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.
UPDATE: New Chromecast apps are niche or not ready yet
Anyone who picked up a Chromecast as a cheap way of getting Netflix on the telly probably adores it by now. But that won't stop 'Casters getting excited at the prospect of ten - yes ten! - new apps. There's no update to the Chromecast itself, just download the compatible apps and look for the Chromecast symbol at the top. In short though, they're not the apps you were hoping for.
In the first batch of Google dongle-friendly apps comes Plex, Avia and RealPlayer Cloud, all hell bent on becoming your go-to media server and cloud storage buddy. But RealPlayer Cloud, for Android, iOS, Kindle Fire and desktop, isn't available outside the US yet (we pre-registered for updates here in the UK) and the popular but sometimes messy Plex requires a US$3.99 a month PlexPass sub.
Now that's not a lot but considering the Chromecast itself is only US$35, and everything else is free (bar the Netflix sub) it seems unncessary. Plex is rolling out Chromecast compatibility to free users in the near future but for now we'd give Avia Media Player a go. It's far from perfect and the Chromecast compatibility requires the princely sum of £1.86 (US$2.99) to get going but it works.
If you can forgive connection and buffering stutters, you can now play your own local videos plus media dragged in from Dropbox, Facebook and Picasa. Videos have a video reel icon and not a thumbnail which is very annoying if you shoot a lot of untitled smartphone footage but making playlists is easy and it'll do until Google makes a seamless alternative. We'll update the review with impressions of using Plex with Chromecast very soon.
Elsewhere in the new Chromecast apps are VEVO for ad-laden music videos, Red Bull. TV for skateboarding and motorsports, PostTV for news footage from The Washington Post and the confusing but useful BeyondPod Podcast Manager for blasting out Brian Cox's from your TV without worrying about his face moving. There's also the international video app Viki for fans of Korean or Venezuelan TV and playlist app Songza which isn't on the Google Play store right now so must be getting a tweak.
So the best Chromecast apps are still the ones that have been there all along - Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movies. But Chromecast hasn't even launched in countries like the UK yet and in the US Google's gone suitably big with the likes of HBO Go and Hulu. Here's hoping this is the first wave in Google's long game catching up to £99 Apple TV which still has the upper hand in terms of simple AirPlay mirroring plus apps like Sky News and Vimeo.
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, YouTube and now a few other niche apps, 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 essential apps, not filler we've never heard of, and a more robust web-casting experience could make Chromecast a far more appealing prospect for tech-heads in the future, though. Plex, Avia and RealPlayer Cloud fill a gap but we hope Google is working on its own AirPlay-rivalling solution for mirroring locally stored videos and photos.
But if you don’t have any internet-providing devices and are fed up of squinting at videos on your laptop or, worse, your phone screen then this dongle is still 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