Despite the best efforts of Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, LG and others, most of the televisions in people's homes these days are not of the smart variety. However, there are hundreds of millions of regular televisions packing HDMI ports, and Google's new Chromecast device offers a way to put some brains into those dumb TVs by giving them access to web-based content. Having a Chromecast dongle connected to your TV means you can stream videos straight from a Google Play, Netflix or YouTube app, or mirror the content in any open tab in Google's Chrome browser using a tab casting feature.
Sure, we've seen devices with almost identical functionality, like Plair, but Chromecast is backed by Google, whose relationships with content providers and developers mean that the Google Cast technology powering it will soon be popping up in even more apps. Not to mention, there's the price. At $35, it's almost a third of the cost of Plair and also Roku 3 and Apple TV, the current most popular devices that bring internet video to your TV. Even for such a paltry outlay, is it a worthy addition to your living room? And is it really "the easiest way to enjoy online video and music on your TV" as Google's marketing would have us believe? Read on to find out.%Gallery-194845%
Hardware and setup
Inside the Chromecast's packaging, you'll find a dongle, an HDMI extender, micro-USB cable and an electrical plug adapter. The dongle itself measures 70mm long and 12mm thick, and is 35mm wide at its most bulbous point. Beveled matte black plastic panels on the top and bottom sides are joined by a band of glossy polycarbonate ringing the edge. Inside that plastic exterior lies a Marvell SoC, a combination Bluetooth/FM/802.11 b/g/n WiFi radio, 2GB of storage and 512MB of SDRAM. Up top, there's silver Chrome branding and a single LED power indicator. If you're curious, the requisite model numbers and FCC info can be found on the bottom. Not much to it, folks.
Instructions on how to hook it up are printed on the packaging itself, and they're about as straightforward as you'd expect. Just plug the USB cable into the rounded end, and stick the other in one of your TV's HDMI ports. Then you either connect the cable to one of your TV's USB ports or plug it into the power adapter to give it the juice it needs. Once you're plugged in and have navigated to the appropriate TV input, the device brings up a setup webpage on your computer, prompting you to connect it to your home's 2.4 GHz wireless network and install the Google Cast extension to make your Chrome browser compatible. Once that's accomplished, you're ready to start streaming content from the cloud to your newly empowered TV set. Easy, right?
User experience: native apps
Once you get rolling, you'll find that simplicity extends into Chromecast's native app interface as well. Google's released an SDK for the underlying Google Cast technology that makes Chromecast work, allowing developers to easily add that capability to their own apps. For now, though, just three applications -- YouTube, Netflix and Google Play Movies -- make use of the technology. The process of slinging content to the TV is the same across the board: open the video of your choosing, then tap the Chromecast icon and within a couple seconds that video will load up on the big screen. Once one video is playing, you're free to search for your next video, use other apps or put your mobile device in standby mode.
Speaking of which, you can use Chromecast on both the iOS and Android apps for YouTube and Netflix, and the service generally worked well whether we were using a Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7 or fifth-generation iPod touch. Videos played with just a little bit of artifacting as the dongle buffered the content, but the streaming quality was otherwise excellent. Because Chromecast is a feature within existing apps, calling up content works as it always has within those respective applications. Also worth noting: the YouTube app allows you to add videos to a playlist and have them (mostly) stream in seamless succession. The only hiccup we found with the "add to TV queue" feature made itself known when we added a video to the playlist from a new device. This caused the then-playing video to stop and switch to the video chosen on the new device. However, after that device's initial cast, adding videos to the list from any device can be done without interruption.%Gallery-194847%
There were some glitches with the other two apps as well. Google Play Movies froze while loading up one video, but we were able to remedy the issue by closing the app and trying again. The Netflix app also quit registering touch input during playback on several occasions when we allowed our device to enter standby mode. Granted, it didn't affect streaming on the television, but we had to force-close the app and restart it to regain the ability to control playback or choose a new movie within the app.
Those isolated inconveniences aside, Chromecast works well. We found ourselves switching sources of content with ease, jumping from Play Movies, to Netflix, to YouTube and back without issue. There is, of course, a few-second pause when jumping from app to app, but such delays are part and parcel of any video streaming service. Plus, as anyone with DirecTV knows -- this editor included -- mainstream satellite television isn't always the swiftest at changing gears, either. Finally, to close this section out, we also had no problems when switching sources from the apps to the Chrome browser on our laptop.
