Yesterday, Google unveiled Chromecast, a 2in HDMI dongle that allows you to stream videos, music, and photos to your TV. All you have to do is plug the Chromecast into your TV, plug in a USB power cable, and then you can “cast” content from your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or PC to your TV. The best bit, though, is the cost: Just $35 (£23, although it’s only available in the US for now), and you get three months Netflix free, too. In one fell swoop, Google has suddenly become relevant in the living room.
At the live event yesterday, Google was very happy to show us what the Chromecast can do, but very coy when it came to telling us what the Chromecast actually is. Judging by the demos, we can infer that the Chromecast is basically a dongle that runs a cut-down version of Chrome OS, with an HDMI port for connecting to the TV and Wi-Fi to connect to your local network.
Your smartphone/tablet/laptop discovers the Chromecast on your local network, and then when you click “cast” the URI/URL of whatever you’re watching is sent to the Chromecast. Chromecast then fetches the URI and displays it on your TV. This URI can be a streaming Netflix video, a photo stored in your Google Drive, a song in Google Music, or the ITProPortal website.
Because the Chromecast is essentially a small standalone computer (probably based on a last-gen OMAP SoC or similar), you can continue to use your smartphone/tablet/laptop after you cast something to your TV. Because you are merely sending commands to Chromecast, rather than mirroring your screen, any number of devices can control Chromecast – and you can turn your devices off at any time without interfering with playback.
As it stands, you can cast content from Android apps that have been updated to allow it (currently only first-party Google apps and Netflix), and the Chrome browser on iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac. In short, for twenty quid, almost everyone will have some way of casting stuff to their TV.
As far as we can tell, Chromecast is not a set-top box like Apple TV (which runs iOS), and it does not support screen mirroring via an AirPlay-like protocol. The demo did not show someone playing a game on a smartphone, and then sending it to the TV for some big-screen play.
Beyond casting, the only real interaction between your device and Chromecast is changing the volume, or scanning through a video. In theory you could play a browser-based game, but there would be a significant amount of latency that would make fast-paced games unwieldy. What you get with Chromecast is effectively a single Chrome browser tab running on your TV; no more, no less.
Moving forward, Google says it would be easy to embed Chromecast into TVs. The other media streaming standard, DLNA, requires that the remote device actually streams content to the TV — which is awful news for power consumption. With Netflix, YouTube, streaming music providers, and cloud storage, Chromecast’s method of simply grabbing a URI from the Internet makes a lot more sense.
Chromecast is available now over in the US, on the Google Play store for $35 (£23) as we’ve mentioned, and also on sale with other retailers (Best Buy, Amazon) – plus other territories will be following soon. It’s amazing how much more sensible this is than the stillborn $100 (£65) Google TV and $300 (£200) Nexus Q, eh?