Google takes on AirPlay and finally puts a browser on your TV
It’s surprisingly difficult to put a web browser on TV. It’s difficult for regular people — the best option is often just plugging in a laptop — and it’s been ridiculously difficult for the tech industry in general. From interface problems to weird remotes to clunky performance, attempts to put the web on TV have all met with failure of one kind or another. Google in particular learned a hard lesson with its Google TV platform, which crashed and burned so spectacularly when it launched in 2010 that hardware partner Logitech nearly went out of business.
But now Google’s back with the Chromecast, a far simpler way of getting the web on your TV. The Chromecast is a $35 HDMI dongle that basically competes with Apple’s AirPlay system: when you use supported services like YouTube and Netflix on your phone, tablet, or computer, hitting the new Cast button sends the video to your TV. You can also send entire tabs from the Chrome browser on Macs and PCs, which means you can basically put any site or service on TV with just the click of a button. That opens up an entire world of content for your TV — far more than any other service can offer on its own.
It’s all very promising, especially for the price — there was such a rush to buy the Chromecast after it was announced last week that Google had to cancel a three-month Netflix promotion. And after a few days of testing, it seems like the Chromecast might actually deliver on all that potential, but Google still has a lot of work to do.
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There's not much to say about the Chromecast itself aside from the fact that it provides a legitimate reason to say the word "dongle," which is great fun. The whole thing is a little under 3 inches long, and it'll stick out about 2.5 inches when plugged into an HDMI port. That can lead to some problems if you bump into it or otherwise jostle it around — I bent the HDMI connector on one of my Chromecasts within minutes of plugging it in. (It still works, but it wasn't exactly reassuring.) There's a short HDMI extension cable in the box to provide extra clearance if you can't fit the Chromecast against the back of your TV, but you might need something longer depending on your setup, as the extension really just makes everything stick out more. Out of the box, this dongle don't dangle.
This dongle don't dangle
On the back there's an LED, a button, and a Micro USB port, which is how the Chromecast gets power. Yes, power — Google actually recommends that you use the included external power adapter to plug the Chromecast into the wall. I suspect that's so the Chromecast stays on even when the TV is off, allowing it to turn on the TV and switch inputs using HDMI control if your TV supports it. You can also plug the Chromecast into your TV's USB port if it has one, but on my Samsung office TV those ports turn off when the TV does, shutting down the Chromecast as well. If you have a newer TV with HDMI 1.4 ports, you might find they can power the Chromecast directly, although Google isn't clear about how officially supported that is.
It's all a little more cable clutter than I expected, but it's not the end of the world. Just don't expect to toss the Chromecast in your bag and go — you'll need external power for most TVs you find out in the world.
Once you've got the Chromecast plugged in and powered, the next step is getting it on your Wi-Fi network, which is easy: you download the setup app for Mac, PC, or Android, and it prompts you to choose your network and type in your password. (Only 2.4GHz networks are supported, which is a little bit of a bummer.) After that, you give your Chromecast a name, install the Google Cast Chrome extension on your computer, and you're all done. There's nothing else you need to configure or interact with the Chromecast itself — all the action moves to apps and your computer.
The Chromecast is basically a small Android computer that can connect to the internet and play video files. When you hit the Cast button in a supported app, the Chromecast directly connects to the internet and streams the video itself — it's not streaming from your device. (Apple's AirPlay also works like this in some cases, but it can also stream audio and video directly from iPhones, iPads, and iTunes on the Mac and PC.)
The only apps that support the Chromecast out of the box are YouTube, Netflix, and Google's various Play media apps. Using them is simple: you just find whatever you want to watch, hit the Cast button, and the Chromecast takes over while your device becomes a remote. And since the Chromecast is connecting directly you can switch apps, open new tabs, and even turn things off without interrupting playback. It's all very flexible, and when it works, it's super smooth. Netflix knows when it's playing through the Chromecast, and opening any Netflix app connected to your account allows you to control the video. And it all works everywhere: iOS, Mac, and Windows included. I quickly flipped back and forth between platforms while watching Arrested Development, and everything worked fairly well, although I did manage to get the Netflix iPhone app confused about what was playing a few times.
Chromecast streams from the internet, not your device
All that flexibility can lead to some confusion. Since there's no single, definitive place to control the Chromecast, it's easy to find yourself watching a video without any immediate way to pause, rewind, or mute — you have to remember where the video came from and open that app. It's not a big problem, but it's added complexity. Google really needs to add basic playback controls like play, pause, and mute to the Chromecast setup app. Google also desperately needs to add in some basic password controls; right now anyone walking by can grab control of your Chromecast and send video to it. That makes it super easy to use, but also opens up a world of elaborate trolling.
