72 hours ago, “Chromecast” was just a good name for a podcast on hood ornaments. Now it’s the “it” item in the tech world, selling out online within a day (though I had no problems walking into Best Buy today and walking out with one — they had plenty in stock).
In my “premature thoughts” column three days ago, I had tempered enthusiasm for the product. I knew it wasn’t going to outright replace the Apple TV in my media room nor the PS3 in my family room (my current online streaming devices) simply because the Chromecast didn’t offer any groundbreaking new features not found in either of those devices. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not having a whole lot of new features is okay if the things it does do, it does really, really well.
In this way, Chromecast might just be Google’s most Apple-like product yet. Apple is the king of streamlining devices, taking away features that offer more clutter and confusion than practicality. Particularly in the Steve Jobs era, if Apple felt like there was a better way of doing something, they just did it, and without giving people the option of continuing to do things the old way (for better and for worse). In this regard, Chromecast feels like a play right out of the Jobs playbook. Google’s bread and butter is in the cloud. Chromecast is built to access that cloud faster and easier than any other streaming device. Locally stored media is an afterthought (and in the case of accessing media stored on your phone, it’s not a thought at all — there’s no way to do it). Does Google care? Nope. Like Apple, they’re betting on what you’ll want to do tomorrow, not what you want to do today.
All that said, it’s still a piece of brand new technology. Results will vary. So how did it actually work for me?
I didn’t buy the product just to review it. I bought it wanting to keep it. Specifically, I wanted it for my bedroom, which currently has no way to access Netflix (or any other online streaming service, for that matter).
The bedroom TV is ANCIENT for a plasma HDTV. It’s also “off brand” (unless you consider Sceptre a brand, which I don’t). The set is nearly a decade old and is the only piece of technology my wife brought with her to the marriage. It’s not a smart TV. It’s not even a dumb TV. It’s barely a TV at all. It has more analog connections than digital ones, and just one HDMI port. USB? Nope. If Google Chromecast can work on this TV, then it’ll work on any TV.
The good news: The HDTV’s sole HDMI port was free since our DirecTV box has to use component video cables (for reasons I won’t go into here). The Chromecast requires a separate power source, though. You can either plug it into a USB port or into a wall socket. But the nearest wall socket was too far away and the TV didn’t have USB. So what did I do? I used the USB port on the DirecTV box. The Chromecast ONLY needs USB for power, so just about any USB port on any device will do. So I powered Chromecast up, opened my laptop, and downloaded the Chromecast software needed to set it up.
The laptop found the Chromecast and the set-up wizard began doing its thing. Before the Chromecast goes onto your wifi network, it first sets up it’s own mini wifi network. The set-up software will temporarily take your computer off your home wifi network and put it onto the Chromecast’s mini-network, so they can talk. Pretty smart. The set-up wizard is very good at explaining what’s going on. At no point are you left to wonder what’s happened and if you should be doing something.
So far, everything was working just like it should.
Until it didn’t.
When it came time for the Chromecast to finally put itself onto my home’s wifi network, the Chromecast couldn’t find it. The signal was strong on all other wifi devices in the room — laptop, iPhone, and Blackberry — but the Chromecast couldn’t pick up a wifi signal at all. Thinking the Chromecast might simply be broken, I hooked it up in the family room, to see if it would work there.
The Vizio in the family room had a nice empty HDMI port right next to a USB port. Very convenient. Not-so-convenient? The fact that the dongle wasn’t completely hidden by the TV’s bezel.
As you can see above, the USB cable couldn’t help but protrude a bit. The good news? In this room, the Chromecast had no problem finding a strong enough wifi signal. Everything was good to go. And it worked as advertised. Apps with the ability to “cast” built-in, worked great, even on my iPhone. (Note: There are only a handful of supported Apps at the moment.) From a computer, web pages with video and audio can add a “casting option” which will send content directly to the Chromecast, just like the mobile apps do. Netflix.com and Youtube.com already have this ability. Others, like the Washington Post website, have already announced plans to incorporate this ability soon.
But you don’t NEED the web page to be optimized for Chromecast for it to work. It’s only a “beta” function at moment, but the Chromecast is able to “mirror” a Chrome browser window on your computer. This will allow you to send almost any web-based content to your TV. I was expecting the feature to be rather buggy, but it actually worked well despite its limitations.
