We’ve been tracking a device known only as ‘Mushu’ for about a month at this point, and it brings with it a very specific and interesting addition to the Chrome OS ecosystem: a discrete GPU (or dGPU for short). When we first reported on this device being in development, I suggested that I don’t see a ton of use cases for a Chromebook with a dGPU for most users. Without a proper video editor or tons of ways to play locally-stored games, its hard to make a case for dGPUs when existing Chromebooks are already so fast at what they do.
Down the road, when apps like Adobe Premiere Rush finally arrive for Chrome OS and if mobile game makers ever decide to embrace Chromebooks with keyboard and mouse support, perhaps a more-stout GPU would bring along some real benefits. As it stands right now, however, it can feel difficult to get excited about a new hardware development that I’m not sure we’ll even be able to notice.
Then again, all those assumptions happened before the past week exploded with Gabriel’s multiple articles surrounding Linux apps on Chromebooks. Those assumptions also forget the news that Valve is working with Google to get Steam running well on Chromebooks via Linux apps. With the stuff Gabriel was able to get running this week on his trusty Chromebox, my mind began shifting a bit on the real usefulness of dGPUs in Chromebooks. If some of these Linux app developers see the writing on the wall and decide to get their apps packaged up in a way that will work with a simple one-click install, they could get their wares in front of millions of new users that perhaps didn’t even know they existed prior.
Assuming Steam support arrives later this year, we could have a few video editors, some image/graphic editors, and a wide library of games available for our Chromebooks that would all be dying to have the power of a GPU at their disposal. These types of applications aren’t what most Chromebooks are built to deal with, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the overall roadmap for Chrome OS. If these software applications come around the same time we see ‘Mushu’ show up, it could be a whole new world of Chromebook possibility.
With that in mind, I think there’s reason to believe that external GPU support could come down the road as well. While we haven’t yet found a link to this specifically in the repositories, the fact that ‘Hatch’ based Chromebooks (like the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and ASUS Chromebook Flip C434) come with Thunderbolt 3 support built-in means it only stands to reason that as Chrome OS gets the ability to fully leverage a dGPU, it could easily then leverage a GPU over the USB Type C Thunderbolt connector as well.
A few months ago, I would have said that wasn’t only unneccesary, I would have said it was a waste of time. But the developent we’ve had with Linux apps in the past few months and the success we’re beginning to see around running them well tells me there’s a massive untapped potential here for Chrome OS. Once there’s enough support for applications that take full advantage of the dGPUs in Chromebooks, there’s no reason to believe that these applications couldn’t also take full advantage of an external GPU over the Thunderbolt bus as well.
This would mean you could buy a nice Chromebook to do standard Chromebook things, but when you need to dig in and do some more intensive work or play, you could simply attach your device to an external GPU and take that souped-up graphic capability with you into whatever activity you need to. In a world where Chrome OS is just a glorified browser, perhaps this is all silly. In the real world, where Chrome OS is growing into a crazy-powerful and diverse application delivery system, it actually makes a lot of sense.