GE and IdeaPad Gaming Chromebook include flashy RGB keyboards with anti-ghosting technology, while the Chromebook Vibe has color-blocked WASD keys. Flipping through the pictures of Acer’s model, it very much looks like the sort of obnoxious RGB rig I review all the time.

The other major draw for all of these models is refresh rate. The Vibe has a 144Hz screen, while Acer’s and Lenovo’s models both have 120Hz displays. That’s the biggest potential benefit of these devices that I can think of — you’ll be able to see a lot more frames than you would on most Chromebooks, which have 60Hz panels.

Somewhat ironically, however, GeForce Now’s lower tiers are capped at 60fps. If you want to be getting frame rates that can take full advantage of these fancy screens, you’ll want to be paying for GeForce Now’s top RTX 3080 tier (which risks mitigating the price-competitiveness of these products somewhat).

So if you’re trying to make sense of this announcement, the way I’m thinking of it is: these Chromebooks are going to be some of the cheapest 120Hz or 144Hz laptops you can buy. The most obvious use case for that kind of device is cloud gaming (though it’s certainly not the only one).

High-refresh-rate screens for more people means better gaming for more people. Budget gaming products are also huge sellers with proven demand. “The top-selling products at Best Buy are not the premium assortment,” Acer Pan America president Gregg Prendergast told The Verge in an interview last year. “They’re products like Nitro that are $699, $799. That’s where the real velocity is.”

On the other hand, GeForce Now is not free (and the RTX 3080 tier is especially not free). The internet quality required to make the service a good experience is also not free. And even for folks who are willing to pay for it, it’s worth bearing in mind that GeForce Now can probably run just fine on whatever computer you already have.