Chromecast is Google’s new entry into a dizzying array of options to cut (or at least seriously fray) the cable television cord. And like many things Googley, it’s very different from most of its video-streaming predecessors: it’s smaller (about the size of a thumb drive, for those with fat thumbs), it’s cheaper (exactly $35.00), and it’s more limited (only three included video streaming service apps, to date).
But it also has an alluring second streaming capability that goes beyond included apps (which stream Netflix, YouTube and Google Play videos directly to an HDTV). If you use Chrome as your web browser, you can ‘cast any video or other media that plays in a web browser tab to the Chromecast device plugged into your TV, over your WiFi network.
The price made it a no-brainer for me to try. Thirty-five bucks is no typo, and early buyers received three months of Netflix free even if they were already subscribers (as I was; that Netflix promo has since ended). Doing the math of $35 – (3 months x $8) = $11 net cost plus tax, with also-free Amazon Prime shipping.
So I dove in. It took me less than 15 minutes to set up. And then another hour to troubleshoot my attempts to “improve” it.
Initial set up is straightforward. Take the fat-thumb device and plug it into an unused HDMI port on your TV; many modern models have several. Then plug the Chromecast, using an included cord, into either a USB port or an electrical plug for power (the wall outlet is preferred, and I relied on my TV’s power strip). Then, using a nearby laptop or smartphone, download the Chromecast app while connected to your WiFi network and follow the very clear instructions on both your TV and your laptop or phone screen.
Quickly, I tested Netflix and YouTube. Stellar. Avengers and cats streamed at what seemed to be 720p with good sound, directly from the cloud through the Chromecast to my TV (for included apps, Chromecast only uses the smartphone or laptop as an over-powered remote to select and control the video; it doesn’t route those video streams through your laptop or phone).
Then I downloaded the Google Cast extension for my laptop’s Chrome browser, opened a new tab and navigated to the ABC-TV site to select a Jimmy Kimmel clip. There was a noticeable lag between when the video appeared on my laptop to when it appeared on my television – acceptable, because I’m not going to be watching both screens simultaneously – but there was some stuttering in the browser ‘casted video and audio on the TV.
That’s when, as Lyle Lovett might sing, I made my first mistake. Allow me to fast forward to the end of the next hour to advise:
- If you have multiple WiFi networks in your home, do your first troubleshooting on the network on which you installed the Chromecast. Do not rapidly switch between, say, two 2.4GHz and one 5GHz WiFi networks in a bid to improve the video because Chromecast is smart in a simple way. It will not be able to keep up with what network you are on, and you will lose all ability to change the Chromecast’s settings if it thinks you are no longer on the same WiFi network as it is. It will lead to much unplugging and replugging in of the Chromecast and annoyed looks from nearby family members who are trying to actually watch TV.
- Plug in the laptop you used for set up to AC power before testing the Chrome browser ‘casting feature. Many laptops go into power-saving mode when they’re running on battery power alone. If you’re not plugged in, it will cause you to think there is a Chrome browser ‘casting issue that leads to stuttering when in reality, your laptop is just too tired to go on. And it will ‘cast just fine once it feeds.
- Consider buying a one-level home if you want to tinker during set up. Unless you consider tech support to be your fitness program, repeatedly running up and down stairs between a laptop, TV and WiFi router on different floors is exhausting.
Ultimately, Chrome browser video ‘casting worked great, displaying video at 720p from pretty much any website I could throw at it, all on the original WiFi network I’d tried. Once the laptop was plugged in, it made no difference that the laptop and WiFi router were on the other side of my townhouse a floor above.
I’ve since watched entire movies and long clips via Chromecast’s embedded apps and Chrome browser ‘casting. My scorecard?
Pros: Easy basic set up. Good video (and notably audio) quality. Welcome and rare ability to wirelessly throw video from a web browser directly to a TV. Easier to search for videos than using a regular TV remote with a smart TV’s apps or a DVR. When streaming from included Chromecast apps like Netflix, ability to continue using the “remote” (laptop or smartphone) for other functions, like checking email or texting. And did I mention it was cheap?
Cons: Only three embedded direct-streaming apps for video: Netflix, YouTube and Google Play (but may increase over time). Requires a strong, steady WiFi signal. Troubleshooting can be troublesome.
And it’s that last which illustrates the kind of device Chromecast represents. We are not just in what pundits proclaim as the Post-PC Era. We have moved into the Post-Nerd Era. It used to be cool new tech required a nerd willing to tinker to set devices up, so tech-lifestyle desiring geeks could bask in their bright-shiny glow.
Google’s Chromecast follows in Apple’s Jobs-ean footsteps. Chromecast is a device so advanced, yet so simple to set up and use, that anyone can be a geek without relying on a nerd. For good or ill, it’s now the device, not a techie, that knows what you want better than you do.
[Editor's Note: Frank Catalano discussed Google Chromecast on the latest episode of the GeekWire radio show and podcast. On the other end of the spectrum, stay tuned for Todd Bishop's review of the Comcast Xfinity X1 tuner on GeekWire later this week.]
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. See the archive of his regular GeekWire columns. He is proud to be a nerd-geek hybrid.