Google Video Streaming Device: A Bargain at $35?


Google's new Chromecast is an intriguing little device that's been getting a lot of attention lately. It's essentially a set-top box squeezed down to the size of a USB thumb drive that can stream video directly to an HDTV. Chromecast's biggest selling point is its mere $35 cost, a price that seems to have hit the sweet spot with consumers perfectly. The device is sold out at Amazon and Best Buy, and it may be weeks before more are available. This little gizmo is worth the wait, though, and here's why.

Chromecast Features.

Chromecast is a pretty straightforward gadget. Once it's connected to your TV, you can use it to stream videos directly from Netflix, YouTube, or Google's library of TV shows and movies. You can also stream videos indirectly to the TV using a PC or laptop. Whenever you play a video in Google's Chrome web browser, you can send that video to your TV, which means you can watch video from any online source, be it Hulu, Amazon, or a specific network's online video. Chromecast is compatible with Chrome for PCs and Macs; Apple iPhones, iPads, and iPods; and Android phones and tablets. An HDTV is a must and a reasonably fast cable or DSL connection is necessary for streaming video.

Chromecast Operation and Performance.

Setting up Chromecast is a pretty simple process that should only take a few minutes. It plugs into an HDMI port on your TV and is powered up either by plugging into the TV's USB port or into a wall outlet using the included USB power adapter. After you plug in Chromecast for the first time, you'll download and run the setup app on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and Chromecast will establish a wireless connection with your router. You are now good to go.

There is no remote control with Chromecast. Instead, you'll use your laptop, tablet, or phone to run the device. Fire up Netflix or another supported streaming service, start a video, and then click a "cast" button in the video window. Chromecast will begin streaming that video directly from the Internet to the TV, bypassing your device. However, you can still use the device to command Chromecast to pause the video, stop, start, and so on.

You can also use a process called "mirroring" to send video through a computer to a TV, which lets you watch video from sources other than Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play. To mirror a video to Chromecast, open the Chrome browser on your PC, start a video, then click the Chromecast button in the upper right corner of the browser window. Note: You cannot mirror video from a tablet or smartphone, and you'll need a PC/laptop with a little extra oomph (at least a 2GHz processor) to stream in HD, as Engadget out in a Chromecast review.

Several expert and consumer reviewers who have given Chromecast a try generally like it. A Wall Street Journal reviewer recommends Chromecast because it's easy to set up and use and supports so many devices, in contrast with rival Apple TV, which works only with Apple devices. He notes, though, that it can be a little slow to start playing content and the limited number of apps currently available is a disadvantage. A reviewer from CNET gives Chromecast three out of five stars, deeming it a sturdy, well-made device that delivers excellent video quality when streaming directly. On the other hand, he concludes that mirrored video doesn't look quite as good and is prone to freezing or dropping out. The Engadget review is more upbeat about the mirroring feature and says setup is a breeze. Consumer posts at Best Buy mostly rave about Chromecast's user-friendly qualities and ability to run off several devices. A handful, however, report that Chromecast had trouble connecting with their wireless network. Fortunately, that problem seems pretty rare.

Chromecast's Competition.

The biggest knock on Chromecast at the moment is its support for so few streaming services. Competitors such as Apple TV and Roku, as well as smart TVs that include video streaming abilities, offer video from many more services than Chromecast does. That's almost certainly going to change before long, though -- Google has prepared a developer's kit for the device so other video streaming services can create their own Chromecast apps. We're speculating that many popular streaming services, such as Amazon's Instant Video, Hulu, HBOGo, and Pandora will soon work with Chromecast.

On the up side, Chromecast is cheaper than competing devices -- in many cases much cheaper. Apple TV costs $99 and the cheapest version of the Roku box costs $40. Other Roku players cost between $60 and $100.

Who Should Get Chromecast?

At its current price, we think Chromecast is a steal, especially because the device should soon support quite a few more streaming services. Clearly a sizeable group of consumers share the same opinion, as it's currently sold out at the three official retailers (the Google Play store, Amazon, and Best Buy).

If you already have a smart TV, game console, or a streaming set-top box such as Apple TV or Roku, then you don't need Chromecast for your primary screen, although Chromecast would be a good option for a second HDTV in a kitchen or bedroom. If you don't have a device to stream video to your HDTV, it's worth giving Chromecast a try. This device is too cheap and full of promise to pass up.