Google doesn't have the best track record in the living room. Google TV was a solid idea for adding the Internet to the familiar TV experience, but it hasn't taken off--consumer response has been tepid, few manufacturers have built in support, and many content providers have blocked its devices from accessing their shows online. And the Nexus Q shown off at 2012's Google I/O conference never actually reached the market.
For its next attempt to help you watch online video on your TV, Google thought smaller: The Chromecast is a thumb-size dongle that plugs into an HDMI port, receives power from USB, and acts like a Chrome browser, which allows it to play movies, TV shows, music, and photos on your HDTV. You control it using any Android or iOS device, a Mac or Windows PC, or a Chromebook.
Although I hit a couple of snags in my hands-on--crashes on a crowded Wi-Fi network, and no luck having the Chromecast turn my TV on for me--it turns out that once those problems are solved, this little device is a pretty big deal.
How it stacks up against set-top boxes
The Chromecast has plenty of competitors: The Apple TV and the lineup of Roku set-top boxes deliver similar results, even though they don't work exactly the same way. The Chromecast's first advantage is price--it's only $35, compared with $99 for the Apple TV. Roku boxes start at just $50, but to get the 1080p playback the Chromecast is capable of, you need to buy at least the Roku 2 XD for $80. (Google pulled the plug on a "three months of Netflix included" promotion the day after the Chromecast went on sale.)
You have other ways to stream content to your TV, too, from game consoles to the WD TV line to the Plair, which has a similar form factor and a similar method of moving content to your TV (but doesn't work as well). But the popularity and the relatively complete ecosystems of the Apple TV and Roku devices make them the streamers to beat.
The Apple TV and Roku products have their own interfaces and rosters of supported channels and sources that you navigate with a hardware remote or an optional remote-control smartphone app. Both are easy to set up--plug them into AC power, hook them to an HDMI port on your TV, and use the remotes to connect them to your Wi-Fi network.
The Chromecast has no remote, and no interface of its own. Setup takes a couple more steps, but it's still easy: First, plug the Chromecast into a free HDMI port on your TV. If that happens to be an HDMI 1.4+ MHL port, it will probably supply enough power to run the Chromecast. Most people, however, will need to connect the included Micro-USB cable to the Chromecast and then plug the other end into a USB port on the TV (if it has such a port) or into the supplied power adapter to plug into the wall. Then you visit a website on your Android device or in the Chrome browser on your Mac or PC, where you're prompted to download another small Chromecast app to complete the setup, naming the Chromecast and adding it to your Wi-Fi network. (As of this writing you can't perform the initial setup with an iOS device. Google says iOS setup is coming soon.)
The software you use to control the Chromecast consists of familiar names you most likely already have on your phone, tablet, or computer: Chrome, Netflix, YouTube, and Google's own iTunes Store-like Play Movies & TV and Play Music. "Casting" a tab from the Chrome browser on your Mac or PC requires a Chrome extension called Google Cast, which adds the Chromecast button to your toolbar. With the release of a Google Cast SDK, more developers can add the Chromecast button to their apps (Google demoed Pandora at the announcement, for example, but the Chromecast-supporting update wasn't live yet). Overall, the idea is that you control the Chromecast with the same apps that you already use. In fact, I never had to log in or enter my passwords for Netflix or YouTube--something that's a chore on the Apple TV (which requires me to struggle with the diminutive remote or to get out my iPhone) and on my Roku box (which requires an authorization dance involving my computer). The apps already knew my identity, and instantly I was, as the Chromecast's screensaver says, "ready to cast."
So why does Google call it "casting" instead of "streaming"? Unlike AirPlay on iOS devices and the Apple TV, which stream content directly from your device to your TV, once you tell the Chromecast what you'd like to watch it goes out on the Internet and gets that material--your device isn't involved in the streaming end at all. So you're free to open another app on your phone or tablet, or to use another browser tab on your laptop (or hide the browser altogether). Or even leave the house. In fact, the Netflix app lets you start playback from one device, and then pick up control from any other device on your Wi-Fi network.
When you use the YouTube app, you can keep looking for more videos while the first one is playing, as if you were an MTV VJ--and your friends can do the same thing. When you call up another video, an 'Add to TV Queue' option appears; just tap it to place the new video in line. Anyone using the YouTube app for iOS or Android on the same Wi-Fi network can add videos to the same queue, which is a fun way to take a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole with your pals, serving up your favorite music videos, classic TV clips, viral memes, and more cat videos than you can swing a cat at (we don't advocate swinging cats, by the way). Here's hoping that more party-friendly apps will come along, such as a similar group-playlist feature on Rdio or Spotify, or even a video trivia game.
