Saturday, September 21, 2013

Google Chromecast: Great for Youtube and Netflix but not Ready for Prime Time

I was drawn to Google's latest consumer product, ChromeCast.  A $35 device that looks like a USB flash drive plugs into any TV with an HDMI input and allows you to easily stream internet content to your living room.  It doesn't come with a remote. Instead you use your phone, tablet or laptop for setup and control.  The short story is that I'm already using it all the time but feel that it hasn't quite lived up to its hype. While the advertising implies that it works from your iOS device, its useless on my iPhone and iPad for anything other than YouTube and Netflix videos. However this functionality alone makes it worthwhile for me. ChromeCast is definitely in the discussion if you don't have AppleTV or Roku.  The low cost and ultra-portability make it a no brainer if you have young kids or watch a ton of YouTube videos.

Here's a Google video showcasing their new product:

My three kids have grown up in the on-demand era; the majority of their TV consumption is based on recorded shows, streaming services like Amazon and Netflix and an ever increasing amount of online videos.  We enforce parental control by not allowing them to surf online unsupervised.  So before ChromeCast, the three of them would frequently huddle around a monitor in my study where I would select videos.  The other option was watching on the living room TV using our DirecTV receiver or DVD player, both of which have the ability to stream online content.  Neither solution was great; getting four chairs in my study was difficult and watching in the living room wasn't much better. It is slow and painfully inefficient to use a standard remote control as a keyboard and I couldn't queue up videos. The result was a poor browsing experience, especially with a three year old who likes switching videos every minute.

ChromeCast has solved both problems for me.  I can use my phone, tablet or laptop to search for YouTube videos and queue them up.  Worth noting that once you "cast" a video to your TV, the device you are using is freed up and the content is streamed directly to your TV.  So at that point you can turn it off, leave the room or continue to search without any disruption of what is playing. It supports HD so the picture is really fantastic even on a big screen TV if you have a cable internet connection. 

Setup is pretty easy with a slick way to install and select your WiFi connection, but maybe a bit too slick for its own good.  It failed the first time because I used my iPad 1 and halfway through it decided that it wasn't compatible with iOS 5. Should have taken a developer a minute to put that check up front.  On my second attempt with my iPad 3 it worked perfectly.  Here'a video that shows the process.  

Unlike any recent electronic device, it's dirt cheap at $35. For once you don't have to game plan how to convince your spouse. An Apple TV or Roku is $100 and both currently have more functionality and you can click here for a comparison.  However, its only a matter of time until ChromeCast can stream your local content and has wider device compatibility. If you are a Hulu customer and don't want to pay for Hulu Plus; a Chromecast and a laptop can let you stream your regular Hulu content to your TV.  

Google and other companies are also actively working to increase ChromeCast compatibility. By the end of the year we should see many more services supported. It's also small and portable.  I'm definitely taking it on trips and will be adding it to the list of questions to ask a hotel. "Do you have WiFi?  Is there a pool? Do your TVs have an HDMI input??"

Chromecast advertising implied that one could broadcast any content you can view by using a Chrome browser.  That is true for laptops, desktops and Android phones.  However, on my iOS device Google still hasn't released plugins for the iOS version of Chrome.  It also only supports iOS 6 and later; so I am unable to use my iPad or iPhone 3 with the device.  There is a Chromecast app in the App Store but it only lets you install the Chromecast. So, say I want to share Facebook photos on my living room TV, my only option would be to use my laptop. Beyond the limited iOS compatibility, the other cons are that you can't use it like an Apple TV to share your photos, videos and music.  There is no support of iOS 5 or earlier; I have no idea why they wouldn't support iOS 5 devices.  There is no technical reason to exclude iOS 5 devices.  If they want to be an Apple killer they have to do simple things like this.

In summary the ChromeCast is definitely in the discussion if you don't have AppleTV or Roku.  The low cost and ultra-portability make it a no brainer if you have young kids or watch a ton of YouTube videos.  Most TVs made in the last ten years have an HDMI input; if you don't have one then its time to get a new TV. If YouTube and Netflix content is not a current priority then there is no compelling need to get one and give time to mature.  

You can pick up a ChromeCast at Amazon or other retailer. At $35 it will definitely make for a killer Christmas present!

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