What is Chromecast? Chromecast is a brilliantly simple product: plug it into your TV and stream video and music to it from apps running on your Android device, iPhone, or laptop. Chromecast has no need for a remote; just use whatever device you’re streaming from as the remote. Instead of Chromecast having its own dedicated user interface it’s got a single screen that displays the time and, if nothing is being streamed, an indicator as to whether or not it’s connected to your WiFi. How can it be so simple? Because the device you’re streaming from acts as the primary interface. Chromecast is simply a wireless media streamer to your TV and doesn’t try to be anything more.
What’s in the Box?
First, the price of Chromecast is only $35. Google felt compelled to assure the media that they’re not selling them at a loss. I believe them. Even though it has a Wi-Fi chip, a basic CPU, 2GB of flash memory, RAM, a licensing fee to use HDMI, the cost of these parts are pretty cheap these days. Plus it is really a re-purposing of existent, very common technologies so the R & D I’m sure was next to nil. And yet we love it. There’s is so much brilliant technology already in existence and we here at QTOOTH know that most of us, whether as developers or as the end-user customer, barely scratch the surface of the devices that we already own.
The setup is ridiculously easy. Plug it into an HDMI port, give it some juice (through USB, which most new TVs have, or a standard adaptor), then run the Chromecast app on a laptop or other compatible device so that it can connect to your Wi-Fi network. That’s it!
From the day of its release, the Chromecast App has been compatible with some of the most popular online video apps, including Netflix and YouTube. No need to update these apps either, just launched them and the Chromecast button is already there. There is even an extension for Chrome that promises to greatly expand the functionality of the device. It is an early, Beta release and I’m sure it will improve over time.
It’s interesting to note that Google released this with very little fanfare, even though in our eyes this is one of the coolest things they’ve ever released as a physical product (here’s looking at you Google Glass).
There are a few things that will need to be improved, but this is off to a great start. It will be interesting to see how competitors respond.
So far the video streaming quality seems to be on par with Apple TV or the Xbox 360, especially when using an app or website like Netflix, Youtube, or Google Play, that been designed for compatibility.
If you’re using the Chromecast extension for Chrome on your laptop to project an otherwise incompatible video site (like Hulu or HBOGO), however, video quality can dump quite a bit depending on your setup. It’s using your laptop as a middle man to encode the video signal and broadcast it to the Chromecast, whereas the aforementioned compatible sites just send video straight to the dongle, mostly removing your laptop from the mix. When casting video tabs on a 2012 MacBook Air running on an 802.11n network, the framerate was noticeably lower and there were occasional audio syncing issues.
While we’re on the topic, the Chrome extension packs a bit of an easter egg: the ability to stream local videos from your laptop to the Chromecast. Just drag a video into Chrome, and it’ll start playing in a new tab. Use the Chrome extension to cast that tab, and ta da! You’re streaming your (totally legitimate, not-at-all-pirated-am-i-right) videos without bringing any other software into the mix. I tried it with a bunch of video formats (mostly AVIs and MKVs. MOVs kinda-sorta work, though most won’t push audio from the laptop to the TV for some reason), and they all seemed to work quite well, albeit with the lowered framerate I mentioned earlier.
Even within the apps that have already been tweaked for Chromecast compatibility, there are some day-one bugs. Sometimes videos don’t play the first time you ask them to, instead dropping you into a never-ending loading screen. Other times, the video’s audio will start playing on top of a black screen. These bugs aren’t painfully common, but they’re not rare, either.
As compared to AirPlay, AppleTV’s built-in streaming feature, Chromecast’s wins because of its cross-platform compatibility. Whereas AirPlay is restricted to Macs and iOS devices and only has limited support for Windows through iTunes, Chromecast works well with any iOS, Android, Mac, or Windows app that utilizes Google’s Cast SDK (or software development kit). although Chromecast just launched, we would be very surprised if developers didn’t jump on this and expand upon the universe of applications that are possible. That means it could be adopted by TV, speaker, entertainment device manufacturers and more, putting the AirPlay protocol in certain jeopardy of being the odd man out.
As expected the experience on Android is a slightly better than it is on iOS. Google has considerably more freedom on their own platform; as an example, apps that use Chromecast can take priority over the lockscreen so that the user can operate the controls, like play/pause/skip, of a video without having to fully unlock their Android device. But that’s a minor thing and, for the most part, all of the primary features work just as well on iOS as they do on Android.
This is the future. It’s probably in all of our futures. If not Chromecast then something almost exactly like Chromecast.