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Why Andy Ihnatko wants the Google Chromecast in triplicate
I can’t afford to just go out and buy every single new piece of tech gear that comes out. Which is why I usually get in touch with the company (or vice-versa), and they send me a loaner.
But if the thing costs just thirty-five bucks, and it looks like it might be super-doubleplus-cool, and I believe that I’ll get it quicker if I just order one like everybody else … sure!
Google revealed a nice surprise on Wednesday: Chromecast. It’s a tiny dongle that plugs directly into any HDMI port on your TV and streams HD video. Although you control the Chromecast from your laptop, phone, or tablet instead of via a dedicated remote (as with the Roku or Apple TV), it establishes its own WiFi connection to streaming services instead of tying up the device. Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play are supported at launch, with more services coming soon.
You can also stream content from any Chrome browser tab to your TV. Chromecast is available for sale today from the Google Play store, Amazon, and Best Buy.
As soon as Chromecast was announced, I fired off an email to my contacts at Google. Then, I hit Amazon, where a search for “Chromecast” only returned links to cheap guitars. Onward to Google Play, which promised to ship on Thursday. So my fingers flew through the “Add To Cart” and “Next-Day Shipping” buttons.
I went back to Amazon later that day, and found that it was suddenly available. I one-clicked it. All along, I had hoped that I could buy this with some of my Amazon store credits instead of with Real Money. Alas, Google Play had already shipped my order and I couldn’t cancel it. And in the intervening hours, the Play Store had completely sold out.
Then I got an email from my contact at Google corporate, promising me that I’d have one first thing on Thursday.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because this turn of events adds a certain level of clarity to my review. By the end of this week, I will have three Chromecasts in my house. My reactions to the device will dictate what I do with them:
If Chromecast is great, I’ll keep them both.
If Chromecast is okay but not great, I’ll keep one and give the other to a friend.
If Chromecast isn’t even okay, jeez, why would I inflict misery upon a friend?
Them’s the stakes, and they were firmly in my mind as I signed for Google’s early-AM FedEx.
Chromecast pleased me the moment I opened the box. It was packed with everything I needed. It even included the cables that I didn’t necessarily need, but which other people might. Compare and contrast this $35 experience with what you get with Apple TV: it costs $99 and you have to source your own HDMI and data cables.
Chromecast looks like a USB flash drive with a slight glandular condition. Yup, you plug it directly into an HDMI port, which means that it doesn’t put another box under your TV and contribute to the mess of cables. For all intents and purposes, your five-year-old HDTV shipped with digital streaming as a built-in service.
That’s the dream. But Chromecast still needs to draw external USB power; it can’t pull it from the HDMI port. Which is why a micro-USB cable and power adapter are inside the box.
But What’s this on the back of my 2007 Samsung? Why, it’s a USB connector, marked “Service.” I gave it a try. Bingo! Chromecast’s white power light started blinking.
Cool. Just by gathering the 6’ USB cord into loops and securing it with its velcro tie I’ve made Chromecast into the invisible streaming device it ought to be. If I want to be Mr. Fancypants, I can easily source a generic 6” micro-USB cable from Amazon.
Chromecast displays a soothing slideshow of stock landscapes on the corresponding HDMI input while it tells you to get futher instructions from google.com/chromecast/setup. This URL takes you to an downloadable app that configures the Chromecast, puts it on your home WiFi network, and links you to updated Chromecast-enabled versions of the YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play video apps.
That’s all you need to do. I encountered only one hitch with the setup app on my MacBook: initially, my MacBook couldn’t locate the Chromecast. Thankfully, I figured out the problem before I started pulling apart my network or running complicated disgnostics. I just needed to move my MacBook so that the WiFi path had some alternative to drilling straight through five inches of TV glass and electronics.
Which makes me think that some Chromecast installations will be tricky. For example, if your HDTV is (1) really big, (2) backed up so close against a wall that WiFi can’t bounce its way back to the Chromecast, and (3) the wall is made out of brick or some other WiFi-opaque material, you’ll need a cable extender to make the device work.
The box does contain a stubby HDMI extender. Google thought ahead. The extender will improve WiFi reception if necessary and will allow you to plug in the Chromecast even if your TV’s HDMI connectors are so densely packed or heavily shrouded that they can’t accept anything thicker than an HDMI cable.
Once the Chromecast was connected to my home WiFi, I had no further issues despite the fact that there are multiple interior and exterior walls between the Chromecast and my Airport Extreme base station.
I fired up the updated Netflix app on my iPhone. It sports a new screen sharing button. Netflix found the Chromecast instantly, and within moments, an episode of “Top Gear” started playing through my TV in HD.
Video quality appears to be excellent. Google’s specs claim streaming resolution of up to 1080 HD. I’m not going to stick a scope onto my TV screen to verify that, but playback appears to be happening at full resolution judging by the starfields in the HD “Gravity” trailer available on YouTube.
And the playback is smooth. It’s certainly as smooth as what I’m used to seeing on my Roku or Apple TV. Even opening a browser window on my MacBook and streaming another video didn’t affect playback from Chromecast.
During the playback, your phone or tablet only acts as a controller. The Netflix app allows you to pause, scrub forward or back, and adjust the volume, all while showing a “movie poster” image of what you’re watching. Chromecast, remember, is streaming its content directly from Netflix, YouTube, or Google Play. Your video will continue to play even if squads of lobsterbacked Hessian mercenaries break into your home and smash your phone, declaring it to be a tool of insurgency against the Crown.
