Good things come in small packages, or at least that’s the hope Google has for Chromecast. This inexpensive media streaming adapter turns any television into a content-filled destination, making it a seed that could grow into the company’s answer to Apple TV, the Roku and other rival streaming devices.
But it’s an answer that’s very much a work in progress.
That’s because while the Android inventor has released its streaming adapter at an attractive price of $35 (£23, about AU$39), the number of apps it supports is limited. In fact, as of this Chromecast review, five of the six compatible apps are owned by Google itself.
So far, Chromecast supports YouTube, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies & TV, the Chrome browser mirroring extension via computers, and the lone third-party application, Netflix.
Media companies have promised that more apps are on the way. Pandora, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go are all expected to be next in line. This needs to happen sooner rather than later considering the tremendous interest that U.S. consumers have shown Google’s sold out streaming stick in its first days of availability.
But as it stands, Chromecast is Google’s third attempt to take over living room televisions and it suffers from a lot of the same problems of its predecessors. Previously, the company launched the odd-shaped Nexus Q, which also faced an uphill battle for app support.
Google TV has had its own share of streaming problems. There are more apps for the Android 3.0 Honeycomb-based platform, but the hardware has always been more expensive, requiring a "buddy box" or a whole new television to take advantage of the apps.
Chromecast certainly fixes the out-of-reach hardware issue by selling for a rock-bottom price, and it’s a million times easier to implement. If you can plug an HDMI cable into a television, you can use Chromecast. That’s all it takes.
The good news for Google and everyone who buys into Chromecast right now is that while it still lacks a plethora of apps, it’s the same exact problem that Apple TV and similarly-styled streaming boxes have faced for years. Content providers have been slow to get on board. In a few months time, Chromecast’s lineup of apps is likely to be no better and no worse than its rivals.
For this reason, Chromecast could end up being an experiment by Google, which is reportedly attempting to make deals with media companies for broader TV plans. It has tried and failed in the past, and that could very well happen again.
It’s such an inexpensive experiment, however, that the few tricks that Google has packed into the tiny Chromecast may make it worth picking up and plugging into your TV, depending on your media streaming needs.
Design and Interface
Chromecast is so small it could easily be mistaken for an oversized USB thumb drive with a little more heft to it. That contrasts with Apple TV and the "buddy boxes" that run Google TV. These devices that are filled with more audio and video ports than users know what to do with: component, S/PDIF, Ethernet, multiple HDMI connections, you name it.
Chromecast doesn’t have an HDMI port, it just fits right into one.
It’s that simple to instantly get media streaming started on any TV with an available HDMI port. The days of figuring out where to put yet-another box are over and so is routing multiple wires through your entertainment setup thanks to the advent of compact media sticks like this.
It also fits right into most TV decor. While Google designed Chromecast to be unobtrusive so that it can reside in the back of your TV or on the side flush with the TV frame, even if it doesn’t, it blends in thanks to its matte black color and simple Chrome logo aptly colored chrome. Thankfully, Google didn’t opt for the more distracting red, green, yellow, blue colored Chrome icon here.
Powering Chromecast can be a little more complicated depending on the age of your television. That’s due to the fact that the opposite side of this HDMI dongle contains a micro USB port that is used to power the device. Modern sets will have no problem here; they typically have USB ports right next to multiple HDMI slots. But there are still millions of LCDs in homes that pre-date the rollout of USB-equipped smart TVs.
This is why Google included a 5-foot micro-USB-to-USB cable in the Chromecast box along with a USB power adapter that plugs into an outlet. The company even added a velcro tie attached to the cable. That’s all very convenient, but if you’re missing a USB port on your TV and it’s more than five feet to the closest power outlet, Chromecast isn’t going to be an out of the box solution for instant media streaming.
The same applies to the included HDMI extender, which is also optional. This is used when Chromecast, larger than a typical USB plug, doesn’t fit among your other television connects, as it measures 72 mm x 35 mm x 12 mm, and weighs 34 grams.
