Google introduced its Chromecast dongle last week, and we jumped on board to buy the device immediately. Why? It was $35 and, for those of us early buyers, it really ended up costing $11 considering that three months of Netflix came free.
It allows you to stream video and music from an iPad, iPhone, Chrome browser on a computer or an Android device. It's limited right now, certainly from a content perspective, but for anyone who doesn't necessarily want to spend upwards on $100 on a streaming media device it's a great deal. And considering that Google released an SDK for the Chromecast, it's only going to get better.
While it's a simple device, there's a lot to discuss. Let's explore it together now.
The Chromecast is super small, about the size of a man's thumb, and measures 72mm x 35mm x 12mm. It weighs just 34 grams and looks like a USB dongle but, instead of a USB connector at the end it has a full size HDMI plug.
It has a small light on the back that lets you know it's on and powered, in addition to a microUSB plug for charging the device either through a wall wart or through a USB port on your TV. The cord is long enough to reach nearby ports, but it's not overly long that you'll be able to stretch across the back of a large TV.
The Chromecast supports 2.4GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi networks and requires a Wi-Fi tablet, computer or smartphone for receiving commands to pull down data. And that's exactly what it does: you're not streaming data to the device, instead it's fetching everything from the cloud.
That's why local media on your smart device can't be streamed right now (though we hope developers make it easy to mimic your device as a cloud source with Chromecast support through future updates). It supports Mac OS X 10.7 and above, the Chromebook Pixel, Windows 7 and 8, iOS 6 and newer and Android 2.3 forward and has a max output of 1080p for any display.
The device comes in a relatively empty box, which includes the USB power cable and the wall wart. Even the instructions are relatively simple, there are just three steps and they are printed on the inner side of the box.
First things first: plug the Chromecast into an available HDMI port and then plug the USB cable into either your wall wart or into an available USB port on the TV to give the device power. It should navigate to the correct input automatically, but if it doesn't you'll need to switch inputs also.
While Google says the Chromecast supports iOS devices, the iOS setup application isn't available yet. We needed to use a web-based setup on our iPhone 5 with iOS 7 beta 4 to get started. On Android, we were able to download the Chromecast app easily and get started immediately. From a computer running Chrome, we installed a small application from our browser and then ran it. Once it's installed, you'll install a quick Chrome extension and then you're good to go.
Our experience was generally really positive with the Chromecast. All you need to do is open up Netflix, YouTube or Google Play movies on your tablet or smartphone and then tap the "Cast" icon on the top right of the display. Suddenly, without any other setup, your content is playing on your television. Even better? You can change apps or perform other tasks on your phone or tablet without interrupting the stream on your TV.
We liked that we could start a YouTube or Netflix video on one device and then control it from another – there's a small blue label at the top of the screen to let you know what's already playing. We also liked that we could easily adjust the volume by tapping the volume rocker on our phone. It basically works the same on iOS and Android, though we couldn't get the iPhone 5 volume controls to translate over to our TV as we did on Android. The quality of the stream was excellent over two routers that we tested it with, though it wasn't always perfect.
In one instance, Chromecast completely dropped our Netflix stream for no reason, even though the router is in the same room, so you might run into some performance problems.
Additionally, streaming from a computer works pretty well with the Chrome plugin, but local files don't stream great. You can drag a movie into Chrome, for example, and it will start playing on your TV. However, there was noticeable lag and delay.
Overall we were pleased with the performance, we just really wish that there was a better way to stream local files from an Android smartphone or tablet.
We had no problem setting up the Chromecast with an Android device on multiple TVs and multiple wireless networks. However, if you're using an iOS device you'll run into one major frustration: if you swap out Wi-Fi networks you'll need to change the name of your router to match that of the Chromecast in order for it to recognize the new network. That's super annoying. Android can do this automatically and tell your Chromecast to use the network that it's on, but that's not the case with iOS.
Google's SDK means other app developers can add support for Chromecast in the future, which will only increase the value of the device. So far Plex, HBO and Vimeo have expressed interest (Vimeo and Plex have said they are on board) and we expect that list to expand rapidly.
We really hope there's a way for gaming to work on the Chromecast. It would be great if we could fire up Riptide GP2, for example, for console-style gaming that is powered by a tablet or a smartphone. That would also give it more of an Apple TV-style experience. Complete screen mirroring would also be an awesome option, though again Chromecast reaches data from the cloud and not directly from your device.
We're really happy with our purchase so far and we're really excited to see what Google and its partners have coming down the line.
DISCLAIMER: Todd Haselton purchased two Chromecast units with his own funds. He used the devices in two different locations with separate TVs, routers and cable providers. It was tested with a MacBook Air, a Galaxy S4, an HTC One and an iPhone 5. The Chromecast is pretty darn limited right now, but we knew that going into our purchase. Plus, at $35 it's a great option for streaming media that we can easily bring on business trips. The device itself takes up far less room than any other streaming box, whether it's a Roku or Apple TV, and will still provide access to Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movie rentals or purchases and, soon, much more.
We're really happy with our purchase so far and we're really excited to see what Google and its partners have coming down the line. No, the Chromecast isn't perfect, but it performs as advertised relatively well. Anyone who needs a more robust offering should indeed consider the Apple TV, a Roku box or even one of the other competing dongles, some of which sport powerful processors and full versions of Android.
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