When launched, Google’s Chromecast media streamer caught the tech world by storm. It sold out with great rapidity, everyone enamored not least by the price, but by its potential.
Now that the hoopla has died down a bit, we can take a calm look at the reality of the Chromecast.
Is it any good? Or more precisely, how bad does it have to be, not to be worth $35?
In case the image doesn’t fully give it away, the Chromecast is tiny. It’s barely larger than a USB thumb drive. In theory, you can power the Chromecast off your TV, presuming your TV has powered USB connectors.
If your TV doesn’t have powered USB, there’s a small wall wart included in the package.
Unlike, well, pretty much every TV-related product you’d buy these days, there’s no remote. Instead, you control everything via iOS and (of course) Android apps.
What it is, and what it ain’t
If you’re hoping for a phone-to-TV connection to play everything, that’s not really what this is. There is some of that (which we’ll get to), but the reality is the Chromecast’s main purpose is to stream content from the web, using your phone/tablet as a controller. That may seem like a subtle distinction, but this is what’s called “managing expectations.”
The Chromecast just plugs into a spare HDMI port on your TV. As mentioned, if your TV has a USB plug, generally this can power the Chromecast (some don’t offer enough juice). If your TV can’t power it, there’s a long USB cable included, and a tiny wall wart. Unlike the Roku Streaming Stick, the Chromecast doesn’t take power from MHL.
The setup is easy, you just register the Chromecast with your Google account. I used a laptop and my HTC One for testing.
Stream from the Web (Mobile Control)
There are a handful of Apps the currently work with the Chromecast. These aren’t “Chromecast Apps” per se, more like apps with the ability to send their content to the Chromecast. For example, Hulu Plus. Download the Hulu Plus app, and it works on your phone just as should. If you want your Chromecast to play that content, you select the Chromecast icon, and after a pause, the video stops playing on your phone and starts playing on your TV. Pretty seamless, actually. The picture quality is whatever the feed is normally capable of. This is because it’s not going from the web to your phone to the Chromecast, the Chromecast is getting the feed directly. Using a BenQ W1070ST I found the image to be sharp and detailed, looking the same as you would get on any media streamer.
Other apps that work with Chromecast include Netflix, HBo Go, YouTube, and a few others (with more promised).
What’s missing is the extensive movie/show libraries of iTunes and Amazon. Google’s Play store has gotten a LOT better since its launch, but it still doesn’t have the back catalog of Amazon and iTunes (though content licenses are always changing). So with an Apple TV or Roku, you’ve got a more extensive library of content, and access to more apps.
Stream from your computer
Googlecast lets you send the content of a tab in Google Chrome to the Chromecast. This screen mirroring works fairly well, though the image quality apparently relies heavily on your laptop’s hardware. My netbook did a valiant job, but the performance overall was somewhat meh, I blame the PC not the Chromecast. I also tried it on two “real” computers and found the performance to be much better.
There’s no guarantee it will work on websites with streaming video, or how well. Google reminds that this features is in beta, probably so they won’t have to field complaints about it. For example, I got CBS.com to run full screen, but the quality wasn’t quite as good as the same feed directly from the PC on the same display.
There’s no official way to send your own content through the Chromecast to your TV, but you can drag and drop files into a browser window, and ‘cast it. This doesn’t work with every file type, though, so don’t get too excited.
For $35 there’s undeniably a “why not” aspect to the Chromecast. However, if you’re an Apple person, there’s less need for this as the Apple TV gives better interaction with iOS. Even Android users, honestly, will find little reason to choose this over an Apple TV or Roku. If the size is appealing to you, Roku does a similar size.
So I guess yes, it’s cool and worth $35. But you’re getting $35 worth compared to Roku and AppleTV. So I’m going to give the Chromecast 3.5 hearts out of 5. I like it, it’s fairly cool, but I think most people would be better served by Roku or Apple TV.
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