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Summary:

I tested Google’s new Chromecst TV dongle for three weeks, and it quickly became my default way to watch Netflix and YouTube. Here’s what I liked about and what’s missing from Chromecast.

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It’s been three weeks since Google unveiled its Chromecast dongle, and I’ve been using it practically every day since then to watch Netflix, YouTube and other forms of online video on my TV. This gave me a chance to test the device in a real-life setting, and discover some of its greatest features, along with a few shortcomings.

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The basics: what it is and what it does

First, a quick recap: Chromecast is a $35 streaming dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port. You can use it to stream online videos from YouTube, Netflix and elsewhere, and use your computer, mobile phone or tablet as a remote control. It doesn’t have any kind of separate app store or user interface on your TV – everything gets controlled from the PC or mobile device.

The key word here is control: Your phone doesn’t stream videos directly to your Chromecast dongle. Instead, it just tells the device which video it should stream from the cloud. That means that you can use your phone for something else, or even turn it off, once the stream starts.

This kind of remote control capability only works with apps and sites that directly support Chromecast. In addition to that, users can also stream any web content directly from their computer’s Chrome browser, as long as they have a special Chrome extension installed.

The setup: just read the instructions already

I set up Chromecast three times: First, with a unit loaned from Google in our office, then with the same device at home and finally with a Chromecast I bought for my own use. Doing so taught me that the setup can be remarkably easy if you follow Google’s directions and download the setup app on your computer or mobile device. I chose to ignore these recommendations, tried to set up the device with my Nexus 7’s Chrome browser and got stuck. Go figure.

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But enough of the complaining. Just get those apps, and the setup is literally done in two minutes. Just plug the dongle into your TV, connect it to a power source (I’d recommend not using your TV’s USB port but the extra charger that comes with the device; more on that later.) and fire up the app on your computer or mobile device. Enter the password of your local Wi-Fi network, and you’re all set.

Streaming Netflix

Chromecast is a great device for Netflix viewing: Streams look as good as on any other device I’ve tested, and I actually found that navigating the Netflix catalog on my computer or mobile device worked much better for me than on a connected device.

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Here’s how firing up a Netflix movie via Chromecast looks like on my TV…

As a parent, I also found it really helpful that Netflix on Chromecast lets me track the progress of a video on the mobile device while it’s playing on TV. No more “just a few more minute” excuses. And the fact that I can switch from one device to another, launching playback from the Netflix website on my MacBook, then pause it later with my mobile phone, is pretty neat.

... and here's how it looks like on my Nexus 7 while the movie is playing.

… and here’s how it looks like on my Nexus 7 while the movie is playing.

Also cool: A friend of mine came over, took out her iPhone, connected to our Wi-Fi network, and streamed something to our TV using her Netflix account. No complicated account switching was necessary. It’s a small thing, but the fact that the dongle isn’t tied to a single Netflix account makes it a whole lot easier to enjoy movie night with friends.

The one feature I missed from Netflix on Chromecast was the same kind of post-play experience Netflix is now offering on other devices. The next episode of a show doesn’t start automatically, forcing you to instead bust out your phone again and manually select what to watch next.

Streaming YouTube

The other major use case for Chromecast right now is YouTube, and I streamed my fair share of videos from that site in the last few weeks as well. Overall, streaming worked once again really well, and even more than with Netflix, I quickly found this setup to work much better for my needs than YouTube’s TV app on other connected devices.

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I did find a few things that YouTube could do to improve the experience. First, beaming videos to Chromecast from your PC is currently only supported if you are on YouTube.com, and not if the video is embedded in a third-party website. That means that even on Google+, you need to click through to YouTube.com before you can start watching on the big screen.

Also, YouTube’s mobile app currently has a neat feature that allows you to add videos to a queue of things to be played next on TV, something that you can even do with multiple devices at the same time – think YouTube party. However, there’s no support to queue up videos from the Chrome browser yet.

youtube tv queue

Pretty neat: You can queue up videos via YouTube’s mobile app.

In one or two cases, I ran into issues of videos giving me “unsupported video format” error messages, but overall, playback was pretty smooth. I even played back an entire VOD movie from YouTube.com via Chromecast without any issues – and this was the first time it really made sense to me to pay for a video on YouTube.

Here's something I had never done before Chromecast: paying for a video on YouTube.

Here’s something I had never done before Chromecast: paying for a video on YouTube.

Google Play Music and Movies

I ended up not using Google Play Music and Google Play Movies as much, in part because I didn’t use them before Chromecast, and in part because the two offerings aren’t quite as polished on the device yet. However, I did try both, and actually liked the UI of Google Play Music on the TV quite a bit. Unfortunately, there is no tie-in with the service’s website yet, so you can’t start a music stream straight from the Google Music web app, but instead have to rely on the Google Play Music apps, which are so far only available on Android.

