I’m seldom an impulsive shopper, especially when it comes to real products – though apps often get me to drop a dollar or five without nearly as much thought. At $35, though, the Chromecast seemed tempting enough to be worth a shot. I write about web apps for a living, but have never owned a Chrome device, so this seemed like the perfect chance to give the Chrome device ecosystem a shot.
There’s a tiny twist, though: I’m an American living in Thailand, and the Chromecast was solidly a product aimed at the American market. But surely it could be the perfect cheap dongle to turn any TV into a smart TV with your smartphone as the controller, no?
After doubling my initial investment in postage and waiting several weeks, I finally had a Chromecast in the back of my LG 42″ LED non-smart TV in my living room in Bangkok. It was both magical and frustrating. Here’s why.
Wireless HDMI on the Cheap
A real smart TV has been incredibly elusive, despite the efforts of everyone from Microsoft in the ‘90s (and in this century with the Xbox) to Google’s infamous Nexus Q and Google TV efforts. Apple TV was classified as a hobby by none other than Jobs himself, but of all things it’s one of the best ways to add smarts to your TV thanks to iTunes’ rich library of media, the ton of streaming services it works with, and its iOS and OS X integration with AirPlay.
With almost every TV company offering various “smart” TVs, and a proliferation of devices — from Bluray players to the Apple TV and the Roku in the $100 price range to every modern game console — offering Netflix and other video service integration, it’d seem there’s little more to offer without radically reinventing TV or drastically cutting the price. Google chose the latter this time around.
The $35 Chromecast — initially offered with a complimentary 3 month Netflix subscription, a $24 value itself — is the cheapest way to make a normal TV “smart”, at least within today’s definition of smart TV. It’s basically like a normal USB flash drive, albeit with an HDMI port and a micro-USB power port on the back that you’ll need to connect to your TV’s USB or plug in directly to power it. Internally, it’s basically a stripped-down Android device that can stream YouTube and Netflix videos on its own, or display your mirrored Mac or PC screen. The former basically makes it a limited smart TV that uses your other devices as a remote, while the latter makes it essentially the cheapest wireless HDMI setup.
Perhaps setup is too strong a term, thought: to get the Chromecast running, you really just run a little app that lets you type in your Wifi password from another device, and give your Chromecast a name. Then, you’ll need to install a Chrome extension to stream content to your Chromecast — or make sure you have the latest YouTube or Netflix apps on your mobile device — and you’re done.
Chromecast in Action
There’s two ways of sending video to the Chromecast, as mentioned before: by using an app or site that directly supports it (limited to YouTube and Netflix for now) or by mirroring a tab in Chrome or your whole computer screen. The former works the very best — you pick a video on your computer or mobile device, start it playing, and send it to the Chromecast. You can then close your computer or do something else — the Chromecast will stream the media on its own in full HD. You can also stream Google Play videos, from the Android app or the Purchases tab in YouTube, with the same beautiful results. It’s nice enough to make you wonder why every other streaming device isn’t this easy to use.
Streaming a browser tab, though, isn’t nearly as nice right now. I’d harbored a hope that the Chrome name in the Chromecast meant that it would actually render webpages you send to it itself, but no. Instead, it’s just mirroring anything that’s in your browser tab to the TV, complete with audio. That doesn’t work so nice, say, for reading the news on the TV (something that doesn’t really make sense in the first place), but it does work fairly well for watching online videos or pushing slideshows or presentations to the TV.
There’s a noticeable delay, but it’s a consistent delay that doesn’t mess up watching media on the big screen. The quality is far from perfect, but it’s at least SD quality most of the time. And, surprisingly, if you’re watching a Flash video in a webpage you’re casting to the Chromecast, and then take the video full-screen, it’ll go full-screen on the Chromecast without any issues. It won’t work with everything — Silverlight won’t cast audio, for example — but it’s a surprisingly nice way to show anything at random on your TV. There’s an experimental full-screen casting mode, too, but don’t expect to be able to push iTunes Movies to your TV that way, as I couldn’t get full-screen casting to push audio to the TV.
