Google Chromecast review

Following its successful US launch last summer, Google has launched Chromecast in the UK. And it's a rather big deal.

Chromecast is an HDMI dongle designed to plug into your TV and is a rival to Apple's AirPlay and devices like Apple TV, Roku and other streaming boxes. Compatible with Macs, PCs, iOS and Android devices to act as the controller you can stream YouTube, Netflix and even Google Chrome tabs that host video content over to your TV. In the UK we won't get HBO Go like in the States, but the BBC's updated iPlayer app is one UK addition.

With such intense buzz around the product, many have wondered if Chromecast can live up to all the hype. We've lived with it for seven months Stateside where we've loved it, but how does that translate to its UK debut? Could a small, plastic stick really deliver the type of functionality that so many other companies have failed to fully implement and utlilise? Read on to find out.

Design and hardware

It's a dongle: plastic shell, lightweight and pocketsize. Just shy of 3-inches long, Chromecast measures 2.5-inches when protruding from an HDMI port.

It has an LED indicator on the rear, alongside a button and Micro USB port. The USB port supplies Chromecast with power through an external powder adapter for the wall. The adapter enables Chromecast to stay powered on when the TV is off, thus enabling you to switch on the TV and change inputs via HDMI control.

You will also get an HDMI extension cable in the box for those who cannot plug Chromecast in the rear of their TV or need something extra for their setup. You could use the TV's USB port to power the device too, if you have one spare and reasonably close to an HDMI port.

Basic but brilliant

The team at iFixit.com put Chromecast on its dissection table recently and deemed it a basic device. Chromecast uses an Azure Wave AW-NH387 802.11 b/g/n WLAN and Bluetooth, as well as an FM combo module IC chip and Marvell DE3005-A1 system-on-a-chip and has 4GB of flash memory and 512MB of RAM.

There isn't much else to describe in regards to how Chromecast looks and works out of the box. But that's great: it can be hidden away out of sight. 

Casting performance

After plugging in Chromecast, you must download the setup app for Mac, PC or Android. This will get it online with a Wi-Fi network. The setup app asks you to pick a network, but it's important to note that Chromecast only supports 2.4GHz networks. You then have to name your Chromecast, install the Google Cast Chrome extension on your device - and that's it.

Your device - computer, smartphone, tablet, etc - does not stream the video. Chromecast itself connects to the web and streams video files, you are merely pointing it there. To start streaming, just select the dedicated Cast button in the relevant app and that's it. For UK launch the YouTube and Netflix apps are listed as supported, but there are more: Plex and BBC iPlayer being two examples. In the States HBO Go added compatibility in November 2013 too, but that's not available on UK shores.

Once you select the Cast button in either app, Chromecast will play the video files while your device becomes the remote control. Since Chromecast is doing all the work, you can play with your device while watching TV. This means you can open and close apps and switch between tabs without disrupting your video.

This also means you can switch platforms. For instance, when "casting" Netflix on Android, you could switch to iOS and continue managing your Netflix without a hiccup. To manage the currently streaming video, such as hitting rewind or pause, you have to use the original app (ie, Netflix, YouTube, etc) from which you "casted" the video. Google could easily circumvent this hassle by implementing playback buttons to Chromecast set-up app.

Web browsing performance

Beyond Netflix and YouTube, the big feature with Chromecast is the ability to send Chrome tabs to the TV. People could just connect their laptops to TVs for web browsing on a television monitor, but then there's always the annoyance of cables, delayed performance and other issues. Chromecast addresses all of these problems, and it does it well.

Chromecast sends what's open in a Chrome tab from your device to the TV, and this is otherwise called tab casting. The mouse cursor doesn't appear on the TV which is great, and there's only some lag.

Chromecast doesn't stream video in the web as it does with the supported apps, although you can cast videos from YouTube.com using the dedicated Cast button that's built into the YouTube web player. Netflix needs to switch to HTML5 still, as Chromecast doesn't support Silverlight on Netflix.com.

Flash video - such as Vimeo and Hulu - in the web browser goes full-screen without any complications, while music services can plug in to take advantage of your TV's audio output. An "Audio Mode" will even adjust bandwidth usage and frame rates when listening to music which is handy.

The only hitch we discovered involved QuickTime. While video streamed beautifully, QuickTime audio would playback only from the device and not the TV. Pulling local MOV files into Chrome wouldn't play either, but other supported local formats would play when dropped into the Chrome browser. This is - in our opinion - one of the best selling features of Chromecast.

Google said tab casting is a beta software. It still mirrored impeccably in 720p on a 2011 MacBook Pro, though. We also attempted to cast a Chrome tab in a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook which did fail miserably due to faltering renders; the Chromebook Pixel is apparently the only Chrome OS laptop with official support.

When all is said and done, for those of you who use AirParrot to send tabs or windows to Apple TV via AirPlay, Chromecast is a great alternative solution. The tab casting and mirroring feature is incredibly useful, especially because it will beam other online sources without a dedicated Cast button.

Despite the specific app support we found ourselves mostly using Chromecast to play local video files in a drag-and-drop fashion. Well, that and YouTube videos. In a nutshell: anyone addicted to the Airplay functionality in the iOS YouTube app will also find the dedicated Cast button in YouTube just as habit-forming.

Verdict

Chromecast is a bit different from anything else out there. In terms of functionality and performance it's an ideal method of not just streaming video on a TV but also casting Chrome browser tabs to the screen too. If you have an older TV without an HDMI, however, then it will be no good for you.

Apple baked AirPlay into iOS with OS X integration, but Google has gone a different route with Chromecast. App developers will need to add support for their own apps for the best functionality, so Google will essentially have to push or attract developers into adopting Chromecast for it to grow.

But that's already happening. And even where it hasn't yet, the ability to drag-and-drop files into Chrome and cast video from tabs with little to no problems is simply brilliant.

As for other streaming devices, such as Apple TV and Roku, well, they are more expensive and physically larger than Chromecast. Google's offering depends on you having the necessary smart device to control, rather than its own dedicated remote, but that's another part of why it's so great for many users.

Chromecast is an inexpensive and easy-to-use dongle. It's also an impulse buy that packs more incentive than whim.