Review: Updated: Chromecast review

Review: Updated: Chromecast review

Introduction

Update: Chromecast now has a respectable amount of apps, so we’ve updated our review text to reflect that and give you our impressions of the major app releases and its open SDK future.

Good things come in small packages, or at least that’s the hope Google has for Chromecast. This inexpensive media streaming adapter turns any HDMI-equipped television into an app-driven smart TV, making it a seed that could grow into the company’s answer to the Apple TV, Roku 3 and other rival streaming devices.

But it’s an answer that’s very much a work in progress even now, more than six months after it launched in the US.

That’s because while the Android inventor has released its streaming adapter at an attractive price of $35 (about £22, AU$39), the number of apps it supports is growing but still fairly limited compared to the Apple TV, and there’s no UK release date just yet.

Chromecast HDMI media streaming device

The Chromecast app list is now up to 23 including top apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Pandora and HBO Go. It’s is by far the cheapest way to beam these video and music services to a TV, although initiating the stream requires an Android or iOS device, or Google’s Chrome browser on a PC, Mac or Chrome OS computer.

You won’t find a Chromecast remote in the box or a main menu tying all of the apps together like on an Apple TV or Roku 3. All streams originate from a special "Cast" button that’s built into each correlating mobile app or browser. This means Windows Phone 8 users, who don’t have many options among app-filled streaming technology, won’t find compatibility here either.

HBO Go Chromecast app

Also missing that all-important "Cast" button at the moment are key apps: Amazon Instant Video, Spotify, Crackle and dedicated sports apps of any kind. That’s a problem because Amazon occasionally has discounted movie rentals, Spotify is hands-down better than Pandora and Crackle has Jerry Seinfeld’s "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" episodes that everyone has suddenly discovered after three seasons. When it comes to MLB.TV, NBA, NHL GameCenter and Watch ESPN, it’s the perpetual off-season on Chromecast.

Chromecast sports apps

But while Chromecast lacks a handful of name-brand Android and iOS apps, it has serious potential to it thanks to garage-based developers who are hacking away at the new Google Cast SDK. AllCast, by the one-man "team" Clockwork Mod, is the best example of a homegrown app as it rivals Apple’s AirPlay technology. It enables Android phone and tablet owners to push movies and photos from their device to the big screen, just when you thought your dad’s Family Photo Night was canceled due to that broken 1980s slide projector.

AllCast app

Media Browser is an app that streams similar content from any computer in the house, giving the Chromecast home theater PC (HTPC) granting capabilities. Its a power sorely missing from PS4 at the moment, and Google provides a cheap and quick fix for those waiting on Sony’s patch.

The new apps worth a free download are BeyondPod and Revision3, both of which launched alongside the Google Cast SDK. BeyondPod offers aggregated podcast content while Revision3 adds its own blend of video content. The rest aren’t very noteworthy or are extremely buggy.

Chromecast apps list

That really contrasts Apple TV, which hasn’t opened an app store beyond its pre-installed apps. Roku has its Roku SDK, but it’s easier for many developers to make their apps compatible with the Android-based Chromecast. It requires a little bit of retooling rather than learning an entirely new ecosystem, as is the case with the Roku. Android is Google’s secret weapon here.

As it stands, Chromecast is Google’s third attempt to take over living room televisions and it’s on the verge of overcoming the problems of its predecessors. But it’s still unproven. Previously, the company launched the odd-shaped Nexus Q, which also faced an uphill battle for app support.

Google TV and its recently rebranded Android TV successor have had their own share of streaming problems. There are more apps for the Honeycomb and Jelly Bean-based platforms, but the hardware has always been more expensive, requiring a "buddy box" or a whole new television to take advantage of the apps.

Chromecast works with Android and iOS

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.

Chromecast tab extension

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 has less than two dozen 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. That appears to be changing with the groundswell of garage based developers gaining access to the SDK. It’s only a matter of time.

Chromecast is looking less and less like 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, but as they say, third time’s a charm.

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 most 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.

Not so flexible

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.

Chromecast box

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.

dimensions

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."

Chromecast install

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.

Downloading the official Chromecast setup app for Android or the post-launch iOS version is an alternative way to install the media streaming dongle on a home network. But it’s a little more complicated to set up compared to using a standard web browser.

iOS Chromecast app

Both the iOS and Android apps require connecting your smartphone or tablet directly to the Chromecast and punching in a four-digit code. This means temporarily disconnecting your always-online device from the internet. It also calls for jumping through several menus: from the Chromecast app, to WiFi setting menu, back to Chromecast, back to WiFi. Android users have it a little easier with quicker access to a WiFi menu overlay that isn’t as buried, whereas Apple hardware owners can’t launch the WiFi settings menu as fast through iOS 7, even in Command Center.

