Chromecast isn’t Google’s first crack at the TV screen: Google TV attracted a lot of attention as the Mountain View folk attempted to corner the living room with Sony and LG.
Both manufacturers had their own smart TV systems, direct rivals to their new partner, so no-one was surprised to see Google TV slowly sink out of view.
Today, Google doesn’t need Sony or LG, because Android is the world’s most popular smartphone OS, and ubiquitous broadband for most people has made over-the-top video streaming a reality.
The stillborn Nexus Q was Google’s next attempt to build its own network media player, but it didn’t catch the world’s attention.
Chromecast answers the increasing need for a device that doesn’t replicate your phone or tablet on TV, but lets you put your handheld screen onto a bigger canvas for useful applications.
It isn’t Apple TV, Roku, the Now TV box or one of those terrible Android TV dongles - it’s a tiny dongle that lets you enjoy compatible apps on your TV, and throw Google Chrome tabs onto your big screen.
Did we mention it costs about £21 ($35 in US retail, plus tax)?
We’ve been playing with our Chromecast for a couple of months now, and with the arrival of an expanded app range, it’s time to put the test drive on paper.
Google Chromecast review: out of the box
Chromecast is just 72mm long and 12mm thick, and little wider than an HDMI connector where it has just one of those to connect to your TV, with bulge to 35mm wide at the head.
That’s where a micro-USB power supply plugs in, and if - like us - you’re importing your Chromecast until Google launches it outside North America, you’ll need a power supply which can handle 5.2V or better (most mobile chargers are a flat 5V).
It’s such a shame that the HDMI consortium didn’t put a low-voltage power supply into the spec, but then they are spectacularly disagreeable and short-sighted bunch.
Inside the tiny chassis is a Marvell DE3005-A1 chipset with 512MB of RAM and 2GB of Flash memory - not a great spec but then this isn’t meant to compete with your phone or tablet; it’s there to complement it. It will deliver 1080p video, and supports CEC so your TV remote control can send pause, fast-forward and other playback commands.
There’s also a WiFi chipset, delivering 802.11n compatibility, but only via 2.4GHz, which isn’t the best option for HD video streaming: we had serious buffering problems with Full HD video over a very short-range connection, from a local server connected to our router via Gigabit Ethernet. Dual-band WiFi N with 5GHz might have prevented this.
The box also includes a short HDMI extension cable in case your TV interferes with the WiFi, or it’s just crowded by the HDMI slots (wall-mounted TVs may have this problem).
Google Chromecast review: setting up
The simple set up process can be achieved via a WiFi-enabled laptop, or by downloading the Chromecast app from Google Play or iOS.
That’s right, unlike Apple TV, Chromecast isn’t even Android-exclusive, although the choice of apps varies across platforms.
It uses a trick now common with WiFi-based smart home kit: switch your phone to a WiFi network created by Chromecast, tell it to scan for networks, input your network password and let Chromecast connect.
You can give your Chromecast a name, but there are no more settings to play with, although you can check what software version it’s on, and see its MAC and IP addresses if your network security demands this.
Firewalls might present a problem when ‘casting from PC or Mac, but we didn’t encounter anything tricky.
Google Chromecast review: apps
Chromecast launched with just a few apps: Google Play Music and Movies, Netflix, and YouTube.
Since then, the ecosystem has expanded, with music video service Vevo, Red Bull TV, the Plex personal media server client, on-demand movie and TV service Viki, RealPlayer Cloud, the Avia personal media DLNA client, Revision3 video tech news and reviews, and BeyondPod, a podcast client.
The choice is widest for Android phone or tablet users, and larger for users of the US Google Play, with compatible apps from HBO, Hulu, Pandora, and Plex to name but a few.
Also in development are Chromecast-friendly apps from Aereo, AOL, Devour, Fandor, Simple.TV, Tonido Home Cloud, Twitch.tv and Zattoo, promising a wide range of video content for your big screen.
You can ‘cast from Google’s Chrome browser on any Android 2.3 or higher device, or from Chrome on Windows, Mac or Linux using the Chromecast tab extension.
All make use of the Discovery And Launch (DIAL) protocol developed by YouTube and Netflix. The crucial feature of DIAL is that your device isn’t constantly streaming to Chromecast - it just tells it where to get the content, such as a Netflix movie or home media server.
Google Chromecast review: in action
Apps which can see a Chromecast show the TV logo in their banner bar. You press this, select the Chromecast you want, and whatever you select will play back through your TV.
How that works depends on the app: Chromecast will follow any playlist you set up, and will show images with audio podcasts if they’re available, while Google Play Music shows album cover art (although it’s often very low resolution).
Officially, Chromecast supports video in H.264 High Profile Level 4.1, 4.2 and 5, and VP8, with containers including MP4/CENC, WebM, MPEG-DASH or SmoothStreaming, and audio in HE-AAC, LC-AAC, CELT/Opus, MP3 and Vorbis.
Since the creators of those MKV movie files, which many of us find mysteriously located on our hardware, often use a mixture of formats, in practice you may find that some videos don’t play, or play without sound.
Your device will need to remain switched on if it’s where the content is located, or there are frequent changes (like a playlist) but otherwise you can do other things on your device or even switch it off (although it’s also the controller, so that’s not recommended). We switched devices while watching a Netflix movie without any interruption.
In other situations, if another device accesses the Chromecast while it’s in use, it will throw out the first user without warning. That might need some attention.
‘Casting from your browser isn’t quite as reliable because the formats are even more varied, but we successfully threw the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five from our Mac to the TV. Sky Go gave us pictures but no sound - it relies on Microsoft Silverlight.
We also put some Google Docs on the office TV, which is a lot easier than faffing around with cables and adapters when you’re having a meeting.
Google Chromecast review: Recombu’s verdict
Did we mention it’s £21 plus taxes and postage if you have a friend in the USA, or £60 if you buy a grey import on eBay? Even if it arrives in the UK at £35, it’s a no-brainer accessory for any Android tablet or phone user, or even for iPhone users.
If Chromecast wins the same widespread support from UK developers that it has in the USA - in other words iPlayer and 4oD - then you’d be a fool not to have one.