Chromebooks have become increasingly popular in recent years due to their affordability, security, ease of use, and seamless integration with Google services. However, one downside for some users is the inability to run software designed for other operating systems. This is where emulators come in handy.
Emulators allow you to run software and games designed for other platforms, expanding the capabilities of your Chromebook. With the right emulator, you can play classic console games, run Windows applications, and more. In this article, we’ll go over the 10 best emulators for Chromebooks to enhance your computing experience.
An Introduction to Chromebook Emulators
An emulator is a software program that mimics the architecture and functions of another computing system or device. It allows software and games designed for one platform (like Windows) to run on a different platform (like Chrome OS).
Emulators work by providing a virtual environment that replicates key components of the original hardware and operating system. This fools the software into thinking it is running on the intended platform, not an imitation system.
There are emulators available for Chromebooks that can replicate a variety of platforms and devices including Windows PCs, Android devices, classic game consoles, and more. Emulators require varying amounts of system resources like RAM, CPU power, and storage space. Some also require you to provide a BIOS or operating system image file.
The benefits of running emulators on a Chromebook include:
- Play classic console games from platforms like NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, PlayStation 1, and more
- Run Windows applications like Photoshop, MS Office, and more
- Develop Android apps with the Android Studio IDE
- Run older x86 programs designed for Windows or Linux
- Play mobile games designed for iOS and Android
- Run development environments for coding and web design
- Access features and programs restricted to non-Chromebook devices
When choosing an emulator, consider your intended use case and the system requirements. Heavier programs like Windows 10 will require more RAM and CPU power compared to running older DOS games. Also, check if the emulator requires installing software or extensions for full functionality.
Now let’s look at the top emulator options for Chrome OS users.
Top 10 Emulators for Chromebooks
- Android Studio Emulator
The official Android emulator that comes bundled with Google’s Android Studio IDE is a great option for running Android environments on a Chromebook. It provides features like:
- Emulate most Android OS versions from Android 4.0 to 10
- Mimic different device types like smartphones, tablets, foldable, and TVs
- Access to Google Play Store and apps
- Developer tools for testing apps and games
- Use built-in webcam and mic for app testing
- Custom hardware configs and settings
Since it’s made by Google, the Android Studio emulator is optimized to run efficiently on Chrome OS. It does need at least 4GB of RAM and a multicore processor for best performance.
- Official Android dev environment from Google
- Emulate many Android OS versions and devices
- Made to work seamlessly on Chromebooks
- Primarily suited for Android app development
- Requires more system resources
- Google Android Emulator
Google also offers lightweight Android emulators that can be installed as Linux apps on Chromebooks. These provide basic Android environments for general usage, without all the dev options included in Android Studio.
Some key features:
- Run Android 6.0 Marshmallow and 7.0 Nougat OS versions
- Mimic Nexus 5X and 6P smartphones
- Access apps via the Google Play store
- Works with Linux (Beta) on Chromebooks
The Google Android emulators have lower system requirements. You need at least 2GB of RAM and don’t require any special CPU.
- Lightweight and fast performance
- Easy to install from Chrome OS Linux settings
- Good for basic Android app testing
- Limited to older Android versions
- Fewer customization options
- No dev tools or advanced configs
- Crossover Emulator
CrossOver by CodeWeavers is a commercial emulator that lets you run Windows applications and games on Chrome OS. It uses Wine technology to translate Windows API calls into POSIX calls that Chromebooks can process.
Some key features of CrossOver on Chrome OS:
- Run popular Windows productivity software like MS Office, Quicken, Photoshop, and more
- Play Windows games like World of Warcraft, Fallout 3, Half-Life 2, and others
- Install Windows executables and .msi files
- Seamless integration of Windows apps into Chrome OS desktop
- Emulate a Windows 10, 8.1, or XP environment
CrossOver has varying system requirements based on the apps you want to run. Games and heavy programs will need more RAM and processor power.
- Run full-featured Windows apps and games
- Simple one-click installation of programs
- Windows apps integrate smoothly into Chrome OS
- Requires license purchase after 14-day trial
- Heavy apps need more RAM and CPU power
- Remote Desktop Apps
Remote desktop apps provide another way to access Windows and macOS environments from a Chromebook. Options like Chrome Remote Desktop, Microsoft Remote Desktop, and RealVNC allow you to remotely connect to a PC from your Chromebook and view the screen in a window.
Benefits of remote desktop apps include:
- Stream Windows or macOS from another device
- Run desktop programs through a remote connection
- Access your work or home computer while traveling
- Share screens and collaborate across devices
- Lower system requirements – only need to stream video
The downside is the need for a secondary device with the desired operating system. There may also be lag from streaming remotely over the internet.
