Google’s Chromecast is a $35 device that lets you stream internet videos to your television. Just plug it into your TV, fire up a video you want to watch on your phone, tablet, or PC, tap a button and the video pops up on your television.
At least that’s the theory. But how does the Chromecast perform in practice?
A lot better than you might expect for a $35 device. Not everything works exactly the way you might want it to, but the Chromecast is a surprisingly powerful, versatile device that doesn’t cost a lot of money.
I ordered a Chromecast for myself yesterday, but while I’m waiting for it to arrive, Google was kind of enough to loan me a demo unit to test.
The Chromecast is a 2 inch device that you can plug into your TV. It has a Marvell processor and connects to the internet with its built-in 802.11b/g/n WiFi receiver. Once it’s hooked up, you can start watching videos on your TV just by firing up the YouTube or Netflix apps on your Android or iOS phone or tablet, or any supported website in the Chrome browser on your Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome OS device.
There’s also a beta feature that lets you send the contents of any Chrome browser tab to your TV, whether the website officially supports Chromecast or not. The results can be a little hit or miss, but this feature opens the door for Chromecast to become the only internet TV device you need, since it basically opens anything you can access on the web on your television screen.
Google’s Chromecast is the first device to support the new Google Cast technology. But the $35 standalone box might be just the first of many devices to use Google Cast. Eventually you may be able to buy TVs, Blu-ray players, or other devices that have the technology baked right in, allowing you to stream internet content to your TV without a separate device.
Setup couldn’t be much simpler. You open the box, take out the Chromecast and stick it into the HDMI port on your TV.
The Chromecast comes with a USB cable and power adapter to supply power to the device. If your TV has a USB port you can do without the adapter, but since the Chromecast doesn’t support MHL, it can’t draw power from the HDMI port on your TV.
Adjust your TV settings so that you’re viewing input from that HDMI port and in a few seconds a screen will pop up telling you the name of your Chromecast device and a URL to visit to download a setup app on your computer.
That URL, by the way, is https://cast.google.com/chromecast/setup.
You can also download an Android app on your phone or tablet to complete the setup process. It’ll search for a Chromecast on your network and walk you through the process. Once installed, you can use the app to check to make sure your Chromecast device is online.
Using the PC app, you’ll be prompted to download and run the installer, which basically asks you to enter the password to your wireless network, scans to detect your device, and lets you rename it. The process is finished in seconds.
That’s it. Now that the Chromecast is set up, you can start beaming videos to your TV.
Chromecast is running a simple version of Chrome OS, and when you send a video from your phone or tablet, what’s actually happening is you’re sending a command to the device so that it can grab content directly from the internet.
In other words, you’re not actually streaming videos from your phone to the Chromecast. You’re telling it which video to start playing, and then using your phone as a remote control.
That means once a video starts playing, you can exit the app and check your email, surf the web, or just put your phone down while the video continues to play.
Supported apps at launch include YouTube, Google Play Movies, Netflix, and Pandora. Google has also released developer tools which means we could see support for additional apps soon.
When an app supports Google Cast and detects a supported device on your network, you’ll see a little icon in the video window that looks like a TV with a few little curved lines in the corner. Tap it, and you’ll have the option to watch a video on your Android or iOS device or send it to the Chromecast.
Once a video starts playing, it seems to be up to developers to decide exactly what happens next. While both the YouTube and Netflix apps let you pause, play, or move around on a timeline, the YouTube app shows a freeze-frame from the video on your phone while the movie plays on your TV.
Netflix, on the other hand, shows cover art for the movie or TV show.
But Chromecast doesn’t just work with mobile devices. You can also install the Google Cast extension for the Chrome web browser on a Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome OS device to use your PC as a TV remote control — or to send content from your PC straight to the TV.
Once installed, you can browse the web and any time you see a video with the little Google Cast icon, you can click on it for the option of sending a video to your TV. It’ll show up right in the video box, next to the icons that normally let you maximize or otherwise embiggen a video.
After a video starts playing, you can close the browser tab and go about your business. You can even turn off your computer. But if you want to control video playback, you may want to leave the browser tab open since you can use the on-screen controls for YouTube or other video sites to control playback.
You can also tap the Google Cast icon in your Chrome toolbar to bring up a menu that lets you play, pause, mute, or stop.
There’s also a “Cast this tab” button which is one of the most intriguing features of Google Cast right now. The feature’s still in beta, but when you hit “Cast this tab,” it’ll send the contents of your browser window directly to the Chromecast over your WiFi network.
Cast this tab doesn’t pull down video straight from the internet. Instead it beams whatever’s on your PC to your TV. That can include videos, games, photos, or other content — although I wouldn’t recommend using this for gaming, since there’s a little lag.
What you can do is stream content from sites that may not officially support Google Cast.
For instance, you can visit Hulu.com, cast the browser tab, and maximize a video to watch it full-screen on your TV. Normally you need to pay $7.99 for a Hulu Plus subscription if you want to stream Hulu content to a TV, but now you can do it for free… at least until Hulu starts blocking Chromecast.
This doesn’t work on every site — Amazon Instant Video didn’t work when I tested it, and your results will probably vary from site to site. And to be honest, the Hulu playback was a little choppy at times.
But the feature’s still in beta. Performance could improve as Google works out the kinks, and since Chromecast runs a version of Google Chrome OS, I suspect it’ll download software updates silently and automatically install them when you reboot the device.
Cast this tab uses the WebRTC protocol to basically share your browser screen with the browser on the Chromecast device. Your PC encodes the page as a video and sends it on its way. This is pretty resource intensive, which helps account for the lag – and the inability to run at all on some older computers. Certain web technologies, such as Silverlight, aren’t supported at all.
Another fun thing to do with Cast this Tab is stream videos from your local storage. All you need to do is drag and drop a video into your Chrome web browse, and a video player will open up. Hit the Cast this Tab button, and that video starts playing on your TV.
Not all video formats are supported, but I tried this with an H.264 video recording and it worked beautifully.
Keep in mind that if you’re streaming the contents of a browser tab to your TV, you need to make sure not to close that window. You can just leave it open in the background while you use your PC to do other things, but if you close that window or turn off your computer, video playback will stop.
Unfortunately there’s no equivalent trick for streaming local content from a mobile device — at least not yet.
For example, you can use the Google Play Music app on an Android phone or tablet to stream music to your TV using a Chromecast device.
But if you try to using the same app to stream music stored on your device, an error message will tell you that side-loaded content isn’t supported.
Google’s Chromecast is fast, cheap, easy to use, and effective. It takes seconds or minutes to set up, lets you stream video from Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, and even Hulu to your TV. And you can even use it as a way to send videos from your hard drive to your TV.
There are more versatile ways to turn your TV into a smart TV. But the Chromecast is simpler and easier to use and setup than an Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee Box, Roku, or any other device I’ve seen. That’s because it has no user interface to speak of — you control video playback pretty much the same way as you do on a phone, tablet, or PC, because those devices are your remote controls.
For about the same price as a Chromecast, you could probably pick up a cheap Android mini PC like the MK802. But those devices take longer to boot, require you to navigate through the Android user interface to find and launch the apps and videos your looking for, and generally take longer to start a video.
If you want to play Angry Birds on your TV, the Chromecast won’t help you. And if you want to stream Amazon Instant Video, you’ll probably want to wait until Amazon releases its own set-top-box (or buy a device like a Roku which currently supports Amazon).
But after spending a little time with the Chromecast, I’m pleasantly surprised at just how well it does what it’s supposed to do: it brings internet video to your TV.