That's it for app support. Unlike AirPlay, which is built into the system video player on iOS and integrated into OS X, Chromecast requires app developers to add support to every app individually. That's going to take time and some intense lobbying from Google. Pandora support is coming, but unless you're a heavy Google Play user, right now the Chromecast's entire app story is Netflix and YouTube.
But let's be honest: you're not buying a Chromecast for Netflix and YouTube, services that are basically everywhere. (There are probably toasters that run Netflix at this point.) What $35 really buys you is the simplest possible way to send tabs from Chrome to your TV screen, and it works. It works really well, in fact; if you can see it in Chrome, you can get it on your TV, with only a few exceptions.
Anything from your browser to your TV, with the touch of a button
Netflix and YouTube have dedicated Chromecast buttons, but full-screen Flash video works just fine everywhere else: I tested The Verge's video player, Vimeo, ESPN, Hulu, and a few others, and hitting the full-screen button blew up the video to fill the entire TV screen. Music services like Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio all worked fine as well. You can also drag files from your desktop into Chrome and they'll play as well, as long as Chrome supports them natively. (Video in .mp4 format and .mp3 audio files work great.) The only real incompatibility is with Apple's QuickTime — you'll see the video on your TV just fine, but the audio will still come out of your computer. That means Apple's movie trailer site doesn't work, and .mov files you drag into Chrome won't either.
Once I had the ability to throw anything in my browser onto a TV with the press of a button, I found myself doing it all the time, for seemingly no reason. Having a button in YouTube that lets you play a video on a TV is particularly great; I use AirPlay in the iOS YouTube app all the time, but search and discovery is still so much better on a laptop that it makes for a whole different experience. Same with The Verge's video hub — I spent a few hours catching up on everything we made in the past week while writing this review and going through my email, and having control of everything from my laptop was far better than my usual system of having an iPad next to me just for streaming video over AirPlay. It's kind of like using your TV as a gigantic second monitor.
This is all definitely for lean-back consumption only, and you shouldn't expect to use the TV as your main screen, even though there's an "experimental" setting that lets you share your entire screen and not just a single tab. The mouse cursor isn't displayed, and there's a very noticeable delay between what happens on your computer and what happens on the TV. Everything is captured and streamed at a maximum resolution of 720p; you can choose a higher bitrate if you have the bandwidth or step down to 480p if your network is slow. You can also select "Audio Mode" in the Chromecast browser menu to lower the video frame-rate and bandwidth usage if you're listening to a music service. It's kind of weird — Audio Mode should probably just black out the video entirely.
Google says the tab casting feature is in beta, and it shows. Even at the highest quality video playback isn't perfectly smooth, and there are some glitches here and there. You'll also need a decently powerful machine: performance on my older Samsung Series 5 Chromebook was so terrible it was unusable, and I occasionally got performance warnings on my Core i7 MacBook Pro as well. But for the most part it works, and it works well enough to use regularly. I use a utility called AirParrot to send app windows to my Apple TV over AirPlay all the time, and Chromecast definitely works just as well — the improved AirPlay support coming in OS X Mavericks will probably be better than either solution, but for right now it's a wash. And if you're a Windows user, it's by far your best option.
Not much of an AirPlay competitor, but a great wireless display for Chrome
The Chromecast is basically an impulse purchase that just happens to be the simplest, cheapest, and best solution for getting a browser window on your TV. Everything else, including the potential for app support, is secondary — Google has a lot of work to do catching up to Apple and AirPlay on that front, and those deals aren’t easy. It took Apple years to get HBO to add AirPlay support to HBO Go on the iPad, for example. History suggests that counting on Google to convince content companies to add Chromecast support to their apps is a foolish bet. And if all you want is Netflix, spend $50 on a Roku — it’s better all the way around.
But if you’re the type who routinely watches things on a laptop and just wants an easier, cleaner way to get those things on a TV, the Chromecast is a no-brainer. Think of it as a wireless display cable for your laptop and you’ll get the potential immediately — there’s a reason all these companies have been trying to put a browser on TV for the past 15 years. I have no idea if Google can build the Chromecast ecosystem into something rivals AirPlay, but for $35 I’ll be too busy sending tabs from Chrome to really even care.
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