- Access Windows/macOS from anywhere
- Run desktop programs remotely
- Much lower system requirements
- Requires a secondary Windows/macOS device
- Performance can lag due to remote connection
- ExaGear Strategies
ExaGear Strategies by Eltechs allows you to run x86 apps, games, and Linux distros designed for Windows, Linux, and SteamOS. It uses emulation to mimic x86 hardware on Chromebooks.
Some ExaGear features include:
- Run older x86 Windows programs on Chromebooks
- Support for SteamOS and games from the Steam library
- Install and run many Linux distros like Ubuntu, Mint, CentOS, etc.
- Map keys from an external keyboard to mimic x86 controls
- Add virtual disk drives for installing programs and operating systems
ExaGear requires an Intel or AMD processor Chromebook with at least 4GB of RAM for solid performance. You’ll also need an external keyboard for easier use of keyboard shortcuts.
- Emulate x86 environments for Windows, Linux, and SteamOS
- Run older x86 apps and games designed for PCs
- Support for external keyboard mapping
- 4GB+ RAM minimum requirement
- Setup of virtual drives and Linux requires technical expertise
RetroArch is an open-source emulator that supports emulation of tons of classic consoles. With RetroArch you can play all your favorite old-school games on a Chromebook including:
- Nintendo – NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, Switch
- Sega – Dreamcast, Saturn, Genesis, Game Gear, Master System
- Sony – PlayStation 1 and 2
- Arcade – MAME, Final Burn Alpha, Vectrex
- Computers – Atari, MSX, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad
RetroArch has a smaller performance impact since it’s just emulating simpler 2D and early 3D game graphics. You can get by with as little as 2GB of RAM for most games.
- Open-source and free-to-use
- Massive library of classic console emulators
- Lower performance requirements
- Difficult interface for beginners to master
- Requires BIOS files for some consoles
- Box 86
Box 86 makes it possible to run x86 Windows and DOS games or programs designed for older 32-bit PCs. It uses sandboxing and other techniques to emulate x86 code on modern 64-bit ARM Chromebooks.
Key features include:
- Emulate performance-intensive DOS and early Windows games
- Good for older productivity software like MS Office 97
- Run x86 code at near-native speeds using on-the-fly recompiling
- A sandboxed environment prevents system instability
- Compatible with older laptops and single-board computers
Box 86 needs an ARM Chromebook with at least 2GB of RAM. You’ll get better performance with quad-core processors and more memory.
- Good performance for emulating older x86 apps
- Sandboxed for security and stability
- Works on lower-performance ARM devices
- Primarily for older 32-bit x86 apps
- More complex setup and use
- Online Emulators
Some online emulators let you run retro games in your Chrome browser without needing to install anything. These include:
- RetroGames- for NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, etc.
- WebNES- for Nintendo NES games
- Online Virtual Apple- for Apple II games
- Internet Archive Software Library- for DOS games
The benefits of online emulators are instant play access without setup, the ability to play on any computer, and the saving of storage space. The downsides are limited selection, less control, and the need for a constant internet connection.
- Instant access with no installation required
- Play retro games on any computer
- Doesn’t use local storage space
- A very limited selection of games is available
- Lack of control over emulator options
- Requires constant internet connection
- ChromeOS Virtual Machines
You can install virtual machine software like VirtualBox or QEMU on Chromebooks that support Linux apps. This allows you to install and run full Windows, Linux, or other operating systems within a virtual environment.
- Run Windows or Linux in a virtual machine with full features
- Install any x86 compatible OS inside the virtual environment
- Keep your main Chrome OS free of modifications or conflicts
The downside is the technical expertise required for setup and getting virtual machines to work smoothly. There is also a steep system resource requirement.
- Run full-featured Windows or Linux distros
- Completely separate from the main Chrome OS install
- Requires expertise to install and configure
- Very high system resource demands
- Can experience bugs or lag
- Chromebook Emulators
There are a small number of emulator options like Bochs and Qemu that can mimic a Chromebook environment on Windows, Mac, or Linux PCs.
- Test Chromebook specific software on non-Chromebook hardware
- Debug Chrome OS issues using robust development tools
- Prototype and test apps or websites for Chrome OS users
The downside is that setup can be overly complex for average users. These emulators also require powerful systems to run smoothly, limiting their utility.
- Test Chromebook software and environments on other desktop OSes
- Use robust dev tools not present on Chromebooks
- Extremely complex setup and configuration
- Require very powerful system specs
- Primarily suited for advanced developers
Factors to Consider When Choosing an Emulator
With so many emulator options available for Chromebooks, it can be tough to decide which one is right for your needs. Here are some key factors to consider:
Intended Use Case – Are you looking to play retro video games? Run Windows applications? Develop Android apps? Emulate a Linux distribution? Choose an emulator suited to your specific needs.
System Requirements – Consider your Chromebook’s RAM, CPU cores, and available storage space. More demanding emulators will require more system resources.
Hardware Compatibility – Make sure to choose an emulator fully compatible with your Chromebook’s CPU architecture (ARM, Intel, AMD) and graphics processor.