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’s uniformly built into the top right of all of the compatible mobile apps, including the three Google-made apps Chromecast launched with: YouTube, Google Play Music and Google Play Movies & TV. The lone third-party app on day one was Netflix. The same can be seen on the Cast-button-equipped Chrome browser on computers, but not Chrome on mobile devices. It’s been been left out of the media extending picture.

Chromecast cast button

Curiously, while 23 apps are now available for Chromecast, Google hasn’t contributed any more beyond its initial three. That’s really annoying because while the indie-made AllCast app can (to the best of its ability) slowly push photos and videos to a big TV, it’d be nice to the same functionality in Android’s official gallery app. That’s where most Android users spend time flipping through their photos. Beaming it to the big screen seems like a natural in-app progression.

The company, however, did come through with Google Movies & TV on iOS in January so that Apple fans could finally enjoy streaming movies and television shows through the previously Android-only service. Normally, this wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but YouTube inexplicably blocks "Casting" to the Chromecast on certain video purchases and rentals

That made iOS devoid of any Chromecast video rental app for a while. There was nothing more irritating than buying Google’s Chromecast for Christmas, trying to rent a movie that turns out to be blocked from being "Cast" through Google’s YouTube and realizing that Google’s Google Play Movies & TV wasn’t even available on iOS.

Chromecast cast button

Pressing "Cast" on apps that are fully compatible causes the Chromecast device to start pulling the app’s video and audio to the TV on its own. This conveniently frees up your computer, phone, and tablet to scrub through the content’s timeline, fine-tune the audio settings or make other selections within the app. The device or computer becomes a glorified remote control.

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 often times a no-no among iOS AirPlay devices, which are typically device-dependent and tend to be locked out of multi-tasking while streaming.

Netflix streaming

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.

Chromecast mirroring

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.

Chromecast vs Apple TV

Here’s where AirPlay mirroring on a computer starts to outpace Chromecast, however: the browser extension is just that – browser-based. Showing off a photo you retouched in Photoshop, a document you want a group to proofread in Word, or any program outside of the Chrome browser tab you’re casting requires diving deeper into an options menu for a hidden command that’s deemed "experimental" by Google. It’s buggy and slower than Apple TV’s full computer mirroring. Chromecast is not meant for mirroring system-wide applications like Apple’s menu-bar-located AirPlay. At least not yet.

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. While Google has opened up the Chromecast API for building applications, it’s still forcing everyone to use Chrome for tab casting from a computer.

YouTube

The Chromecast browser extension also does better with some websites than others. Hulu Plus wasn’t a device-castable app at launch, so it was great to find out that 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, the Chrome tab extension allowed us to navigate the computer away from this extended tab and go to other internet tubes through by opening up different tabs. The show was still being beamed to the TV full-screen via the background tab. It didn’t turn our MacBook Air into a Daily Show-streaming brick like it would on an Apple TV.

The Daily Show

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.

Verdict

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.

Breaking Bad

We liked

If anyone in your family owns an Android, Google handily wins the Chromecast vs Apple TV debate as the result of its openness and 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. Some apps 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 Air that costs more than a monthly car payment. You’re streaming this video from your device’s camera roll? 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 and new apps like HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora and AllCast give Chromecast a fighting chance against its media streaming rivals.

Chromecast YouTube

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.

Chromecast now has more than six apps, but 23 still pales in comparison to the hundreds being offered by Apple TV and Roku 3. The app list needs to include Amazon Instant Video and Spotify before it has all of the major apps covered, and so far neither has been announced as in development. Chromecast also needs to come to the UK and Australia, who are waiting to spend a few quid and Australian dollars on this affordable device.

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 video game systems like PS4, Xbox One and plenty of last-generation consoles, Wii, PS3, or Xbox 360.

What could is likely to make Chromecast even better in the years ahead is its budding openness of that platform so that as many developers as possible can make apps. That’s what 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.

Chromecast stands at 23 vs Android’s 700,000. It has a long way to do, but it’s well on its way after only launching with five mobile apps last year.

Chromecast accessories

Final Verdict

Chromecast is an inexpensive, easy-to-use way of accessing a dozen worthy 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 free from 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 name-brand apps and the ones that content providers are promising are important, but only serve to round out what makes Chromecast really unique: the ability to broadcast an app on Android or iOS, or a Chrome browser tab to a large TV. It can be done while still being able to use that device or computer without interruption. In this regard, Chromecast runs circles around Apple TV and its AirPlay technology. Everything else is just filler until more Android developers port their apps over to Chromecast. Apple TV could be a game-changer if Apple were to open up its TV platform to the developer masses, but for now that title and all of the potential is behind Google’s "not ready for prime time" streaming media player.

Originally reviewed August 7 2013

    



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