Google's new Chromecast HDMI stick is one hell of a clever device.
Using your existing gadgets as remote controls, it turns any HDMI-equipped TV into a portal to the web's multimedia goodies, and it costs less than a round of drinks.
Although there are some clear differences between the capabilities of the Chromecast and the Apple TV – the Chromecast streams all of its content direct from the web, while the Apple TV also streams the stuff you have stored on your computers and iThings – both are neat ways of getting web TV and video on demand on to your big screen. And that means it's time for a fight.
Let's take a look at how Google’s ultra-cheap media streamer stacks up against the world's most popular TV box.
Video content: what's on the box?
With over 60,000 movies and 230,000 TV episodes available on iTunes that can be streamed directly to Apple TV, the diminutive box has a headstart against the Chromecast when it comes to content. Apple TV also offers direct access to Youtube, Netflix, Vimeo, Sky News, Crunchyroll (which does an excellent line in anime) and Qello concert streams, all of which can be controlled via the bundled remote. And of course, you can also stream the stuff that's on your iPad, iPhone or MacBook, including whatever you happen to be watching on, say, BBC iPlayer at the time.
Right now, Chromecast is more restrictive, only allowing you to control content from mobile devices using the Google Play, Youtube and Netflix apps. But it will also happily play whatever you're watching in your computer's Chrome browser window.
Apple is out in front, but it might not be for long, as the Chromecast is theoretically capable of supporting streams from any web-based video source: all that's needed is compatible smartphone and tablet apps that allow you to control them. We'd expect that lineup to skyrocket over the coming months.
Winner: Apple (for now)
Google’s agnosticism towards platform support gives it a tremendous advantage over Apple’s restrictive ecosystem. Chromecast can be controlled by any device that runs its Chrome browser or other Google-approved apps, which means even iOS and Mac OS X are supported. Clearly, Google is trying to be best friends with everyone, including its rivals.
In contrast, Apple has sent a clear signal by limiting Apple TV to its own ecosystem – although it can also stream goodies from any PC running iTunes.
No contest. While Apple fans won't bat an eyelid when forking out £100 for the Apple TV, it’s more likely for a unaffiliated punter to casually drop US$35 (£23) on a Chromecast that promises to do many of the same things. It may be a simpler, less capable device – but crikey is it a cheap one.
The Chromecast is only available in the US. For now, that is: Google hasn’t made any official announcements of its availability outside of the States. So we're siding with Apple, simply because we can buy the TV already. Here's hoping the Chromecast works outside of the States; we'll find out as soon as we can.
There are still too many unknowns in this contest to make a solid judgement about which device is better. How good is the Chromecast's picture? How slick is it in operation? How well does it manage content streams via its Wi-Fi-only connection? We know that Apple TV does well on all fronts, so the ball's in Google's court.
But assuming it's performance is competitive, the Chromecast is looking pretty good from where we're stood. Sure, it doesn't do anything without an associated gadget being used as remote control – Apple TV is a talented standalone as well as a great accessory, while the Chromecast is really just an accessory – but as we all have PCs, smartphones and tablets, that's at most a niggle.
So, the fight really comes down to content versus value. Right now, Apple's out in front for content, but Chromecast is kicking ass on value, and the content's likely to come. And if you have an HTC One, the Chromecast will work with it. Playing the long game, Google might have a winner on its hands.