(Video will also continue to play if you switch to another app, answer a call, or even turn your phone off entirely.)
Is this a better approach than shipping the Chromecast with a conventional, dedicated remote? Not if you’re on a budget. The fact that Chromecast can only be controlled by an iOS or Android smartphone could be a drawback to someone who’s are attracted by its $35 price tag.
Other than that … it’s an improvement. That’s a testament to the quality of the Netflix and YouTube mobile apps, and to the severe limitations of a handheld remote. Netflix is far easier to navigate with a multitouch color screen than with a remote that only understands Up, Down, Left, Right, and OK.
That said, this interface isn’t a complete victory. When my phone rang this morning, I wished I had a dedicated, cheap, rubberized button on my desk that would pause the movie and silence my office. Instead, I had to do that with the same device with which I was answering the incoming call.
Though Chromecast is limited to just YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play content at launch time, Google has an API for third-party support. Given the $35 price, I imagine that users won’t have to wait long before most of the popular streaming mobile apps work with Chromecast.
You can also mirror content from any browser tab running on Chrome. The plugin works with Windows, MacOS, and the Chromebook Pixel.
Chrome tab mirroring works great for web browsing. And if you use a web versions of office apps (like Google Docs, Office 365, or the upcoming web version of iCloud), the feature makes Chromecast a no-brainer addition to your conference room presentation setup. The tab you’ve selected for mirroring will continue to stream through your TV even if it’s no longer frontmost on your PC. You can keep right on browsing or switch back to your word processor without losing what’s on your HDTV.
Streaming audio works great, too. But streaming video through a mirrored Chrome tab doesn’t work quite as well.
The feature works with every service I tried: Vimeo, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Slingplayer, on and on. But the steadiness of the playback is affected by your PC’s CPU load and network traffic. Streaming video through HBO’s webapp was never less than “watchable,” but it wasn’t consistently perfect, and I couldn’t count on full HD.
Plus, you have to accept the experiences that the web services give you. HBO Go’s web viewer sandwiches the video between ribbons of user interface. It does allow me to switch to a fullscreen mode, but (naturally) the browser tab fullscreens on my MacBook as well, which prevents me from using my laptop for anything else. And because Slingplayer’s webapp uses a custom plugin, the video goes out to my HDTV, but the audio stays on my MacBook’s speakers. That quirk is peculiar to Slingplayer.
Chromecast is designed to open up your TV screen for sharing. As such, there’s no password lock on it. This is only a drawback news if you were thinking of using it as a wireless connection to a presentation projector. Yup, anyone in that 500-seat lecture hall with a Chromecast-compatible app can hijack your lecture at any time, if they’re connected to same WiFi network.
This makes the devices better at its intended purpose. When friend drops by your house, he or she can share content with everybody in the room without having to go download special software or go through any kind of setup. And because you’re home network is password-secured (right?) there’s no chance of your living room Chromecast getting hijacked by a neighbor.
Still, it’d be nice if Chromecast could be “paired” with a specific phone, as an option. I also wish that the device’s ability to create an ad-hoc network were useful for something other than initial setup. I could stick my Chromecast into my hotel room’s HDTV and stream a video from my phone or tablet. Few hotels have open WiFi that doesn’t require some form of browser-based authentication, and even if the Chromecast could authenticate that way, sending a downloaded video from my phone to the hotel network and back to the TV would be bandwidth-sucking overkill.
Is Chromecast a stiff competitor to Roku or Apple TV? Not today. Those are fully-mature products with a complete library of streaming apps. Unless you’re getting the bulk of your entertainment from Netflix and YouTube, the Chromecast requires a certain leap of faith.
I think it’s more of a hop than a leap, though. Chromecast is different from those two streamers because it’s a “shut up and do what you’re told” device that opens a stream as commanded by a smartphone app. The company behind Hulu Plus (or a podcasting network, for that matter) won’t need to enter into protracted negotiations with Google to make their service watchable on Chromecast-enhanced TVs. They’ll just need to release an updated version of their own mobile app.
And it’s probably a bigger threat to Roku than to Apple. Apple TV is a much more ambitious product, and it has a level of intimacy with iOS and MacOS devices (and their own apps and libraries) that’s only going to become more impressive when new editions of iOS and MacOS arrive later this year.
But on the whole, Google has a clear winner. And it’s largely due to Chromecast’s cost: $35. For that kind of money, you can afford to put one of these on every HDTV in your house.
Which is why I’ll be keeping all of my superfluous Chromecasts. They’re just too handy.
Moreover, I’m intrigued by Chromecast’s potential. Google has been on a hell of a hot streak over the past few years. Now that I’ve awarded Google a promotion in status from “I’m wary of giving this company too much personal information” to “I’m wary, but I’m reasonably confident that they won’t do things with that information that I wouldn’t approve of,” I’m interested to see how they can enhance my TV.
Chromecast isn’t as complicated or sophisticated as Google TV. Maybe that’s it’s strength. Every tech company is struggling with the question “What is an ‘internet-enabled TV,’ anyway?” All previous solutions have focused on creating a transformative experience that combines elements from cable boxes and game consoles.
Chromecast’s idea is to just turn an HDMI port into a WiFi conduit for outside apps. Make it affordable. And with those two elements in place, maybe the answer will present itself soon enough.