08/05/2013 07:56 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Google Chromecast Review

Looking to get smart? Consider a Mastercard-inspired formulation:
An SAT prep book: about $17.
A year at Harvard: over $60,000
A jolt of smarts for your TV: $35.
That last one would be the Google Chromecast, a dongle that gives any TV access to Netflix, YouTube and Google Play via your cellphone, tablet or laptop. Let's ditch school and take a closer look at this media toy.
In the Box
The box contains the dongle itself, a short HDMI extender cable, a USB cable for power, a plugin USB AC adapter and a brief user guide.
Setup is easy. You start by plugging the dongle into the extender cable, then plug the cable into a free HDMI port on your TV. The extender cable is optional, but by moving the dongle away from the back of the TV, it can help improve reception, since the dongle needs to connect to your WiFi.
A couple variations are possible. If you have an audio/video receiver with an HDMI input, you can plug the dongle into that rather than directly into the TV. On the other hand, if you don't use an AVR, what do you do if your TV's existing HDMI ports are all occupied?  You can plug the dongle into an HDMI switcher, such as the value-priced two-port and three-port switchers available from Monoprice for under $15, then plug the switcher into your TV. Problem solved. (Other brands have similar products, not tested.)
Also optional is the USB power cable and plugin AC adapter. Newer TVs will reportedly allow the dongle to draw power from the HDMI port itself. But if yours doesn't, then you can plug the USB cord into the dongle, and plug the other end of the USB cord into your TV's USB port (if unused) or into the AC adapter. The cord is a bit on the short side though, so you may need to use an AC extension cord, or a USB extension cord if you have one.
After the dongle is plugged in and powered up, you go to a web address displayed and download the Chromecast app to your phone or tablet. The app guides you in connecting the Chromecast to your WiFi network.
Note that the device and the phone/tablet have to be connected to the same network. Thus, if you have multiple WiFi networks at your home, you'll want to be sure that you're connecting both the Chromecast and the phone or tablet to the same WiFi network - at least initially. I found that after the device had been set up, I could connect my phone to my alternate WiFi network and still control the Chromecast. That's at odds with the description in the instruction booklet though, so your experience may vary.
How to Use It
Using the Chromecast is easy. You don't use the Chromecast app - instead, you just use the Netflix, YouTube or Google Play app as you normally would, with one tweak. There's now a "cast" button in those apps. Tap it and you can select whether your media will play on the Chromecast or on the phone, tablet or laptop itself. In other respects, you use the apps as you always have.
When you choose to play something from Netflix, YouTube or Google Play on the Chromecast, the stream is playing from the cloud, not from your phone. The phone (or tablet or laptop) is not streaming its content to the Chromecast. These are the only media apps currently supported, but reports indicate that Hulu Plus and HBO Go are likely to arrive soon as well.
Your phone does function as the remote control for the Chromecast. This is occasionally awkward: when I woke up my phone it went to sleep, I found that it would sometimes wake up in a remote control screen with play/pause, stop, and 10 sec. rewind buttons. That was convenient, but other times it would wake up in the normal lock screen and I'd have to go hunting for the remote controls.
You can also stream content (including some streaming video) from a browser window, but this only works with the Chrome browser (of course) and only on Windows PCs and laptops, Macs, and the Chromebook Pixel - but not with cellphones or tablets. Why? Who knows.
If you want to mirror content from your phone or tablet to your TV, the Chromecast is not the right solution, at least until and unless they add this feature. Instead, you'll want to use a Miracast dongle such as the Netgear Push2TV PTV3000 or the Actiontec Screen Beam Pro. Alternatively, you'll want to use an MHL cable such as the Monoprice MHL cable for Samsung Galaxy SIII (works for Samsung Galaxy S4 also; I've tested it) or the Monoprice MHL cable for other smartphones (not tested). The cabled solution is best for gaming, because Miracast device have enough latency to interfere with gaming. I'll be posting a more complete review of Miracast and MHL cable solutions soon. Check back here for the link.
Do You Need One?
You might not, if your TV, Blue-ray player or game console already offers Netflix and YouTube. But you may want to spring for the $35 anyway, since the user experience on a cellphone or tablet is easier than on other devices. (Just as an example, you can use speech recognition with a phone or tablet.) As Google adds more video sources to Chromecast's repertoire, we may start seeing channel bundles tailored especially for Chromecast owners. If that happens, we may look back and realize that this is the day Google became a cable company in addition to everything else it is. Driverless cars will be amazing when they happen, but for everyone else, for now, there's the $35 Chromecast.