One-third the price of Apple TV and one-third as useful
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When Google comes out with a new service, it typically labels it "beta." Gmail, Google News, Google Music—all were listed as beta products until most of their kinks were worked out.
Google's new HDMI streaming stick, Chromecast (MSRP $35), has no beta tag—this is the finished product. Does that mean it works? Yes—quite well, actually. But is it worth your hard-earned cash? That really depends on your love of Netflix and Google's movie store.
The diminutive Chromecast plugs right into an HDMI port. Simple, right? Well, keep in mind you have to power the thing, too, so go ahead and plug the included adapter into an outlet or USB port. Oh, and don't forget the HDMI extender, to get the best WiFi reception. All said and done, the Chromecast's final form isn't nearly as cute as it looks on the box.
Once you're plugged in, it's time to sync the Chromecast with a smartphone/tablet/laptop. Since there is no bundled controller with Google's streaming stick, you need to control it using one of the aforementioned devices. With an Android phone, this is pretty simple: Just download the Chromecast app, connect to a WiFi network, wait for the devices to sync, and voilà—you're done. The iPhone doesn't support the Chromecast app yet—though it's apparently coming soon—so iOS users will have to do everything within the browser. While not as smooth a setup process as using the dedicated app, it's still relatively painless.
If you opt to use a laptop, there is an app to download. It works, but not without a few WiFi-related hiccups. After retrying a couple times, my Chromecast finally connected to the network, completing the setup process.
While simple for tech enthusiasts, this isn't something I'd want my mother using. There is no home interface—you find your content using a separate device, and then have it stream to your TV via the Chromecast. This is essentially Google's version of Apple's AirPlay, which streams content from iTunes to an Apple TV. It's definitely a great feature, but people who are less tech-savvy will be turned off by this approach.
Now that your Chromecast is connected, you'll have access to Netflix, YouTube, the Google Play Store, the Chrome web browser, and... well, that's it, actually.
If Netflix is your primary content provider, then you're going to love the Chromecast—all you need is the official app on your Android or iOS device. Once you load up Netflix, there is a Chromecast button on the top-right, which looks like a rectangle. Press it, and select the Chromecast that you wish to use; if you have more than one, this feature is helpful. Next, select a movie—it'll magically start playing on your TV.
This is basically how YouTube and Google Play work: find content, press the "cast" button, and sit back in awe as videos appear on your TV. There are some differences between using a smartphone/tablet and a computer, though.
The first big difference is Netflix: It doesn't work on a Mac or PC the way it does on Android or iOS. In fact, Netflix is only supported on Android and iOS—there is no way to natively stream it to your TV by using a computer... unless you use Google's Chrome browser.
That brings us to the second big difference between mobile and computer: Chrome on a Mac or PC is supported by Chromecast, but the mobile version is not. There is a Chrome extension—a small program that gives your browser added functionality—that you can download on your computer. This extension allows Chrome to stream whatever tab you're viewing to the TV with the Chromecast plugged in. That means you can essentially load up HBO GO's website on your computer with Chrome, then stream it to your TV. Pretty useful, right?
Chrome's ability to stream content does indeed work, but there are some issues that you must deal with. Videos don't look nearly as good as they do on apps that have native support for Chromecast. Also, you'll have to deal with your laptop or computer mirroring said content—a minor inconvenience, but you shouldn't be paying for any sort of annoyance. Interestingly, the ability to stream via Chrome is listed as "beta," which certainly doesn't excuse its performance—especially since you paid for this device. Don't get me wrong: This is a powerful feature, but plenty of users won't be happy with inferior quality video streams from the likes of HBO GO, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video.
When using supported apps, Google's Chromecast works almost flawlessly. But that's also its biggest weakness: There are only four apps that are supported right now, and one of them is in beta.
Netflix is the biggest advantage Chromecast has: If you have a smartphone or tablet, getting content to your TV is a breeze. Then there is Google's proprietary store, which has a fair selection of movies and TV shows. Streaming this content via your smartphone or tablet also works well, and looks great on your TV. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much for iOS users who have invested in music, movies, and TV shows on iTunes: You won't be able to stream that content with Chromecast. Google's little streaming stick clearly favors the Android experience.
If Netflix and Google Play are your primary sources for content, the Chromecast is a great deal at $35. If you enjoy other services like HBO GO, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, though, Google's streaming stick isn't for you. And finally, if you actually enjoy having a home interface for all your apps, the Chromecast definitely isn't for you—spend the extra $65 and get yourself an Apple TV, Roku, or Google TV box.