It’s probably long overdue but here I am, living with a Chromecast. Some may wonder why it took so long for Popzara to get around to playing around with one, let alone even bothering at all considering its age. When new, this little set-top in a stick garnered some of the warmest reception from media outlets as they hailed it as a real innovation. It was a tribute that seemed like Google’s previous attempts at set-top streamers like the Nexus Q and Google TV platforms were forgiven, but hardly forgotten if you were the former owners who quickly got the half-baked and proverbial shaft.
I could rail into Google all day for their thinly-veiled experiments on consumer and corporate willingness, but I wanted to start with a clean slate and give the Chromecast a fair chance. Maybe they were actually onto an untapped market for viewers ubiquitously tied to their smartphones, or hell, at the very least perhaps a third time would’ve actually been the charm. But these are the conclusions I made after being tied to this media stick for over a month and the highest compliment I can give it is that it’s a unique approach, but still a consistent work-in-progress.
One of the reasons the Chromecast was lauded is due its size, it basically looks like a thumb drive except it has an HDMI connector up front and a micro-USB slot in the back. It’s very straightforward and promises instant media gratification, although it can’t feed off the power of a TV or receiver directly to run itself. I guess Google must have lost the memo regarding MHL compatibility.
Here’s how it works: You’ll also need an Android/iOS-capable smartphone or tablet, popular apps such as Pandora or YouTube, and a TV and/or monitor. Essentially, the method is a WiFi-based form of screen mirroring where any compatible application is projected on the Chromecast-connected display. The basic setup is simple and starts working when a network connection is established, no fuss, and no hassle involved.
All of the functionality is handled by your touchscreen device, and make no mistake, you’ll be doing everything with a smartphone because there’s no remote to speak of. This is the partial genius behind its design as you’re in total command of your media without having to fight anyone for the remote, it’s all about you. The opposite effect is that this doesn’t lend itself to being group-friendly, unless you’re comfortable with everybody else handling your smartphone or investing in a tablet solely for the living room; none of which are ideal options, considering the added expense and inconvenience in lieu of an average clicker.
For actual streaming though, there’s not much to complain about with the right network conditions in tandem. It’s basically screen mirroring in its most direct form, any video through a compatible app will show up in full screen in whatever optimal quality your bandwidth allows. For YouTube, the controls are sparse but functionality is good for rewind/fast-forward, scrolling, and closed-captioning, while the Netflix app is carried over from the mobile version. However if you’re in a busy household or situated at a distance from the WiFi router (My setup is about two rooms or roughly 80ft away) the link can run out of breath with image artifacts and grinds to a halt in buffering cycles.
The worst case scenarios will be apps crashing on you regardless of exterior circumstances, prime examples include Crackle often gets trapped in infinite advertising loops to TubiTV which simply fails the moment you enter the search menu. It’s worth noting this issue isn’t always the Chromecast’s fault as similar app issues have always existed no matter what standalone iOS/Android device you use.
Photo viewing is a bit misleading as at least from my experience doesn’t seem do it natively and needed a separate app or extension to work beforehand. For people who live on Facebook or Twitter this omission probably won’t mean much, but everyone else who still values sharing their albums to dinner guests will have to manually look into Flickr or Picasa integration for a seamless presentation.
All said, I’ve grown to live with the Google Chromecast, and with it I’ve discovered why reviewers loved its general simplicity almost two years ago, even if the moment was fleeting. The appeal is definitely more for undemanding types who just want simple YouTube streaming, or a neat toy for quirky developers or tinkerers. But with it comes performance that’s sometimes at the whim of wireless latency or spotty app reliability, it’s going to be a hit or miss experience if you’re expecting a robust home entertainment foray like the Roku or Apple TV, that along with not having a instant full-on photo album suite.
For less than $35 and actual commitment from Google, I’m more willing to take a chance on their tiny media device. All you need to bring is a touchscreen device of you own with expectations firmly grounded.