What Chromecast needs to go from good to great

Google's new streaming dongle is a hit, but it needs a few key upgrades to be a great gadget.

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Google has an instant hit with its $35 Chromecast , apparently selling more than 250,000 units almost immediately. It's been so unexpectedly popular, in fact, that the company had to discontinue its initial three-month Netflix promotion .

Of course, most of those purchases were made in the minutes following the initial announcement -- and before anyone had his hands on the new gadget. My experience with the Chromecast ( read the full review ) didn't fully live up to the hype, with mediocre screen-mirroring performance and dedicated streaming being limited to Netflix, YouTube, Google Music, and Google TV & Movies. It's not a bad device by any stretch -- especially when you consider the price -- but it could get a lot better with some key improvements.

Here's what Google can do to make the Chromecast an even worthier living-room contender:

More app support

The most glaring limitation at launch is the limited app support. Right now the Chromecast can stream directly from Netflix and YouTube using both iOS and Android devices, with Android users also getting support for Google Music and Google TV & Movies. That leaves out quite a few high-profile services that are on competing devices, such as Amazon Instant, HBO Go, MLB.TV, PBS, Spotify, and Rdio. (Google has already pledged to add support for Pandora.) Yes, you can get many of these services working via screen mirroring, but dedicated apps are vastly superior in just about every way, especially image quality.

Roku 3 new user interface
Netflix and YouTube are nice, but Roku's boxes support many more streaming services. Roku

Support for just a few more apps would add a lot more value to the Chromecast, especially since Netflix and YouTube are already so widely supported on other devices. Given the massive initial buzz (that even Google seemed unprepared for), I wouldn't be surprised if we saw app support come quickly -- there are already rumors that HBO Go could be on the way. And since "support" is more about cutting the deals and adding a Chromecast toggle to existing iOS and Android apps -- rather than making changes to the Chromecast itself -- we could see a flurry of updates soon.

True phone-to-TV streaming

The Chromecast is great at pulling content from the cloud via supported apps, but it's a little surprising that you can't stream music, photos, and videos stored on your mobile device. With so many people using their smartphone as their main camera -- and video camera -- it seems only natural that the Chromecast should let you display your media on the biggest display in your home.

Roku's mobile app
Roku's mobile app lets you push photos and music stored on your phone to your TV. Roku

This shouldn't be an impossible feature for Google to implement. Apple's AirPlay already delivers easy photo, music, and even video streaming to the Apple TV from iPhones and iPads, and Roku's smartphone app (on iOS and Android) lets you stream music and photos stored on your phone right to the Roku. Google's service doesn't need to be quite as seamless as AirPlay, but a basic way to play content stored on your phone would be a big plus.

Better screen mirroring

Screen mirroring can seem like the solution to all your "Internet video on your TV" problems, but in practice I've always found it sort of clunky. It requires a very robust home wireless network, otherwise you'll end up with dropouts and glitches. And even if your network is up to the task, the transcoding process makes image quality suffer and your laptop's fan kick into high gear. The truth is, even though I was impressed with the Apple TV's mirroring capabilities , which I found more stable than the Chromecast's, I've rarely found myself wanting that feature in my everyday life. (I use the Roku 3 as my home streaming box.)

Google Chromecast
Sarah Tew/CNET

But I recognize that screen mirroring is the feature that makes a lot of people excited about the Chromecast, so Google needs to work out the early issues I found in my review. Screen-mirroring functionality was advertised as a beta feature, so it's understandable that it isn't entirely polished out of the gate. I have my doubts as to whether screen mirroring will ever truly look comparable to dedicated streaming apps, but if Google can nail this, it could be a killer feature that would keep people excited about the Chromecast after the initial buzz wears off.

Make iOS support even better

One of the best parts about the Chromecast is that it works with both Android and iOS devices, but iOS support could still be improved. Google Music remains unsupported on the Chromecast for iOS devices, which could presumably be fixed if Google releases its long-promised iOS app . I'm less confident that Google TV & Movies will ever make it into the Apple ecosystem, although it's not out of the question since other video stores, like Amazon Instant and Vudu, are available. Finally, Google can add support for setting up the Chromecast with iOS devices, which isn't currently possible, but Google says it is coming soon.

An MHL-compatible Chromecast

When Google announced the Chromecast, the company rolled out photo after photo of the device connected to a TV with no additional cables. Of course, the reality is that the dongle needs power, either via a USB port on your TV or using the supplied power adapter. I don't think the extra wire is that big of a deal -- it's all hidden behind your TV -- but Google could offer a version of the Chromecast that supports MHL, a newer HDMI-like port that provides enough power to run the Chromecast.

Google Chromecast
Sarah Tew/CNET

It's smart that Google didn't make the Chromecast MHL-only, as that strategy has hampered Roku's otherwise excellent Streaming Stick . But now that many new TVs and AV receivers are including an MHL port, the option to buy a truly wireless Chromecast would be nice.

 

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