It’s been a while since I’ve been on a Chromebook. I was a dedicated user of the Google Pixelbook when it launched. Its 2-in-1 form factor fit my life surprisingly well, and I even turned it into a podcasting machine on the go. But then the laptop started aging out, and I needed something that could handle video and photo editing in a way that Chrome OS couldn’t. I also wanted to play games on it. The Pixelbook became redundant once I upgraded my computer to a Windows-based Dell XPS 15, and it’s been collecting dust ever since.
Now, we have gaming Chromebooks, a phrase I never thought I’d be typing out. These are different from the gaming laptops you’re used to from brands like Razer or Alienware—they don’t even have the power of my Dell XPS 15. Instead, they have specs tuned to launch games from the cloud. The benefit of all this is it makes the overall ChromeOS experience feel more premium for a fraction of what I paid for the Windows-based XPS.
The Acer Chromebook 516 GE is one of the three models that Google has trotted out in this latest campaign. The GE stands for “Gaming Edition,” and it refers to Chromebooks that have screens with high refresh rates, recent generation Intel processors, and unique gamer-y touches like RGB-lighted keyboards. The Chromebook 516 GE has all those things, making it a great all-purpose laptop. I’m particularly struck by how light and easy it is to cart around—I miss that part of having a Chromebook. This is my first experience with cloud gaming on ChromeOS outside of Stadia (RIP). Some features felt like the Windows gaming experience I’m used to, but there were instances when I remembered ChromeOS also has limitations.
Meet the gaming Chromebook
The Acer Chromebook 516 GE is a 16-inch laptop weighing slightly less than four pounds. It’s not dense like my Dell, so it feels easier to tote around one-handed. It has a 2560 x 1600 resolution display, though it’s not a touchscreen like most Chromebooks. Instead, you get a display with a 120Hz refresh rate, convenient if you’re subscribed to a cloud service like Nvidia GeForce Now or Xbox Game Pass, which lets you stream games at high refresh rates. If you’re thinking of getting one of these Gaming Edition machines, nabbing a subscription to one of these services is something you’ll want to consider, especially because you’re not going to hit those frame rates locally.
Inside, the Chromebook 516 GE runs on the Intel Core-i5-1240P, which is a mid-range Alder Lake-P series processor. The chip is paired with Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics and 8GB of RAM, enough to broadcast the game from the cloud. The Chromebook 516 GE is only available with 256GB of space, and you’ll feel its limitations if you frequently deal with large image and video files and prefer to do it all offline. There’s a 16GB variant of the Chromebook 516 GE with more storage space coming to market soon.
Acer’s Chromebook 516 GE has plenty of ports, which is always an excellent addition to a Chromebook—the Pixelbook only had two USB-C ports, so I had to Frankenstein it with dongles whenever I needed it to podcast. On the 516 GE, there’s a USB-A 3.2 port, HDMI port, and USB-C port for charging on one side, and on the other side is an additional USB-A port, another USB-C port, and an Ethernet plug-in, which is seriously necessary for cloud gaming. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack and support for Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2.
The Acer Chromebook 516 GE is the relatively “no frills” choice of the Gaming Edition devices that Google introduced last year. The other models include the Lenovo Ideapad Gaming Chromebook with similar specifications and the Asus Chromebook Vibe CX55 Flip, a convertible model with a display with a high refresh rate of 144Hz. All three laptops are around the $600 mark.
What it’s like playing games on a Chromebook?
Just because this is a gaming laptop doesn’t mean it performs like a gaming laptop. The integrated graphics are merely there to help the apps keep up with the graphics the cloud is rendering for you. In the case of Nvidia GeForce Now, there was an RTX 4080 graphics card in a distant server farm running the copy of Control that I booted up to test the Chromebook’s ability to handle ray-tracing.
Reader: it did fine, and it’s because the Chromebook had to do very little except send my inputs to the cloud and show me video of the game. You will have to pay $20/month for GeForce Now’s highest tier. You might also endure fan noise, but paired with a SteelSeries Stratus+, it felt as native as playing a console on a small screen (the screen is much smaller than any TV I’d play on). Also, GeForce Now works with my Steam library, so I could play through the first hour of Half-Life 2 like I was back in my college bedroom, avoiding schoolwork on my laptop.
I used the Chromebook 516 GE to play games on several platforms. In addition to Nvidia GeForce Now, I played through Xbox Game Pass, Amazon Luna, and Steam, which went into beta on Chromebook only a few weeks after this laptop launched. On Xbox Game Pass, I hopped into Disney’s Dreamlight Valley to play the character I started on the Nintendo Switch version of the same game. It’s almost surreal that I’m so easily able to jump into the game between two platforms.
