Google Chromecast Wireless Media Bridge

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Google Chromecast Wireless Media Bridge

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Google-Chromecast-review-device-small.jpgI'm not sure I've ever had as much trouble assigning a product descriptor to a review as I did with Google's new $35 Chromecast. Some writers have kept the description very general, calling it a "TV Stick" or "TV Dongle." Google doesn't even bother to fence it in with a descriptor. Like Bono or Madonna, this guy needs no last name. It's just Chromecast. But that doesn't work for our site layout. We've got to label this sucker and put it in one category. Do I put it in Media Servers, which is where streaming media players like the Roku 3 reside? Or does it go in the Accessories category, which is where we would put wireless video transmitters and control systems? My struggle goes to the very heart of the review. Just what the heck is the Chromecast? To be sure, it's a great little device offered at a great low price but, before you can decide if it's ideal for you, you must first understand exactly what it is ... and what it's not.

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Let's begin with what it's not. Most people seem to be putting the Chromecast in the same category as streaming media players like the Rokus and Apple TVs of the world. This makes sense in that the goal of the Chromecast is the same: to deliver Web-based content from services like Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus to a non-networkable, non-smart TV. But there's a key difference. A streaming media player is a source that can stand on its own: buy a Roku, connect it to your TV and home network, power it up, and voila - you've got a variety of Web-based apps at your fingertips, navigated through the Roku onscreen interface and controlled via a Roku remote (or, if we must nitpick, a Roku control app or a universal remote with Roku codes programmed into it).

That's not how the Chromecast works. If you buy it expecting to bring it home, hook it up, and get a list of apps right there on your TV screen, you're going to be disappointed. This little stick is not a source in and of itself. Rather, it's a bridge between your TV (or any other device with HDMI inputs, like an AV receiver) and your smartphone, tablet, or computer. The Chromecast is designed to work with specific cloud-based apps and services on these mobile devices, such as Netflix and YouTube. Here's how it works: connect the Chromecast to your TV's HDMI input, add it to the same network that your mobile devices are on, use your mobile device to cue up content through supported apps, then send or "cast" the content to the Chromecast to be displayed on the big screen. You can also display Web content from your computer's Chrome Web browser. Unlike a dedicated streaming media player, the Chromecast doesn't have an onscreen interface for navigation or a remote for control. All of that occurs through your mobile device.

Make sense? If not, hopefully a walk through the Hookup and Performance sections will clear things up.

Google-Chromecast-review-tablet.jpgThe Hookup
The Chromecast measures about 2.25 inches long by 1.5 inches at its widest. In a smart design move, the part of the Chromecast that sits closest to the HDMI connector is thinner, measuring a little less than one inch. This allows the Chromecast to wedge comfortably in between other HDMI cables on a TV or receiver connection panel. I was able to fit my review sample between two other HDMI cables on the back of my Harman Kardon AVR 3700 receiver without any difficulty. The Chromecast's stick-like shape and direct-to-TV connection inevitably draw comparison with the Roku Stick, but there's a key difference between them. The Roku Stick must be plugged into an MHL-compatible HDMI port; it receives its power from said port, so there's no need to attach any other cables to it. The Chromecast, on the other hand, can be plugged into any HDMI input, which makes it compatible with a wider variety of devices but also demands the addition of a power cable. Via the supplied power cable, you can power the Chromecast using a powered USB port on your TV or by connecting the adapter to a local power outlet. The supplied cable is about five feet long. For initial setup and testing, I connected the Chromecast directly to an older Samsung LCD TV that lacks powered USB, so I plugged the device directly into a power outlet. I later tested the USB power off of a Panasonic plasma, and it worked fine, too.

Once you physically connect the Chromecast to your TV and power it up, you will see a very basic onscreen interface that instructs you to finish the setup process via your computer or mobile device. I opted to use my Macbook Pro laptop for initial setup and punched in the URL that was provided via the onscreen interface. Not surprisingly, you can't use any old Web browser; you must use Google Chrome. When I launched Chrome and went to the Chromecast setup page, Google informed me that my OS (OS X 10.6.8) is not fully supported and recommended I use a different device. I decided to ignore the warning and proceed, and I did not encounter any problems. Nevertheless, the official list of supported operating systems is as follows: Android Gingerbread 2.3 or higher, iOS 6 or higher, Windows 7 or higher, OS X 10.7 or higher, and Chrome OS (Chromebook Pixel on Chrome 28 or higher).

Google-Chromecast-review-Pandora.jpgIt took only a couple of minutes to initialize the Chromecast stick and add it to my home network, and Google provides clear, simple instructions every step of the way. Keep in mind that every mobile device and computer you want to use with the Chromecast must be connected to the same network. When doing a computer setup, the final step is to add the Google Cast extension to your Chrome browser by clicking the Add Extension button. A little Cast icon will appear in the top right corner of Chrome. You can also dictate some quality settings that apply to Web pages being shared from your computer to Chromecast: Choose a video resolution of Standard 480p, High 720p, and Extreme 720p high bitrate. Full-screen zoom is enabled by default to get rid of black bars, so video purists will likely want to change that setting to show content in its correct aspect ratio. There's also an option to auto-size the browser to best fit your screen.

The next step was to set up both my iPhone and my Samsung Galaxy tablet by downloading the free Chromecast app from iTunes and the Play Store, respectively. Again, this took just a few seconds. In both cases, once I launched the app, it immediately detected the Chromecast I had set up and let me connect to it. You will also need to download the apps for all of the supported services you want to use, if you don't already have them. As I write this in early November, the list of supported apps is YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Play Music, and Google Play Movies and TV. [Editor's note, 11/25/13: Late last week, Google announced support for HBO Go, as well.]

Now that all of the pieces were in place on my TV, laptop, and other mobile devices, it was time to start "casting."

Read about the Google Chromecast's performance, Comparisons and Competition and Conclusion on Page 2 . . .

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