A new generation of “cord-cutters” has abandoned the traditional concept of TV, instead using web streaming, catch-up services and devices such as Apple TV to watch shows whenever it’s convenient for them – rather than when the broadcaster says so.
And Google’s Chromecast might be the ideal device for the entry-level cutter. Compatible with Netflix, YouTube and movies and videos from Google's own Play store, it’s a cheap, simple way of getting web-sourced movies and shows onto your living room TV. But is it just too limited?
Small and simple
If you thought the puck-sized Apple TV was small, wait until you see the Chromecast, which more than anything resembles a USB memory stick. A mere 35g in weight and possessing a single button, this dinky dongle plugs into a spare HDMI socket on your TV.
It can’t draw power via HDMI, however, so you’ll also need to hook it up to a USB port or wall socket. It’s not the most elegant of solutions, adding as it does to the cable spaghetti behind your telly, but if your TV's got a spare USB socket (and many do) you could replace the fairly long USB-to-micro-USB cable that's bundled with the Chromecast for one that's shorter and a little neater for just a couple of quid.
Setup couldn’t be much simpler. Once plugged in, the Chromecast displays a setup screen on your TV and opens up its own Wi-Fi network. Connect to that on your computer, phone or tablet, change the Chromecast’s settings so that it’s hooked up to your main home Wi-Fi network and you’re ready to go.
As well as “casting” YouTube, Netflix and Google Play videos, you can also use Chromecast to beam tabs from the Chrome browser (desktop version only) onto your TV screen. To do so, you’ll need to install an extension in Chrome. Again, very easy.
To cast video to your TV you simply tap the icon that appears in both the mobile app and desktop versions of Netflix and YouTube. After a few seconds, the video will begin playing on your TV, in quality up to 1080p if its available. 5.1-channel surround sound is also supported (with no dedicated audio output on the Chromecast itself, you’ll have to connect your TV’s audio output, if it has one, to an external speaker setup).
Video quality depends on the source material to a large degree. Old, low-res YouTube videos look decidedly ropey on the big screen, while newer HD clips and Netflix material fares much better. In fact, with Netflix stuff and 720p or 1080p YouTube videos, the crisp detail and colour reproduction is on a par with HD broadcast services such as Sky HD, or even better if you've got an internet connection that's compatible with Netflix's Super HD streams, with which Chromecast is compatible.
You control playback and volume using the device from which you’re casting. There’s a momentary delay from the time you press the button, but it’s not long enough to become an annoyance.
The truth about casting
One thing to note: despite the phrasing, video isn’t actually travelling from your laptop, phone or tablet to the Chromecast. The dongle is streaming it direct from the web – the casting device simply kicks off and controls that process, so even if you’re watching downloaded Google Play videos, you’ll still need a working broadband connection to use the Chromecast. This is something that would have to be addressed if Chromecast was to be adapted for playing games in the future - if controls have to be sent from your casting device to the great wide internet before heading back to the Chromecast it's likely to cause car-crashing, shot-missing delays. Perhaps Google has no gaming plans for Chromecast, but that would be a shame given the current trend for dual-screen gaming and the fact that Apple TV supports just such a feature via Airplay.
Back to the here and now and we found that video streamed in HD very smoothly on our fairly "normal" 16Mbps broadband connection, but those still making do with just a couple of megs should expect Netflix's adaptive streams to deliver softer, lower-res videos, while ambitiously selecting 1080p from YouTube will necessitate a fair bit of buffering if you want an uninterrupted video.
Casting web pages
Chromecast’s other ability is tab-casting from computers running the Chrome web browser: just click on the cast icon and whatever tab you’re currently on will appear on your TV screen. This feature is still in beta, and it’s not nearly as rock-solid as video casting. You can’t see an on-screen pointer, so there’s no way to use your TV as a proper monitor, and while embedded videos (from Vimeo, say) work, they do so with stuttering playback and choppy sound.
As a little bonus feature, it’s fine, but it really needs to be viewed as such, at least until Google can perfect it and bring it out of beta. We're hoping that happens sooner rather than later, as it could open up almost all of the streaming services on the web and make Chromecast a far more flexible video-on-demand device.
The Chromecast is cheap, easy to use and works well for Netflix and YouTube, but it’s not really bringing anything essential to the video streaming table just yet: if you have an Apple TV, PS3, Xbox 360, smart TV or smart set-top box, chances are the Chromecast just isn’t necessary, because these are all able to get YouTube and Netflix onto your telly already (and they don’t require a companion device like a laptop, tablet or smartphone to do so). The addition of more apps and a more robust web-casting experience could make Chromecast a far more appealing prospect for tech-heads in the future, though.
But if you don’t have any of these devices and are fed up of squinting at videos on your laptop or, worse, your phone screen? This dongle is probably your cheapest route to Netflix nirvana.
Tiny and costing a pittance, Chromecast does exactly what it claims to – just make sure you actually need one before you buy