The HDMI Extender is great in cases where other plugs in adjacent ports get in the way. But this not-so-flexible extender will still be a problem for wall-mounted televisions that only have open HDMI ports in the rear. The extender certainly helps, but most likely requires unmounting the TV first. For some people, there will be a few steps in between "plug" and "play."
Luckily, Chromecast’s software setup is not complicated at all. It’s a matter of visiting Google’s Chromecast "getting started" website on a laptop, tablet or smartphone, downloading and installing some software, and connecting the device to your home WiFi network.
There’s also a Chrome browser extension that mirrors a computer’s browser tab to the Chromecast-equipped TV. This computer-only software, above all of the other apps, is the most valuable element of Chromecast right now.
Content and Performance
Chromecast finally gives Android owners an official media-relay option that broadcasts content from their smartphones and tablets to a TV in a way that matches Apple’s Airplay technology. Better yet, Chromecast, unlike the Mac and iOS-only Airplay, is cross-platform compatible. It works with Android, iOS, Macs, and Windows PCs.
There’s a "cast" button that is uniformly built into the top right of all of the compatible mobile apps: YouTube, Netflix, Google Play Music, and Google Play Movies & TV. The same goes for the Chrome browser extension on computers, but not Chrome on mobile devices, which have been left out of the media extending picture.
Pressing "cast" causes the Chromecast to start pulling an app’s video and audio to the TV on its own. This conveniently frees up your computer, phone, and tablet to fine-tune the streaming content’s timeline, audio settings, or make other selections within the app.
That’s pretty much what Apple’s Airplay is capable of, except for the fact Google made it possible to exit the app entirely once it has begun transmitting to the Chromecast. That’s a major no-no among iOS Airplay devices, which are device dependent and completely locked out of multi-tasking.
Chromecast can act as a second screen in a couple of cases, letting you browse the internet or do something else on the computer while a tab with your Gmail, Twitter feed or a video is running in a "casted" background on the big screen.
But don’t make a mistake thinking that this can be a dedicated second screen option for work; it’s just an extra screen to watch. First, Google hasn’t included a way to show the mouse – it’s missing on the TV with Chromecast plugged into it. Second, even if there was a mouse icon, there’s a noticeable two-second lag between the computer and the TV.
That’s the same amount of consistent lag experienced when using Apple Airplay mirroring on a Mac computer. The good news in Google’s case is that Chromecast escapes inconsistent lag – the variety that is unexpected and has resulted in choppy video among some angry Airplay users.
Google ironed out the connection problems that have plague Airplay for steadier streaming. The company also claims that the included HDMI extender can improve Wi-Fi reception, though we didn’t have a single problem when plugging Chromecast directly into the HDMI slot.
Here’s where Airplay mirroring starts to outpace Chromecast, however: the browser extension is just that – browser-based. Showing off something you created in Photoshop, a Word document, or any program outside of the Chrome browser tab you’re casting is impossible with Chromecast. It’s not a system-wide application like menu-bar-located Airplay.
The Chromecast tab extension is also limited to Chrome at the moment and may never work outside of the Google-owned browser. That means FireFox, Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera users are out of luck if they had hoped to "cast" using their favorite browser. If Google opens up the Chromecast API, that could change in the future instead of forcing everyone to use Chrome for this one reason.
The Chromecast browser extension also does better with some websites than others. Although Hulu Plus isn’t available as a device castable app at the moment, playing a Hulu video from Chrome on a Mac proved to work just fine on the TV. Amazon Instant Video and Slingplayer on the other hand are two video services that didn’t pan out. It turns out that Chromecast doesn’t work well with Silverlight and Quicktime plug-ins just yet.
The Chromecast tab extension still carries a red "beta" label, but it’s one of the most useful ideas that this media streaming device brings to the table. Watching an episode of The Daily Show on the big screen was flawless, whereas Airplay’s video streaming performance has always been unpredictable. Best of all, it was done without turning our MacBook Air into a Daily Show-streaming brick.
