Last week, while I was procrastinating about writing up a review of the Leap Motion, the Chromecast arrived. Nothing like a new shiny object to distract me.
For the unfamiliar, the Chromecast was announced a couple weeks ago at Google’s Android and Chrome OS event. It’s a small HDMI dongle that plugs into a TV and supports “casting” of video to said TV from a computer running Chrome with the Google Cast extension or from a mobile device running Android or iOS.
The latter is accomplished via updated native apps that have been updated to include the casting option, specifically Netflix and YouTube. For Android, there is a Chromecast app, but for now, it just manages the Chromecast’s settings and lists apps that support it.
Sounds a lot like Apple’s AirPlay, but there are a few differences that caught my attention.
- It’s $35 vs. $99 for an Apple TV to manage AirPlay.
- It can cast video playing in a browser. AirPlay can’t.
- Since it depends on the browser, it’s OS agnostic. AirPlay requires OS X on the desktop.
Also noteworthy, Chromecast can play video stored locally and do full screen sharing, something very useful for Linux users.
The box says “plug-in, connect, watch” which is pretty much the entire setup experience. I had the little guy on my wifi and ready to go within five minutes.
After that, I installed the Chrome extension and was casting YouTube in another five minutes. Netflix was similarly easy from the Xoom.
After a few minutes of experimenting, I ordered another one. Too bad they’re on backorder now.
Overall, it’s a very cool little device with a ton of potential, especially at $35. Read on for more details.
Browser Streaming with Google Cast Extension
Through the Google Cast extension, you can cast any tab, whether it’s streaming video or not, which is a nice feature for demos, more on that later. YouTube now includes a casting button in its player, so you might not even need the extension. Since I refuse to install SilverLight, I didn’t test Netflix in the browser. Can’t wait for them to roll out HTML5.
YouTube gracefully plays video in full screen mode on the TV, but if you’re casting other tabs, you’ll have to toggle into full screen to get the best experience. Unless you like tiny video on a big TV.
I tested several sources, Hulu, TED, MTV, some random Italian TV broadcast, AMC, South Park, Academic Earth, and they all worked in varying degrees. This isn’t a surprise, given how far the bits are traveling over the air. Just in my house alone, the cable modem sends them over wifi to my laptop, which casts them over-the-air to the Chromecast. That much data sent through the air is bound to degrade after each hop.
The extension streams video at 720p by default, and if you don’t change that to 480p in the options, you’ll get jittery and laggy playback. When I switched to 480p, everything played well enough.
I did get a friendly network performance warning from the extension at one point, but I’m not exactly near the router. So, that wasn’t a surprise, and it didn’t affect playback.
One nice feature of casting from the browser is that you can use other tabs and other applications without interrupting the cast, e.g. if you’re watching a TED talk, you can take notes, or if you’re watching a demo and need another screen.
Local Video and Screen-Sharing
In addition to browser casting, the Chromecast supports local media playback. I don’t have much local video, but this is a nice feature for anything you have stored on your hard drive. All you have to do is drag and drop the media file onto Chrome, then cast it.
Screen-sharing is the one feature that caught my eye when Chromecast was initially announced. This is accomplished via the Google Cast extension, as a beta feature, and that’s an accurate description.
When attempting this on my Mac, it crashes the browser. This is probably due to the fact that I run the developer channel build of Chrome. I tested from my Ubuntu box, and it worked exactly as advertised, with a second or two lag between actions on the desktop and the cast.
For Linux users, this is a sweet feature, given the smaller number of options for screen-sharing for that OS.
There’s huge potential here for demos given that HDTVs are becoming commonplace. You could cast to a TV in a hotel room or a trade show, no cords or signal adapters.
The mobile device experience is similarly awesome, although support is limited for now, since app developers have to add casting support to their apps. For now, only YouTube and Netflix support it. Hulu, HBO and few other content providers have announced they plan to add support.
As I mentioned, there is a Chromecast app to manage the settings. As a side note, it’s too bad Chrome for Android doesn’t support extensions because if it did, the Google Cast extension would open up a lot more mobile content.
I tested Netflix on the Xoom and the Nexus 4, and both performed really well.
One unexpected perk is that casting opens up true multi-tasking on Android, i.e. the stream continues even when you navigate to other apps on the device, providing a self-contained second-screen type experience.
I also tested switching between devices. I was casting Netflix, then I switched to the Mac to cast YouTube, which the dongle handled gracefully, ending Netflix and starting YouTube.
I did hit a quirky bug on the Nexus 4, which I upgraded to 4.3 last week. During a cast of Netflix, if the display goes to sleep, the device shuts down and locks. Anecdotally, this seems to affect only Nexus devices running 4.3, although very few devices have upgraded to 4.3 yet. Seems very likely that Google will push a fix for that soon.
It’s not all bad though; even though the device shut down, the stream continued.
Apparently, there’s a Netflix bug affecting Android users, presumably non-Nexus ones, since I haven’t seen it, that hides the all-important casting button to the Netflix app. Luckily, there’s a hack to get it working.
Google isn’t pitching the Chromecast as a set-top box replacement, but that’s exactly what it is. Even though it’s very new, I’ve had a couple non-technical people ask me about it, hoping to get exactly that information, i.e. can they use it to avoid or replace a Roku or AppleTV or as a functional replacement for cable/satellite.
The answer is maybe, depending on what you want to watch.
If you already have a Roku or AppleTV, Chromecast is really just overlap. Unless of course there’s web content you can’t get through those devices. That’s where the Chromecast shines, by unlocking all that web-only content for viewing on your HDTV. No more waiting for content providers to build an app or strike an agreement.
It’s the same story for would-be cord-cutters, all about what you watch.
Other Miscellaneous Observations
I’m surprised that non-technical people know about the Chromecast, but given how quickly Google ran through the initial supply, I guess that makes sense. Given the questions I’ve got so far, people see value, especially at $35.
Chromecast is another attempt to invade the living room; first came Google TV, then the Nexus Q. It’s clear that Google has learned from their mistakes, and the Chromecast is potentially very disruptive, even if it’s not accepted universally by content providers.
Chromecast runs Android and has alredy been rooted, and there are hacks popping up around the web. I’m very interested to see these hacks progress as the device trickles out to developers and hobbyists.
Speaking of, there’s a Python package called Leapcast that fools Chrome into thinking it’s Chromecast, allowing casting from mobile devices to a browser. Not sure how valuable it is, but pretty cool.
Anyway, I love the Chromecast, and I’m excited to see how it evolves. Do you get one? Did you order one? Thoughts?
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