Last week, the debut of Google's Chromecast rippled across the tech world with a promise to deliver us from the evil that is "dumb TV" — television screens without access to the internet's vast trove of streaming media.
At just $35 and compatible with three apps at launch (YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play), the tiny, plastic dongle quickly sold out online, generating a level of enthusiasm noticeably absent from other smart TV setups, including Roku and Apple TV. Those high expectations were somewhat tempered when we learned a few more details about it, but a fuller picture has emerged now that reviewers have had a few days to spend some quality time with it. Here's what they're saying:
It's very simple to set up, says Slate's Farhad Majoo:
With Chromecast, you turn on the TV. Then you load up Netflix (or YouTube or Chrome) on any other machine that's handy — it could be a PC, a phone, or a tablet, or whatever you have lying around. It's much faster to navigate and type on those devices than on your set-top box, so you'll find your show much more quickly. Then press play. On many TVs, you won't even need to change your TV's input — Chromecast will do that for you. [Slate]
Speaking of which, you can use Chromecast on both the iOS and Android apps for YouTube and Netflix, and the service generally worked well whether we were using a Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7 or fifth-generation iPod touch. Videos played with just a little bit of artifacting as the dongle buffered the content, but the streaming quality was otherwise excellent. [Engadget]
I quickly flipped back and forth between platforms while watching Arrested Development, and everything worked fairly well, although I did manage to get the Netflix iPhone app confused about what was playing a few times.
All that flexibility can lead to some confusion. Since there's no single, definitive place to control the Chromecast, it's easy to find yourself watching a video without any immediate way to pause, rewind, or mute — you have to remember where the video came from and open that app. It's not a big problem, but it's added complexity. Google really needs to add basic playback controls like play, pause, and mute to the Chromecast setup app. [The Verge]
...but that you can beam Chrome browser tabs directly to the TV:
What $35 really buys you is the simplest possible way to send tabs from Chrome to your TV screen, and it works. It works really well, in fact; if you can see it in Chrome, you can get it on your TV, with only a few exceptions.
Netflix and YouTube have dedicated Chromecast buttons, but full-screen Flash video works just fine everywhere else: I tested The Verge's video player, Vimeo, ESPN, Hulu, and a few others, and hitting the full-screen button blew up the video to fill the entire TV screen. Music services like Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio all worked fine as well. You can also drag files from your desktop into Chrome and they'll play as well, as long as Chrome supports them natively. (Video in .mp4 format and .mp3 audio files work great.) The only real incompatibility is with Apple's QuickTime — you'll see the video on your TV just fine, but the audio will still come out of your computer. That means Apple's movie trailer site doesn't work, and .mov files you drag into Chrome won't either. [The Verge]
All Things D's Walt Mossberg compared its functionality at length to Apple TV's 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...
[But] 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. [All Things D]
Overall, Slate's Manjoo recommends it:
Google's Chromecast doesn't do much. But what it does do, it does so consistently well, and so cheaply, that it's quickly became a primary part of my media-watching routine... You'll love it. [Slate]
And Engadget's Gorman says it will only get better:
Sure, it's not as fully featured as some of its competitors, but it does provide a lot for just $35, and it's a platform that's likely to improve dramatically as more apps start to support the technology. But, as it stands, we can wholeheartedly recommend the Chromecast for anyone who's been looking for an easy, unobtrusive way to put some brains into their dumb TV. [Engadget]