Google last week launched a $35 HDMI dongle, called Chromecast, that's designed to rival Apple's AirPlay and devices like Apple TV and Roku. It released with support for Netflix and YouTube, as well as compatibility with Macs, PCs, iOS and Android.
The ability to hit a Cast button to send video or entire Chrome tabs to a TV made everyone immediately excited, and there was such a huge interest that Google had to call off a three-month Netflix promotion just one day after unveiling Chromecast because of overwhelming demand.
With such intense buzz, many have wondered if Chromecast will live up to all the hype. 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 set-up. 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.
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. However, it's worth noting the connector could easily break off if you bump into it. It's a lot like a USB stick. It can't withstand an accidental knock when plugged in. So, be cautious.
Performance: Netflix and YouTube
After plugging in Chromecast, you must download the set-up app for Mac, PC or Android. This will get it online with a Wi-Fi network. The set-up 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, and etc - does not stream the video. Chromecast itself actually connects to the Web and streams video files. To start streaming, just select the dedicated Cast button in the YouTube or Netflix apps - these are the only apps with support, aside from Google's Play media apps.
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.
Performance: Web browsing
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 cords, delayed performance and more 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, and there's some lag. Chromecast also 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 like Pandora play well too. An "Audio Mode" will even adjust bandwidth usage and frame rates when listening to music - that's 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 tab in a Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. This failed 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 over 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.
We have to say, after a few days of use, we found ourselves mostly using Chromecast to play local video files... 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.
Chromecast is a bit different from anything else out there.
Apple baked AirPlay into the 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, so Google will essentially have to push or attract developers into adopting Chromecast. Chromecast already has an edge with official support for Netflix, and, of course, support for YouTube. Only time will tell if its app support model can really rival AirPlay.
As for other streaming devices, such as Apple TV and Roku, well they are more expensive than Chromecast. For $50, Roku is a perfect solution if you only want to watch Netflix, whereas the $99 Apple TV is great if you want HBO Go and Apple's app ecosystem.
In terms of functionality and performance, Chromecast is the cheapest and ideal method of streaming video on a TV and casting browser tabs to a TV. Chromecast is an inexpensive and easy-to-use dongle. It's also an impulse buy that packs more incentive than whim.