Sometimes, cheap and simple can be brilliant. Google seems to have figured this out with its latest attempt to bring online content to your TV set—an ordinary looking, pack-of-gum-sized device called Chromecast.
Google introduced the new product last week (see “Google Launches a Dongle to Bring Online Video to TV”). The $35 gadget is about two inches long and plugs into an HDMI port on the back of newer TVs, enabling them to play online videos from sources like Netflix and Google’s own YouTube, or simply by mirroring the screen of another device.
Knowing Google, Chromecast is just a little piece of a longer play. While plenty of us now have flat-screen TVs containing HDMI ports, few of us watch online content on these TVs. And only 15 percent of people who have Internet-connected TVs are using them to view or listen to online content. So it will be a while until Web-connected TV sets are the standard in homes, and for us to get accustomed to watching Web-based content on them.
In the meantime, Chromecast acts as a Trojan dongle, if you will, to get us consumers accustomed to streaming content—including content from Google’s suite of services—on TVs, and from all sorts of gadgets (including, of course, Android smartphones, tablets, and Chromebooks, but also PCs, Macs, iPhones, and iPads).
Google has made much bolder efforts to enter the TV market in the past without much success. Google TV, a streaming set-top box that the company developed with electronics manufacturers and introduced in 2010, never caught on. And remember the Nexus Q, a big, black orb the company unveiled last year that could stream music and video to your TV? Most people don’t, because it was expensive, only truly worked with a handful of Android devices, and only streamed content from a few sources (see “Review: Google’s Nexus Q”).
After these two disappointments, Chromecast is basically genius. After plugging the device into an HDMI port on the back of my TV, connecting an included power adapter to the device and into a wall outlet, and making sure the TV was set to the proper HDMI input, I downloaded the Chromecast setup software to my PC and the Chromecast controller app to an Android tablet (Mac software is available, but the Chromecast iOS software wasn’t available when I tested the gadget). I also downloaded a Chromecast extension for my PC’s version of Google’s Chrome Web browser.
Once all these installations were completed, I was able to get streaming. Currently, Chromecast works with Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play, and content streamed from Google’s Chrome browser, and Google plans for it to work with more apps (such as Pandora) going forward. You can also stream either a single Chrome browser tab or your whole screen to the Chromecast, enabling you to share all kinds of things like movies and episodes of TV shows on other websites, or photos stored online.
I tried a few different videos on YouTube, including the mandatory hilarious compilation of clips of cats doing funny things, which I played on the TV via a Nexus 7 tablet. While there was a bit of a lag in adjusting the volume and playing and pausing videos from the tablet, overall it worked well. I was also impressed with how easy it was to fast-forward and rewind videos.
I was also happy to see how easy (and ripe for mischief) it was to control the same video stream across multiple devices. For example, I could start watching a video on my laptop, Chromecast it so it played on my TV, then switch over to controlling it from a tablet.
Netflix also worked well from the tablet, where I especially liked a feature that allows the user to see what’s streaming and control playback from the device’s lock screen.
There were some glitches and hiccups. Streaming Netflix from my PC laptop seemed to have a much longer lag time when I tried to do things like pause or play a video; I was also unable to adjust the volume on the TV from my laptop (that may simply be a problem with my laptop).
And a day after I started using the Chromecast, I had problems with my devices recognizing that it existed. I reinstalled the device’s software, which fixed the problem. Presumably, this was a problem that wouldn’t repeat itself, but if it did, it would quickly turn users off the device.
Roku, of course, already has a similar-looking product, the Roku Streaming Stick, but that costs $100 and only works with certain TV sets that are certified as “Roku ready.” Compared with that, Roku set-top boxes, and even Apple’s fairly popular set-top box, Apple TV, Chromecast just makes more sense. It’s tiny, inexpensive, easy to set up and use, and works with plenty of smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Not surprisingly, the Chromecast is a hit. In the days since its launch, it’s sparked something of a dongle frenzy. It promptly sold out at both Amazon and Best Buy’s website, and is listed as “ships in 3-4 weeks” on the Google Play website. The demand, both online and off, meant a Netflix promotion tied to the Chromecast purchase (three free months of the online-video and DVD-by-mail service, which effectively cut the price of the gadget down to $11) sold out, too. A colleague has even asked to borrow my review unit—but I’m loath to hand it over until I can buy my own.