What is Google Chromecast?

Thursday, 01 August 2013 12:11 AM Written by 

What is Google Chromecast? Well, the short answer to that question is that we don’t know. It’s too early in the streaming device’s life to know what it’s going to be in five, or even one year from now. Despite its question marks, it has my attention.

I strolled into a Best Buy last Friday, two days before Google said the electronics chain would have Chromecast in stock. I thought there was an off chance that I’d get lucky, and the new streaming device could have arrived early. As it turned out, I got there at the exact time the Best Buy employees were unpacking the devices from their shipping boxes.

After explaining to the Best Buy employee what Chromecast was (yes, I explained it to him), I contemplated buying the device. But not because it did anything groundbreaking in its current form. This little dongle doesn’t do anything I can’t already do on an Xbox, PlayStation 3, or any mobile device. But the Chromecast is intriguing. It’s a device that is barely bigger than a flash drive that will potentially open the internet up to any TV all at the bargain price of $35. How could i resist?

Chromecast

Everything about Chromecast is fascinating. For starters, Google already has a weapon to combat conventional television. It’s called Google TV. Obviously Google feels strongly that Chromecast can fill a niche separate from Google TV.

Secondly, it’s only $35, which is an unprecedented entry price for a brand new streaming device. The surprises continued during my first week of use.

Chromecast’s simplicity is perhaps the biggest surprise. The roughly 3-inch dongle plugs into a television via HDMI, and receives power via USB or an AC plug. If those two ends are plugged in and the device is within range of a WiFi network, it’s ready to go.

Once plugged in to the TV, there’s no conventional interface that is typically controlled by a packaged remote control. Instead, the remote control is your existing devices, such as Android or Apple phones and tablets, or a Mac or PC. The Chromcast app must be downloaded - for free - from the Apple App Store or Google Play store. The app recognizes that a Chromecast device is nearby upon startup. Select your WiFi network, enter the password, and setup is complete.

After the dongle knows your WiFi network, it can be switched between any television that has an HDMI port, as long as it stays on the network.

The setup was actually more exciting for me than the initial use. Part of that is because there just isn’t enough to do with it right now. The Chromecast app shows only four compatible apps that can be used with the device: Netflix, Google Music, YouTube, Google Play movies, plus the Chrome browser as a bonus.

These apps are available for dozens of other devices on the market, but one of Chromecast’s hooks is its cross-platform functionality. The devices that communicate with the dongle are already in homes. That’s what sets it apart. How the device works is also pretty impressive.

The apps that support Chromecast viewing have a “Chromecast” button. For example, once Netflix is opened on a mobile device or laptop, pressing the Chromecast button puts the viewing experience on the TV. The picture isn’t beamed from the device, but rather the dongle pulls it directly from the wifi network to minimize quality loss or audio sync issues. Plus, it doesn’t drain the battery of the device.

ChromecastPhone

That’s how it works across all of the compatible apps, and it works shockingly well. Controlling the video with a mobile device or PC is easy and responsive. The lock screen of my Samsung Note II automatically becomes a remote when using Netflix.

Problems arise when when streaming Chrome browsing to the Chromecast device. Rather than natively taking the browser content from WiFi, now your device actually is beaming it to the dongle. This causes communication problems that I experienced many times. There was a big loss in picture quality, there was delay from my actions to what was being shown on the TV, and audio sync issues. I’m confident that Google will get these problems ironed out via future updates, but mirroring the Chrome browser very much feels like it’s in beta.

Local pictures and videos that are stored on a phone or laptop can’t be streamed to the Chromecast, but there is a workaround thanks to the Chrome browser. Dragging local media to the browser will allow it to be played within Chrome, and therefore can be streamed to the device. Unfortunately, all the issues mentioned above come along with it.

Other than these issues, the Chromecast is a nifty little device that is well worth the $35 if you can find one. Judging from early sales reports, it’s selling out everywhere. I’m sure Google will stay on top of updating to fix the hiccups and adding additional apps.

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