There isn't much not to love about Chromecast, the new, 2.8-inch device that lets you play music and video from the Internet on your TV, using your phone, computer or tablet to control it.
It's small, easy to set up and simple to use. And at $35, it's one of the least expensive things you can plug into your TV.
Chromecast plugs into the HDMI port of your HDTV to stream Internet video and music from the cloud or from your computer to your TV. It works with iOS and Android devices, turning phones and tablets into remote controls that allow people to cue up and control Netflix and YouTube on their TVs. Android users can also access Google Play to watch movies and TV shows and listen to music.
Chromecast can also "cast" -- in Chromecast parlance -- to your TV whatever is in your Chrome browser, be it your Facebook news feed or an episode of "The Newsroom" from HBO Go.
Setting up Chromecast took less than 15 minutes. The box includes only four items -- the Chromecast, a USB power cable, a power supply and an HDMI extender in case there's not enough room around your HDMI ports for the dongle.
I plugged Chromecast into one of my TV's HDMI ports and plugged the power supply into an outlet. A few minutes later, I was watching "Arrested Development" on Netflix.
When you select Chromecast's HDMI port, a screen appears prompting you to visit a website to download the Chromcast app. The app provides step-by-step instructions for configuring your Chromecast and connecting it to your Wi-Fi network. Once it's connected, and once you've installed the Chrome plugin, you're ready to cast.
When you're using your phone or tablet to stream, the video or music is not actually going from your device to Chromecast. Rather, it's going directly from the cloud to Chromecast, and your device simply acts as a remote.
I pulled up "Arrested Development" using Netflix on my iPhone, and it looked great -- the picture was crisp and the sound was just as good as it is streaming with Roku or Apple TV. There was, however, some lag in the volume and playback control. And since it's not actually streaming from the device, you can do other things on your device without missing out on an awkward moment between G.O.B. and Steve Holt.
But casting from your computer is a different story. When you stream from Chrome, your computer actually sends whatever is in its browser tab over your Wi-Fi network to Chromecast. This is important because one of the biggest criticisms of Chromecast has been that not enough apps are equipped to cast. Indeed, only YouTube and Netflix have a "cast" button built into their iOS apps. While Android customers also can cast from the Google Play store, we're not yet able to cast HBO Go, Spotify, Hulu Plus and dozens of other popular video and music apps.
But one way to get around the lack of apps that have casting built into them is to use your computer and cast from your browser. I was eager to test out this workaround.
With the exception of Hulu, it didn't disappoint. I pulled up an episode of "The Newsroom" on HBO Go in my Chrome browser, hit the cast button in the top right of my browser, and voila, Jeff Daniels was ranting on my TV. And it looked just as good streaming from my computer to Chromecast as it did coming from Roku.
I was also able to do other things on my computer while "The Newsroom" continued to cast, uninterrupted. And I knew which window was casting because a small cast icon was visible in the browser tab. At one point it did say that "computer performance may be affecting playback quality," but I didn't notice any issues.
Spotify's Web player also worked well and sounded good, although there was a slight delay with controlling the volume and playback from my computer.
Only when I pulled up an episode "Community" on Hulu did I notice any lag. The dialogue didn't quite match up with the characters' mouths, and movement was abrupt and shaky. This didn't get better even after closing other programs and windows and restarting Hulu.
Google has said that developers are building casting into their apps. Pandora and The Washington Post are both building apps that will cast, but as Dan Rayburn, the executive vice president of StreamingMedia.com, told The Huffington Post last week, the timeline of when "casting" in apps becomes standard isn't clear.
And according to The New York Times, companies like Hulu and HBO could decide they don't want to allow their content to be cast, and turn off the browser functionality at any time.
Despite the scarcity of apps that have casting capability built into them, Chromecast is a great value. It's a very inexpensive and simple way to watch Internet video on your TV.
But I'm not putting my Apple TV or Roku 3 in a box to collect dust just yet. Hulu was unwatchable via casting from the browser, and I much prefer the Spotify app on Roku. And although Chromecast is capable of 1080p video (just like Apple TV and Roku), it can only cast from a browser at a maximum resolution of 720p. So even though there's the browser workaround for content outside of Netflix, YouTube and Google Play, the quality isn't as high as it is on popular set top boxes. Also, with Chromecast, you can only watch content from the cloud, so a cute video that you shoot with your phone or pictures from a vacation can't be cast without uploading them.
For now, Chromecast doesn't replace Apple TV and Roku. But at $35, it's cheap enough to complement your set-top box.
For a comparison of Chromecast, Apple TV and Roku, click here.
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