You can only mirror a single browser tab at a time, but that’s understandable. To mirror an entire desktop would require some sort of integration into the OS itself. Maybe one day Android devices will offer that level of integration, but that day isn’t today. Or tomorrow. This is one area where the Apple TV has a clear advantage.
Watching Hulu on the Chromecast was as easy as going to the website in the Chrome browser, hitting the Cast button, and mirroring the browser tab on the TV. Once you’ve started watching a program, Clicking the “fill screen” button on your computer will also fill the screen on your TV (though I can see there being some aspect ratio problems arising here and there in the future). Unlike Apps or webpages optimized for Chromecast, in order to watch content “mirrored” from the Chrome browser, you have to keep the browser up and running. Anything you do to the browser tab will be reflected on screen.
Now, the Chromecast isn’t made for streaming local content (i.e. music, videos, and photos stored on your hard drive). Google is more than happy to point that out. Yet if you point that out in a comment section on any tech site that covers the Chromecast you WILL get reamed by Google fans more than happy to tell you you’re wrong. They’ll say that local streaming IS possible. And they are sorta right. There is a trick to get local content to stream from a PC or Mac, but media content on your smartphone/tablet is completely off-limits.
The trick for streaming content from your computer hard drive involves manually dragging the movie/music/whatever file to the Chrome web browser and then mirroring the entire browser window over to the Chromecast. I tried it with a very high quality video clip of my nephew playing basketball. Things weren’t perfect though.
Compared to the Stephen Colbert clip, you’ll note that the basketball footage — despite being a 1080P file — doesn’t fill the entire screen. And nothing I did would rectify that. I also couldn’t get sound with this specific clip. Different file types will yield different results.
Side note: This is another way that the Chromecast is like an Apple product. Frequently, it is possible to make Apple products do things that Apple doesn’t officially support (like jailbreaking an iPhone), but it’s always at your own risk. Local streaming is definitely an “at your own risk” feature. And it definitely feels like a “workaround” more than a feature. Results will vary. Greatly. Don’t buy a Chromecast expecting this to be something you can count on. And don’t believe anyone in any comment sections who tells you otherwise. Most of them don’t even own a Chromecast yet.
Now, I said I bought the Chromecast specifically for watching Netflix, so let’s take a deeper look at that experience. Unlike local streaming, Netflix streaming is something that Google is more than happy to promise will work without any limitations. Whether from your browser or your mobile App, they want the Netflix experience to be seamless. I’m happy to report it is. Google clearly made sure there was nothing “beta” about Netflix performance.
As soon as I casted the Netflix stream from the iPhone to the TV, the Netflix App turned into a remote. You can turn your phone off and the Netflix movie will still play (though you won’t be able to control it). Again, everything worked great, but I did notice something interesting when I opened the Netflix App and hit the cast button for the first time…
I was expecting to see two options: Watch it on my iPhone or watch it on the Chromecast. But I actually had THREE options of where to send the Netflix stream. I could watch it on the iPhone. I could watch it from the Chromecast (still labeled “Bedroom”), or I could watch it from the Vizio TV without the need for any intermediary devices whatsoever. I knew Netflix was built-in into the TV, but I didn’t know that it would communicate with a mobile App. This is a Netflix/Vizio feature I never knew existed. Thank you Chromecast for pointing me towards a useful special feature I already had. The irony, of course, is that the discovery of this feature is yet another reason why I don’t need Chromecast in this room.
Chromecast totally does everything that Google says it will. It even does a couple things Google won’t really talk about. But, overall, I’m sorry to say I still gotta return it. I bought it for a room where the Chromecast can’t get a wifi signal (yet every other wifi device in that room can). I would keep it for another room, except, well, I don’t need it for those rooms. The PS3 is a full-fledged gaming device that Chromecast can never be (nor should it). And the Apple TV, well… the Apple TV can do this:
Above you can see my wife trying on maternity clothes for her sister 3000 miles away. The Macbook and the HDTV are linked wirelessly via an Apple TV. This is “true” mirroring and it’s super easy and responsive. Anything you do on a Macbook will show up on your TV. Will Chromecast ever be able to mirror an entire desktop experience like the Apple TV can? When it does, I’ll be back in the market for one. Heck, I’ll still buy one if it can up its wifi performance. ‘Til then… it looks like I might be the first person in America to actually return one of these things. (Which sucks, because I REALLY wanted to use this to watch Netflix in the bedroom…. Stupid wifi.)
As for you? If you have a room with a “dumb TV” and have been looking for an easy way to get loads of online content to it, the Chromecast is definitely worth a try.