There's always something that you've seen on the Internet that you want to show your friends; there's always some video or music on your Android phone that deserves a wider audience. Google Chromecast easily and simply enables that — it doesn't do much more, but it doesn't need to.
What Is It?
Chromecast, to the uninitiated, looks just like any run-of-the-mill HDMI screen-sharing dongle — and it is, in some small way. This little device wouldn't be worth a second look if it didn't have Google's brand and Google's software behind it. Chromecast is Google's way to get YouTube videos directly from your smartphone onto your TV, tabs from any Chrome browser onto your big screen, or music from Google Play Music playing on your TV's stereo system.
The idea behind Chromecast is simple enough — it's a Wi-Fi dongle that shows Internet content on your TV. The opportunities that it opens up are much wider and more nuanced, though, so it's blinkered to just write off Google's $49 streamer as a dumb Android screen-sharing stick. The fact that it's so cheap, I think, is actually making people think it's less powerful than it actually is.
Chromecast only uses your PC or phone or tablet as an intermediary between the dongle itself and the Internet; that's why you have to connect it to your home Wi-Fi during the setup procedure. With a straight shot to the Internet, 'casting' content to the Chromecast dongle basically only provides a pointer — cast a YouTube video from a Chrome tab or from the YouTube Android or iOS app, and the Chromecast talks straight to YouTube's servers and puts together the video in a tailor-made on-screen interface. Cast some audio from Google Play Music and you can control playback on your device, but you can also switch off the phone and playback will continue.
Because Chromecast works in this way, it's a lot smarter than any 'Smart TV' dongle that you might buy off eBay or from an electronics manufacturer without the might of Google. A screen-sharing dongle like Netgear's Push2TV may be even better at some tasks, as it directly mirrors your phone's display, but this approach also hampers it in providing a tailored and more direct-to-'net experience.
What Is It Good At?
When it comes to actually watching or listening to content that you're casting, the Chromecast couldn't be easier to use. Once you have it set up, which is pretty simple, there's no impediment to using it — none. Want to cast a Chrome tab? Click a button. Want to cast content from an Android (or some iOS) app? Just find the little Cast icon, click it, select your Chromecast, and sit back.
Even if you only use the Chromecast for throwing a quick YouTube video onto the big screen — and that's something I've been doing a lot of — the Chromecast pays for itself a thousand times over. Let me explain in a little more detail — I have a 50-inch Pioneer plasma from circa 2009, devoid of any Smarts whatsoever. I also have an Oppo Blu-ray player, which is pretty damn good as far as standalone Web-connected devices go — but its remote control is hell for navigating the inbuilt YouTube app. With Chromecast, as long as I have the Oppo on the right input, I can tap a few buttons from my PC or Galaxy S5 and have a YouTube video on screen in seconds. And it plays quickly, at 720p HD, and I can control it from my phone if I want to.
In a perfect world, every media app on my phone could cast straight to my TV — unfortunately that's not the case, but more on that later. The ones that do work so simply and seamlessly that it's difficult to find fault with them, and it's difficult to find fault with the way that Chromecast deals with them.
The setup procedure for Chromecast couldn't be simpler if you've set up a Google account or Android phone in the past. There are a few steps, and there are a few caveats along the way, but by and large the setup steps are easy to follow and explain themselves as you're undertaking them. Once you've plugged the Chromecast into a spare HDMI port in your TV or home theatre receiver — I used my Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, which has a front HDMI port — and connected the dongle's USB power, the easiest setup comes from downloading and running the Android app.
The setup procedure is simple. Open the app, let it automatically detect any Chromecast in your immediate vicinity, then make sure it's the right one by confirming the code that it displays on your TV. From that point, you'll have to associate the Chromecast dongle with your infrastructure Wi-Fi network — home Wi-Fi is obviously fine, as is any other basic password-protected Wi-Fi, but you can't use it on any wireless that you have to sign into with a username and password like the kind you subscribe to in a hotel or at Maccas. Once you've got the Chromecast up and running, it checks for any mandatory updates, and you're ready to go.
From that point, the Chromecast app itself on your Android phone is primarily for housekeeping. You can check up on any Chromecast dongle on your home Wi-Fi, find apps that support the service, and change things like names and Wi-Fi associations, but for the most part it's a one-shot deal. It's easy enough to install, use, then uninstall once you don't need it any more.
What Is It Not Good At?
Not including optional MHL in the Chromecast dongle must have been a price consideration — you can't expect too much for $49 — but the USB cable sticking out of the rear of the dongle looks messy, and you'll have to have a spare USB port on your TV or receiver handy if you don't want to use the bundled USB wall power adapter. MHL would have given the Chromecast a little more control over automatically switching inputs and powering on your TV, too — this kind of more granular device interaction is included in the MHL standard but not regular HDMI.
Chromecast relies on app developers to update their code to add in a Cast button and include support for the Chromecast standard — without this, it's dead in the water. When you have big names using the service, it's absolutely excellent; using the Netflix app on Android, or a Netflix tab in Google Chrome on a laptop, to easily select a movie or TV show episode and then cast it onto the big screen and have it play there is almost about as easy as it could be. When you go into an app that doesn't support casting, it's a disappointment.
This isn't a failing of the Chromecast, but it does impede its use somewhat. Internationally, companies have had a year to develop for Chromecast and add support for the standard into their services. In Australia, the relatively recent launch has sent big names like Foxtel Go and Quickflix and the various catch-up TV services like iView and SBS On Demand scrambling; it'll be some time 'til the Australian Chromecast app library is as extensive as it is in the States.
One small thing that I'd add to the Chromecast 2, as backward-looking as it is, is some form of physical control. Even having a set of play/stop/skip buttons in the Chromecast app would be great, but a couple of touch-sensitive points on the device or a small remote control would actually be pretty useful — there were a few times where I was watching some streaming anime or a long YouTube clip and closed the tab, losing the ability to control it.
Should You Buy It?
Do you have an empty HDMI port in your TV and a spare USB port for power? Do you have an Android phone, do you like YouTube, or do you use Chrome? Then yes, of course you should buy the Chromecast. Even if it sits dormant for most of its life, the utter simplicity of switching your TV to the right input and casting a YouTube video makes the Chromecast so worth its $49 asking price — and that's before you do anything else with it.
After a series of good-but-not-great streaming sticks and screen-sharing TVs and dongles, the Chromecast is, by virtue of its simplicity and thanks in no small measure to Google's massive library of services and apps, brilliant. I'm keeping this one, and buying another.