The Chromecast dongle.
No one has quite figured out figured out Web-connected TV.
There are a bunch of options. Apple TV. Roku. And a bunch of television sets like Samsung's smart TVs that have streaming apps built in. They're all pretty much the same. None of them are perfect.
Google is trying to simplify things a bit. Instead of releasing yet another Web-connected set-top box, it has the Chromecast, a $35 dongle that plugs directly into your TV and sucks in content from your phone, tablet, or PC.
And with a few caveats, the Chromecast is really, really good.
How It Works
The Chromecast is a two-inch long gizmo that's about the same size and shape as a USB thumb drive. It plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port and connects to the Internet using a WiFi connection. From there, everything else is controlled with your computer, smartphone, or tablet. There's no normal remote control.
After a quick setup process using your PC, you'll notice almost no user interface except for a screen that says "Ready to cast." Now you're ready to beam videos from your Android device, iPhone, iPad, or Chrome Web browser on your computer.
From your computer, you can beam whatever is in your Chrome browser to the Chromecast by installing a tiny extension that sits in your browser's toolbar. Just click the extension's button and whatever appears in your Chrome browser will "mirror" to your TV in real time. It works with Web pages, YouTube videos, Google Docs, you name it. Think of it as a wireless HDMI cable between your PC and TV. (Unfortunately, I didn't have the best experience with this. More on that later.)
But the best Chromecast experience comes from your smartphone or tablet, which let you seamlessly beam videos and music from apps to your TV.
The process works a bit differently than Apple's AirPlay. Instead of beaming video directly from your mobile device to your TV, you actually use your phone or tablet to trigger a signal to send the video over the Internet directly to the Chromecast. The advantage to this is you can still do other stuff on your phone or tablet while watching a video on Chromecast.
I had no problem beaming Netflix and YouTube content from my iPhone, the new Moto X, and Google's new Nexus 7 tablet to the Chromecast. HD video looked excellent on my big screen TV, and there was no annoying buffering or lag. On the Android devices, I was able to play music and videos that I've purchased through the Google Play store. It's just easy.
And unlike Apple's AirPlay, you can still use your phone or tablet to do other stuff while watching a video on your Chromecast. AirPlay usually makes you keep the streaming app open on your iPhone or iPad, so you can't do anything else.
With Chromecast, Google created a content sharing system that's more accessible than what Apple pulled off with AirPlay. But it's not all roses and sunshine.
I had a lot of trouble mirroring from my MacBook Air's Chrome browser to the Chromecast. It technically worked, but the experience was so bad for me that I simply gave up after several tries.
Even if I was just beaming a simple Web page, scrolling was very jerky. There was at least a one-second delay from the time I'd scroll through the page on my laptop to when the action would appear on my screen.
Video was much worse. One benefit of Chromecasting from your PC is that you can watch streaming sites like the free version of Hulu. But in my tests, watching Hulu and other embedded videos was a disaster. The audio was out of sync and video kept lagging to the point where the entire experience was unwatchable.
Part of this is probably because I was Chromecasting using an almost three-year-old MacBook Air and an even older router. In fact, the Chromecast browser extension alerted me that my experience was probably going to be bad because I was using outdated hardware. I tried using it with a newer Windows 8 laptop, but it wasn't much better.
If you want to Chromecast from your PC, you need to make sure you have a zippy Internet connection and a computer and router combination that's powerful enough to handle all that data.
Another drawback is the lack of app support on mobile devices. Right now, Chromecast only works with Netflix, YouTube, and music or video you own from the Google Play store for Android. (iPhone and iPad users can only use Netflix or YouTube with Chromecast.)
If Chromecast does take off, you can expect more apps to build in support. But for now Google is stuck with a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Chromecast won't be great without app support, but developers have little incentive to take time and work with the device unless it has plenty of users. Still, Netflix is a solid start, so hopefully its competitors follow suit.
Plus, there's arguably greater potential for Chromecast than Apple's AirPlay since it works with all major platforms. AirPlay only works with Apple devices.
Drawbacks aside, the Chromecast is a no-brainer if you don't already have Apple TV. You're getting much of the same AirPlay-like functionality for $64 less than Apple's device. Just know there's no guarantee that third-party streaming apps will add Chromecast support any time soon.
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