The tiny, two-inch-long digital TV receiver is cheaper than all of its rivals, and although it isn't quite as capable as the Apple TV or Roku 3 just yet, Google Chromecast has the potential to make a mark.
At $35, Chromecast is nearly one third the price of the $99 Apple TV and it is cheaper than any of Roku's options. It can also be controlled by a variety of devices, including smartphones and tablets running Android and iOS operating systems as well as PC and Mac computers.
Consumers are grabbing them fast — it initially sold out online — and for good reason: The little dongle is a cheap way to quickly start streaming online video to your TV.
Setting up Chromecast is a fairly simple task. Attach the device to the TV's HDMI port and plug in the power cable to the AC outlet.
If you have a PC, Mac or an Android device, you'll need to install the Chromecast app, which will help you connect Chromecast to your Wi-Fi network.
IPhone and iPad users will need to use their PC or Mac to set up the Wi-Fi connection. But once that connection is established, iPhone and iPad users can control the Chromecast with their devices the same way as an Android device user.
For now Chromecast users are limited to just a few online video services, but Google made sure it included the most popular, Netflix and YouTube.
If you have a Netflix account, which costs $7.99 a month for online streaming, all you need to do is open your the Netflix app. Pick what you want to watch, and as the video starts playing on your device, tap on the "Cast" icon, which looks like an icon for Wi-Fi.
Clicking the icon tells the device to play the video on the TV, not your smartphone or tablet. Chromecast will then stream the content directly from the cloud to the TV using the Wi-Fi connection.
Chromecast's high-definition video was as good as those you might see with other Internet receivers such as Apple TV and Roku. As far as I could tell, there was no difference between the HD quality of Chromecast and what you might get from cable or satellite services.
My only issue with watching Netflix video on Chromecast was controlling it with the iPhone. The Netflix app was not very responsive when I would try to fast forward, rewind or pause the video. This wasn't a major problem as much as it was an inconvenience. When I used the Android version of Netflix, it worked fine.
Watching video on YouTube was even easier. One nice feature is the ability to search other videos and add them to your queue while you're watching a video on the TV.
I also watched YouTube using my laptop. YouTube recognized that there was a Chromecast device on the same network as my MacBook and when I would play videos, it showed me the Cast icon on the YouTube player. I clicked that to have the videos play on my TV.
In all of these instances, I could play video on the TV while continuing to do other tasks such as search the Internet or email.
Besides Netflix and YouTube, Chromecast can also play video from Google Play and audio from Google Music. Pandora will also be available soon. But that still leaves out many other popular Internet video services. Most notably, there is no Hulu Plus, HBO GO or Amazon Instant Video.
Since Chromecast launched, a number of video services have expressed their interest in making their apps work with the new Google device, and Google has released a preview software development kit so developers can start experimenting with the technology.
But for now, it is possible to watch other types of video with a little finagling.
Install the Google Cast extension, available at the Google Chrome Web Store. This beta app essentially transfers what's the device screen to the TV screen. It will show any website you visit, so in theory, you can watch HBO GO, Hulu and other videos.
I tested the Cast extension, and I thought the quality wasn't as good as when the video was processed through the Chromecast app but it was still watchable. I listened to songs from Spotify using my surround sound system that's connected to my TV, and I also watched video clips from Hulu and HBO GO.
There was also a noticeable lag when using the controls. It took a second or two for the mouse to move on the TV screen.
Another negative about the Cast extension is that if you want to watch video in full screen on your TV, you also have to full screen it on your laptop as well. That means you won't be able to do any other tasks while you do this. That goes against one of Google's selling points for the Chromecast, which is the ability to "multitask freely."
The Cast extension is in beta mode, so it's understandable that there will be issues. But if Google fixed these two problems, it could solve one of its shortfalls.
All in all, Chromecast is a great option if you just watch Netflix and YouTube on TV. Chromecast is also a solid option, if you don't mind using your laptop to access other video services.
However, if you simply want the best digital TV receiver out there, Chromecast isn't it -- at least for now. Apple TV and the Roku 3 work better and have access to more content.
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