Rumors about Chrome OS running on a tiny HDMI stick started leaking out a few months ago, but we were all wrong about what it was going to be. The Chromecast is not a shrunken down Chromebox – it's not even really a Chrome OS device in the strictest sense. The Chromecast is Google's latest attempt to be invited into your living room. It also might be the first one to succeed.
The Chromecast doesn’t try to create a new ecosystem – it simply asks app developers to append a few lines of code to give it a piece of the streaming media action. This, along with the low $35 price could point to victory. But should you be excited?
- Dimensions: 72(L) x 35(W) x 12(H) mm
- Weight: 34g
- Wireless: 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz
- Video: HDMI 1.4, 1080p
- Storage: 4GB (not user-accessible)
- RAM: 512MB
- Processor: Marvel Armada 1500 ARM chip
- Quick setup
- Good video quality (1080p Netflix)
- Works wonderfully with Google Play Music
- App integration is well-done
- Tab casting opens up huge potential for streaming video and local content
- Could attract plenty of developer attention
- A few hiccups getting activated on some networks
- Limited app support at launch
- Not ideal for travel
- Needs USB power
- No direct media push (without a WiFi network)
- Some Google services aren't yet integrated in browser
So you've gotten your hands on a new Google Chromecast. Good for you. All you have to do is plug it right into a TV's HDMI port and start streaming. Well, you need to plug in an external microUSB cable for power first. It can plug into the wall, or a TV USB port. If your TV shields the Chromecast from an already weak WiFi signal, the HDMI extender might help by setting the device several inches back from the TV. It becomes a little less sleek when you actually use it. This is still less setup than virtually all the electronics you buy, but it's not as streamlined as the press images might make you think.
It’s been reported in various places that the Chromecast can be powered by HDMI 1.4, but I haven’t found any official source that confirms that. Simply supporting HDMI 1.4 doesn't mean it can be powered by it. Indeed, some people that have dug into the device have found that the Chromecast pulls too much current to get it from an HDMI port. Straight HDMI 1.4 can output 50mA, while MHL-HDMI ports (which are still very uncommon) can offer up 500mA. Neither can handle the Chromecast at load. So you’re stuck with that USB cable.
Once it's powered, the Chromecast will boot up almost instantly and ask to be set up via a web URL or the Android app. The website will install a program on your computer to run through the setup process, but it’s almost identical to what you'd do on Android, which probably how most users will go about it.
The app searches out Chromecasts on the network and lists them at the top. If there is one that has not been configured, or was reset, the app offers to set it up. The TV will display a short alphanumeric code after they are paired. This is done to ensure you’re connecting to the Chromecast you think you’re connecting to. Is Google maybe being a little optimistic that people are going to have enough Chromecasts in their homes to get confused about which one is which? Maybe, but it’s nice they thought ahead.
The Chromecast itself has no UI you can interact with. All the setup and (eventually) input happens on another device. The app (or desktop program) is used to tell the device which network to connect to, and what the password is.
On a home network, or anything running standard WiFi security, the process is mostly painless. The Chromecast is a little daft, though. On dual-band routers, it will try to hop on a 5GHz network if that’s what your phone/tablet is on, even though it doesn’t support 5GHz. You’ll have to switch it over to 2.4GHz manually, but if the SSIDs are different the app will warn you the phone or tablet won't be able to communicate with the Chromecast. That’s not the case with dual-band routers, but the app pitches a fit and tries to switch the Android device over to the other network.
Just forge ahead and it should connect, but a few failures are common (at least in my testing). Once the Chromecast is connected, it seems to stay that way. Signal strength is good, but I know some owners have been having issues. There may be some questionable units in this first batch.
Video And Audio
Once everything is up and running, you can begin sending media directly to the Chromecast. The TV screen will display a minimalist interface with a big "ready to cast" header. Your Android apps will also report the HDMI stick’s readiness. There’s nothing to interact with on the Chromecast itself – remember, the streamer is basically a dumb terminal that receives commands from the apps.
There are two ways to get streaming internet video up on the Chromecast, the first being through your phone or tablet. This is probably going to be the most common method by far, so let's start there. When you open a supported app, the Cast button will be at the top. Simply tap it and select the Chromecast.
The device boots into a new interface to let you know it has "seen" your device, but it won't play anything. These screens are usually just logos, maybe with a small reminder of how to send the video from the app you've chosen. When the video is started, the Chromecast actually goes out to the internet and grabs the stream directly. Thus, you can use your handset as a controller, but can also do other things with it – even turn it off and use a second device to control playback.
