The Chromecast in the States is great, because it’s cheap and Netflix works. In Australia, though, it’s a slightly different story.
What Is It?
It’s Google’s answer to the TV streaming box, in a plug — but the chances are, you already know that. Here’s the US review to get you started, but that doesn’t specifically address what it’s like to use a Chromecast outside of the only country that Google’s officially selling it in.
So I took the plunge, used a US shipping agency and got hold of a Chromecast to give it a run next to a number of other locally available streaming solutions. Nobody doubts that at US$35, the Chromecast is pretty cheap. But with the Australian dollar crumbling in recent months, plus handling and shipping fees you’d be lucky to get a Chromecast here for under $70 or so, which is starting to poke seriously at the lower end of the streaming box scale.
The Chromecast setup is almost stupidly simple, even if getting hold of one right now is a bit of a chore. I had mine hooked into my home wireless network in a matter of minutes using a desktop PC to configure it. Once you’ve installed it and a device running Chrome hits the same wireless network, the Casting tab pops up like magic, and then you’re only a click away from sending content to your TV screen.
Web browsing works as well as it does on the host device. Like most TV-based web experiences this isn’t always optimal for reading a lot of pages, but on an ad-hoc basis it does work. So does YouTube, mostly, but Netflix is largely out of reach, even if you do normally use a VPN or service such as Hola for access — see below for more on that. One nice factor here is that local services will cast over without problems; I was able to cast ABC iView over to the Chromecast with no fuss at all from a Chrome Tab.
Video quality and streaming speeds were very good; I tested with a variety of 1080p YouTube material and had no complaints in terms of picture fidelity. It may be the fact that casting a Chrome tab to the Chromecast involves processing on the PC side, but it showed a lot more in the way of artefacts when streaming iView video than the comparable connection from either an LG Smart TV or Apple TV streaming via Airplay, which was slightly less optimal.
Google’s still tinkering with the Chromecast code, releasing an update recently that broke local file streaming — although they claim that was an error — but this is a dongle with a fair amount of potential, without doubt.
Then there’s Netflix. Nothing wrong with Netflix as a service normally, but the way that the Chromecast talks to Netflix raises some very worrying possibilities for those living outside the US. When it detects a Netflix tab being cast through to it, the Chromecast takes over, using Google’s own DNS to resolve the connection — and that’s bad news if you’re outside the US, as it means it’ll bypass your VPN entirely. There are complex workarounds for this if you’ve got a relatively open router, but I’m not in that exact position, and it’s going to be a bit of a cat and mouse game if this is Google’s approach. It might work right now if you’re willing to tinker, but then not when the next Chromecast software update (which you can’t opt out of) comes through. I’m not sure that’s desirable for a TV streaming device.
As a side note, one oddity there is that if you are using a VPN or similar system on an iPad, it’ll send Netflix through to the otherwise solidly locked Apple TV. Yes folks, we’re in a situation where Apple is more open than Google — and that worries me.
A lot of Google’s talk around the Chromecast has been about the partners that it will sign up. All of those partners will have complex media rights arrangements that they’ll want to protect, and, having offered Netflix the opportunity to run device-level DRM, it’s a fair bet that’s what they’ll want out of Google as well. That’s bad news for those looking at the Chromecast outside of the US, because it suggests this might be a lot of what’s officially available on an ongoing basis.
Will Chromecast get hacked? Almost certainly, but that too has its limitations, especially when you’re talking cheap silicon, and I’d be wary of buying into a product on the promise of what hackers “might” be able to do with it.
It’s also not the most stable streaming box. I’ve never had a 100 per cent stable streaming box, but the Chromecast is quite notable when it crashes during casting; on my network its favoured strategy when crashing a YouTube video is a hideous high-pitched whine. I’m never in any doubt when it’s happened — but it’s also profoundly uncomfortable.
Should You Buy It?
Google won’t officially sell you a Chromecast in Australia just yet, and it hasn’t made any public statements to the effect that it absolutely will do so. Given the current narrow range of services and the pace of technology, I wouldn’t be surprised if it skipped a generation before leaving the States, if it ever actually does.
That being said, you can always import one. But should you?
If you’re a heavy user of Google Play movies, then yes, it’s a worthwhile buy in the exact same way that an Apple TV makes sense if you’re heavily invested in the iOS platform. That’s potential that you can realise right now, and the same is true of YouTube if you don’t already have a device (Smart TV, other streaming box, console) that can send YouTube video to your TV.
The Chromecast has interesting potential, but it’s a trap to say “buy this” because of potential; like so many Kickstarter projects, there’s the potential of what might be, and what you actually get for your money. Google’s approach to Chromecast doesn’t appear to gel entirely with the company’s generally more open stance, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s an in interesting tinkering tool, but streaming boxes aren’t really about tinkering; they’re about putting your feet up on the couch and enjoying some quality entertainment time.
The Chromecast can do that, but it’s limited right now and may well be in the future if you’re not stateside. Add to that the pricing gulf once you take shipping, handling and conversion costs into account bringing it close to competing boxes that offer a lot more unlocked functionality right now, and I’d suggest that you hold off — at least for now.