“Cutting the cord” seems to be one of the big buzzphrases lately. With hundreds of cable channels available, but only a handful worth watching, people are understandably getting tired of paying over $100 a month for hundreds of channels that they will never watch. Several devices are available to help you to sever your connection to your local cable monopoly, such as the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, the Roku series, Apple TV, and Google TV. (The only real lack of choice nowadays comes from broadcasters and media rights holders who still put a stranglehold on their content.)
Google has decided to enter the streaming market once again (but without the help of third-party hardware vendors) with the Google Chromecast – a small, wireless, HDMI plug that can stream media from various sources. What’s more intriguing is that the Chromecast costs $35 directly from Google Play, compared to the Apple TV and Roku 3 at $99 each. Unfortunately, that low Chromecast price comes at the expense of some missing features.
(Note: I do not and will not use Apple devices, so I cannot in fairness try to compare the Chromecast and Apple TV.)
Setting up the Chromecast is easy as long as you have a wireless device. It plugs into any available HDMI port and uses a USB connection for additional power if necessary. If you don’t have a lot of room at the HDMI port, Google includes a small 4-inch HDMI extension cable. The kit also includes a microUSB cable that can be used with a USB port on the TV or with the included 850mA adapter to provide the necessary power if the HDMI port alone is not sufficient.
The Chromecast acts like its own WiFi hotspot. Using a wireless device, like a laptop with the Chrome browser and Chromecast installer app/plug-in or an Android device with the Chromecast app, the app scans for any available Chromecast. When found, a code is displayed on both your laptop/phone and the TV screen. Once you verify that the codes are the same, the app prompts for the credentials for your wireless network as well as an optional name for the Chromecast.
At that point a prompt comes up to install the Google Cast plug-in for Chrome (if you’re setting things up on a laptop). This plug-in allows you to send any Chrome tab without protected content to the TV screen. It also activates any built-in apps in the Chromecast unit so that the browser or app can hand off the responsibility of streaming from specific sites to the Chromecast.
As simple as the configuration is, I was initially put off because even though it has a USB port, you cannot configure it via the USB. I downloaded the Chrome extension on my main PC, which is wired to my gigabit network, and was met with “Cannot detect your wireless device” or something to that effect. You must use a wireless device to configure the Chromecast; however, once it’s configured you can use any wired PC to control it via the extension.
You can manage the Chromecast in two ways: from a Chrome browser with the Google Cast plugin, or from your Android phone/tablet using the Chromecast app or 3rd-party apps that use Chromecast.
If you are using a browser, you can send any Chrome tab without protected content in it to the TV. There is a bit of a delay between what you do on the browser and when it appears on the screen, but any audio/video is still in sync as it plays on the TV. It also has enough intelligence in it that if you want to stream YouTube or Netflix videos, the browser hands control to the Chromecast itself. At that point, streaming is done natively by the Chromecast without having to be streamed twice – once to the browser then over to the Chromecast. As for the quality of Netflix/YouTube streams, after about five seconds of incredibly poor quality the HD signal kicks in very nicely to whatever the connection will allow.
The reason why I have to specify “without protected content” is because Amazon in their arrogance does not support the Chromecast or non-Kindle Android tablets in what is most likely a misguided attempt to force you to buy a Kindle. Because Amazon streaming is done by a Silverlight plug-in with DRM, you cannot send that streaming content to the TV.
I was able to stream local media files, even HD files, to my TV by playing the file in a Chrome tab and pushing the tab to the Chromecast; however, Google recently disabled the ability to play back local files from your phone or tablet with no valid explanation. Unfortunately, because of Google’s non-response response, it’s difficult to know for sure what their plans are; however, I would not be surprised if playing video files directly through a Chrome tab is disabled in a future update of the plug-in. But for now, the video quality of media played directly through a Chrome tab was just as good as if I played it natively on the device except that I could not select options like separate audio tracks or subtitles.
From a phone or tablet, you can stream anything that you own in the Google Play Movies and TV stores directly through the Chromecast. Again, just like Netflix and YouTube streams, any media from the Google Play services is actually handled by the Chromecast, not streamed by proxy through whatever controller device you use. As long as your device can talk to the Chromecast through your network, the icon to send the stream to the Chromecast should be shown at the top when the associated Play, Netflix, or YouTube app is running.
But That’s About It
What the Chromecast does, it does well. The problem right now is that, like the often-maligned Ouya, it doesn’t do much. With Google cracking down on playing local media files for reasons as yet unexplained and with the inability to stream from other sources like Amazon, it’s very possible that this will have a limited audience even with the low price. Until more apps come out for the Chromecast, it serves a very specific purpose – to stream media from Netflix and Google-owned streaming services, and that’s all.
Any kind of web streaming media other than YouTube and Netflix has to be done through a Chrome tab and sent to the Chromecast. This method works as long the media is not DRM-protected, but it’s not an optimal solution. (Think about that! If you plug your laptop/PC directly into the TV, you can view DRM-protected content like Amazon, yet you are not allowed to do the same thing using the Chromecast as an intermediary.)
Some third party companies have voiced support. Vimeo, Hulu, and Redbox Instant (Verizon) pledged their support by stating that Chromecast apps were already in the works. Plex has not officially been brought on board, but considering that they make an Android and Ouya client it would not be surprising if a Plex app comes out. HBO has also shown a strong interest in an HBO Go client for Chromecast but does not have any schedule for release.
The size and portability of the Chromecast make it great for moving it between TVs or even bringing it when you travel as long as the HDMI ports in the TV are powered or you have easy access to either a USB port or an outlet. The $35 price tag without question gives the Chromecast the most appealing price of all of the streaming media devices that are available. However, the restriction to Google’s services and Netflix might be too limiting for many people. Perhaps more 3rd party development will change that in the near future.
If you prefer a streaming device that also streams from Hulu, Amazon, a local Plex media server, and various other services or if you want to play locally-stored media files from a USB stick or external hard drive, you would be much better off with a Roku 3 ($99 MSRP, available for $89 as of this writing) or Roku 2 XD ($79 MSRP, available for $59 as of this writing).
– Extremely low price
– Very portable; plugs directly into an HDMI port
– Can be powered by any USB port on the TV or nearby device
– Can be managed from any Chrome web browser (with plugin) or Android device
– HD streaming quality looks fantastic once it kicks in
– Most web sites can be sent to the TV through a Chrome tab
– Cannot play media files except through Chrome browser tab (might be disabled in future updates)
– Cannot use any streaming services except Google-owned services and Netflix
– DRM-protected content will not be displayed
– Must be configured through a wireless device