Ease of Use – Some emulators require advanced technical skills for proper setup and configuration. Choose a simpler option if you’re not an expert.
Cost – Paid emulators like CrossOver provide excellent compatibility but have a one-time cost. Other choices like RetroArch are completely free.
Active Development – Pick an emulator with an active development team that is regularly fixing bugs and improving performance.
Set Up Guide For Running Emulators on Chromebook
Once you’ve chosen the right emulator for your needs, you’ll need to properly set it up on your Chromebook. Here are the key steps:
- Enable Linux Support– Most emulators require you to enable Linux apps on your Chromebook. Go to Settings > Linux > Turn On to activate this.
- Free Up Storage Space– Emulation software and the games/apps you install can take up significant local storage space. Make room by uploading files to cloud drives.
- Install Emulator Package– Download and install your emulator through the terminal using Debian/Ubuntu package files or SNAPs if available.
- Obtain BIOS/OS Images– Some emulators require BIOS files from game consoles or OS installation images. Acquire these from trusted online sources.
- Configure Virtual Drives– For installing games or operating systems, you’ll need to set up virtual drives. Create these images using tools like FDISK or Disk Utility.
- Map External Controller– For gaming, connect a USB gamepad and map buttons to keyboard keys using emulator configs or tools like Antimicro.
- Optimize Performance– Enable emulator settings like vertical sync, increase RAM allocation, and lower graphics settings for better performance.
Make sure to check your emulator’s official documentation for detailed Linux/Chromebook installation steps. Seek help in forums or ask the developer if you get stuck.
Troubleshooting Common Emulator Issues
Emulators can sometimes run into problems when running on Chromebooks. Here are some common issues and their likely fixes:
Games/Apps Crashing – Increase allocated RAM for the emulator if available. Lower graphics settings and disable unnecessary emulator features.
Low Frame Rate – Enable V-Sync, reduce Screen Resolution, close other apps, and lower in-game graphics settings. Overclock the CPU if possible.
Error Messages – Update to the latest emulator version and check if the specific error has a fix from the developer. Reinstall if needed.
External Controller Not Working – Make sure the controller is detected by Chrome OS. Re-map keys using antimicro tool. Use a wired USB controller if possible.
Can’t Install Packages – Enable Linux Beta mode and Developer options for terminal access. Use SNAPs if available or manual package install.
Emulator Won’t Open – Ensure you meet the minimum RAM requirement. Check for Linux compatibility. Reinstall the emulator and dependencies using Terminal if needed.
Can’t Save Games – Enable read/write access when setting up a virtual drive in the emulator. Create a save folder manually and add the path in configs.
Display Issues – Force GPU rendering in settings, and disable unnecessary graphic effects like upscaling. Use a keyboard shortcut to resize the window.
If troubleshooting basics don’t fix your emulator issue, you can find additional help in the official support forums for that software or by asking the developer team.
Frequently Asked Questions About Chromebook Emulators
Q: Do emulators work on Chromebooks?
A: Yes, many emulators like RetroArch and Android Studio Emulator work very well on Chromebooks, especially models that support Linux app installation.
Q: Can I play Windows games with emulators?
A: You can play many older Windows games using emulators like ExaGear and CrossOver that mimic x86 environments. Newer Windows games likely won’t work.
Q: Is it hard to set up emulators on Chrome OS?
A: Most emulators like RetroArch have fairly easy installation, while more advanced ones like virtual machines can require technical expertise.
Q: Why do emulators need so much RAM and CPU power?
A: Emulation requires translating one system’s code to another in real-time. More RAM and faster CPUs reduce slowdown and lag during emulation.
Q: Are emulators legal to use?
A: Emulators themselves are legal, but downloading commercial ROM images or ISO disk images you don’t own raises legal concerns.
Q: Can I damage my Chromebook with emulators?
A: Emulators are generally safe if you stick to reputable options since they run isolated from the main Chrome OS. But malware risks exist with unsafe downloads.
Q: Which emulator is best for Android app development?
A: The official Android Studio emulator included in Android Studio IDE is your best option for easily testing and debugging Android apps on a Chromebook.
Q: Can I play PlayStation or Xbox games using a Chromebook emulator?
A: Unfortunately no – newer consoles like PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Series X cannot be reliably emulated yet, even on powerful PCs.
Emulators unlock tons of new functionality for Chromebook users seeking to go beyond the confines of Chrome OS and Android apps. Options like the Android Studio Emulator, CrossOver, RetroArch, and ExaGear are excellent for running mobile, classic, Windows, and x86 programs on Chromebooks with the right system specs. Just avoid shady sites, use trusted online sources, and play it safe when acquiring game ROMs or installer disks for old operating systems.
With the right emulator installed, you can harness the full computing potential of your Chromebook. Just don’t forget to clear out storage space, optimize performance settings, and troubleshoot any issues that come up using the tips provided earlier.