There are three streaming video apps at launch that work with the Chromecast: Google Play Movies, YouTube, and Netflix. Google Play Movies and Netflix have about a 1 second delay when you hit the play/pause button or scrub through the video. YouTube is a bit more responsive, but not by much. They will all provide handy lock screen playback controls. The TV queue management in the YouTube app is also super-useful.
To be clear, all these apps are more than fast enough to provide a good experience. The video playback on the Chromecast looks about as good as any other streaming device I have. In fact, Netflix can stream at 1080p with 5.1 surround sound (if you have the bandwidth). I believe this makes the Chromecast the cheapest 1080p Netflix device by a wide margin. Netflix (annoyingly) calls this "Super HD," and the next cheapest way to do it is the mid-range Roku boxes in the $70-80 range.
YouTube playback looks awesome, and I suspect the slightly improved responsiveness is due to the Chromecast pulling down the VP8 version of most videos. It has the hardware to decode VP8, which is a very efficient codec to begin with.
Google Play Movies also looks excellent streaming to the Chromecast, but controlling playback is a bit more sluggish resuming after being paused. I suspect this has more to do with Google's back end than the Chromecast itself.
The other way to get video streams going on your HDMI dongle is to use a computer (with the Google Cast extension installed in Chrome) and click the Cast button within a web player. The button exists In YouTube and Netflix currently – just click the Cast button and the Chromecast will grab the video stream just like it did with the phone. It’s the same video, same quality, and same minimal lag.
There are a few caveats with the PC video streaming, though. First, there is no way to send Google Play Movies to your Chromecast – it's phone only. I assume this is going to be rectified at some point. Also, you have to keep the Netflix tab alive someplace for the stream to keep going. That’s not the case with YouTube, and it's a little more inconvenient than the phone Netflix setup. This may be a licensing thing.
The apps and web interfaces, sadly, can’t control the volume on your TV. The device supports HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronic Control), so it can turn on your TV and switch inputs, but volume control is part of that spec too. I’m not sure why it isn’t implemented here. When you increase volume on the handset or web player, the Chomecast increases its internal volume output, but you’ll have to change the TV volume manually to make much of a difference.
The YouTube integration is excellent for playing around with when you have friends over. Almost everyone with a smartphone has the YouTube app, and it’s easy to shoot videos over to the TV.
Music is currently available in the form of Google Play Music, and it works very well. Playback control is almost instantaneous, and the audio quality seems undegraded. Like Google Play Movies, there is no native support for the web version of Play Music, but hopefully that’s coming. If you have All Access and a killer sound system, the Chromecast could be an easy, inexpensive way to get all that music into your speakers.
Tab Casting And The Chrome Extension
The other side of the Chromecast is tab casting, which relies on a direct connection from your PC to the HDMI stick. In addition to placing the Cast button in the Netflix and YouTube player, the Google Cast Chrome extension lets you send a tab over to the you TV. This is a beta feature, and it’s not perfect, but it's really cool.
On any page you can simply tap on the extension button and select 'Cast this tab.' The default mode is to only send the page without any of the Chrome or operating system UI. This can be used for showing any random webpage on a TV, but the better use for tab casting is to get non-supported videos up on the TV. Both video and audio will be routed to the TV for all tab casting sessions.
Take Hulu for example. Neither the Android app nor the web player support Chromecast, but you can always open the web player and send the tab over. You can even full-screen the video to fill the TV. The framerate is sufficiently high to watch video, but there is the occasional pixelation or dropped frame. That's the exception rather than the rule, though.
There are some settings for the extension to tune the projected tab quality. There's standard definition, low bitrate 720p, and high bitrate 720p. If you've got a good wireless signal, the high bitrate video should be fine. The extension will pop up a warning if network conditions cause too many frames to be dropped.
The delay between the computer and the Chromecast is longer – upwards of 2 seconds. That makes it a little awkward to use the tab casting live, but it's fine once you get a video going.
Another capability of the extension takes us beyond the tab by casting the entire desktop of your computer through Chrome. This option doesn't seem to be working for all users, but it isn't clear why. The Cast button in Chrome has a small drop down menu with this toggle (if you have it) – it is labeled "experimental," by the way.
Just like the tab casting, this feature mirrors the entire desktop on the TV screen via Chromecast. If you have multiple monitors, they're all shown. That actually requires some scaling and big black bars that make the feed less useful. Again, it’s labeled as experimental.
Desktop casting could be used to demo a program or project a slideshow. The feed is a bit more pixelated than a single tab. I suspect it's still crunching everything down into a 720p feed.
Still another mode in the Chrome extension is audio mode, but it seems strangely incomplete. From what I can tell, this mode currently sends both video and audio, but gives preference to the audio stream. So the video looks pixelated, but the audio is fine. I’m not sure what the practical application is for this. Maybe it would be useful on very slow networks? Otherwise, this is the most beta part of the whole extension.
