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Sunday, September 1, 2013

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

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.
Because it's streaming directly from the cloud, image quality from Netflix, YouTube, and Google TV and Movies was excellent -- as good as you'd expect from a more sizable streaming box. "Arrested Development" on Netflix looked as good as it does on my Roku 3, and high-quality content from YouTube like "Speakeasy with Paul F Tompkins" also looked great. You're not making any image quality compromises by streaming with a stick.
Google Chromecast
Before you tell it what to play, the Google Chromecast doesn't have much of its own user interface.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
By pushing all of the interaction to smartphones and tablets, one surprising result is that the Chromecast doesn't really have much of its own user interface. When you're not streaming, the Chromecast displays some pretty nature photos and status information, but you can't navigate to apps or select any content from your TV. In other words, there's no way to use the Chromecast as a "standalone" device -- you need to have a smartphone or tablet handy.
Screen mirroring: Not the panacea you've hoped for
The other way to get content to the Chomecast is by using the Chrome browser on a Windows PC, Mac, or even Google's own Chromebook Pixel. (Support for the other Chromebook models is said to be coming soon.) By using the Chromecast extension, you can mirror any tab on Chrome on your TV, including any video, music, or photos that works in your browser.
In my experience, screen mirroring is one of those features that sounds great (free Hulu on my TV!), but it's just clunky enough that you find yourself not using it that often in the real world. The Chromecast's mirroring feature is no different. It "works," but it's not a very satisfying experience.
Google Chromecast
Free Hulu works, but not well.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The good news is that mirroring works with essentially any streaming video, albeit with a few seconds of lag. I tested free Hulu content, HBO Go, NBC, CBS, and Fox, all of which worked. The bad news is that limitations are obvious right away. Image quality ranges from mediocre to poor, mostly because Chrome is converting the video on the fly from your PC and sending it to the Chromecast. You're also going to run into occasional (and sometimes frequent) dropouts -- sometimes just audio, but sometimes the video pauses, too. And the feature itself isn't entirely stable, so expect the extension to crash sometimes with Google throwing a quirky "brain freeze" message up on your TV.
It's even harder to get excited about this functionality once you've become accustomed to the excellent dedicated apps available on other streaming devices. You can can watch HBO Go via a $50 Roku with flawless playback, solid image quality, and no need for a laptop.
What it doesn't do
Once you sober up from the initial thrill of getting a streaming stick for $35, you have to contend with the fact that there's an awful lot that the Chromecast doesn't do. There's essentially no support (at least official support) for your personal media -- photos, music, or video files that are residing on your phone, tablet, or laptop. It feels particularly frustrating that you can't even display photos from an Android phone. Or that there's no dedicated support for "casting" photos from Google's own Picasa photo service, for instance.
Google Chromecast(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The list of "missing" dedicated apps is long: Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Spotify, Rdio, MLB.TV, and Hulu Plus, just to start. And then there's the fact that you probably already have (at least) one device that streams Netflix and YouTube, so it doesn't feel like you're adding much with the Chromecast. Not to mention the fact that many newer smart TVs already allow you to use smartphones as YouTube and Netflix remotes by default.
Can it compete with the Apple TV and Roku?
The Chromecast's limited functionality means the short answer is no. The Apple TV and Roku 3 are unambiguously better devices, with more content, more flexibility, and are just plain better suited to everyday use in your living room. But they also cost over three times as much, so it's not exactly a fair comparison.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The really troubling device for the Chromecast is the Roku LT ($50). Both are best suited for secondary TVs, but the Roku LT supports so many more services (including Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Spotify, Time Warner Cable, and MLB.TV), has a great user interface, and can also be controlled by both Android and iOS devices. You can view photos and listen to music stored on your phone using the Roku app, plus it even handles personal media files stored on a PC using the Plex app. It's not as compact, but the Roku LT is better in just about every other way and well worth the extra $15. (Roku lacks an official YouTube app, but the free Twonky app for Android and iOS lets you stream YouTube vids from those devices to the Roku -- and since you need one of them to use the Chromecast, too, it's really not that much of a knock.)
Conclusion: Good enough for $35, but best for people deep in the Google ecosystem
But all the comparisons to existing boxes miss part of what makes the Chromecast worth considering. If you prefer to store and purchase your content through Google's ecosystem for the tightest integration with your Android phone, your options for watching that content on your TV have been limited: a few buggy Google TV devices and the notoriously short-lived Nexus Q. The Chromecast finally gives Android users a reasonable way to watch and listen to their Google Music and Google TV and Movies content in the living room, without much of an additional investment.
For everyone else, the appeal totally comes down to price. If you're looking for a new tech toy, the Chromecast isn't bad at $35 and seems like a particularly nice travel companion, but anyone looking for a dedicated living room box will be better served by an Apple TV or Roku box.
With more streaming-service support, the Chromecast could get much more appealing. To that end, we'll update this review if and when those additional services and functionality improvements appear. In the meantime, the future of the device feels like it's in the hands of developers.
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