With the launch of the Chromecast last week, Google is staking another claim to the living room, this time with a thumb-drive-sized device you plug into your TV's HDMI port to stream online video, much as you would with Apple TV or Roku. What's different is that it also allows you to "cast" other Internet content from a computer or mobile device to your TV.
Right now, the Chromecast works with Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play Movies & TV and Google Play Music. The company says that new apps, including Pandora music, will be added soon. When using supported apps the Chromecast pulls content directly from the cloud, and you use a laptop, phone, or tablet as a remote control. You can also use Chromecast to bring other Web-based content to your TV using a PC or Mac loaded with a Chrome browser. In that case, the device is accessing the online content and transmitting it wirelessly to your TV.
We've been playing with the Chromecast for a few days now (watch our video, below, for more information). So far we're impressed, and not just by its low $35 price. It's one of the easiest ways we've seen of adding Internet-based content to a non-smart TV. And it appears that a number of people feel similarly; as we were going to press, the Chromecast was out of stock at all the online retailers we checked, including Amazon, Best Buy, and Google Play.
The Chromecast has some limitations, though. For example, it lacks the breadth of content offered by many streaming-media players such as Apple TV or Roku, it can't do full AirPlay-like mirroring of portable devices, and you can't stream local content stored on your phone or tablet.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Chromecast seems to work a bit better with Android-based devices than iOS ones, thanks to a few unique features. For example, it's easier to add videos to YouTube's TV queue when using Android phones and tablets using the Add to the TV Queue button. Apple devices require you to first activate a pop-up menu in the video window before selecting the Share button.
Also, when a video is playing from one of the apps on an Android device, it appears in the notifications bar so you have easy access to "remote" controls such as pause, stop, and play. And on an Android phone or tablet, you have access to player controls without having to unlock the device as you do on iPhones and iPads. This makes it a lot easier to use your tablet as you normally would while still watching videos "casted" onto your TV.
You can connect multiple devices to a single Chromecast player, and the same apps can be used and controlled simultaneously. For example, several YouTube users can add videos to the TV Queue, and each can change the content being sent to the TV, as long as the devices are connected to the same wireless network as the Chromecast, and they all have the most recent firmware updates.
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Videos we sent via the Chromecast were of the same high quality we saw from other streaming devices, including streaming-media players and smart TVs. We streamed videos from Netflix in its Super HD format using a Macbook Pro, Apple iPad, iPhone, HTC One phone, and Lenovo IdeaPad tablet, and there was no loss of video quality once the video was loaded and buffered.
The exception was some out-of-sync audio issues when we streamed movies from the Web browser of a PC located farther away from the TV, but these typically disappeared once we paused and restarted the video. Also, video from the Web browser appeared less detailed then from the supported apps (only about 720p).
The Chromecast is also able to provide multichannel digital audio when available as long as your TV can pass through the digital audio. You can also connect the Chromecast directly to an audio receiver with an HDMI port.
Based on this initial review, we think the Chromecast is a compelling, innovative option for those who'd like to add online content to their TV. It lacks the breadth of content we've seen on many dedicated streaming media players, but it's inexpensive, easy to set up and use, and virtually invisible behind your TV set.
We especially liked being able to browse the Web on a much bigger TV screen using the familiar controls on a laptop, smart phone, or tablet, a far better experience than we've had using a TV remote control. And while content support is currently limited to just a handful of sites and services, we expect more content partners to be announced in the near future.