But, there’s a little-known easter egg built-in to Chrome: it can playback most media types on its own, including just about any video format you’ll have around — and even .mkv Bluray rips. Cast the tab with that media playing, and you’ll have nearly perfect quality streaming from your Mac — far better than internet-based tab casting since 100% of your Wifi bandwidth is going to your Mac to Chromecast stream instead of having to download media as well. You won’t be able to play back, say, iTunes Movies since they’re locked down with DRM, but anything you have ripped on your Mac can be sent to the Chromecast rather easily.
The Streaming Conundrum
In the US or other markets where Netflix is supported, you’ve got quite the selection of high-quality media that the Chromecast can play back on its own. You can play anything from YouTube, Netflix, or Google Play with a tap from any device you already have, and it just works. It’s like an AirPrint printer, for video.
Outside the US, there’s a number of workarounds to get Netflix to work, from the Chrome extension Hola Unblocker and simple DNS workarounds to more bandwidth-intensive (and expensive) options such as a VPN. The former, though, work 99% of the time — but don’t expect it to be that simple with the Chromecast. The Chromecast has Google DNS built-in, and no way to change its DNS servers — and casting a tab with Netflix playing thanks to Hola Unblocker won’t work, since Silverlight audio doesn’t work with Chrome’s tab casting. Thus, unless you have a router that lets you setup a VPN in the router, there’s no way to get Netflix to play in the Chromecast abroad.
That leaves you with YouTube streaming and casting tabs — and the lure of ripped media you can play back in a tab or the numerous illegitimate sites that let you playback pirated TV shows, sports, and movies with a simple Flash player. And if you’re ripping disks already and want a cheap way to play them on your TV, it’d really make more sense to put them on an external HDD and connect it to your TV.
For streaming media, then, the Chromecast today makes sense in any market that has Netflix, but otherwise, you’re limited to YouTube and casting tabs. Odds are, more sites will directly support the Chromecast going forward, giving you more media that the Chromecast can play on its own, but for now you’re pretty limited.
The Casting Potential
But then, it’s a $35 device that’s directly linked to your browser. Surely there’s more one could do with it than simply use it like a rather lossy wireless HDMI cable.
That’s where the browser — and your imagination — comes in. See, think about it: you can push any tab to the Chromecast, and whether it’s your active tab or not it’ll keep pushing it to your TV. So, there’s an easy way to send Geckoboard to your TV to keep tabs on your business stats without needing a dedicated computer or running a long cable from your desk. Want to give a presentation using an online presentation app like the one in Google Drive? Stick a Chromecast in the projector, and you’re ready to roll. Or, perhaps, you could use it to stream music from your TV — there’s an audio-only mode that sends an even lossier video stream to save bandwidth that works very nicely.
If only the Chromecast could actually render webpages itself, I’d be more inclined to recommend it. It’d have way more possibilities that way. But perhaps, there’s hope. Perhaps Google could update it in the future and make it have more of Chrome and less of the casting. Imagine if you could send a tab to Chromecast, have it render live on the TV, but then control it from your MacBook and have Chrome send the clicks on your computer to the same element in the TV-rendered webpage. That would be very cool.
For today, it’s a cheap Apple TV alternate if you’re mostly wanting to stream online videos to your TV. If you use iTunes media at all, though, the extra $65 for an Apple TV is well worth the cost, and AirPlay streaming by all accounts is far better than Chromecast streaming.
One thing’s for sure: it’s software and services that both make and break the Chromecast. Hardware, on its own, is nothing. It’s software that makes software worth buying, no matter how expensive or cheap the device. That’s another reminder why Apple hasn’t done more with the TV yet: they’re likely trying to nail content and services — the software side — before they try to innovate on the hardware.