Review by Andrew Kameka on Monday July 29, 2013.
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Google's first foray into Android-powered television was a failure for many, but others will tell you that Google TV is just a good idea waiting for the proper execution. The second attempt, the Nexus Q, never even managed to make it out of Google's factories and into homes. With the launch of Chromecast, the web, TV, and mobile apps are once again interacting with Google at the center of it all. Is the third time the charm?
Chromecast sidesteps the trappings of previous Android and web TV attempts by eliminating the barriers to entry. It doesn't require hundreds of dollars to upgrade to a new TV or further clutter an entertainment center with a set-top box. Chromecast requires only a television new enough to have HDMI and USB inputs. Once the dongle is installed, it delivers streaming from YouTube, Netflix, Google Play services, or the web, and the promise of quite a bit more if the Googlecast standard finds it way into more mobile apps.
Chromecast is a small component slightly bigger than a microSD-to-USB adapter. The compact size is a nice alternative to other web-TV connectors because it's able to hide behind a television. Chromecast doesn't require plugging into an outlet because it can draw power from the TV's USB port; however, an adapter is included in case a TV does not have a USB port. As someone who has owned multiple TV accessories, this is the easiest set-up that I've experienced. Plug the dongle into the TV, visit a website to confirm, and then choose an entertainment source. On the Idiot to Genius scale of difficulty setting up, we idiots can feel comfortable with the tiny TV accessory.
Videos, music, and even a web browser can all be viewed with Chromecast. Google has wisely updated its Android apps to support stream management through the Chromecast hardware, so there's nothing new to learn. The software is great because there's technically no direct software or obtrusive UI for users to conquer. Instead, Chromecast is managed through the mobile apps that users have already mastered on their Android and iOS devices. Apps do not stream from the device to the TV; they relay links to load videos or songs. The entire set-up is perfect because it's something people already know and use.
Netflix is the best way to showcase this casting system. An always-visible button triggers cast mode but allows a smartphone to continue operating as the way to browse through Netflix's library. It's easier to search on the phone, tap on a thumbnail to view a video, raise or lower volume, and even pause or play video directly from the lock screen or notification drawer. I typically handle these functions with my PS3 or Google TV, and this is a much easier way to handle it all. That's a recurring theme and selling point for the Chromecast. It doesn't require extra remotes or junk crowding my TV center - just the device that's always at my hip anyway. The reason someone might want a Chromecast, aside from the bottom-barrel $35 price tag, is that it simplifies the smart TV workflow.
Chromecast unfortunately has gulfs in content and controls at the moment. On Android, it works seamlessly with Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, Netflix, and YouTube. Everything from media controls to managing a song or video queue is breathless in any of those apps. However, it will take time for other apps like Pandora, Amazon, or Hulu to release Chromecast compatibility. Apple iOS users only have the option to play Netflix or YouTube videos. Neither Android nor iOS are able to mirror web content through their mobile browsers; only Chrome on Mac OS 10.7 or later, Windows 7 or later, or Chromebook Pixel have that option. The lack of mobile Chrome mirroring greatly disappoints me because I have to turn on my computer to mirror a browser window and showoff a website or stream video from Comedy Central or Hulu. Having to use a computer rather than my phone is exactly the kind of situation I wanted to avoid because it's just another big device to manage on my lap.
Mirroring is also a letdown because it requires a very strong web connection and computer. Watching 1080p HD video initiated by my phone always looked beautiful on the big screen, but the mirroring was occasionally choppy and made audio out of sync like the characters in an old kung-fu flick. The Chromecast plugin warned me that the performance on my router and Macbook or Pixel were not up to par, but the problems persist even with no other programs running and confirming that my Verizon FiOS service is zipping along. Hulu was passable but not particularly good, Comedy Central had smooth streaming of The Daily Show, and Fox Sports video was so choppy that I gave up trying to watch anything on its website. There's quite a bit of lag and latency that needs to be ironed out in order to make the stream as smooth as it is when viewing Netflix or YouTube.
It's clear that Chromecast should be graded on a curve because the device is in its infant stage, but the television add-on already deserves high marks. Chromecast delivers headache-free streaming for Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play when using an Android device. More importantly, it delivers an opportunity to rapidly and easily expand options by developers choosing to include Chromecast streaming in their apps. I can technically view Hulu through browser mirroring, but it would be much easier to tap the cast button in a Hulu app. The odds of that happening are not encouraging based on previous relations between Hulu and Android, but one can hope that the company will finally wise up since it already supports Apple TV. Furthermore, the same apps that support AirPlay - I'm looking at you, WatchESPN and WatchABC - could just as easily support Chromecast if developers put in the effort.
Google has released products with failed promises before, but Chromecast has the distinction of having more attainable goals and concrete immediate value at launch. My first impressions of the device is that it's the simplest way anyone can have Netflix and YouTube on their TV without buying a smart TV with those services built-in. It's also the most cost-effective at only $35. Low costs, low stress, and high value; Chromecast has that already. Anything else that may appear in the future will merely enhance the big picture.
Google Chromecast HDMI connected
Andrew is MobileBurn.com's managing editor. He is based in Miami, Florida.