Google Play Music looks pretty neat on your TV, but there's no integration with the service's website yet.

Google Play Music looks pretty neat on your TV, but there’s no integration with the service’s website yet.

I also watched a few videos from Google Play Movies via Chromecast, and streaming overall worked well, but some of those little things that matter didn’t quite feel right. For example, when using YouTube or Netflix via Chromecast, you can control the volume of the video with your mobile device. Google Play Movies offers no such feature, forcing you to scurry for your TV remote control instead – something that Chromecast was supposed to do away with. And finally, call me a stickler, but the background picture that Google Play Movies falls back to when you’re not playing anything is just plain ugly.

Come on Google, you can do better: Netflix and YouTube have great Wallpaper screens that are displayed when you don't play anything via Chromecast, but the Google Movies default screen is just plain boring.

Come on Google, you can do better: Netflix and YouTube have great Wallpaper screens that are displayed when you don’t play anything via Chromecast, but the Google Movies default screen is just plain boring.

Streaming from your Chrome browser

As mentioned before, Chromecast does offer the ability to stream a tab from your PC’s Chrome browser straight to your TV. This is similar to screen sharing in a teleconference, meaning that the browser captures everything in a new video – something that is quite resource-intensive, and even on my 2012 Macbook Pro led to a few performance warnings when streaming video.

The idea behind this screencasting feature is to enable you to stream anything that’s not available through a native app yet. I tried it with a few Hulu streams, and while it worked, it definitely degraded the quality to a more VHS-like experience, complete with a few skips every now and then. I found that it worked well enough to watch animated fare like the Simpsons, but that it was a bit too painful for shows I’d rather watch in HD on a Hulu Plus-capable device.

Streaming videos from Hulu via the Chrome extension works, but the result isn't great.

Streaming videos from Hulu via the Chrome extension works, but the result isn’t great.

I also tried to play a few local videos by simply dropping them onto the Chrome browser tab, and experienced similar mixed results. This may be acceptable if you don’t have any other way to get local videos onto the TV, but it’s definitely not great, which is why Google still calls this feature beta. Luckily, there are a number of apps in the works that will enable you to play local content without compromising on picture quality.

I did on occasion use the browser-based streaming to listen to music from Rdio.com via the browser, which was far less taxing on my Macbook, and the Rdio player actually looked quite nice on the TV. However, even with this, I occasionally encountered some weird glitches, including changes in tempo for a second or two.

Rdio's web player doesn't look half bad on a TV screen.

Rdio’s web player doesn’t look half bad on a TV screen.

The killer feature: HDMI-CEC

When Chromecast was introduced, I wrote that its use of the HDMI-CEC standard could be its secret killer feature, and I found this largely to be true. Chromecast can automatically turn on TVs that support HDMI-CEC and even change the HDMI input, switching from live TV to whichever video you selected on your mobile device. HDMI-CEC worked both on our office TV as well as my TV at home, even though both are lower-end models without any smart TV apps baked in.

However, I did find that I had to configure the feature on my home TV first – Toshiba decided to disable it by default, and the TV also frequently failed to switch to the right input after turning on. Still, even the ability to turn it on with my mobile device or even the web browser on my Macbook is pretty amazing. And finally: Turning on the TV doesn’t work if you plug your Chromecast unit into the TV’s USB port, which is why it makes sense to use the extra power adapter that Google ships with the device instead.

My take: A great buy that will get a lot better

After testing Chromecast for three weeks, I can say that it has easily become my favorite way to watch Netflix and YouTube, which makes up a big part of my TV viewing these days. But Netflix and YouTube are clearly just the beginning for Chromecast. Hulu, Vimeo, HBO Go and others have already pledged their support, and a small army of independent developers has started to hack away and bring their own apps and games to the device. All of this means that Chromecast will get substantially better over the coming months.

Check out our first look at Chromecast video, or continue reading below:

But even without any of those improvements being present today, I definitely don’t regret spending $35 for the dongle. Should you buy one too? I would say yes, especially if you’re looking to finally bring Netflix viewing to that TV in your bedroom or den that hasn’t been connected yet. But even if you already have a smart TV, or watch Netflix with the game console that’s otherwise collecting dust in your living room, Chromecast may be worthy of a consideration. The device takes a lot of friction out of bringing online video to the living room, and in turn makes TV watching a lot more enjoyable.

  1. George A. Nichols Wednesday, August 14, 2013

    “For example, when using YouTube or Netflix via Chromecast, you can control the volume of the video with your mobile device (double-check). Google Play Movies offers no such feature, forcing you to scurry for your TV remote control instead – something that Chromecast was supposed to do away with.”