Steam was the client I had the most trouble setting up, but only because it took me a while to figure out there was a specific option I had to enable so that games wouldn’t launch in a fixed resolution. Also, it’s technically still in beta, so it’s not a finalized experience. I followed all the instructions I found online, and it was a relatively simple process to get it installed. It requires switching ChromeOS into developer mode and toggling on Chrome flags, developer-centric features you can enable to test this out on your own. I then figured out I had to enable another flag called borealis force double scale so Steam games could display adequately on ChromeOS.
I tried downloading Sid Meier’s Civilization VI and Shadow of the Tomb Raider to run their respective benchmarks out of curiosity. I managed to get a campaign in Civilization VI started, enough that I was almost curious to look up a guide to figure out how to play the game. But when I tried the built-in benchmark, the Chromebook crashed, and I had to force restart. On the heavier side, Shadow of the Tomb Raider didn’t go beyond the splash screen. I tried running that benchmark, and each time, the Chromebook 516 GE would shut down and force a restart.
For my final trick, I downloaded Far Cry 5 and Total War: Warhammer II to see if they would take. That’s when I remembered the Chromebook 516 GE only has 256GB of storage space. Far Cry 5 is nearly 67 GB when locally downloaded, while the latter is 57 GB. When I tried downloading anything else, the Chromebook was out of space. Rather than clear up some space and wait for the downloads, I figured you’d get the idea by now: don’t expect this thing to run even casual modern games locally.
I did play older games using Steam on the Chromebook 516 GE. Stardew Valley runs fine, as do older titles like Torchlight II. The Chromebook may have integrated graphics, but they’re better than anything from around 15 years ago. I also played through the beginning of 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot while the frame rate hovered between 30-35 fps.
It’s still a Chromebook
Now that we’ve established you can get some gaming done on the Chromebook 516 GE, let’s talk about getting work done. I wrote a few end-of-the-year articles on this machine before all the CES hype, and found the keyboard especially comfortable, but only after I had lobbed off my claws. Acer’s keycaps, in particular, are thin enough that I couldn’t tell if my nail was on the chassis or the key, which made typing a little frustrating. I managed about 110 words per minute after cutting my nails.
I mentioned earlier that some of these Chromebook gaming laptops have RGB backlights—this is one of those models. I love being able to change the lights on the Chromebook directly from the settings panel without having to download some third-party keyboard suite. Even when I wasn’t playing a game, it was nice to have rainbow keys while I was typing away at an article. Acer even outlines the WASD keys, so you’re ready and prepared for gaming with a mouse and keyboard.
My only other annoyance was the small arrow keys. When on a laptop, I rely on them for scrolling through web pages. The trackpad also feels like something I’d find on a cheaper Chromebook. It’s not the most fluid, especially when attempting something precise, and I often felt like the pointer could overshoot at any time. I found any excuse to use a Bluetooth mouse to control the device.
Needs better battery
The Chromebook 516 GE is fine for getting work done. It’s light enough to cart around in a backpack all day and the ample amount of ports—for a Chromebook, anyway—helps get various use out of the machine. There’s even HDMI out so that you can tether an external monitor. I could see this Chromebook serving as a cloud gaming hub for a dorm room, the way a streaming dongle does for the TV in the living room.
But I’d caution leaving without a charger in tow. Acer promises nine hours on battery, but the Chromebook 516 GE lasted a mere six hours in our internal battery rundown test. We test by looping a YouTube video with the screen brightness set to about 200 nits. There are proper gaming laptops with worse battery life, but in the world of ChromeOS, it’s not enough to leave without a backup power situation. At the very least, the Chromebook 516 GE is a fast charger. I got it up to 100% in about 90 minutes.
Another affordable way to get into gaming
The Acer Chromebook 516 GE isn’t going to take you to the esports arena, but it makes a massive archive of cloud based PC-based gaming available at an accessible price point. This laptop will also do well with indie games, which are just as engaging as the titles coming out from major game publishers, and often less resource intensive.
At $650, it’s $300 more expensive than other Cloud gaming solutions like the Logitech G Cloud, but it also provides you with a full laptop. For a dedicated gaming machine, you might want to look to either the G Cloud or something like the Steam Deck, depending on your needs, but this is a good entry level option in a similar price point for someone who moonlights as a gamer.
On the productivity side, the Chromebook 516 GE is a fine Chromebook for day-to-day use. The keyboard is comfortable for long bouts of typing, and ChromeOS has improved since Google introduced more ways to sync up the software with an Android smartphone. But this is far from a gaming laptop like in the Windows world. If anything, at least Chromebook manufacturers have found a way to “beef up” the systems without increasing the price point, as Chromebooks are still considered secondary machines rather than primary ones.