Google's taking another stab at the living room.
Today Google introduced the Chromecast, a sticklike device that connects to one of your TV's HDMI inputs and accepts video wirelessly pushed from smartphones, tablets, and the Chrome browser. It's available for just $35 starting today from the Google Play store in the U.S., with availability in other countries to follow. Google is also offering three months of free Netflix to Chromecast buyers and even existing Netflix subscribers will be able to take advantage of the promotion.
The compact 2-inch device will work with Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, and Google Play Music at launch, with support for future services, including Pandora, coming soon. It's a cross-platform device, with support for both Android and iOS devices as well as the Chrome browser on both Windows and Mac computers. More details are currently available on Google's Chrome blog.
In approach the Chromecast is different from most devices on the market: it's half remote, half streaming-media box. The idea is instead of designing a TV-optimized user interface, you'll be able to select and control content from your smartphone or tablet. Browse the Netflix app, find your content, then tell it to play in your living room. The Chromecast even goes one step further, by automatically switching your TV to the correct input and giving you the ability to adjust the volume using your mobile device's built-in volume controls. The ability for Android devices to pause content without unlocking the phone first seemed particularly well-implemented.
You'll also be able to juggle control between multiple mobile devices, with the Chromecast syncing between connected devices. You can start playing Netflix from your tablet, then later use a smartphone to fast-forward. Using the YouTube app, you can also create a shared queue of content, stringing together several short Web videos for an extended viewing session. All in all, Google's demos looked particularly slick.
Chromecast also includes screen-mirroring capabilities, although it's a beta feature initially. Essentially, anything that's on your Chrome browser can be broadcast to your TV, including music, photos, and, yes, even video. Google showed a demo of the feature using Vimeo, but it could conceivably also allow you to stream content from network TV sites and Hulu -- the same sources that havefrom streaming content to a TV previously. The screen-mirroring strategy has proven resistant to attempts to block devices, as continues to work with Hulu and major networks.
As sleek as the Chromecast device looks, Google's initial presentation skimmed over some of the rougher edges. The specs in the Google Play store list both a USB power cable and a power adapter, which indicate that the Chromecast will have some wires hanging from it -- it's not truly "just a stick." It's theused to power its similar HDMI-based streaming stick.
Internally, the hardware supports 2.4GHz Wi-Fi 802.11, which isn't quite as nice as the dual-band Wi-Fi offered on. The internal processor is capable of playing back full 1080p video with 5.1 surround sound.
CNET editor Jessica Dolcourt was able to snag some hands-on time with a Chromecast right after the event and sent me her thoughts.
The Chromecast dongle itself is wrought of light black plastic, with a rounded head on one end and a USB connector port on the other. Its thick top isn't slim, sleek, or beautiful. Instead, Google has adopted a more robust design to make it eminently grippable and easy to pull in and out of your TV.
There's not much to the physical dongle; the system owes its real magic to software. In practice, nothing could be easier than launching a video or music on Chromecast. All it takes, truly, is tapping the Cast icon in the top right of an app, and then confirming which device you want it to play on -- the TV in your living room, the current device, and so on.
It worked again and again using Netflix, Google Music, Google Movies, and YouTube.
That last bit is the biggest limitation I can see from the initial announcement -- the Chromecast only supports four apps at launch. That puts it well behind established players like Roku and Apple TV, and limited functionality was one of the major knocks against the ill-fated Nexus Q.
However, the big difference is the Chromecast's ultralow $35 price. It's a lot easier to accept those limitations on a $35 device and the low price should also help spread adoption, which in turn should encourage services to include Chromecast at a faster rate.
This is a developing story, so stay tuned for further details as we get them.