Lost amid the huge list in my most recent What I Use article is a product I'm surprised no one commented on: Google's Chromecast. Like Chromebook, Chromecast was something that launched in a fairly half-assed state. But it's improved over time, and while I still think more expensive competing solutions like Roku 3 are better living room solutions overall, Chromecast earns a spot on the list for one very important reason: It's the only inexpensive living room device that works with Google's ever-improving Play services.
Don't get me wrong, I don't use Chromecast regularly. But I do have a couple of recent Android-based smart phones—the Google Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S5, both of which are excellent—and a great Nexus 7 mini-tablet, and I'm a lot more immersed in the Google stuff now than has been the case in a while. (I'm still waiting on a Nexus 10 replacement, but may need to think about a full-sized third party Android tablet if that doesn't happen soon.)
Point being, in order to fully understand how Google's offerings compare with similar media ecosystems from Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, I use all this stuff from time to time, keep up with all the updates, and move regularly back and forth between the environments.
I've been basically down on Chromecast since the device was announced last summer. In Cheap vs. Good Value, for example, I explained that Chromecast is no replacement for a Roku 3 or Apple TV—both of which are inexpensive and good values—requiring you instead to first own an Android-based tablet or smart phone so you can "cast" (i.e. "stream") content from that device to your TV. And since there's no remote, you need to keep waking up that device to control on-screen media playback. In my Google Chromecast Review, however, I noted that Chromecast was the only inexpensive way to get Google Play Music- or Play Video-based content on your HDTV. So it does serve that niche.
Today, Google is celebrating the one year anniversary of Chromecast. The company declined to provide sales figures for the device, though it mentioned vaguely that "people have hit the cast button [in mobile apps and Chrome tabs] more than 400 million times" in this time period, "casting" cloud-based content to their HDTVs. What I can tell you is two things. First, Chromecast has improved a lot over the past year, adding features like Android mirroring and Chrome browser tab casting, plus support for lots of new media services. And second, the overall value proposition hasn't changed: If you are a heavy consumer of Google Play services, you need this device, but if you're just looking for a way to access Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, or whatever, go with Roku 3, Apple TV, or any other solution that includes a dedicated remote control. You'll be happy you did.
Chromecast has a few things going for it, of course. The price, at $35, is hard to beat, though to be clear you need an Android device as well, and there's no way to use a dedicated remote with Chromecast. If you can hide it away behind your HDTV, and use a USB port on the TV to power Chromecast, you can't beat the minimal impact it has on your living room aesthetics. Mine is hidden away behind the TV nicely, so nicely it's hard to even take a picture of it.
The services picture has improved immensely, as has app support, both in Android and in iOS on the mobile side, and in the Chrome web browser and thus Chrome OS/Chromebook. You can now mirror the display of your Android device—usually not too useful from a phone—or "cast" a tab from Chrome, which is slow. But it does all work.
And Google promises more updates in the months ahead, including the ability to allow others to cast to your TV without needing to be on the same Wi-Fi network and a customizable home screen with personal photos or beautiful art. (You currently need a separate mobile app to do this.)
On the bad news side, I would like to again just reiterate the need for a standalone remote control. If you're watching a movie or whatever and the phone rings, or some other interruption happens, you'll want to pause the on-screen action. But chances are the phone or tablet (or, less likely, Chromebook) you used to "cast" that content to the screen has gone to sleep. So you'll need to wake it up and punch in your PIN before you can do that. It's tedious. Not a deal-breaker. But any device with a remote—again, Roku 3, Apple TV, basically everything else—is simpler. (Even simpler? An Xbox One, where you can just say, "Xbox, pause". But Xbox One is very expensive.)
Anyway. I won't mock you for using Chromecast. Heck, I use one too. Sort of.
Also, if you're a Chromecast user but not a Google Play Music All Access subscriber (All Access being Google's version of Xbox Music Pass), Google is now offering a 90-day free trial of that service. So head over to the Chromecast Offers site to take advantage of that. (You have to use Chrome.)