We went into Google's Android event on Wednesday with the mindset that the new Nexus 7 and Android 4.3 were going to be the only focus. We stand corrected, as the Chrome unit at Google was happy to introduce the $35 Chromecast, a dongle Google hopes will take over your television.
It appears Google is quite excited about the Chromecast. When logging on to the online Google Play store, Google is running a huge banner advertisement for the device. The new Nexus 7 and Android 4.3 aren't in sight. So why does this 2-inch device have everyone intrigued? And can it follow up Google's failed Nexus Q that had a similar purpose?
You browse content with your phone, tablet or laptop. You beam it to the TV through the cloud with the push of a software button. You continue doing whatever on your phone, tablet or laptop as you watch on the TV.
This means you can then stream it at the highest available resolution, rather than relying on the local device to push that content over your home network. You get control of the video playback from your device, be that your smartphone, tablet or PC; you'll be able to create playlists and change the playback volume as well.
No, the Chromecast isn't a set-top box - let's get that out of the way. Rather, Google has taken a different approach by making it a small dongle that plugs into any HDTV through an HDMI port. All remote control functionality for the dongle is done through your existing smartphone, tablet or laptop - ruling out any need for a hardware remote. As Google explained at its event on Wednesday, the Chromecast isn't running Google TV software but a slimmed-down version of Chrome OS.
Given most TVs don't support the version of HDMI that supplies power (or a lot of it), you will need to plug the Chromecast into an external power source through USB. This is something Google is very shy about showing off on its website, because running another cord is pretty unattractive. Nonetheless, most HDTVs have a USB port on the back, so it shouldn't be too difficult to supply power to the little guy.
The whole premise of the Chromecast is to stream content from the web to your television, from another device. Google is being very open when it comes to device support. Supported operating systems for Chromecast are Android 2.3 and higher, iOS 6 and higher, Windows 7 and higher, Mac OS 10.7 and higher and the Chromebook Pixel (more Chromebooks coming soon). Sorry, Windows Phone.
So through what apps will you be able to stream content to your Chromecast? Movies, TV shows and music downloaded and purchased from Google Play can be streamed. It's not clear if that means every photo and video from an Android device can be streamed as well, but it sounds likely. YouTube videos can also be beamed to the television.
Google made a big deal about Netflix at its event on Wednesday. It will be one of the first third-party applications to offer Chromecast baked in. In celebration, Chromecast purchasers will receive three free months of Netflix for a limited time. Update: Google has killed off the Netflix promotion after one day, due to high-demand.
Furthermore, Chrome webpages can be streamed to the television through a Chrome extension that's now available. You can select certain Chrome tabs to "cast" and control when you want them to or not. Google says that when you're on Cast-optimizsd sites like YouTube and Netflix, you'll see new options that let you play video on your TV. All webpages can still be streamed (Silverlight and Quicktime video aren't supported).
Similar to the Chromecast functionality found in the Netflix app cross-platform, Google will soon make an SDK available for Android, iOS and Chrome developers to incorporate Chromecast into their apps.
All supported applications feature a tiny loop button that pushes the content to your television.
Pandora support was also mentioned during the event.
Google wasn't quick to come out and explain the technical specifications for the Chromecast, given how simple the device is. Luckily, the US Federal Communications Commission filing for the device has been posted, showing the innards to all. A Marvell DE3005 chip and Azurewave hardware are found to push out 2Ghz of Wi-Fi, since there isn't much actual computing being done.
Given there's not much computing on the device, set up for the Chromecast is over Wi-Fi.
What the Chromecast looks like after you've connected the USB charging cable. You can of course plug it into your TV if it has a USB socket for power. (picture taken byOuriel Ohayon)
When first plugging in the device, a set-up page will appear on your TV asking you to visit the Chromecast website on your laptop or mobile device. You'll then use your laptop or mobile device to connect to the Chromecast over Wi-Fi, treating it like a Wi-Fi hotspot. From there, you're good to stream (what we can tell so far without using the device).
How does it compare to Apple TV?
Apple's television solution comes in the form of a set-top box and is close to $75 more expensive (not counting an HDMI cord that isn't included). The Apple TV comes pre-loaded with a slew of applications like iTunes media, Netflix, Hulu, WSJ, SkyNews, MLB, NBA and more, which can all be accessed as you would expect with an application. The Apple TV is more comparable to the Google TV.
The Chromecast is more of a middleman. It's taking the media being streamed on your mobile device or laptop and beaming the URL over to your HDTV to be streamed. No actual browsing is done on the Chromecast - it's all on a third-party device.
We plan to delve way deeper into this once we get our hands on the Chromecast.
What about Google TV?
With the release of the Chromecast, many are wondering what the future of the Google TV looks like. It doesn't sound like the more expensive and robust Google TV platform is being killed off - despite it not really having taken off.
Speaking to CNET, Android boss Sundar Pichai said: "Google TV is moving forward in a major way. You'll see more partners announced at CES."
Pricing and availability
The Chromecast is available today for US customers on the Google Play store and several third-party retailers like Best Buy and Amazon. It will ship on 7 August, though initial stock appears to be out. Google hasn't provided any specific details about a launch outside the US yet. "As soon as possible" is as detailed as the company is prepared to be at present.
As we will start seeing in a few days, you'll receive the Chromecast, HDMI extender, USB power cable and power adapter in the retail packaging.