“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Sir Arthur C. Clarke
It’s probably the most overused quote in tech writing… which sucks, because I’d really like to use it to describe how I feel about the Chromecast.
The Chromecast is deceptively simple: you plug it into your TV, then stream video and music to it from apps running on your iPhone, Android device, or laptop. The Chromecast itself has no remote; whatever device you’re streaming from is the remote. The Chromecast has next to no user interface of its own, either; it’s got a single screen that shows the time and whether or not it’s connected to your WiFi that appears when nothing is being streamed, but again, the device you’re streaming from largely acts as the interface. The Chromecast is a wireless portal to your TV, and doesn’t try to be anything more.
A Box Full Of Surprises
I’ve been thinking about it all night, and I don’t think I’ve ever been as surprised by a device as I am by the Chromecast.
The price? Surprise! It’s $35. Are you kidding me? According to Google, they’re not selling them at a loss. Even after accounting for the Wi-Fi chip, the CPU, 2GB of flash memory, the RAM, licensing the right to use HDMI, assembly, packaging, and shipping them to the states, they’re somehow making money selling these things for thirty five dollars. Sure, their profit margin is probably like, four cents — but that they’re not selling these at a loss at that price point is kind of absurd.
The setup? Surprise! It’s ridiculously easy. Plug it into HDMI, give it some juice (through USB, which most new TVs have, or a standard wallwart), then run the Chromecast app on a laptop to tell it what Wi-Fi network to connect to. Done.
App compatibility? Surprise! It’s already there on day one in some of the most notable online video apps, including Netflix and YouTube. I didn’t even have to update the apps — I just launched ‘em on my phone and the Chromecast button was sitting there waiting for me. They’ve even already built an extension for Chrome that drastically expands the functionality of the device (though, in its beta state, it’s a bit buggy — more on that later).
Hell, even the very announcement of the Chromecast was a bit of a surprise. Google somehow managed to keep the Chromecast a secret until right before its intended debut, even with a bunch of outside parties involved. Netflix, Pandora, teams from all over Google, everyone involved in the manufacturing process — all of them were in the loop, yet nothing leaked until someone accidentally published a support page a few hours too early.
Now, none of that is to suggest that the Chromecast is perfect. It’s not! Not yet, at least. But its biggest issues are quite fixable, assuming that Google doesn’t look at the “overwhelming” sales of the Chromecast and say ‘Oh, well, screw this thing.’ And for just $35, the few blemishes it has are pretty easy to overlook.
Taking The Bad With The Good:
Video streaming quality is quite good (on par with what I get on my Xbox 360 or my Apple TV, at least) particularly when pulling from an app or website that’s been tailored for compatibility — so Netflix, Youtube, or Google Play, at the moment.
If you’re using the Chromecast extension for Chrome on your laptop to project an otherwise incompatible video site (like Hulu or HBOGO), however, video quality can dump quite a bit depending on your setup. It’s using your laptop as a middle man to encode the video signal and broadcast it to the Chromecast, whereas the aforementioned compatible sites just send video straight to the dongle, mostly removing your laptop from the mix. When casting video tabs on a 2012 MacBook Air running on an 802.11n network, the framerate was noticeably lower and there were occasional audio syncing issues.
While we’re on the topic, the Chrome extension packs a bit of an easter egg: the ability to stream local videos from your laptop to the Chromecast. Just drag a video into Chrome, and it’ll start playing in a new tab. Use the Chrome extension to cast that tab, and ta da! You’re streaming your (totally legitimate, not-at-all-pirated-am-i-right) videos without bringing any other software into the mix. I tried it with a bunch of video formats (mostly AVIs and MKVs. MOVs kinda-sorta work, though most won’t push audio from the laptop to the TV for some reason), and they all seemed to work quite well, albeit with the lowered framerate I mentioned earlier.
Even within the apps that have already been tweaked for Chromecast compatibility, there are some day one bugs. Sometimes videos don’t play the first time you ask them to, instead dropping you into a never-ending loading screen. Other times, the video’s audio will start playing on top of a black screen. These bugs aren’t painfully common, but they’re not rare, either.
Fortunately, it’s mostly all good — and it can only get better
Even with a bug or two rearing its head, the Chromecast is easily worth its $35 price tag.
Remember, this thing just launched, and it came mostly out of nowhere. Those bugs? They’ll get patched away. The sometimes-iffy framerate on projected tabs? It’ll almost certainly get better, as the Chromecast extension comes out of beta.
Pitted against the AppleTV — or, in a fairer comparison, against the AppleTV’s built-in AirPlay streaming feature — the Chromecast’s biggest strength is in its cross-platform compatibility. Whereas AirPlay is limited to iOS devices and Macs (with limited support for Windows through iTunes), Chromecast will play friendly with any iOS, Android, Mac, or Windows app that integrates Googles Cast SDK. Having just launched, the Cast protocol obviously isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as AirPlay, either in terms of Apps that support it or in terms of other devices (like wireless speakers) that utilize it — but assuming that developers embrace the format (and really, they should), both of those things could quickly change. If developers support the protocol, Google could quite feasibly open it up to third parties to be integrated directly into TVs, speakers, and other types of gadgets. If that happens, AirPlay could be in trouble.
On the topic of its cross-platform compatibility: the experience on Android is a slightly better than it is on iOS, as Google has considerably more freedom on the platform; for example, apps that use Chromecast can take priority over the lockscreen, allowing the user to play/pause/skip a video without having to fully unlock their Android device. That’s just icing on the cake, though; for the most part, all of the primary features work just as well on iOS as they do on Android.
It’s one of the easiest recommendations I’ve ever made: If the Chromecast sounds like something you’d want, buy it. It’s easily worth $35 as it stands, and it’s bound to only get better as time goes on, the bugs get ironed out, and more apps come to support it.
[Disclosure: Google loaned me this Chomecast for me to tinker with, but it goes back as soon as my review is done. With that said, I liked it enough that I've already ordered one of my own.]