Google's Chromecast, a little USB-stick-sized device, streams Netflix, YouTube and other sites to your TV. (But wait a second, aren't Netflix and YouTube also websites? Yes, but there's a technical distinction we'll get to in a minute.)
Chromecast doesn't do much. But what it does do, it does so consistently well, and so cheaply, that it's quickly became a primary part of my media-watching routine.
Also, Chromecast is fast, unbelievably easy to set up, and pretty much foolproof to use. And it's £30, which makes it one of the best values in tech, ever. Combine all that and it's irresistible.
In the five days I've had it, Chromecast has become my go-to way for streaming shows to my TV. It's expected to hit shops in the UK before Christmas.
It's not that I lacked for ways to stream videos already–my TV, DVD player and Xbox all have Netflix and YouTube apps, and they're pretty easy to use. But Chromecast is simpler, faster and more intuitive than any of those. Other methods usually require four or five steps to set up streaming. First, you've got to turn on the TV, choose the right input, turn on the ancillary device, load up an app, find a show, and then press play. It takes a minute or two, and if your set-top box is really slow, maybe a lot more.
Chromecast eliminates a couple of those steps, and it makes others much faster. In this way, Chromecast is similar to other small digital set-top boxes, especially the Roku (from £49.99) and the £99 Apple TV (though there are some important differences I'll get to below). With Chromecast, you turn on the TV. Then you load up Netflix (or YouTube or Chrome) on any other machine that's handy– it could be a PC, a phone, or a tablet, or whatever you have lying around. It's much faster to navigate and type on those devices than on your set-top box, so you'll find your show much more quickly. Then press play. On many TVs, you won't even need to change your TV's input –Chromecast will do that for you. (Depending on how you set up Chromecast – that is, if you plug its power cord into an external AC adapter rather than into your TV's USB slot – you might not even need to turn on your TV at all; Chromecast might be able to do that for you, too.) So, anyway, once you find your show, press play. Like black magic, your video just shows up on your TV.
Does this sound complicated? It's not. Once you have it set up, Chromecast becomes a natural extension of all of the devices in your house. When you're watching something on pretty much any machine, you'll be able to shuttle it over to your TV instantly without giving it a second thought. That's a great deal for only £30.
Now, let me briefly mention a subtle but important technical limitation regarding how Chromecast works. The device streams videos in two ways – either directly over the internet from a service like Netflix, or from the Chrome browser on your own computer. The first of these methods is the better one – because the video is coming directly from Netflix, your phone or PC is acting only as the remote, and you can turn it off after you've started watching the video. The downside is that, at the moment, only YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play support this direct streaming method.
Chromecast also lets you stream anything that you have open in a Chrome tab to your TV. Technically, this means you can play any web video service on Chromecas, or even a Bittorrent-ed video that you drag into Chrome. All you do is play the video on your laptop in Chrome, then press the button to stream to your Chromecast. But this method – streaming from a Chrome tab – is kind of a hack. Because the videos you play this way come directly from your computer to your Chromecast, they require that your machine be on and they tend to be of lower quality than the ones you stream from a service such as Netflix.
I can already hear Apple partisans hissing at me for failing to mention the greater charms of that company's set-top box, the Apple TV. And they're right – in some ways, Chromecast isn't as good as Apple TV. Apple TV plays videos from many more services than you'll find on Chromecast. Apple TV also allows for "mirroring" from Apple devices, meaning you can send anything on your iPad over to your TV. Chromecast, meanwhile, only lets you mirror Chrome tabs – and only from a PC, not from your mobile device. So if you've got a bunch of photos in Picasa on your Mac, you won't be able to stream a slideshow to Chromecast, as you can using Apple TV. But if your photos are in Flickr – ie, on the web – you will be able to watch them on Chromecast (as well as Apple TV).
But Apple TV has its disadvantages, too. First, it only works with Apple's mobile devices. If your household has multiple machines running different operating systems – if you've got an Android phone and Apple tablet – then Apple TV may not be right for you. Also, Apple TV is £99. You'll be able to get three Chromecasts for the price of one Apple TV. If you've got several TVs in your house, Chromecast is obviously a better choice.
Plus, some of Chromecast's limitations are temporary. Google has released an API for the device – a way for developers to get their services to directly stream to the device – and several firms will reportedly begin adopting it. I suspect that soon, most of the services that work on Apple TV and Xbox will work on Chromecast, too. (One of the really surprising things about Netflix and YouTube's support for Chromecast was that I didn't have to update their apps on my phone to get it – the Chromecast button just showed up in the apps on every device. Watch for that to happen with every other video service you use.)
In some ways, though, the most important thing about Chromecast isn't what it does. It's what it costs. By setting a profit-free low price on Chromecast, Google is signaling that it's not looking to make a lot of money on the device. Instead, it's aiming for ubiquity. And ubiquity, in and of itself, will improve Chromecast. I don't have any inside info, but if I were to venture a guess, I think Google's ideal scenario for Chromecast goes something like this: 1) A lot of people buy the device. 2) A lot of media companies start supporting the device. 3) The dongle disappears – given the device's popularity and low price, TV companies start building the Chromecast protocol into their TVs. In other words, Chromecast becomes the quasi-standard way of streaming and every TV becomes a Google TV.
Out of these three steps, Apple, Microsoft and Roku have already achieved the first two. But none of them can get to Step 3, because all of their business models depend on selling devices for a profit. Google's does not. Google is instead interested in capturing the ecosystem – once every TV is a Google TV, the company will figure out how to make money from that, somehow.
Will that happen? I think there's a good chance. For now, though, enjoy Google's largesse. Get a Chromecast. It's cheap. You'll love it.