Television may be ripe for innovation, but we're still waiting for that one big product that turns the market on its head. We have various set-top boxes, led by the Apple TV and Roku, as well as video game consoles with lofty aspirations. But could something as simple as a dongle that plugs into an HDMI port be the revolution we've been waiting for? Let's find out, as Gizmag reviews the Google Chromecast.
What is Chromecast?
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If something like the Xbox One tries to innovate television by charging head-first with futuristic voice and gesture control, then the Chromecast sneaks in through the bathroom window. Its feature set isn't particularly revolutionary, but taken as a whole, it still has a chance to be a game-changing product. Only rather than trying to change the game with fancy-schmancy, never-before-seen technology, it tries to do it with simplicity.
The Google Chromecast is a small stick that plugs into your TV. The stick goes into an open HDMI port, while a separate cable needs to draw juice from either a USB port on your TV, or, failing that, a power outlet. Everything you need (Chromecast, USB cable, wall charger) is included in the product's tiny box.
On plugging in your Chromecast, you're invited to set it up by downloading its accompanying Android app, or by using the Chrome browser on a PC. Setup is fast, and instructions are crystal clear. Basically you're syncing it up with your device and getting it onto your Wi-Fi network. All you need is a device and a network that it and the Chromecast can both join.
Once you're synced up, you simply queue up one of the compatible apps on your mobile device (more on that in a minute), or on any web page in your PC's Chrome browser. Tap the tiny Chromecast icon in the app (Google's compatible Android and iOS apps have already been updated for this), or the browser extension in Chrome.
After doing this, the music, video, or web page you queued up will play on your TV. It's using the second screen to control the first screen.
Chromecast vs. AirPlay
Though the end result of Chromecasting is similar to Apple's AirPlay mirroring on iOS, Chromecasting is very different behind the scenes. With AirPlay, your iPhone or iPad actually plays the content, and beams the result to your TV. With the Chromecast, your device basically acts as a glorified remote control. The Chromecast itself streams the content straight from the cloud, with the device merely triggering it (the exception is Chrome web browsing, which mirrors on both PC and TV).
This difference in the way it works is important for two reasons. First, your smartphone or tablet is free to do other things while you watch season three of Breaking Bad on your TV. No need to keep the Netflix app open on your mobile device. But even more importanly, your device's battery life shouldn't take a hit.
We ran a quick thirty-minute video-looping battery test on the new Nexus 7, once while also Chromecasting music to TV, and once without Chromecasting. The drop in battery percentage was identical both times, suggesting that, unlike AirPlay, casting doesn't hurt your mobile device's battery life at all.
You'll want to take that with a few grains of salt, since devices' battery percentages aren't always a perfect reflection of actual drain. But being that none of the processing happens on your smartphone or tablet, these results appeared to confirm what we already suspected.
There are limits to what the Chromecast can do today. Out of the starting gate, it's only compatible with a handful of apps, and it's quite the Google-centric bunch. YouTube and Google Play Music (including the Spotify-like All Access) and Movies & TV all work with Chromecast. The only non-Google app that's compatible right now, though, is Netflix. Pandora is reportedly in the works for sometime down the road.
If you use any of these services, the Chromecast is a simple, cheap, user-friendly, and battery-life-saving way to get them onto your TV. We tested all of them, and didn't run into any trouble. Picture and sound are great, and we didn't have any buffering problems.
Chrome and Chromecast
Where Chromecast gets really interesting, though, is when you throw a PC with the Chrome browser into the mix. Anything you play in the browser – including videos – will appear on your TV. This opens the door to services like HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Hulu, or content from your cable or satellite provider's website. We didn't find any restrictions: if you can play it in Chrome, you can watch it on your TV.
In my tests, I was able to stream on-demand content from HBO Go to my TV with no problem. I opened Chrome on a laptop, tapped the Chromecast extension, played the video in full-screen, and watched it on TV.
Quality wasn't mind-blowing, but it was quite good. It maxed out at 720p HD and ran at a smooth enough framerate. There was a second or two of lag between laptop and TV, but you can simply ignore the laptop, or turn the screen brightness down, and enjoy it on your TV. Audio went to the TV, and to the TV only.
It will be interesting to see if content providers like HBO and Showtime will try to block Chromecasting from your web browser. It isn't yet clear whether they'd even be able to do that if they wanted to. Considering you're already paying your cable provider to access those services online, I don't see what the problem is. But this is Hollywood we're talking about: it has a history of wanting to control any and every way you access your favorite movies and shows. We'll see.
The Google Chromecast does just what it advertises. Trigger content from another device, watch it on TV. Google's latest plan to invade the living room is so simple it just might be genius.
When you're dealing with local streaming, there's always the chance that your router will cause problems, but I found the whole process to be about as user-friendly as possible. It's more limited than pseudo-rivals like the Apple TV and Roku, but it's also more flexible. Being able to use it with both iOS and Android devices is a huge plus. And streaming from Chrome on a PC unleashes the entire web onto your TV. There's a lot of potential here.
Chromecast's killer feature, however, is that it only costs US$35. When Google first announced Chromecast, it offered three free months of Netflix with that, but new orders (which are seriously backordered as of the time of publication) will no longer get that deal. Apparently the promotion succeeded beyond Google's expectations.
Still, if you can wait a few weeks for Google's shipments to catch up with demand, then the Chromecast is a good value, with the chance to become an excellent value down the road. It's all going to depend on Google striking new content deals. Considering the overwhelming initial demand for the device, we'd say the odds of that are looking pretty good.
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