You have to love it when the technorazzi don’t see something coming and most of us were surprised when Google pulled the tiny Chromecast widget out of their bag of tricks along with the expected refresh of the Nexus 7.
The Chromecast is not a radically new idea. Streaming across WiFi to an HDMI port is ground already covered by Roku and AppleTV but at $35 the Chromecast breaks new ground and bridges features between the two current kingpins.
What’s in the box?
The packaging is typical of Google and is nicely done. A sleeve wraps an inner box which opens up to reveal the Chromecast, a micro USB cable, a power supply and a short, bendable HDMI extender that is a nice touch.
The Chromecast does require power but I was able to connect it to a USB port on the back of my TV and was up and running within minutes.
I initially did the setup process on my phone (a Galaxy S4) after grabbing the app in the Google Play store. Once you have set it up, you will generally never use the app again because all of the controls actually reside in the individual applications that support the Chromecast.
The list today is a bit short. It is Youtube, Netflix and Google Play Movies and TV on Android platforms. Chrome is also supported on Mac, PC and some Chromebooks.
The idea and implementation is pretty slick. If the app is supported you will have a button that looks like this in the upper right or lower right hand corner of the window.
In the Chrome browser…
Or within Youtube on an iOS 6 device…
If the app is supported, rather than using the mobile device to play the video, it throws the job to the Chromecast which streams it directly to your TV with your computer or mobile device becoming a remote control. You control stop, start and position and even volume from the device but all the activity takes place on the TV and the heavy lifting is done by the Chromecast.
This is great, because if you start something this way and close the app, it continues to play but if you open it up again, even on another device, it gives control to that device.
When used this way, the Chromecast can actually output 1080P to your TV and the footage looks quite stunning.
If an app is not supported, you can still choose to stream anything in the Chrome browser to the device, although this kind of transfer is limited to 720P. I watched a Doctor Who episode on Amazon Prime video and found the performance to be comparable to Apple TV with one small exception. There is about one second of latency between what occurs on the computer screen and seeing it on the TV. Since it sends the audio and mutes the output of the computer this is fine for streaming TV.
Operationally, you choose a single tab within Chrome to push to the Chromecast on the TV. If you change tabs on your computer, the tab on the TV stays where it was. This allows you to start a TV show on Hulu and then switch over to Twitter or Facebook to say snarky things about it. I would never do that. Really.
I did find it find it to be a bit crippling if I was trying to use the TV as a second monitor for my computer. While you could do a power point presentation by opening it up within Google Docs on Chrome, the delay made it feel very mushy. The other issue to be aware of is that your mouse will not show up on your TV.
There is a beta mode on the Mac that allows you to push the entire screen (not just a tab of Chrome) to the TV, although it has the same latency as with Chrome. This would allow you to show anything on your screen through the Chromecast. Engaging this mode causes the audio to be offset from the video when you switch back to viewing on one of the supported apps, like Youtube. The only fix for this is to reboot the Chromecast via its app on either the computer or Android platform. I could not find a way to initiate a reboot from an iOS device on the Chromecast, and there is not a setup app in the app store yet.
Google does have some minimum requirements for a computer to be able to stream a tab to the Chromecast that are broken down in the chart below. Currently you cannot stream anything from a mobile device unless it is within one of the supported apps.
If you are looking for a device to use for business presentations to push power point or diagrams to a screen or projector, you should keep on looking. The latency and the inability to push anything but a supported app from a mobile device makes this of very limited use to a road warrior. Something like the Samsung WiFi HDMI adapter or Apple TV is a better choice.
As an entertainment piece it is a home run, particularly if you are a Netflix devotee. The video looks great and the experience is wonderful. Since it also gives you the ability to push something on the web to your TV (as long as you use Chrome) whether it is a Mac or a PC this is a great tool for a non-Mac, or an OS divided household.
As an added bonus, if you can find a Chromecast lurking in one of the first shipments to Best Buy, the initial units came with a three month code for Netflix, which makes the effective cost of the Chromecast $11. Truly a no-brainer, but make sure you ask, because there are not many of the Netflix bonus units left and Amazon is now completely sold out of them.
The verdict? When you can buy 3 Chromecast for just a hint more than a single Apple TV it is more than worth buying one to see where Google is going with this little toy. The Roku is a better price point than the Apple TV but will not let you push any computer to its HDMI output.
The Chromecast is cheaper and has more features. I like that.