Google is trying to change television watching again, after the tepid response to its Google TV product a few years back. This time, instead of building a complex system to bring apps and Internet video to the TV, the search giant is taking a simpler approach. It has built a small, inexpensive device called Chromecast that wirelessly streams to the TV screen the video and music from tablets, smartphones and laptops you already own and know how to use.
Chromecast is a small fob, about the size and shape of a USB flash drive, that plugs into a standard HDMI port, the kind found on almost every HDTV. It costs just $35. It connects to your Wi-Fi network and can stream video and audio from tablets and smartphones running Google’s own Android operating system, as well as Apple’s iPhones and iPads. It can also stream Web pages to the TV from Google’s Chrome browser running on Apple’s Mac laptops, Windows laptops and Google’s top-of-the-line Pixel Chromebook laptop.
What users see while waiting to start beaming content from a device to Chromecast.
There is no remote control, because you pause, play, control volume and switch apps and media using the connected devices themselves. The Chromecast draws electric power either by plugging into a wall outlet, or into a USB port on the TV. It must be on the same Wi-Fi network as the devices you’re using to stream.
I’ve been testing Chromecast for about a week, and I like it and can recommend it, despite some drawbacks. The biggest: It only works so far with a handful of mobile apps, most notably Netflix and Google’s own YouTube. Google is promising there’ll be more Chromecast-compatible apps soon, including the Pandora music app, and, for Android devices, its own Gallery photos app.
I tested Chromecast on two different HDTVs — one approximately six years old, one brand new — and on an Android tablet and smartphone, an iPhone and iPad, and a Windows laptop and a Mac laptop each running the Chrome browser. It worked well in every scenario, though a couple of its ancillary features — which turn on the TV and switch inputs — only worked on the newer TV.
On my Android test devices, I was able to beam to the TV video from Netflix, YouTube and the Android video and music players — the only Android mobile apps that work now with Chromecast. On Apple mobile devices, the only Chromecast-compatible apps so far are Netflix and YouTube. Both worked fine.
Using the Chrome browser on a MacBook Air and an Acer Windows 8 laptop, I was able to play video and audio, and display text and graphics, from a wide variety of Web pages. This uses a technique called “mirroring,” which simply replicates on the TV what’s on the browser page as displayed on the computer. When I wanted to watch a video from the browser, I was usually able to get rid of extraneous material by setting the video to full screen view on the computer.
When your TV is tuned to the input for your Chromecast, waiting for you to start beaming content to it, the screen shows a beautiful photo with the words “ready to cast” displayed in big letters.
All in all, it was a satisfying and easy experience, especially since setup is so simple and, like many people today, I already have a tablet or smartphone in my hands or nearby while watching TV.
But Chromecast isn’t the first or only gadget to beam video and audio to a TV from a mobile device or computer. As is so often the case, Google’s new effort directly competes with a product from archrival Apple, whose Apple TV has been doing something similar for years using a technology called AirPlay.
I also like and can recommend Apple’s AirPlay. Its strengths and weaknesses are roughly the inverse of Chromecast’s. Unlike Google’s cross-platform approach, AirPlay only streams to the TV from Apple’s own devices. And Apple TV, which connects the AirPlay stream to the TV, is costlier than Chromecast, at $99.
However, unlike the limited number of mobile apps that currently work with Chromecast, Apple says that AirPlay works with “thousands” of mobile apps, and with anything — not just a Chrome browser tab — that can be displayed on the screen of a Mac.
Chromecast options for the Netflix app on an Android tablet.
Apple says that app developers on its mobile devices don’t have to do anything to enable AirPlay, though they can disable it. By contrast, Google is working with each developer to enable Chromecast. Also, the mirroring feature, which only works with computers on Chromecast, also works with iPhones and iPads on AirPlay and Apple TV.
In addition, of course, Apple TV has built-in content sources that don’t require a mobile device or laptop. These include iTunes, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu+, Major League Baseball, and photos and music you’ve stored in Apple’s cloud services. Chromecast has no built-in media services.
One big advantage Chromecast has over AirPlay is that, once you start streaming something from your device to the TV, you can switch apps and do other things on the device, like check email, without interrupting the stream.
With AirPlay, in most cases, you can’t do that, although there are some exceptions, like HBO Go. Apple says this capability is up to the developer.
A big reason for this difference: On tablet and smartphone apps, Chromecast isn’t beaming directly from the device, but is using your tablet or smartphone to trigger delivery of the content from the cloud to Chromecast, freeing up the device. Apple says AirPlay also supports this method, but most app developers don’t seem to be using it, so the iPhone or iPad is usually tied up beaming the content to the TV.
This reliance on the cloud instead of the device is also why Google has to work developer-by-developer to spread the use of Chromecast, while Apple doesn’t.
I did run into a few minor issues with Chromecast. In some cases, it was a little slow to get the content onto the TV.
And, as mentioned above, one of its nicer, but minor, features only worked on the new TV I tested. This feature turns on the TV, and switches automatically to the HDMI input containing the Chromecast, when you choose to use Chromecast with an app. Google says the ability to control the TV this way has only been enabled on TVs in the past few years. The main features of Chromecast work on all HDTVs with HDMI ports, going back a decade or so.
If you’re an all-Apple household with $99 to spare, AirPlay and Apple TV work great. But, if you want a less costly solution that works with all your devices across platforms, and can wait while Google gradually gets more apps to adopt it, Chromecast is a winner.
Email Walt at email@example.com.