At this point in time, there are tons of ways to watch online content on your HDTV. Your media hub, your game console, your Blu-ray player – even your HDTV itself might be able to access YouTube and Netflix. If you don't have those options, though, you're usually looking at a £100 odd investment in a box like the Roku 2 or Apple TV.
The Google Chromecast is a new cheaper alternative to all of the above. It's a $35 (£23 via a direct conversion, but the exact UK price and release date are still to be confirmed) stick that plugs into your HDTV's HDMI port and lets you stream media from Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play through your smartphone, tablet, or notebook.
It's more limited than the likes of the Roku boxes and Apple TV, but its price is temptingly low in comparison. It's not quite Google's answer to AirPlay and it's not quite a full-featured media streamer, but it's an incredibly inexpensive way to access online media and Google Play's generous movie and music libraries on your HDTV.
The Chromecast is a simple HDMI stick you plug into the back of your HDTV, like the Roku Stick. Unlike the Roku Stick, it uses a separate microUSB port instead of MHL to power it. On one hand, this means you need to run a cable from the stick to a USB port, making it much less neater than it would seem at first glance. On the other hand, it means the stick works with any HDTV, whether it has an MHL-capable HDMI port or not. The stick has a single button on the back for setup and a single LED light to indicate it's on.
Google was surprisingly thoughtful in its choice of accessories for the Chromecast. While it will work with just the stick and the microUSB-to-USB cable plugged in to your TV, it also includes a USB power adapter if you don't have any spare ports. It even comes with a short HDMI extender, which can be very useful if the Chromecast is a little too thick to fit against other HDMI devices if the HDTV's ports are clustered tightly together.
Setup and apps
The setup process is incredibly simple and entirely app-controlled. Load the app on your mobile device or computer and it will automatically scan both the Wi-Fi network you're currently on and any Chromecast sticks in "Setup" mode. Tap the stick in Setup mode and enter the password to your Wi-Fi network (the app will automatically fill in the Wi-Fi network you're currently using). The Chromecast will automatically connect to your network, and it will show that it's connected (and the strength of the Wi-Fi connection, and the assigned name of the Chromecast).
Your streaming content choices are currently limited, although Google has released an API for the Chromecast, so more apps could support it in the future. From an Android device, you can stream media from Google Play Movies and Music (in a limited way, explained below), as well as Netflix and YouTube.
From an iOS device, you can watch Netflix and YouTube via the Chromecast. From a computer (Windows or Mac OS X), you can stream media from Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, and Chrome (streaming the view of an active tab to the Chromecast). These apps all get their own Chromecast buttons when the Chromecast app is installed and your Android device detects Chromecast sticks on the network. In supported apps, streaming media to Chromecast is as easy as streaming through AirPlay; just load the media, tap the screen icon, and select the Chromecast to which you want to stream.
You can set up multiple Chromecasts on the same Wi-Fi network, and the setup app even lets you rename them, so you can label each HDTV and room. By default they're called "ChromecastXXXX" (with different four-digit numbers to identify them), but you can easily change them to "Living Room" and "Bedroom."
Multiple Chromecasts work with multiple devices, and I had no problem accessing two different YouTube videos, one on my Samsung Galaxy S3 and another on an iPhone 5, and playing both of them on a different Chromecast in the lab while all four devices were connected to the same Wi-Fi network. You only have to be wary of bandwidth, since streaming too many videos at once could cause lag.
The Chromecast performed fairly well, but was limited by our Wi-Fi network (a not-particularly-strong hotspot in the morass of wireless testing of our lab). I loaded Fringe on Netflix and it looked like it was in standard definition, which indicates Netflix was seriously downgrading the quality because of the network speed. Music videos on YouTube looked much better, as did Ice Age on Google Play when I loaded both a short while later (after it seemed like the network congestion cleared up). The device itself doesn't have any problem outputting video up to 1080p, but it relies heavily on your bandwidth and the signal strength of your network.
Unlike Apple TV and AirPlay, Chromecast doesn't let you stream your locally stored media. Google Play Music produces an error message when you try to play music you loaded on your device yourself and not through the Google Play store (I found this out when I tried to stream a song from the DRM-free Shadow Warrior soundtrack, purchased legitimately through the Humble Bundle).
Google Play Movies goes a step further; the new version of the app that can send media to Chromecast doesn't list locally loaded videos at all. This is Chromecast's biggest weakness, given that Apple TV and any other device that allows mirroring lets you share your music and videos without having to get them through a small number of limited, highly controlled outlets.
Sending your Chrome browser tab to the Chromecast is currently very limited. It's not exactly screen mirroring, so you can't do things like play web games on your HDTV through Chromecast, or watch many web-based videos. In fact, casting a tab seems to effectively send a screen shot of the tab at its most recent position to the Chromecast, so loading any kind of movie from a site like Justin.tv or Blip.tv is completely out. Chromecast streams the audio of content from these sites, but it doesn't load the video at all. Chromecast support also doesn't seem to be implemented in the Android version of Chrome yet; you need to install the Chromecast extension to your Windows or Mac OS X version of Chrome. If you want to share a web page from your phone, you're out of luck.
So Chromecast is a limited device, although one with some very handy uses. Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play integration let you turn your smartphone or tablet into an access portal to put a startling amount of movies and music on your HDTV. Unfortunately, the inability to play local media and the very limited Chrome tab streaming support holds it back.
That said, it's still a very cheap product when compared to Roku boxes or the Apple TV, and it can add useful functionality to an HDTV that doesn't have built-in access to those services, which could be the real key to the Chromecast's success: Bringing Internet HDTV streaming to many more people than before. The massive Google Play movie and music libraries also help sweeten the deal, of course.
If the Chromecast cost as much as the Apple TV (or even half as much), it would compare poorly. At this price level, however, it’s the most affordable way to access online media services on your HDTV, even if those services are limited – and as such it snags one of our Best Buy awards. Let’s hope we aren’t waiting too long for the UK release.