The fact that the Chromecast can turn on your TV and select the right input, without your going anywhere near the TV remote, gives it a cool factor I haven't seen on a set-top box. The Chromecast employs an HDMI feature called CEC, or Consumer Electronics Control, to turn on your TV and choose the appropriate HDMI input when you tell your control device that you intend to use the Chromecast. (I got it to work at home, but not on our test HDTV in the office.)
TV manufacturers all have their own trade names for CEC--it's Regza Link on my Toshiba, Aquos Link on a Sharp, and Bravia Link on a Sony. If the feature doesn't "just work" out of the box, you'll need to go poking around your TV's menus and turn on all the link features that you find. It works with my 2007-ish Toshiba LCD, a TV that isn't smart, isn't especially thin, and doesn't have USB ports--but can blink to life with a tap of my phone's touchscreen.
The ability to play the content in a Chrome tab on your TV (still technically in beta, but what at Google isn't?) is solid--as long as your Wi-Fi network is up to the task. The crashes we experienced decreased sharply once we moved the Chromecast off our crowded office network and set it up on a 6-mbps home network with fewer devices and fewer sources of interference. Your mileage may vary, and don't forget to experiment with different placements of the dongle--even if your network is speedy enough, walls and the TV itself can block the Wi-Fi signal from reaching the Chromecast. Google includes an HDMI extender cable that you can use if necessary, and I got better Wi-Fi reception with an HDMI port on the side of my TV than with one on the back.
Every website I tried in Chrome on my Mac played on the Chromecast: Hulu Plus, ESPN, all the TV networks' sites, Vimeo, news sites, Flickr, Rdio, Soundcloud, you name it. Only a live webcast of a Phish concert wouldn't work due to copy-protection and playback restrictions. You can even watch locally stored videos by playing them in the Chrome browser, provided that they don't use QuickTime or Silverlight. Both the Apple TV and Roku boxes let you watch local media, too, but the Apple TV needs iTunes-friendly formats, and Roku devices require you to set up a media server on your computer first (or to sideload content on certain models)--and although that task isn't difficult per se, Chromecast's "just throw it in a browser" approach is even easier.
When you click the Cast button at the top-right of your browser window to send the tab to the Chromecast, it doesn't mirror your entire desktop as the Apple TV's AirPlay mirroring feature does. Instead, the Chromecast's built-in browser navigates to the same URL, and you see just the website with the browser's menu bars stripped away. You have to leave that browser tab open on your Mac or PC for the same page to keep playing on the Chromecast, but you can switch over to another tab or application on your computer to do other things while it plays.
The playback isn't synced exactly--the Chromecast lags behind your computer by a couple of seconds since it had to load the tab independently, and any scrolling or clicking you do in that tab also takes a while to register on the Chromecast. It can be a little distracting if the laptop remains in your line of sight, actually, because what you see on the TV screen is just far enough behind what's happening on your computer screen that the effect can draw your eyes back and forth (no sound comes out of your device while the content plays on the Chromecast, however).
It's not quite perfect
Both the Apple TV and Roku boxes come with hardware remotes, which are handy to have even though the controls are more robust if you use a smartphone app as the remote instead. You can get iOS and Android apps to control a Roku box, and an iOS app to control the Apple TV, and the slight advantage is that you'll always know which app to use to send commands to those boxes. If the Chromecast is already playing, you have to remember which app you started the video from, so that you can return to that app and take control again. Since the eligible apps are currently limited to Chrome, Netflix, YouTube, Play Movies & TV, and Play Music, this isn't a big deal, and when you're using Netflix or the Google Play apps on an Android device, the basic controls also appear on the lock screen.
The Chromecast doesn't have security features of its own--you can't set a password for it, so you have to handle any security on the network side. Once a device is on your network, it can see and control your Chromecast, and even interrupt an already-playing video. That means a pesky little brother could interrupt his sister's slumber-party Gossip Girl marathon from another room in the house, but most people won't have a need to block devices from taking control.
Right now the Chromecast doesn't do anything the Apple TV can't do, but its implementation of YouTube is better, and its support for content purchased (or rented) from the Google Play store makes it a no-brainer if you're invested in that ecosystem. Its cross-platform support also makes it ideal for households with some Macs, some Windows PCs, some iOS devices, and some Android devices. And its price makes it almost an impulse buy.
If you don't already have a streaming box, or if you have one but it doesn't offer everything you want to watch, the Chromecast should be able to fill in some of the blanks. The Chromecast makes watching online video on your TV as simple as clicking one button, and although it would be great if that button was to appear in more and more apps, the tab-casting feature is already enough to keep you glued to your couch enjoying all the video the Internet has to offer.