Chromebooks don’t normally run Windows software—that’s the best and worst thing about them. You don’t need antivirus or other Windows junk…but you also can’t install Photoshop, the full version of Microsoft Office, or other Windows desktop applications.
Luckily, there are ways to use Windows desktop programs on a Chromebook: either running them remotely on an existing Windows system, through various Android workarounds, or getting your hands dirty in developer mode and running them on your Chromebook itself.
Google’s Chrome OS is meant to be a lightweight operating system, so why not embrace that? We recommend running Windows software on your Chromebook by accessing a remote Windows computer and doing it there. There are two different approaches you can take.
Access Your Own Windows Computer: If you already have a Windows computer, you can access it remotely and use it to run your Windows software. You can do this using Google’s Chrome Remote Desktop beta webapp. You’ll be able to connect to your Windows desktop from your Chromebook (or any other computer running Chrome) and have complete control over your remote machine, allowing you to work with Windows applications.
The downside here is that your Windows computer will have to be running at home whenever you need to access it from your Chromebook. It’s a convenient solution for personal use, but businesses won’t want to manage a separate Windows computer for each Chromebook user.
Host Windows Applications on a Remote Server: Chromebooks can use Citrix Receiver to access Windows applications hosted on a Citrix server, or use an RDP client to access a remote desktop hosted on a Windows server. This is ideal for businesses that want to host their own servers and give their users light, thin clients that allow them to remotely access the hosted software.
As a home user, you could choose to purchase service from a company that would host a Windows desktop for you and allow you to access it remotely, but you’d probably be better off using your own Windows computer instead.
Wine is an open-source compatibility layer that allows Windows applications to run on Linux and macOS. Wine is desktop software, and there isn’t a version of Wine designed for Chromebooks…but there are workarounds.
Since Chrome OS is based on Linux, there are two ways to run Wine on your Chromebook: using Crouton to run it in Linux, or by using the new Wine Android app.
Important: Wine in Linux won’t run on ARM Chromebooks, and the Android version only supports Windows RT apps. Wine should work properly on Intel Chromebooks, however.
Use Wine with Crouton: To install the desktop version of Wine, you’ll need to enable developer mode and install Crouton to get a Linux desktop alongside your Chrome OS system. You can then install Wine on the Linux desktop and use it to install Windows programs just as you’d use Wine on a typical Linux desktop.
This would allow you to run the standard version of Microsoft Office on a Chromebook, although you’d be better off with Microsoft’s official Office Web Apps or Android apps—unless you require advanced features.
Whenever you want to use a Windows program, you could just switch between your Chrome OS system and Linux desktop with a keyboard shortcut—no need for rebooting.
Use Wine for Android: Wine also has an Android app that’s still currently in beta, but if you have a Chromebook that runs Android apps, it can allow you to run Windows programs without installing Crouton. It’s not yet available in the Google Play Store, so you’ll need to put your Chromebook in developer mode and sideload the APK.
Once Wine is installed on your Chromebook, just launch the app like normal get access to a minimal, emulated version of Windows. Keep in mind that this is still very much in beta, so it doesn’t work perfectly. That said, I would recommend at least trying this option before going through the trouble of setting up Crouton if all you plan on doing is using it for Wine.
Wine isn’t perfect, so it won’t run every Windows application and may not run some applications without manual tweaking. Consult the Wine application database for more information about supported applications and tweaks you may need.
If Wine doesn’t support the program you want to run, or it’s just too much of a hassle, you can also run a Windows virtual machine from the Linux desktop with Crouton. Much like the above option, you’ll need to enable developer mode and install Crouton to get a Linux desktop alongside your Chrome OS system, then install a virtualization program like VirtualBox. Install Windows inside VirtualBox just as you would on a typical computer—you can switch back and forth between your Chrome desktop and Linux desktop with a keyboard shortcut.
Important: Typical virtual machine software like VirtualBox won’t function on ARM Chromebooks. You’ll want to have an Intel-based Chromebook to try this out.
Virtual machines are the heaviest way to do this, so you’ll need powerful enough hardware to drive the virtual machine software, Windows, and your desktop applications. Newer Chromebooks modern processors may be able to handle this better than older, slower Chromebooks. Virtual machines also take up a lot of disk space, which Chromebooks don’t often have—not a good combination.
If you’re using a Chromebook that supports Android apps, an Android app called CrossOver will let you run Windows programs alongside your Chrome apps. It’s still beta, but early testing has been positive.
CrossOver works similarly to Wine on Chrome OS, but it takes more of a hands-on approach in walking you through installing applications. When you open the app, you can search for specific Windows software and it will walk you through installing them. It will search for the appropriate installation files and even download them for you in most cases. It’s pretty simple to use.
Once the application has been installed, you can run it alongside your Chrome apps as if it were native. In my experience with CrossOver, apps were hit and miss—which is to be expected since the app is still in beta. It still shows a lot of promise for the future of Windows software on Chromebooks, especially if you only need one or two specific programs.
Lastly, you may not need to run a Windows program at all—many Windows programs have their own Linux versions, and can run on a Chromebook using Crouton’s Linux desktop without much fiddling. For example, if you want to run games on a Chromebook, Steam for Linux offers many games for Linux, and its catalog continues to expand. So this technically isn’t “running Windows software”, but in some cases, it’s just as good.
Bear in mind that many Linux programs, such as Minecraft, Skype, and Steam, are only available for Intel x86 processors and won’t run on devices with ARM processors..
I know, none of the above options are really ideal. If you find yourself wishing you could just install Windows on your Chromebook…well, you might be able to. There are some projects out there that allow users to install Windows, but it’s a pretty in-depth process. Not only that, it only works on a specific set of Intel Chromebooks, so the majority of the options out there don’t actually have support. But check out that guide for more information, if you’re curious.
Otherwise, you’re better off using one of the options above—or just getting a Windows laptop, if you absolutely need to.