    From this quote, I found it to be somewhat incorrect. Although there isn’t an on screen option to raise or lower the volume when playing a movie or tv show in Google Play Movies & TV. You can however use your smartphone physical volume control button to do this and seeing the action take place on screen. So, there is no real reason to look for that antique of a remote. This option was not left out as previously assumed.

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    1. The physical volume rocker doesn’t work for me when using Google Play Movies. Not sure if it depends on the device used?

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    2. An alternative to Chromecast is Miracast TV — HD Wireless, which offers a lot more features and doesn’t limit the content you display like Chromecast does and also features full 1080p HD for everything displayed compared to Chromecast with only 720p — a new $39 Miracast HD Wireless adapter became available this week and works much more like Apple’s $100+ Airplay Wireless display technology…

      One of the first to carry this new device is Tablet Sprint– worth checking out…

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      1. charles bradshaw Tuesday, August 27, 2013

        i’ve read a dozen articles on chromecast in the last couple weeks and every single one of them has a plug for miracast in the comments… shut up! …

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      2. Chromecast CAN do 1080p at extreme bitrate. It’s your problem if your wifi network is too slow to support 1080p EB.

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  2. I’ve been trying to find out if the TV processing speed needs to be at a minimum to make Chromecast work. I’m thinking of buying a lower end model (without the smart platform, hence Chromecast) but worried that the processing power could compromise performance either now or in the coming years.

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    1. I got the Chromecast to use on a VERY low end, small lcd tv that’s 720p. The Chromecast is wonderful. When I cut cable several years ago, this tv couldn’t get many local channels and eventually ended up in a closet. Now it’s the perfect bedroom tv. And Chromecast will easily swap to various tv’s on the same wifi. The one thing I haven’t seen mentioned in too many reviews, is that you can add multiple computers to the system by going to the chromecast setup site and getting the PC app. It worked fairly well on my large screen tv by broadcasting from a chrome tab. It sputtered now and then, sometimes the audio would get out of sync but I found that if I hit pause for a few seconds and then play would get it back in sync again. It’s a decent way to watch network shows from the net on TV and you can easily open a different browser or new tab and keep on web surfing. It’s a great device.

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    2. charles bradshaw Tuesday, August 27, 2013

      tv processing speed has nothing to do with the chromecast… basically, if it has an hdmi input, it should work

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  3. I’ll opt for the Apple TV and not have to wait for the device to play catch up. Plus, all the added functionally and clarity one needs. No sense putting up with crap just because its from Google.

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    1. Comparing “Apples” to oranges. Nice fail.

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    2. charles bradshaw forgot to say:
      i’ve read a dozen articles on chromecast in the last couple weeks and every single one of them has a plug for Apple TV in the comments… shut up! …

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  4. Janko:

    1 Setup failes if SSID is not being broadcast. So I set it to broadcast, it setup+connected+streamed just fine. Then when I reverted wifi SSID back to hidden, it cannot connect anymore.
    2. YouTube iOS app doesnt show the ‘Chromecast” signal in top row if chromecast dongle isn’t on – confusing. netflix iOS app shows it all the time.
    3. I thought I could chromecast all chrome-browser pages (not just video) up to screen – didnt work.

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    1. I just ran through my new delivery. In response to your comments:
      1. Hidden SSID I had the same issue (was using a linux ubuntu laptop) until I grabbed my android phone (connected to my hidden wireless) and then it was smart enough with the chromecast app to connect to the chromecast and then it automatically entered my SSID into the chromecast for me
      2. wasn’t looking for the chromecast icon with the chromecast turned off so I will have to check that
      3. I was able to broadcast web pages via chrome but you have to tell it to broadcast that tab. This was from my laptop. broadcasting the tab/page via android phone does not appear to be an option but we may need to download a chrome extension on the phone (I had to download a chrome extension/app for my laptop browser)

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  5. Hey Rohit, I had no trouble casting any kind of web page to the TV. Did you install the Google Cast Chrome extension?

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    1. i was expecting chrome browser (Android 4.2.2, iOS) to have that integrated. havent tried chrome/laptop to chromecast yet.

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      1. The Android Chrome browser does NOT support casting, according to their docs.

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    2. I can get 50 megabits downstream from Comcast on my laptop yet I find the Chromecast streaming so herky jerky as to be utterly useless. Beta indeed.

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  6. I wonder if Amazon Prime will support Chromecast. I hope so. Had Netflix last year and wasn’t so please.

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    1. No, it doesn’t work. Amazon Prime Instant uses Microsoft Silverlight, and that’s why it doesn’t work. Chromecast does not support the Silverlight.

