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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Google Chromecast review: A daringly priced streamer that doesn't do much Part I

The good: The Google Chromecast is a dirt-cheap wireless video dongle that streams Netflix and YouTube to your TV using Android or iOS tablets as remotes, with Android users also getting access to Google Music and Google TV and Movies. Its small size hides neatly behind your TV and makes it easy to take on-the-go.
The bad: The beta screen-mirroring feature won't work as well as you want it to, so you're largely limited to four apps and without support for several major ones, including Amazon Instant, HBO Go, MLB.TV, Spotify, and Rdio. The lack of a dedicated remote also means you always need a smartphone or tablet nearby.
The bottom line: Google's $35 Chromecast streaming-TV dongle is certainly cheap, but its limited initial app support and total reliance on mobile devices keep it well behind the Apple TV and Roku -- at least for now.
If you've heard anything about Google's Chromecast, you've heard that it costs $35. Google seemingly picked the perfect price for its new sticklike streaming device, generating massive buzz and eliminating the usually rational process that occurs before clicking "add to cart".
The dongle is already sold out and back-ordered for weeks.
But once you've lived with the Chromecast for a while, $35 feels less like a fantastic deal and more like exactly what a device like this should cost. The Chromecast lets you stream from Netflix and YouTube using your Android or iOS mobile device as a remote, with Android users also getting access to Google Music and Google TV and Movies. It also supports the ability to mirror any content from a Chrome browser running on a Mac or Windows PC, including Hulu, HBO Go, and full episodes from major TV networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC via their respective Web sites. And the hardware is delightfully compact and well-built, making it easy to toss in your bag for travel or moving from room to room.
What it doesn't do is everything else: there are no dedicated apps for many major services (including Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Spotify, Rdio, and MLB.TV), no dedicated TV interface for standalone use, no support for personal media sitting on your devices (aside from a clunky hack), and the awesome-sounding screen-mirroring feature ends up being entirely underwhelming in practice. Basically, you can stream Netflix, YouTube, and a couple of Google services; $35 feels about right.
The Chromecast is clearly Google's best living room device so far, almost entirely thanks to its impulse-worthy price. (Although note that Google's inclusion of a free three-month Netflix promotion is currently up in the air.) It doesn't challenge the Apple TV or Roku's boxes on merit, both of which remain much better options as your primary living room streamer. Chromecast has a lot of room to improve if more apps offer support, but at the moment it's best suited for people deep in the Google media ecosystem looking for a living room solution.
Design: A stick for streaming
The Chromecast hardware isn't anything special, but it has a reassuring, solid feel. It's a 2-inch adapter that's compact enough to occupy a spare HDMI input on your TV without blocking adjacent inputs. (If you have a particularly cramped back panel, Google generously includes an HDMI extender cable.) The black matte finish has enough of a texture to make it easily grippable, perfect for popping out the Chromecast and throwing it in your bag for travel. On the far end, there's a Micro-USB port, a small status light, and a tiny button you can use to reset the device to its factory default. In all, it's perfectly fine for a device designed to live behind your TV.
Google Chromecast(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Google Chromecast(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The only "catch" is that the Chromecast requires power, a fact that's conspicuously missing from all of Google's beauty shots. If your TV has a USB input, you can probably use that to power your Chromecast using the included cable. Google also includes a USB power adapter for TVs without USB, which means you'll have a wire dangling from the back of your TV to a power outlet. Ultimately, while it's not quite "just a dongle," it's still a very clean setup.
Setup: Up and running in minutes
Google touts the Chromecast setup as "plug and play," and that's not far off. Once you have the device plugged in, your TV will prompt you to visit the online setup using a laptop or smartphone, where you'll download the Chromecast setup app. The setup process takes a few minutes, and Google has done a great job of leading you step-by-step through the process with lots of helpful illustrations along the way.
Google Chromecast(Credit: Google)
Behind the scenes, the Chromecast is creating its own local hot spot for the initial setup, but those technical details are all hidden. (The most arduous step is that you'll need to have your home Wi-Fi password handy.) If you're on a laptop, the final step is installing the Chromecast extension, then you're ready to go. It's easy to take the painless setup for granted, but Google deserves a lot of credit, especially considering how tough I found it to get the very similar PLAiRup and running.
Netflix, YouTube, Google Music, and Google TV and Movies
Once you're set up, you can use a smartphone or tablet to watch content from four sources: Netflix, YouTube, Google Music, and Google TV and Movies. (Google says Pandora is on the way.) In each of those apps, you simply press the "Cast" icon, select your Chromecast, and the video gets sent to your TV.
Google Chromecast(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
That makes the Chromecast feel an awful lot like AirPlay, although it's different in a few important ways. The big one is that AirPlay is supported by a huge number of iOS apps, while the Chromecast is currently limited to four. (I expect that to increase over time, especially with the splash that the Chromecast's announcement made.)

A look at Google's Chromecast (pictures)

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The other, more subtle distinction is that while AirPlay actually streams content from your device (and also works with locally stored content), the Chromecast is never truly streaming from your smartphone or tablet. For example, with YouTube, AirPlay streams from the cloud to your device, then to an Apple TV, while the Chromecast pulls content straight from the cloud. In practice, it doesn't make much of a difference, although surprisingly AirPlay feels more reliable, despite doing more technical gymnastics.
Google Chromecast(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
After you get a video playing, your smartphone or tablet acts like a remote. You can pause content or use the scrubber at the bottom to skip forward or back. You can even adjust the volume using your device's hardware volume controls, although in my testing it only adjusts the Chromecast's internal volume, rather than the volume on your TV, so you'll still need your TV's remote around for master volume control. (I'll be testing with more TVs soon to verify how volume controls works on different sets.) Another perk is that any compatible device on the network can grab control of your Chromecast and can make adjustments.
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