July 30, 2013 -- It happens like clockwork. I get home from work, plop down on the couch and check my Twitter and Facebook feeds, ultimately arriving at a funny or interesting video. Instead of watching an enthralling clip of "Jesse and the Rippers" reunite or a kid's motivational speech about learning to ride a bike on my 40-inch HDTV, I watch it on my phone, laptop or tablet's smaller screen.
But the Google Chromecast's main goal is to modify that habit.
Google says the Chromecast is the "easiest way to enjoy online video and music on your TV" by making mobile devices work with your TV in a simple way. Its goal is also to make it the cheapest way of doing that. Did I mention the Chromecast costs only $35? But the big question: can such a low-priced gadget achieve such big aspirations?
How it Works
Don't call the Chromecast a TV set-top box. The little device isn't a box at all. Instead the small -- for lack of a better word -- dongle is the size of a USB flash drive or a ketchup packet. The HDMI port on one end of the Chromecast plugs into the back of a TV and then the other end is plugged into the wall via an AC adapter -- something Google cleverly hid in the photos. Once it is powered on, a set of instructions on how to set up and use the device is displayed on the TV screen.
The Chromecast requires a WiFi connection. It does work using a mobile LTE hotspot, but it affects the quality of video and the speed of the whole experience.
Connecting the Chromecast to my home WiFi network was easy -- all I had to do was visit the Chromecast setup page and follow the steps. However, it didn't work on my office network since it is blocked by a web-based password page -- something to be aware of before you toss the very portable device in your carry-on.
Once the Chromecast is connected to the same WiFi network as your phone, tablet or computer you're ready to start "casting."
The Apps and Chrome Browser
Right now, Chromecast works with only a few apps on your iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet. In the iOS and Android YouTube apps it is as simple as hitting the Chromecast icon in the upper right hand corner of the app and the video you are watching on any of those devices will, within seconds, start playing on the Chromecast-equipped HDTV. You can then use your phone to fast forward, rewind or pause the video. It essentially turns your device into a remote control.
The integration is also built in to Netflix's apps and Google's Video and Music app for Android. However, for now, you're limited to just those mobile applications. There's no HBO Go or Hulu Plus or support for any browser-based or locally stored video you might want to watch from your phone. If you have used an Apple TV or Roku, you know that those competing devices offer much more in terms of app and content selection.
But things are different if you use the Chrome browser on your Mac or Windows PC or even use a Chrome OS laptop, like Google's Chromebook Pixel. When using a Chrome browser you can install the new Chromecast extension and you can send whatever you are watching or looking at in a browser tab to the Chromecast. Think of it like a wireless HDMI cord.
While the extension is in beta for now and can be a bit wonky at times, I was able to successfully watch a video sent to me via Dropbox, clips on ABCNews.com, videos on Hulu.com right and listen to Rdio right on my TV. I even previewed the Chromecast video review, viewable above, on my TV. How is that for meta?
In most cases, the high-definition video streamed very smoothly. Netflix's integration in particular, which supports streaming 1080p content, was very smooth and very responsive to fast forwarding. Watching an episode of "Orange is the New Black" was no different than when I had first watched the episode through my Apple TV a week before.
However, required for that enjoyable experience is a stable WiFi network. Over LTE, video was choppy and getting everything to work was a struggle. Even on WiFi, I encountered some app crashes in YouTube and some distortion using the Chrome extension, though in my five days of testing there were only a handful of hiccups.
There are those early flaws, but Google has nailed the multitasking feature. While the video plays on the big screen, whether it be from your computer, tablet or phone, you can still use your device to do other things. For instance, when you toggle out of the Netflix app on the phone or tablet, you can check an email or use any other app while the video plays.
So, does the Chromecast achieve its mission? The Chromecast is ahead of the competition, notably the $99 Apple TV and the $60 Roku, when it comes to the handoff between the mobile phone, laptop and a tablet and the TV. Apple's Airplay works similarly, but getting things working with the Chromecast is much easier and works across Android, iOS, Windows and Mac devices.
However, the little device cannot compete with those offerings when it comes to content selection. YouTube and Netflix are a good start, but for this to fully replace one of the other solutions, local content and other supported apps options are necessary.
Yet all of that seems forgivable when you consider that the Chromecast costs only $35. That seems like a small price to pay to get me to look at the 40-inch screen I have sitting in front of me rather than the smaller ones in my hand or lap.