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      1. However, if you disable Silverlight from Chrome, you can then cast it up to the TV. Spoiler alert: The quality is severely hampered when you do this. Looks like something from a VHS tape.

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        1. Amazon prime instant works fine over Chromecast. If you don’t have Silverlight installed, Amazon will use Flash instead to stream the movie. When this is casted, it upgrades to 1080p (if supported by your tv) and it looks fine. Even if you have Silverlight installed, you can still cast the tab that is streaming the Amazon video to your TV. So Amazon works fine casting from your Chrome browser. Hopefully they will have a native app for the Chromecast soon, but in the meantime casting from PC works great.

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          1. Doesn’t work for me. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. What does casting from a tab mean?

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            1. Uhhh… yeah, I agree with Phil. Just set up chromecast. Works fine for YouTube, but with Amazon video is jitter, sound is mismatched and it loses connectivity. Horrible.

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      2. Netflix does too but is able to work with chromecast so in the future I would not rule it out.

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  7. One of the applications that I tend to like for these devices is streaming music. I found that Google’s Android Music application integration with Chromecast is still half-baked. Between the two, I get multiple, “Can’t play music that has been side-loaded” errors, which I take to mean that I’m not supposed to be able to stream music playing on my device directly to the ChromeCast. However, these same songs exist on my Google Music account (“in the cloud”) and yet, it insists that I am trying to play it locally. This is a bit frustrating.
    I also noted that several videos started off in quite low resolution until the video buffers enough for the resolution to stabilize. All in all, even with these first-release (minor) issues, it’s a great $35 buy! I’m looking forward to seeing what the brilliant minds bring in the near future.

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  8. I want to see a version of the chromecast come out that replaces the HDMI connector with a headphone jack so that I can plug it into my old stereo when sitting on the patio on the backyard for music.

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    1. I just did this very thing – well similar to support streaming Google Music into my audio head end . Monoprice has a device that will take the audio from the HDMI and switch it to digital (optical and coax) or standard analog RCA out. Plug into whatever audio device you want and chromecast away.

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      1. That’s a pretty cool hack. Do you have a link for the device / adapter you are using? How’s your experience been with it so far?

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        1. Gern Blandsten Jr. Sunday, August 18, 2013

          With these HDMI breakout boxes, be very careful to check compatibility.. like HDMI spec used and the resolution output from the HDMI device. I haven’t test this with Chromecast ‘yet’, but went through extensive testing (more like frustrating experimentation) with the Apple TV.

          I ‘really’ wanted to use the Apple TV with my large 36″ Sony Trinitron that didn’t have HDMI, as well as an old projector that had DVI-d(i believe).. I have to say the audio did work in most cases with Apple TV, but video out was problematic.

          In my office I wanted to connect to an old 21″ desktop LCD monitor so I needed HDMI to break out the audio to a Dell attached monitor speaker, then to VGA. I used this adapter but Apple would only allow me to separate the audio from it’s own Optical audio port, to which came another adapter… ha.. I did get it all working, but after all the wires and multiple adapters I came to my senses one day, ripped it all out, and purchased a new HDMI TV during black friday for $189.

          SOMETIMES… after considering all the time, all the hacks and all the adapters and costs of all the above, you just have to break down and purchase the right equipment, for the result you need. No bandaids. No BS.

          Of course that eliminates that “I did it!! IN YOUR FACE SUKKAS!!” moment when you accomplish such electronic workarounds. That of course usually gets this response from my wife; “yea… nice hunny.. great job… now i have 3 more “things” to turn on and off, and another 2 remotes… just to watch Netflix… sweet” ;-)

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  9. Love the Chromecast. Using it mostly for youtube & Netflix. Also watched some episodes from CBS.com with the Beta Chrome browser cast. Only thing I couldn’t use that for was Redbox Instant streaming. Which btw seems to be a waste & I’m going to cancel before the free trial is done.

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  10. Drat, I have a chromecast on order that was primarily to play video from the browser (a few cable channels stream their programming that I like to watch). It was supposed to be a way to save me from full screening video and plugging my laptop into the TV via HDMI. I already have a roku 3 which is great for netflix, and I’m not really a youtube as sit on the couch watcher.

    Thanks for the review, Janko!

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    1. Great review, on an exciting new streamer. To further enhance Chromecast and make it compatible with any video or app an enhanced firmware is available. http://mkvxstream.blogspot.com/2013/08/unleash-chromecast-with-cyanogenmod.html

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    2. Nick Marshall Tuesday, August 20, 2013

      Horton,

      If you want to watch networks shows in HD you can buy Plair.

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