Airplay mirroring, while useful for presentations that use programs outside of the web, follows a user’s computer activity a little too closely – and can result is potentially embarrassing screen switches.
Chromecast also doesn’t require an entire Apple TV device to sit in your entertainment console or force you to wire up with a lengthy power, HDMI and optional Ethernet cable. Its plug-and-play nature means that it can be transported much more easily and fit into a backpack to carry to a school presentation, business meeting, hotel room, or friend’s TV. That advantage may be worth its inexpensive price alone.
In a perfect world, every new application would be cross-platform compatible no matter which device you own. More pointedly, Apple wouldn’t have a walled garden in which its Mac and iOS platforms were exclusive carriers of Airplay technology.
Now, Google has created its own official media streaming platform for Android users, and in a very Google-like fashion, the company decided to invite its chief rivals to the party. Android, iOS, Macs and Windows PCs are equals in the eyes of Google with Chromecast – at least from a marketing perspective.
As a result of its openness, Google wins the Chromecast vs Apple TV debate with broader device support. It also has smoother video performance and the ability to wander away from the extended app or tab that’s being streamed to a TV. The fear of hitting the home screen button out of habit is moot when casting to Chromecast, as it won’t end playback on the larger TV.
The key difference is that Chromecast pulls the extended content from the internet itself after the mobile device or browser initiates casting. Everything that is beamed to Apple TV comes from the host device or computer, and it remains a slave to that Airplay connection. It’s almost like Apple is saying, "Congratulations, you just bought an iPad that costs more than a monthly car payment. You’re streaming this YouTube video? Well, now your device is bricked for the duration."
Tablets and smartphones are expensive, so Google found a way to give you the freedom to continue using your hardware while streaming to a larger TV. That valuable feature is compounded by the fact that Chromecast is cheaper in the first place, costing just $35 (about £23, AU$39).
It’s by far the most affordable media adapter on the market.
We didn’t like
The only smartphone and tablet owners sure to be disappointed with Chromecast are Windows Phone users, as Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT devices aren’t supported at all. It’s an iOS and Android-only affair for the time being.
Just as irritating, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and every other browser that is a Chrome rival is in the same boat. The Chrome-exclusive tab extension means that computer-based mirroring is limited to Google’s browser, and that it’s not a system-wide solution for displaying programs outside of the web.
It’s also hard to get around the fact that YouTube, Netflix, Play Music, Play TV & Movies and the Chrome tab extension are the only sources of content so far. Yes, Pandora and Hulu Plus are in the pipe, and HBO is reportedly "working with Google" on bringing HBO Go to the platform.
Even then, that’s not enough to make Chromecast a success in households. Plenty of homes already have a streaming device that supports multiple apps with these same exact applications, whether it’s in the form of a cheap set-top box or app-filled game console like Wii, PS3, or Xbox 360.
What could make Chromecast even better is opening the platform up to as many developers as possible. That’s what is missing right now and has been the fault of both Google TV and its Nexus Q project. That’s what made Android a smashing hit over the past five years. Openness to developers, not exclusive deals have made both Apple’s App Store and Google Play take off to the tune of close to one million apps each.
You won’t find that here. Chromecast is at five apps vs Android’s 700,000. It has a long way to go.
As it stands, Chromecast is an inexpensive, easy-to-use way of accessing a quintet of apps, most of which have content readily available on rival streaming services. Netflix and YouTube are ubiquitous, and while Google Play Music and Google Play Movies & TV finally break for their web browser and mobile device confines, they don’t offer anything revolutionary behind what we have seen and heard from Spotify and Amazon Instant Video.
Really, these apps and the ones that content providers are promising will only serve to round out what makes Chromecast really unique: the ability to broadcast an app or the Chrome browser’s tab to a large TV while still being able to use that device without interruption. In this regard, Chromecast runs circles around Apple TV and its Airplay technology. Everything else is just filler until Google or Apple opens up their platform to the developer masses and makes their device a long-overdue living room game changer.
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