User experience: Chrome browser
As with the mobile apps, broadcasting video from a Chrome tab is as simple as tapping the Google Cast icon that shows up in the menu bar once you've installed the Google Cast extension. However, browser tag casting is different from the app implementation. Casting from the browser simply mirrors what's in a given tab; it doesn't stream video independently as it does within the apps. (This is the major difference between Chromecast and Plair, which can stream video independently from the browser.) A quick note: you can stream videos from YouTube on your laptop independently if you use the casting function built into the YouTube web player, but not if you use the Google cast extension in the browser itself. Netflix broadcasting from a browser won't be an option until the company makes the switch to HTML5, because Chromecast doesn't support the Silverlight technology currently powering Netflix.com.
Update: We have discovered that previous sentence is a bit misleading regarding Netflix's website compatibility with Chromecast. To be clear, you cannot mirror Netflix in Chrome using the casting feature because Netflix on the web is powered by Silverlight. However, the Netflix web player has Google Cast built in, just as the YouTube web player does, so you can instruct Chromecast to play a Netflix video using any browser, not just Chrome.
Despite this being beta software, tabs and videos opened, maximized and cast at both default and high-bitrate 720p settings played as fluidly on the TV as they did on our test laptop (a 2011 MacBook Pro, in this case). While others have experienced audio sync issues, we've had none in our time with the device thus far. When we attempted to mirror a tab on our Cr-48 running Chrome OS or a Toshiba Portege R705 running Windows 7, however, things weren't so peachy. The minimum hardware requirement for HD playback on a Windows machine is a second-gen Core i5 CPU clocked at 2GHz or higher, while mirroring at 480p requires a Core i3 or equivalent processor. Currently, the Chromebook Pixel is the only laptop running Chrome OS that's officially supported. Still, we wanted to test the service with all of our available machines to see how it performed.
As expected, video from those laptops streamed at the default 720p resolution stuttered badly enough to render it unwatchable. Clips did mirror well from our Windows laptop when the resolution was reduced to the minimum 480p, but the quality was degraded and did not look very good on our 47-inch flatscreen. Streaming YouTube through the Google Cast feature built into the player worked just fine, however. So, if you've got an older machine and are banking on using the tab casting feature extensively, you're likely to be disappointed, barring some changes between now and when the feature exits beta.
Generally, we found the mirroring feature to be quite useful, mostly because it let us stream from Rhapsody, Showtime Anytime, HBOGo, Hulu, Vimeo and other online media sources that don't directly support the Google Cast standard. Using the Chrome extension is dead simple, and for the most part, it works really well. Plus, it serves as a great stop-gap solution to give folks access to the majority of content on the web -- while giving Google time to evangelize the platform and increase adoption of its Google Cast SDK in other content makers' apps and players, where the technology provides a much better user experience. Make no mistake, however: tab casting is not as good a user experience as using mobile apps.
Given the Chromecast's tempting price and mainstream target market, we think it would be most instructive to compare it to its two most popular rivals: Roku and Apple TV. There are five members of the Roku family, with different features and different prices, but the Roku LT, Roku 3 and Streaming Stick are the devices that compete most directly with Chromecast -- the LT for its $50 price, the 3 for its 1080p streaming and full feature set and the Streaming Stick for its 1080p streaming and dongle form factor. However, the LT is still $15 more than Chromecast and doesn't support 1080p resolution, while the Roku 3 and Streaming Stick each cost $100. Plus, the Streaming Stick requires you to own or purchase a Roku-ready television, and Rokus are app-dependent for their content. So, if you're a YouTube or Showtime fan, you're out of luck. That said, thanks to MHL support, the Streaming Stick doesn't need a separate power cable like Chromecast does, and the other Roku devices, unlike Chromecast, can play locally stored content via a free USB Media Player app.
(Update: One of our astute readers has pointed out that local media can be played on Chromecast using the browser tab casting feature. You simply need to type the file's location into Chrome's Address bar. However, this only works with media using certain codecs, and right now the Google Cast technology supports a limited number of media types. You can find the full list at the Google Developers website.)
Like the Roku 3, Apple TV costs $100, which makes it considerably more expensive than the Chromecast. Apple TV allows users to mirror content from other devices using AirPlay, which is superior to Chromecast's similar functionality because it's not limited to just browser-based content. Additionally, Apple TV enables direct streaming of music, movies and photos using AirPlay as well.
Until now, getting internet content on a television screen required plunking down a wad of cash for a smart TV or a home theater PC, or spending around a hundred dollars on hardware like a Roku, Apple TV. Chromecast brings the internet to your TV in a form that's easy to use and priced at a fraction of the cost of all those other options. Sure, it's not as fully featured as some of its competitors, but it does provide a lot for just $35, and it's a platform that's likely to improve dramatically as more apps start to support the technology. Were it not so cheap, we might feel differently. But, as it stands, we can wholeheartedly recommend the Chromecast for anyone who's been looking for an easy, unobtrusive way to put some brains into their dumb TV.