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Yes, you can run Windows programs on a Chromebook

Can't live without a particular Windows program? Here's the trick for running it on your Chromebook.

For many users, cloud-based Chromebooks offer a great mix of simplicity and affordability, free of some of the hassles associated with Windows PCs. But of course there's a downside to that: Google's operating system doesn't run Windows software.

If you occasionally find that to be a problem, particularly when you're out and about, there's a solution. Chromebooks can access Windows apps, and in fact can run Windows proper -- after a fashion. (Pro tip: This works with Mac and Linux systems as well, but for purposes of this tutorial, the focus is on Windows.)

Pass the remote

No, you don't need some kind of special emulator. Instead, the key to this operation is remote access: using your Chromebook to connect to a PC that's running Windows -- your desktop back home, for example, or the work laptop you left on in your office.

Run a high-end video editor like Cyberlink PowerDirector 14 on a Chromebook? It can be done, provided you've got a Windows PC at the other end.

Rick Broida/CNET

If you've never tried this, it may sound odd -- but it works quite well. The Windows PC runs a remote-connectivity app that stays active while you're away; the Chromebook connects to that app and accesses the remote Windows desktop inside your browser, where you can run programs, update settings or whatever. For all intents and purposes, it's like you're sitting in front of your Windows machine -- while you're in front of your Chromebook.

Getting started

There are many remote-access tools that make this possible, but the best place to start is with Google's own Chrome Remote Desktop. It's free, easy to set up and effective.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

To get started, fire up your Windows PC and install Chrome Remote Desktop (hereafter "CRD"). Once you get to the main setup screen, you'll see two options: Remote Assistance and My Computers. Click the Get started button in the latter section, then click Enable remote connections. Agree to install the CRD Host Installer. (Once it's downloaded, you'll need to manually launch the installer.)

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Next, you'll need to choose a security PIN for that host PC. It needs to be numeric and at least six digits. Once that's done, just make sure to leave your Windows PC running, and to tweak the power settings so it doesn't go into standby mode after a period of inactivity. Although some remote-access tools can remotely waken a sleeping PC, CRD isn't one of them.

Making the connection

For this to work, your Chromebook needs to be signed into the same Google account as your desktop. Once again, head to the Chrome Web Store to access CRD -- though it should already be installed as part of your Google accounts keeping in sync. You just need to click Launch app.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Once again, click Get started in the My Computers section. You should see your desktop listed there; click it, then enter your PIN. To save time in the future, click the check box that prevents you having to enter the PIN every single time. Then click Connect.

And that's it! Now you should see the Windows desktop in your browser. Your mouse and keyboard will work as always within the confines of that browser window.

What to expect when you're connecting

There are a few things you should know about remote connections like this:

  • For best results, enlarge the browser to full-screen. If you need to return to Chrome, mouse over the little gray bar in the upper-right corner and minimize the window or exit full-screen mode.
  • The speed of your internet connections -- both the Chromebook's and the Windows PC's -- will determine how fluidly the remote desktop behaves. A slow connection will result in slow screen updates.
  • Speaking of speed, this might not be the best option for things like streaming video or playing games, though such tasks are possible if the connections are good. Note, however, that anything involving audio (like listening to an iTunes playlist) will be heard not just on the remote Chromebook, but also on the desktop. You might want to mute the latter's speakers before leaving.
  • Owing to differences in screen resolution, what you see on your Chromebook might look a little grainy. If you want a clearer image, click the aforementioned menu bar, choose Options, then disable Shrink to fit. That will likely require you to scroll around the virtual desktop, but you'll see the much sharper native resolution of your Chromebook.
  • If you're hoping for a direct way to transfer files, there isn't one -- but you can use something like Google Drive, same as you would if you weren't remotely connected. Cloud-syncing is your friend.

If you've found another Chromebook-to-Windows remote-access solution you like better, talk it up in the comments!