Google did a few things brilliantly in the new Chromecast streaming media device. First, its low $35 pricing means some slice of consumers (the geekier ones) will forgive its many trespasses and try it. This does not make the two-screen wizardry any more accessible to the great majority who do not yearn to tinker around with their TV gadgetry. But it does make the device a no-brainer impulse buy, especially if they don’t have existing means to get Web video to the TV, particularly their Netflix account.
Which makes me wonder why Google isn’t emphasizing the Google Play compatibility with Chromecast over YouTube. Google Play is among the undiscovered gems in the Google portfolio, in that it carries a good share of the same on-demand fee-based content as iTunes and Amazon. The combination of Chromecast and Google Play gives on-demand movie and TV rentals to the many millions who do not have those accounts or OTT devices that carry them. As much fun as it is to throw the YouTube video you found today onto the TV screen for all to enjoy -- and that is no small thing, by the way -- Google Play is what makes this a digital entertainment hub out of the device’s diminutive box.
On a technical basis, so far I have found Chromecast to be superior to Apple’s AirPlay in performance. Throwing material from my iPad to Apple TV has always brought with it performance headaches. There is inevitable stuttering and buffering going on, at least on my network, even though all the iOS devices are using the higher-end 802.11A/N band to connect. The YouTube, Google Play and Netflix videos I threw from iPhone, Android Nexus 7 tablet and the Mac laptop were snappy and fluid. Initial buffering was always present in some measure, but the stream held true and in high resolution throughout.
Also brilliant is the ability to build a TV queue in YouTube. Once a video is already running from device to TV, your device is free to roam for more videos -- and now has the option to add them to the list. You can even delete some from a queue list visible on the device. I have not succeeded in using multiple devices to create collaborative lists, but that would seem to be a cool next step.
While Netflix, YouTube and Google Play all optimize video sent through Chromecast for the optimal experience. I found that the surprise feature of Chromecast is the Chrome browser itself. Among the many ways of viewing Web pages on a TV I have used in the past decade, this is by far the best. First, it fills the screen in the correct aspect ratio. Second, the Chrome browser works with the Chromecast device to eliminate the menu and window structure of your laptop screen. It is a true screen-filling experience. The rub for now is that it works only via a Chrome plug in from a laptop. The great next step would be tablet support. Throwing Web pages onto the screen that people are finding on their devices around a TV could be an interesting experience.
But the real payoff for this great Chrome support is that video that is not compatible with Chromecast yet still can be played. We tried CNN news videos at full screen from laptop to Chromecast, with very good results. No doubt many people will try to get the rich and free Hulu experience onto their TV from a laptop. That worked too, but the resolutions we found were notably inferior. Likewise, when we tried to run video from our Amazon Instant Video account from laptop to TV, the results were merely tolerable.
As Apple Insider pointed out the other day, technologically, the Chromecast seems to be Google TV technology without the Android components. They read this as a sign that Google is moving away from Android as its cross-platform technology and toward the Chrome technology and branding. The impact for the consumer is that it frees Google from its own mobile ecosystem and allows a device like Chromecast support all mobile and PC OSes. This of course is another of the brilliant pieces to the Chromecast model. Much of what we were doing in our ad hoc living room tests this weekend was coming from iOS and Mac devices.
The implications for mobile
devices are also profound. Google is intending the control and the technology and innovation to happen on the devices, not the streaming media box itself. In fact, Chromecast itself is quite
deliberately stupid. It basically looks like a screensaver most of the time. There is no interface here. All control is offloaded to the individual apps. Rather than struggle yet again to reinvent TV
with a costly OTT platform, Google is inviting developers simply to tweak and reimagine the stuff they are already creating for a two-screen experience. Google is inviting the development community to
innovate a two-screen experience rather than have to rethink their apps as TV channels, although that is one possibility here.
Just with the technology of queuing already in place and the easy background activity possible while the stream is playing on the TV, one can imagine any app becoming both a personalized TV station and a second-screen experience all in one. Despite Apple AirPlay’s much wider third-party support, Chromecast has impressive versatility, performance and device-agnostic support that make it a real contender.