One missing piece of all this is the lack of tab casting for Android. It pains me to see this feature missing, because I want it so badly. Google’s hasn’t said what the future of tab casting is, so maybe this is in the cards for Chrome on Android, but for now it’s a missed opportunity.
This is a bit of an Easter Egg in the Chromecast. It's more or less part of the desktop extension but I’m breaking it out because this isn't even an experimental feature – it's a workaround. Let’s say you have a local media file like a video or an MP3 you have not yet dumped into Google Play Music. In many cases, you can actually get that media into the Chromecast directly from your PC.
First, find the file path to your files and paste that into the Chrome address bar. Like all browsers, Chrome can open local hard drive locations as an index of files – a stripped down file browser of sorts. It turns out Chrome itself can play many of these files. All MP3s appear to work, and a fair number of videos encoded in h.264 (MP4), MPEG, or WMV. Matroska (MKV) is hit and miss, which is odd because Google’s VP8 uses Matroska video.
The tabs playing local content can be sent over to the Chromecast like any website you might pull up, complete with audio. This is one of the easiest ways to get a great deal of local media up on your TV. The only thing you need to install is the Google Cast extension. I would really like to see this become a more "official" feature.
Because the Chromecast is so portable, many potential buyers have been wondering if this is the answer to your boring hotel room prayers. Well, I'm sorry to say it's not. The Chromecast is pretty dumb on its own (see the setup process above). It doesn't have a browser, or any kind of smarts about bizarre networks. It either connects and gets internet access, or it doesn't.
I tested this by configuring my home router to provide a guest network. I realize this is not exactly the same setup as a hotel, but I wanted to figure out if the device was smart enough to deal with a landing page of some sort. Well, the Chromecast does connect just fine, but it can't get internet access. There is no way to tell a Chromecast to enter a guest password or click a button.
Even if you could manage to connect by getting your device’s MAC address whitelisted on the Hotel’s network, many public WiFi hotspots use client isolation to prevent devices on the network from talking to each other. Since this is required to pair the Chromecast and your mobile device, you won’t be able to use it.
There are several ways road warriors can still work this out. One approach is to bring your own travel-size access point and plug it into a hotel ethernet port. These devices do exist, but at that point, you're going to extremes just to use your Chromecast. A PC application like Connectify that creates a hotspot on your computer would also work, but again, you're going to a lot of trouble. Or, just use a mobile hotspot and destroy your data cap.
Is It A Winner?
The Chromecast is a fascinating little device. At launch it already seems to do more than the Nexus Q ever did. The video streaming through Netflix and YouTube is excellent (both mobile and desktop). While Google Play Movies is still missing some desktop functionality, and it’s much less commonly used, the video is clear.
Grabbing all this data from the cloud when possible was a brilliant approach to streaming through the Chromecast. Taking video streams from a phone or tablet would only slow the process and introduce artifacts from two rounds of decoding. It also allows you to do as you please with your device (or multiple devices) while using it to channel media into the TV.
The audio angle seems less interesting at first, but it has amazing potential. A Chromecast can instantly carry all your cloud music into any sound system with a receiver with HDMI inputs. For $35 per room, you can rig up a remote-controlled sound system. Google Play Music All Access makes the Chromecast seem like an even better deal – you can stream almost any song to your entertainment system on demand. Google Music is likewise missing desktop playback, but the mobile aspect is great.
I don’t know that I’ve found a lot of uses for tab casting yet, but it feels important. This might be the Chromecast's killer feature in the future. There’s a ton of potential and it’s working great for a beta feature. Playing back local media is a nice bonus too.
All that said, the Chromecast is not a panacea. Tab casting from Android would be great, and app support is thin right now. I also wish the Chromecast OS (whatever it is) could be just a little smarter. If it could understand public WiFi login pages, that would be a great start. And that’s only one of the issues that keeps the Chromecast from solving the frequent flyer's problems. You can make it work on the road, but this is mainly a home device. I would also really like to see some sort of WiFi Direct functionality for sending media direct to the device.
After spending some time with the Chromecast, I'm sold. It’s really not hard to be sold on this device. It does a lot of things and it’s only $35. You don’t have to hit a homerun at that price, you just have to get a good bunt. The Chromecast is more than that, though.
At the end of the day, this device is awesome. Not only is it the best streaming media solution Google has ever come up with, it's one of the best you can buy when you figure in the price and potential for more apps to add support. If app developers get friendly with the Chromecast, it could be unstoppable. I think Google nailed it by leveraging the booming mobile ecosystem.