Chromecast is Google’s latest foray into the world of smart televisions. A $35 stick that plugs into any HDMI-equipped television, this piece of hardware is essentially Google’s answer to Apple’s AirPlay standard. With this tiny piece of hardware, owners of Windows- and Mac-based computers, Android phones and tablets, and iOS devices–such as the iPhone and iPad–can immediately “cast” their videos, music, or web browsers to their television screen, much like AirPlay. So does Chromecast succeed where Google’s previous attempts have failed? What makes Chromecast different than AirPlay? And most important of all, should you buy one?
What Chromecast Is
Simply put, the Chromecast is a device that lets you get video and music from “this screen” to “that screen” wirelessly, with one tap. Rather than run down all the specific technical details, I’ll leave that to the experts at The Verge who have already written on such topics.
Apple already has a similar solution for this type of use: AirPlay. Unfortunately, AirPlay is limited specifically to Apple devices, like the iPad, iPhone, and Mac computer products. It also requires the AppleTV–a set-top box costing $99.
Chromecast not only comes in at a far less-expensive $35, it works with far more devices: Android devices (naturally), iOS-based devices like the iPad, iPhone, etc. but also any Google Chrome browser with the associated extension installed running on Windows or OS X. This means nearly anybody can take advantage of the device.
Perhaps more importantly, it allows the user to continue doing other things with their phone/tablet or computer while casting content to Chromecast. So, for example, you could start watching a show on Netflix on your cellphone, cast it over to Chromecast where it starts playing on the television, then go to responding to emails, or looking up what movies that actor’s been in on IMDB.
Chromecast also obviates the need for yet another remote control, since you control playback, volume, etc. directly from the device casting the content. This works seamlessly with Android devices, and surprisingly well from iOS devices.
Those using Google Chrome on their computer will also find impressive the fact that they can cast ANY browser tab (or your entire screen) from Chrome to their television, while still working in other tabs. In essence, you could watch YouTube videos on your big TV, while still browsing the web on your computer–without the need for additional hardware; it’s really rather remarkable.
What Chromecast Isn’t
Though Chromecast has a lot of potential, it’s not particularly robust, at least not yet. Currently limited to YouTube, Netflix, and Google’s own Play Music, and Play Movies & TV apps, it’s not quite a true AirPlay competitor, though it soon should be. Google has only just released their programming API’s for others to start building support into their apps, much the way Apple opened the AirPlay standard to developers. While it’s not yet possible to mirror your entire iPad or Android phone’s display to a Chromecast device yet, it’s surely on the horizon. These limitations might drive away some early adopters, but there’s a very strong set of building blocks here–ones that could easily eclipse AirPlay.
The Chromecast is also not a set-top box. This is an important distinction. Devices like the AppleTV, Roku players, and other similar boxes have their own interface, and distinct ways of operating, often requiring yet another remote control for your collection. AirPlay specifically becomes just another feature of the AppleTV, whereas the Chromecast is 100% about casting content. The interface is sparse, essentially telling you that it’s on, working, and ready for content. Yet it does so in a beautiful, minimalistic design–besting Apple’s interface significantly. The idea of being able to eliminate additional devices from the living room is also nice to contemplate.
It’s also an intriguing piece of technology, because it doesn’t really do anything. Here’s an example of how Chromecast actually works:
- You start watching Netflix on your iPad.
- You click the Cast button and choose your selected Chromecast device (you get the option to name it during setup).
- The iPad passes the video information to Chromecast, which then uses your wireless network to pull that same video content directly to the television, actually bypassing your iPad altogether.
- You now use your iPad for virtually anything else you want, and can return to the Netflix app to pause, change the volume, or select a different show.
In this example, the Chromecast is doing the work of retrieving the content to display, while your iPad only handles telling it what to play, and when to play it. Again, it’s an important distinction, but one that allows such a low price point for the device.
Unfortunately, the Chromecast’s limitations do mean that you won’t be watching video content that exists on a home media server, or NAS device–though it’s not really intended for that type of usage anyway. As more developers begin including Chromecast support in their apps, however, this is likely to change. There is already substantial interest by app developers.
Where Chromecast Excels
Price is obviously one of the most impressive aspects of Chromecast. At $35, it’s practically an impulse-purchase, and affordable enough to easily equip every television in the house with one. Even the relatively inexpensive Roku boxes, or AppleTV’s don’t hold the same value proposition.
Perhaps more impressive is the ease of setup and use that Chromecast provides. My initial setup took only about five minutes, which consisted of downloading the Chromecast app (on Android. iOS requires no additional application). The app scans your network for your Chromecast device, allows you to name it, and starts working–just like that; it honestly makes setting up an Apple product seem laborious in comparison. Chromecast is exactly as simple to use as it should be–and that should worry Apple. The fact that nearly any device on the market today can use the Chromecast is also incredibly convenient.
Apple’s draconian control over what they allow their devices to do, and how to allow it to happen is helping Google move Android further along, and at a more rapid pace than ever before. Already, Chromecast is getting significant interest by developers; Hulu, HBO, Vimeo, and others are already either in development, or seriously considering support for Chromecast–a product that was announced merely a week ago. Google is also serious about improving the device and the standard, as evidenced by an already-released update and I have already noticed improved performance in just a couple of days of use. Google’s loose policies with the use of Android and their services means that Chromecast will likely succeed, perhaps staggeringly so.
I’m a cord-cutter. I cancelled my cable-TV subscription, and chose to consume my content via the Internet. That currently involves methods such as Netflix, Hulu, television network websites’, etc. One of the biggest complaints I had regarding pay-for television was that I was so limited. The DVR once changed my life–I no longer had to schedule my free time around airings of my favorite shows. But my DVR was connected to a single television, at a single location, which became inconvenient.
Video-on-demand, and the rise of services like Hulu, have similarly changed my life once more. It allows for the freedom to watch shows anywhere I want–on my cellphone, at work during lunch, or riding in the car on a road trip, any time I want. I’m no longer limited by one screen. But still, it’s nice to be able to use that large television and awesome speakers to watch this great content. If only there were a way to get video from “here” to “there” without dealing with cables, and adapters, and upscalers, and everything else needed in the past.
Chromecast answers that problem. It’s almost like magic. Most importantly, it does it easily, cheaply, and in a way that allows us to go on living our lives. It’s the promise of technology come true.
Google gets us. They understand that Americans watch television while they browse the web. That we listen to music while we play games on our cellphones. They have developed the Chromecast to allow us to continue doing these things the way we have, but without needing to overly complicate matters. Tap a button, and the video you’re watching on your phone is now on your TV, and you can go back to playing Angry Birds on your cellphone–without ever picking up a TV remote. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
So should you buy the Chromecast? Perhaps you should ask yourself why you shouldn’t buy one. After all, they’re $35–less than you’ll spend on dinner for two at Chili’s. Who knows? It just might change your life.