I’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.
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.
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).
It 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 . . .
Let’s divide our discussion of performance into two categories: mobile devices and computers. On a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet, Chromecast only works with supported apps; you can’t “cast” video from the Chrome browser within your mobile device, as you can through a computer. Launch the supported app, and within the playback window you’ll see the little Cast icon. Hit that, select the Chromecast you want to use, and A/V playback will switch from the mobile device screen to your TV (or through your AV receiver if you’ve gone that setup route). Dare I say, the experience is very AirPlay-esque; so, if you’ve ever used AirPlay, you get the general idea of how the Chromecast experience works. Video is shown full-screen with no icons or other distractions around it. Once playback is initiated on the TV, the mobile device becomes the remote control through which you can play, pause, rewind, and stop the source; I was even able to control volume within the YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and Google Play Movies apps using the mobile device’s volume buttons (although you’d want to set master volume through your TV or receiver and then adjust the app volume within those parameters).
It’s important to clarify that the content is not being streamed from the cloud to your mobile device and then passed through to your computer; rather, once you cast the video to the Chromecast, the source video is streamed directly from the cloud to the Chromecast, with the mobile device simply serving as a controller. This means that if you want to save battery life on your handheld device, you can actually put it in standby mode or fully power it down and the video will continue to play through the Chromecast. Of course, you won’t have any way to control playback unless you turn the handheld device back on.
Now let’s talk about casting from your computer. With supported services like Netflix and YouTube that have been “optimized for cast” (as Google explains it), the experience is pretty much the same as what you get from a tablet. Once you load the Web page into Chrome and begin video playback, you can initiate a cast using the little Cast icon embedded within the Web page itself, and the video will then be streamed from the cloud directly to the Chromecast, with your computer as the controller. In my tests, video playback through these supported sites was smooth, reliable, and of good quality (more on this in a second).
Through a computer, you also have the option to screen-share any Web page that’s cued up using Chrome, including sites that stream video (plug-ins like Silverlight, QuickTime, and VLC are not supported). What you’ll see on the big screen looks exactly as it does on your computer, toolbars and all. The little Google Cast icon is always available at the top right corner of Chrome for you to initiate a casting session. Interestingly, even though Hulu Plus is a supported service on mobile devices, it was not yet “optimized” through Chrome during my review. I was only able to cast Hulu content using the general Cast icon in the Chrome toolbar; video playback was very choppy and basically unwatchable. The same proved true when I tried to stream video from other unsupported sites, like ABC.com, NBC.com, Vimeo, and Vudu. That’s because, when screen-sharing a Web page, you’re still relying on your computer’s processing prowess – unlike the optimized sites that hand off the video stream to Google’s cloud servers. As Google says it, “Casting a tab requires a lot of your computer’s power, which is why it’s not supported on all computers.” I switched from my MacBook to a Windows 8 laptop and did not see much of an improvement. In my case, the screen-sharing worked fine for streaming music from an unsupported site like Pandora, for streaming photos from Picasa, and for viewing basic Web pages, but not serious video streaming. Your success with “screen-sharing” unsupported video sites will depend largely on your computer’s video processing.
With optimized sites, the AV quality of streamed content is primarily dictated by the source. The Chromecast supports resolutions up to 1080p, and it automatically output everything as 1080p/60 with the display devices I used. An HD-quality Netflix movie like The Avengers looked as good as it does through my Apple TV and Roku 3, although it did take about 30 seconds of playback before the picture ramped up, so to speak, from being highly compressed to achieving full quality. The Chromecast will support audio soundtracks up to Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, but those formats aren’t yet offered by the major streaming services. Netflix does offer Dolby Digital Plus for some titles; The Hunger Games is one such title, and when I casted this movie from Netflix (through both my computer and Samsung tablet), I did get the DD+ soundtrack to play through my AV receiver.
