Scarcely larger than a thumb drive, Google’s new cloud-to-HDTV wonder, the Chromecast, promises cheap and dead simple video streaming. Does Google deliver? Read on as we take the Chromecast for a high-def spin.
What Is The Chromecast?
The Chromecast is Google’s latest foray into bridging the gap between the cloud and the living room–followers of the company and the entire cloud-to-HDTV field will surely remember their poorly received Google TV project. Unlike Google TV, however, the Chromecast has been well received and offers a smooth and comfortable user experience. The heart of that experience is a blissfully simple exchange; you pick the video you want to watch on your phone, tablet, or computer and tell the Chromecast to display it on your television–we’ll delve into the mechanics of the setup and user experience shortly.
The device itself is a small HDMI dongle that looks like a fat thumb drive, just shy of three inches long. Packed inside the small case is 16GB of flash memory, 512MB of RAM, a Marvel Armada 1500 system-on-a-chip that weighs in with a tiny dual-core 1.2Ghz processor, and a Wi-Fi module, all of which is firmly mated to a beefy aluminum heat sink to keep things running cool. The specs of the little device ultimately don’t matter to the end consumer, but we’re highlighting them to clear up the most common misconception about the Chromecast: that the little unit merely accepts what is sent to it like a TV antenna instead of actually doing the streaming and decoding on-board.
The benefit of this arrangement, compared to say, Apple’s AirPlay streaming, is that the controlling device (e.g. your Android phone) is only acting as a traffic cop directing the video stream from the source to Chromecast (which in turn decodes and displays the video stream). This means that even if the controlling device is an older Android phone incapable of actually displaying smooth HD video playback, it doesn’t matter because it’s only telling the Chromecast which HD video stream to spool up.
How Do I Install The Chromecast?
Inside the box, you’ll find four components: the Chromecast dongle, a small 4″ HDMI extension cable, and a USB miniB cable and USB power transformer. If you have a very new HDTV or media center receiver that supports the HDMI 1.4+ with MHL, then you can simply plug the HDMI dongle right into your HDTV/receiver and it will draw the power it needs right from the unit. If you don’t have a newer host device that supports HDMI with MHL you’ll need to provide power from a secondary source.
You can approach this one of two ways, depending on the host device. You can either 1) simply connect the Chromecast to the USB cable and then into the USB power transformer just like you’re plugging in a cellphone to charge, or you can 2) siphon power off any non-service USB port on the host device (many HDTV sets only supply power to their service ports when the set is in service/diagnostic mode). We had an available USB port, so we opted for option 2, as seen in the photograph above where the Chromecast is drawing power off the multimedia USB port of our Samsung HDTV. One of the benefits of using the USB port on your television is that it turns the Chromecast off when the television is off (thus, if you have more than one Chromecast in your house, you’re not accidentally sending content to a Chromecast nobody is even watching).
Regardless of how you’ve powered the device, check that the indicator light is white (when first powered on, it will flicker between red, and white, and then turn solid white) and then switch your HDTV to the appropriate HDMI source. You’ll be greeted with a screen like this one:
If you don’t see this simple setup prompt, power down your television, unplug and re-seat the Chromecast, and (if attempting to use the HDTV’s USB port to power the device) switch to the USB transformer instead of the USB port.
If you do see it, do exactly as it suggests and navigate to the Chromecast setup URL on your mobile device or computer.
Click the download button and, when the download is complete, launch the installer. Accept the privacy and EULA notice.
The Chromecast can act as its own little ad-hoc Wi-Fi node and, during the installation, the device you’re conducting the installation from (be it computer, phone, or tablet) will disconnect from the Wi-Fi node it is currently attached to and attach to the Chromecast. This isn’t a big deal, but if you’re in the middle of a massive download fest on your laptop, for example, you may wish to complete the installation from an alternative computer or mobile device.
When you click continue, the device will disconnect from the current Wi-Fi node and connect to the Chromecast, then display a screen like the one below.
Double check that you’re connect to the right Chromecast and click “That’s My Code”.
On the next screen, select the SSID of the Wi-Fi node you wish to attach the Chromecast to and the password for that node. You can also change the name of the Chromecast. The name change isn’t necessary, but if you have two or more Chromecasts in your home, its really handy to know which room shooting the video to.
After you click continue, the installation app will confirm the connection and your HDTV will display a successful connection to the Wi-Fi node like so:
At this point, the Chromecast is ready to accept requests from any mobile device or computer on the local Wi-Fi node that is Chromecast compliant.
How Do I Send Video to the Chromecast?
Now that the Chromecast is installed and ready to rock, we need to actually throw some video up on the display. First, let’s take a look at what kind of video content we can display via the Chromecast. Although the Chromecast has the hardware capabilities to display a wide range of video content and sources, it’s currently locked down to a handful of sources as Google negotiates various contracts with content distributors.
As of this review, you can watch the following video sources natively on the Chromecast: YouTube, Netflix, Google Play Movies and Google Play Music. In addition to those, you can also sling Chrome tabs from your computer to your HDTV. Therein lies a sort of loophole in the system: anything you can display or play in Chrome on your computer you can display or play on the Chromecast. We explore this loophole more in Chromecast More Than Webpages: 4 Types of Files You Can View In Chrome.
