To say that my first impression of the Google Chromecast was poor is a bit of an understatement: When it was first released in August, this device was nearly impossible to set up and was barely functional. Since then, Chromecast has improved. And while it's still not a good value compared to a Roku device or Apple TV, it's a viable alternative for those who—for whatever reason—have invested in Google's digital entertainment ecosystem.
I wrote about my travails trying to get Chromecast to work when it was first introduced in Google Chromecast First Impressions and Photos, and quickly decided I wouldn't be able to review this device unless it improved dramatically. And, over the ensuring five months, it has improved, though to be fair, it's still not a viable, general purpose living room set-top box alternative to the Roku or Apple TV, both of which remain far better values.
So, yes, my argument in Cheap vs. Good Value still applies. But in positioning Chromecast as an inexpensive way to "cast"—really, stream—audio and content from the device(s) you may already own, Google can make a case for Chromecast. And that's especially true for those customers who use Google Play Music (potentially with the All Access subscription) or have purchased or rented Play Video-based TV shows or movies.
Chromecast remains more complex from a setup perspective than Roku or Apple TV devices, in part because unlike those more full-featured alternatives, the Chromecast is not a standalone solution. Instead, you must use a compatible device—an Android handset or tablet, an iPhone or iPad, a PC with Google's Chrome web browser, or a Chromebook—in tandem with Chromecast at all times, including the convoluted initial set up.
Now one could make the argument that most people do already have at least one of those devices, and I agree with that assertion. But most people who use a Roku or Apple TV already have at least one of those devices, too. And when they use an Apple TV or Roku, they can just use a simple remote, and aren't forced to keep turning to their device, and waking it up repeatedly, just to handle basic playback control.
Put another way, I personally believe that Apple TV and Roku more closely adhere to the tenets of cloud computing, where each device you use to access your cloud-based data is a consumer, or end-point, but more to the point an equal to all others. With Chromecast, a more convoluted three tier process occurs, where your cloud-based data is accessed from a device and handed off to a third device (Chromecast) so it can get to your TV. It's like an unnecessary middleman.
Except of course that it is necessary, for those who do use Google Play-based services. At this moment, the only way to access those services is through a web browser or via an Android (or iOS) handset or tablet (or, for the 17 people that have one, a Google TV). Could Google get these services on Roku, at least? Probably. I don't know why they haven't. But for now, at least, the "best" option you have for getting Google Play content to play, in high definition if it's a video, is with a Chromecast and one of those other devices you already own.
Once you get past setup, which involves installing the Chromecast app on your Android or iOS device, or the Chromecast browser plug-in in Google Chrome (PC, Mac) or Chromebook, performing a series of voodoo-like tricks in which you temporarily access the Chromecast's built-in Wi-Fi network you can configure it to use your real Wi-Fi network (don't ask), you can explore the world of Chromecast-compatible mobile and web apps. From these specially-designed apps, you can "cast" audio and video content from the cloud, through your device, through the Chromecast, and to the HDTV.
So what are those apps?
Google Play Music and Google Play Video, and YouTube of course—each is owned by Google—but also Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, Pandora, RealPlayer Cloud, VEVO, Red Bull.TV, Songza, Plex, PostTV and Viki. Nothing from Amazon or Microsoft. And of course nothing from Apple.
Given the niche this device fills, I focused on the Google stuff, and I tested Chromecast with several different other devices, including my Nexus 5 handset, my Nexus 7 mini-tablet, my iPhone 5S, a PC laptop running Chrome, and my HP Chromebook 11, using both native mobile and web apps. Put simply, the mobile apps offer much better performance, but any of these will work in a pinch. And when you consider the low price of this device ($35), I could see it being part of a cheap (but complex) set up for the struggling college student or other youngsters that see no value in traditional cable-based TV programming.
Google Play Music "casting" from the iPhone
Basically, if you're using a compatible app, you will see a Chromecast icon that lets you cast the currently playing content through the Chromecast and to your HDTV. You can then continue to control the playback from your handheld device or PC.
Google Play video playback experience
What I did really like about Chromecast, surprisingly, was the video playback quality. Whether the video was coming from a handset, tablet, or web browser, it was rock-solid and in gorgeous HD. This is particularly impressive when you consider that Google does not support HD playback of Google Play Video content in a web browser on Chromebook or PC/Mac. But when you cast that content from those devices, through Chromecast to your HDTV—voila—it's in HD. (And if there's closed captioning, that can be cast as well.)
The other interesting aspect to Chromecast is that it works across multiple devices at the same time. I don't see a huge use for this per se, but I was able to move between Nexus 5, iPhone 5S and Chromebook 11 while a video was playing on the HDTV. The app on each correctly reflected the playing app, offered playback controls, and let me switch to a different TV show or movie.
Google Play Video casting" a movie from the Nexus 5
Put simply, Chromecast is no Roku or Apple TV, but it does serve a purpose and you can't beat the price. If you don't mind a little set up complexity—not beyond the capabilities of anyone who'd read this site, but not something my parents or siblings could handle easily, if at all—and need to access your Google Play content in the living room, the Chromecast can certainly make that happen. I recommend it only for that reason, though I suspect there's a small market for the gadget happy as well.