Right now, the biggest knock against the Chromecast is that the list of supported apps and services is pretty short. The official app list is certainly nowhere near as robust as what you get through a Roku box or even the smart TV services offered by most of the major TV manufacturers. You can bet, though, that the list will continue to grow. Hulu Plus and Pandora are both recent additions that weren’t available at the product’s launch. Perhaps the biggest omission is the ability to stream personal media files from your computer, mobile device, or DLNA server. Right now, you can only stream Web-based media content, but even that will likely change soon, maybe before this story gets posted. GigaOm has already reported about a third-party app called MyCast, designed for casting of personal media files. Lots of third-party developers are working on Chromecast apps and waiting for Google to approve them, so the possibilities are endless.
As I mentioned above, the quality of video that is being cast from unsupported websites through Chrome will vary based on your computer’s abilities. In my case, it wasn’t a watchable solution. Supported sites like Netflix and YouTube worked great, as did the screen-sharing of basic Web pages, photo and music streaming sites, and even smaller videos embedded within sites like ESPN.com.
HDMI is the only way to connect the Chromecast to your TV or AV receiver; there are no legacy connections for older, non-HDMI equipment. Also, the Chromecast only supports a wireless network connection, so you don’t have the option to use a more reliable wired Ethernet connection.
Comparison and Competition
I can’t think of another product that works exactly like the Chromecast, but there are products that provide similar functions. In terms of its access to streaming VOD services, people inevitably compare the Chromecast with dedicated streaming media players like the Roku 3 and Apple TV, both of which are self-contained, one-box solutions that carry higher price tags around $100. The lowest priced Roku player, the $50 Roku LT, is a closer match in price if you’d prefer to go the one-box route, but it only supports a maximum resolution of 720p. The Roku Stick shares a similar form factor but costs between $70 and $90. You can read about other streaming media players from Vizio, D-Link, Netgear, etc. in our Media Servers category.
In regards to smartphone/tablet playback and control, AirPlay offers similar functionality for iOS devices, but the $99 Apple TV is the only option to connect to a TV for video support. Miracast is an Android-friendly technology that lets you stream content directly from compatible mobile devices to a TV or AV receiver. Miracast is built into a lot of new smart TVs, but there are also some adapter products out there that add the function to non-networkable TVs, including Netgear’s Push2TV (MSRP $80) and the Rocketfish Miracast receiver ($80). We’re seeing a growing number of Android TV sticks that basically let you add the Android OS and all its functionality to your TV via an HDMI port. Such devices include the Mini iMito MX1, Favi SmartStick, and Plair 2.
On the computer side, there are plenty of PC-to-TV wireless video dongles on the market that allow for wireless screen sharing. But again, we’re talking about a $35 device that does all of these things.
The Google Chromecast isn’t the perfect fit for everyone. Those who just want a simple, one-box source to watch Netflix and other Web-based content on their TV will be happier with a Roku or Apple TV. However, if you’re a smartphone, tablet, or laptop owner who’s looking for an easy, inexpensive way to get your favorite Web-based content off the small screen and into your home theater environment, the Google Chromecast is definitely a must-see. It’s an awesome little device that works exactly as advertised and has plenty of room to grow. Yes, the number of officially supported services is low right now, but I expect to see the list grow quickly … and if it doesn’t, well, you still only spent $35 to get Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Play, and Web browsing on your big screen.
If you already own a smart TV, a smart Blu-ray player, or a dedicated streaming media player, you don’t need the Chromecast to enjoy services like Netflix and Hulu Plus … but you may want to pick one up anyhow. I own those other devices, and what I like most about the Chromecast is its flexibility and directness. Regardless of whether I’m using my iPhone, my Samsung tablet, or my MacBook, if I want to quickly throw a funny YouTube video up on the big screen, show somebody photos on Facebook, or continue playback of a Pandora song or Netflix movie, it takes just seconds to deliver the goods to the big screen. With its low asking price of $35, the Chromecast can just as easily be a cool add-on accessory for those who already get their smart-TV services elsewhere.