How To Run A Windows App On A Chromebook

Photo: Florence Ion

Google's cloud-based Chrome OS has morphed into an impressive computing platform now that it's compatible with Android apps and, more recently, Linux apps. But what about Windows apps, you might wonder?

There have long been rumours of Windows compatibility coming to Chromebook but official details remain frustratingly vague. Fortunately, you don't have to wait for these rumours to become true to start running Windows apps on your Chromebook. All you need is the Crossover app and a little time for experimentation.

Crossover is a free app (for now) that runs Windows programs inside a virtual machine. It's easy to use, and though there's a full-fledged version readily available for Linux that's also compatible with Chrome OS, the Android version of Crossover is much more user-friendly. If you're curious about the novelty of running Windows apps on your Chromebook, or perhaps you're desperately trying to run an oft-used favourite app, keep reading.

What is Crossover?

Crossover is a free virtual machine of sorts available in the Google Play Store. It's in beta, though there's a giant "Trial Period" banner emblazoned on the app's main page. (Codeweavers says you'll be able to pay for the full Android version "soon.") The Android/Chrome OS version of the app is still very experimental, but it utilises the same underlying technology as the macOS and Linux versions.

Since Crossover has had some time to incubate on other platforms, its Android version is pretty robust. Each Windows app launch via Crossover can run on a different version of Windows if needed, and you can even add on essential components alike font libraries.

One major caveat to keep in mind is that Crossover can only run 32-bit applications due to limitations in Chrome OS's Android environment. (Crossover runs 64-bit applications on macOS and Linux.)

How to install Crossover

A look at Crossover's home page after setup. (Screenshot: Florence Ion)

Before you can install Crossover from the Google Play Store, you'll want to make sure your Chromebook is capable of handling Android apps and is fast enough to run a virtual machine. Codeweavers suggests using the app on an Intel-based Chromebook.

To ensure your device can run Android apps downloaded from the Play Store, head to your Chromebook's settings menu. If all is in order, you'll see a Google Play option with an external link to Chrome OS's Android settings. If you're on an older version of Chrome OS, you may have to enable developer mode to access Android apps.

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How to install a Windows app using Crossover

There are two ways to install Windows apps using Crossover. The first is to install an executable file via Crossover's Known Applications database. You can access this by using the search bar on the main page of the app. Type in the name of the program you're hoping to install and Crossover will populate the screen with matching results. Some of the apps you can look for include Microsoft Office 2006 and 2010, older versions of Adobe Photoshop, FileZilla, and 7-Zip. (You may need to purchase a key to use some of these apps.

You can use the search bar to search through Crossover's database for common install files. (Screenshot: Florence Ion)

If you can't find what you're looking for, try installing a Windows app using the "Install Unlisted Application" option instead, which allows you to point directly to an installer file. After you type in the name of the app into the search bar, tap on the option in the bottom-right corner. On the next window, select "Search for Installer" to navigate to the setup file. Follow the installation prompts as they appear.

Once you install a Windows program using either method, you'll be able to launch the app from your Chromebook's application drawer or Crossover's main landing page.

Bet you can't tell which are Windows apps and which are Android apps. (Screenshot: Florence Ion)

There's a third method for running Windows apps, but you should only try it if you're unsuccessful with the first two. It involves creating a "shell desktop" of sorts so you can manually run an installer file. Like before, tap on "Install Unlisted Application" after entering a program name, then select the option to "Create an empty environment." This will install the components you need to run a Windows app.

A dialog window will pop up as soon as the virtual environment is ready. Tap on the option to "Launch File Explorer" from the drop-down menu, then navigate your device's file system to select the .exe file you want to fire up.

This method is worth using if the .exe file you have downloaded isn't an installer file. (Screenshot: Florence Ion)

You will also want to use this method if you need to run an app on top of a different version of Windows. To access this setting, click on the app from the main Crossover page, then select "Wine Configuration" from the drop-down menu. An Applications tab will appear with an option towards the bottom to change the version of Windows for that app. You can choose a version of Windows as far back as Windows 3.0, or you can join the rest of us the current age with Windows 10. By default, Crossover will set the compatibility for each app based on the information in its database.

How to use Windows apps on Chrome OS

As mentioned, you can launch an app from your Chromebook's application drawer or Crossover's main landing page. If an app crashes (it happens), Crossover will pop up a notification with an option for a force-close, which helps alleviate your device's memory cache.

That's GIMP running on Chrome OS. (Screenshot: Florence Ion)

Using Windows apps through Crossover is relatively straightforward, but don't set your expectations too high. Not all Windows apps work with this particular version of Crossover. I tried installing the Windows version of Spotify and Adobe Creative Cloud, and neither were successful. Then I installed Steam, which let me message my pals with its chat app, though it often crashed because it couldn't load some promotional pop-ups.

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Some apps won't even allow you to install the software because it's a virtual machine, and while Codeweavers offers direct access to legacy programs like Microsoft Office 2010, you still need a valid key to unlock the experience. Even if you do manage to get an application like that running, you might have to make up for any missing components by searching far and wide on the internet.

I did have some success running Windows apps on a Google Pixelbook. 7-Zip flawlessly extracted ZIP files to the Downloads folder, and I got a kick out of running an old classic, Ski Free. FileZilla allowed me to access my FTP server, while Gimp was a hoot to use with the Pixelbook's touchscreen. I managed to get some lesser-known apps to run, too, like Bulk Rename Utility, which sports a severely outdated interface but is efficient at renaming hundreds of files in one batch.

I went through all this trouble just to get this old app running. (Screenshot: Florence Ion)

These examples are why you'd go through the trouble of running Windows apps on your Chromebook: to help increase your productivity on Chrome OS. After all, there isn't always an Android app or Chrome extension that can get the job done. And while Crossover isn't the exact equivalent to running full-fledged Windows apps on Chrome OS, at least it helps bridge a few gaps as Google continues to establish its cloud-based operating system.


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