A few of our tech-savvy readers (thanks @Cooe, @Locuza_, and others!) have written in to let us know about a big detail we missed when first talked about the AMD dGPU Chromebook in the works: the Vega 12 being tested for it does exist. In fact, it has already been shipped in the older MacBook Pros from 2018 as the AMD Radeon Pro Vega 16 and 20.
The confusion came from the fact that the baseline graphics architecture is what AMD called Vega 12. From that base, consumer dGPUs are created. The biggest change from the base architecture is the amount of compute units. That’s where the numbering of the Radeon Pro Vega comes in. They come in two models for the MacBook Pro: 16 and 20 compute units. That puts the on-paper performance between these two to be about a 25% difference. The target performance is aimed at modern games running at 1080p games with medium settings. Not bad! Now begs the question: why is a seemingly Apple exclusive dGPU being tested on a Chromebook? I’ve got a few ideas.
Firstly, it could be an excess supply. Apple may have ordered an abundance from AMD that was simply not needed. From my personal experience, I have seen most Apple users with a MacBook Air/Pro with an iGPU or a Mac Pro for serious video editing. I rarely see folks with a MacBook Pro with a dGPU. Those bad boys are expensive! And if you’re going to pay the big bucks, you might as well go all-out and get the Mac Pro with better cooling, specs, and upgradability.
Secondly, is the drivers. AMD had to help make the drivers for mac OS which is UNIX-like. Linux, and Chrome OS by extension, is also a UNIX-like operating system. Porting the graphics drivers over would be easier than trying to port from Windows. Yes, MacOS uses Metal and no longer cares about OpenGL and was never interested in Vulkan so the MacOS and Linux drivers are, at the end of the day, still very different. I imagine a lot of the framework could still be re-used when creating the Linux driver.
Thirdly, as I mentioned last time, is Valve could be using this as a development unit. It was in 2018 that they got serious about supporting Windows games on Linux with their new Proton tool. That tool is the basis on which Borealis is built on. Which, by the way, we now know which Chromebooks will be getting Borealis first! A proof-of-concept device could have been put together as the starting point for the overall project. It was only until recently that Valve has considered Proton polished enough to even launch their own game console called the Steam Deck. Along with that, they have even confirmed that they have had a real close relationship with AMD since 2018 working on improving the state of Linux gaming with optimized graphic drivers.
What about a MacBook Pro being used for testing Chrome OS? I find this highly unlikely. I maintain my own distribution of Linux called Mac Linux Gaming Stick. It’s a neat project that provides a portable and gaming-optimized operating system that is pre-installed. With it, I automatically setup and install relevant Mac drivers. Let me tell you, getting Linux running on a MacBook Pro newer than 2015 is a pain in the butt. The latest devices, including the MacBook Pro 2018, just barely have Linux support. Porting Chrome OS even for quick testing would be a nightmare and extremely buggy. Apple could care less about getting Linux working on their devices: they want you to use MacOS and that’s it.
Looking forward to the future, what can we expect in terms of Chromebooks with dGPUs given what we know now? I still expect the first dGPUs to be AMD, if for no other reason than Valve’s relationship with them. Second up, we may see Intel’s new dGPU: the Intel Iris Xe MAX. I can confirm that the Vulkan passthrough support for Crostini we reported on recently only works with the AMD and Intel graphics drivers. NVIDIA simply will not work due to driver differences. Thirdly, then, we do know of Arm and NVIDIA Chromebooks are coming down the line. I don’t expect to see much more from that for at least a year. A lot of plumbing needs to be done in Linux to get that support fully worked out.
Are you hopeful for a future full of Chromebooks with dGPUs? Would these devices be overkill? What else could Google possibly improve to complete the Chromebook experience? Let us know in the comments below!