So how do you get the sweet, sweet stream from YouTube or Netflix to your television set? Once you have the right tools in place, it’s an absolute snap. If you’re streaming from your computer, you’ll need to download the appropriate Chrome extension to enable casting from supporting sources. After installing the extension, you’ll now see the Chromecast casting icon on Chrome’s toolbar like so:
In addition to the icon appearing so you can cast the tab, it also appears on any castable video content such as Netflix streams and YouTube videos, like so:
About five seconds or so after you kick the stream over from your laptop to the Chromecast, the video starts on your television and the computer is just a control to pause, scrub, and otherwise manipulate the video.
Therein lies why the mobile app is so much more appealing than the computer-based browser extension, however. If the device you’re using to control the Chromecast is just a remote control with a screen, it makes little sense to use a full size computer for the task when its much more comfortable to use your phone or a tablet.
Thankfully there’s support for both Android and iOS applications and it’s super easy to download the appropriate app to turn your phone into a Chromecast remote. Let’s take a look at how it works with the Android OS.
After grabbing the Chromecast app from the Google Play store, fire it up (if you installed your Chromecast using the mobile app, you’ve already completed this step). The Chromecast app itself doesn’t do the streaming, it just installs the helper application and allows you to make configuration changes to available Chromecast units–seen in the screenshot above.
The real magic is when you launch the official YouTube, Netflix, Google Movies, or Google Music app and look for the Chromecast icon:
Click that icon and you’re prompted to select where the video is going:
Select the Chromecast and you’re in big screen business:
This remains our favorite part of the Chromecast experience on the mobile device: once you kick the stream over to the actual Chromecast device, you can continue to use the device to do whatever you wish (look up information about the TV show, play a game, read the news, whatever).
Now that we’ve shown you how to set it up and sling video streams to it, what about the matter of video quality and content? Assuming you have a fast enough broadband connection to support streaming HD video and a router that supports Wireless G or better transmission speeds (just about everyone does), the video quality is fantastic. We threw HD YouTube videos, Netflix movies and shows, and purchases off Google Play at it and the playback was superb.
Outside of a 5-10 second wait for the stream to spool up and 2-3 seconds of slightly pixelated content at the very beginning as the Chromecast was initially decoding and buffering, there was no evidence at all we were watching streaming content instead of local video content or cable-delivered content. In fact, the Chromecast-based streaming was actually vastly superior to the HD content streamed downline by our local cable provider.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
We were lucky to get our Chromecast before retailers were completely swamped with orders and have logged quite a few hours with it so far enjoying big screen YouTube content and piles of Netflix shows and movies. After so many weeks of playing with it, having neighbors play with it, and sitting down complete tech-newbies to navigate their way unguided through the user interface, we’ve got more than a few positive things to say about the Chromecast.
- If easy-peasy living room access to YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play content is your goal, the $35 price point of the Chromecast is a ridiculous bargain.
- The unit is tiny and unobtrusive; it’s so small you don’t even have to worry about mounting it or managing cords, just plug it in.
- The whole smartphone/computer as remote is a perfect match for streaming video content; most people are already looking up what they want to watch on their devices anyway, so adding a send-to-TV button just makes sense.
- Even if the tab-casting aspect is clunkier than the native Netflix, YouTube, etc. streaming experience, it still allows you to stream anything you can put in a Chrome tab.
- The mobile app is just directing and not decoding, which leaves your phone or tablet wide open for other tasks.
- Limited content; even though between YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play you’re not going to run out of content to watch any time soon, we still wish it had access to at least the most common content providers like Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus. While Google claims those sources (and others like Pandora) are currently being negotiated, we’ll believe it when we see it. The low-end Roku unit is only $40 right now and other than lacking access to YouTube and Google Play (both of which are Google properties), it can access hundreds of more video sources than the Chromecast.
- Lack of physical remote isn’t kid friendly. Even though we applauded the send-it-from-my-phone experience in The Good section (and we do love it), there’s a hiccup when it comes to using the device with kids. If you have kids old enough to watch Netflix kids content, for example, but not old enough to treat a smartphone or tablet with care, you’re left micro-managing elements as small as pausing the content for bathroom breaks.
- Missing really basic security features/limits. We totally understand one of the selling points of the Chromecast is that it makes it super easy for your friends to shoot content from their phones to your television set, but we’d loved to have seen even the most elementary of safeguards in place to stop anyone with access to your Wi-Fi node from delivering content to your television screen. Whether that’s to keep your nephew with questionable taste from shocking Grandma or pranksters on your dorm’s Wi-Fi node from throwing up content on available Chromecasts, it would be nice to see even the simplest mechanism to prevent it.
We’re happy with the Chromecast and we’ve ordered more for other screens in our home and office. For $35, the device is a fantastic value when paired with a Netflix account, it does a great job breaking YouTube videos out of the phone/PC silo and putting them on the big screen for everyone to enjoy without huddling around a tablet, and if you’re using Google Play as your media store, the content is right there. Even the biggest criticism anyone (including us) has lobbed at the Chromecast, that it lacks additional content channels, isn’t much of a real criticism because Google has been quite transparent in their delivery of the Chromecast. They said “Hey it’ll be cheap and you’ll get Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, and Chrome tab casting right out of the gate.” and that’s exactly what they delivered. It’s easy to set up, it’s easy enough that even the least technologically inclined of our test subjects had no problem finding content on the iPad and kicking it over to the big screen, and in all our hours of watching movies, television shows, and video clips, it didn’t drop the stream or spew out artifact filled frames a single time.
If you’re looking for a dead simple way to get content off your mobile device and PC and onto the living room HDTV, the Chromecast is a rock solid option at a very appealing price.
Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on Google+ if you'd like.
- Published 09/9/13