After years of struggling to get traction with Google TV, Google finally found its living-room hit: the remarkably priced $35 Chromecast.
Google's streaming stick has been an instant hit and although it was rather limited at launch, the Chromecast has steadily improved, adding Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Music, Plex, Vevo, and HBO Go since its debut. That's in addition to Netflix, YouTube and Google Movies & TV, making it a basic, but competent streamer -- especially for the price.
However, the recent improvements still don't make the Chromecast my favorite budget streaming-video device. The Roku LT ($50) is just $15 more and offers up hundreds more channels, including prominent services like Amazon Instant, MLB.TV, Rdio, PBS, Vudu, Watch ESPN, and Watch Disney. Roku also has other niceties such as excellent cross-platform search and a true onscreen interface, which some will prefer over the Chromecast's smartphone/tablet-only control. It doesn't have the Chromecast's awesome-sounding screen-mirroring capability, but that feature doesn't work all that well in practice. The Chromecast is sure to catch up, especially with the recent release of the Google Cast Software Development Kit, but at the moment Roku still has the lead.
Still, the Chromecast's success and its now-proven record of continued support make it much more attractive than when it first launched in July. If you're invested in the Google Play marketplace for music and videos, the Chromecast is the best way to get that content on your TV and you can't argue with the price. For everyone else, Roku's line of boxes are still best in class -- especially the Roku 3 -- at least until the Chromecast adds a lot more content options.
Design: A stick for streaming
The Chromecast hardware isn't anything special, but it has a reassuring, solid feel. It's a 2-inch dongle that's compact enough to occupy a spare HDMI input on your TV without blocking adjacent inputs. (If you have a particularly cramped back panel, Google generously includes an HDMI extender cable.) The matte-black finish has enough of a texture to make it easily grippable, perfect for popping out the Chromecast and throwing it in your bag for travel. On the far end are a Micro-USB port, a small status light, and a tiny button you can use to reset the device to its factory default. In all, it's perfectly fine for a device designed to live behind your TV.
The only "catch" is that the Chromecast requires a power source, a fact that's conspicuously missing from Google's beauty shots. If your TV has a USB input, you can probably use that to power your Chromecast using the included cable. Google also includes a USB power adapter for TVs without USB, which means you'll have a wire dangling from the back of your TV to a power outlet. Ultimately, while it's not quite "just a dongle," it's still a very clean setup.
Setup: Up and running in minutes
Google touts the Chromecast setup as "plug-and-play," and that's not far off. Once you have the device plugged in, your TV will prompt you to visit the online setup using a laptop or smartphone, where you'll download the Chromecast setup app. The setup process takes a few minutes, and Google has done a great job of leading you step-by-step through the process with lots of helpful illustrations along the way.
Behind the scenes, the Chromecast is creating its own local hot spot for the initial setup, but those technical details are all hidden. (The most arduous step is that you'll need to have your home Wi-Fi password handy.) If you're on a laptop, the final step is installing the Chromecast extension, then you're ready to go. It's easy to take the painless setup for granted, but Google deserves a lot of credit for getting it right
The apps: Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, HBO Go, and more
Once you're set up, you can use a smartphone or tablet to watch or listen to content from several sources, including Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, HBO Go, Google Music, Vevo, Plex, Hulu Plus, and Google Movies & TV. In each of those apps, you simply press the "Cast" icon and select your Chromecast, and the video gets sent to your TV.
That makes using the Chromecast feel like using AirPlay, although it's different in a few important ways. The big one is that AirPlay is supported by a huge number of iOS apps, while the Chromecast is currently limited to a handful.
The other distinction is that Chromecast pulls everything from the cloud, while AirPlay also works with media stored on your device. It's a frustrating limitation; you feel like you should be able to easily beam your own photos, videos, and music from your smartphone to the Chromecast, but that doesn't work without venturing into third-party solutions.