The honest Chromecast review: Three weeks with Google’s TV stick

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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.

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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.

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