Google Chromecast review: Gadget Watch

In recent days it’s emerged that Telstra has held preliminary talks with Google about bringing the Chromecast media device to the Australian market.

Meanwhile, Google has recently opened up the ability to write apps for the small media device to app developers.

It has an incredibly low price point, retailing at just $US35 in the US.

So should you go out and get one? It’s time to find out.

What is it and how does it work?

The Chromecast basically resembles a small USB stick, and plugs into the HDMI port of your TV.

The stick contains a small media player that can be controlled from Android smartphones and tablets, as well as from Google Chrome on your PC or Mac.

Once it’s set up, hitting the Cast button in compatible Android apps, including YouTube or Google Movies, will send the selected content to your Chromecast. The Chromecast then loads the selected content over Wi-Fi and plays it back on your TV.

Meanwhile, when you use Google Chrome on your PC, the current tab appears full-screen on your TV.

The device is already compatible with YouTube and Google Movies, as well as third-party apps such as Netflix.

Better still, because the content is played directly through the Chromecast, you are free to use other apps on your smartphone or tablet while your video plays on the Chromecast.

What’s the consensus?

One of the main benefits of owning a Chromecast is that it’s an easy way to get video clips from Google’s streaming video site, YouTube, on your TV. According to GigaOM, while there’s some room for improvement, it’s more than up to the challenge:

The other major use case for Chromecast right now is YouTube, and I streamed my fair share of videos from that site in the last few weeks as well. Overall, streaming worked once again really well, and even more than with Netflix, I quickly found this setup to work much better for my needs than YouTube’s TV app on other connected devices.

I did find a few things that YouTube could do to improve the experience. First, beaming videos to Chromecast from your PC is currently only supported if you are on YouTube.com, and not if the video is embedded in a third-party website. That means that even on Google+, you need to click through to YouTube.com before you can start watching on the big screen.

Also, YouTube’s mobile app currently has a neat feature that allows you to add videos to a queue of things to be played next on TV, something that you can even do with multiple devices at the same time – think YouTube party.

I even played back an entire VOD movie from YouTube.com via Chromecast without any issues – and this was the first time it really made sense to me to pay for a video on YouTube.

According to TechCrunch, the setup process is remarkably easy:

The setup? Surprise! It’s ridiculously easy. Plug it into HDMI, give it some juice (through USB, which most new TVs have, or a standard wallwart), then run the Chromecast app on a laptop to tell it what Wi-Fi network to connect to. Done.

App compatibility? Surprise! It’s already there on day one in some of the most notable online video apps, including Netflix and YouTube. I didn’t even have to update the apps — I just launched ‘em on my phone and the Chromecast button was sitting there waiting for me. They’ve even already built an extension for Chrome that drastically expands the functionality of the device (though, in its beta state, it’s a bit buggy — more on that later).

According to Ars Technica, one of the big advantages of getting a Chromecast is having the ability to easily get a Chrome browser tab from your PC on your TV. With a couple of (Apple related) exceptions, the device just works:

But let’s be honest: you’re not buying a Chromecast for Netflix and YouTube, services that are basically everywhere. (There are probably toasters that run Netflix at this point.) What $35 really buys you is the simplest possible way to send tabs from Chrome to your TV screen, and it works. It works really well, in fact; if you can see it in Chrome, you can get it on your TV, with only a few exceptions.

Netflix and YouTube have dedicated Chromecast buttons, but full-screen Flash video works just fine everywhere else: I tested The Verge’s video player, Vimeo, ESPN, Hulu, and a few others, and hitting the full-screen button blew up the video to fill the entire TV screen. Music services like Pandora, Spotify, and Rdio all worked fine as well. You can also drag files from your desktop into Chrome and they’ll play as well, as long as Chrome supports them natively. (Video in .mp4 format and .mp3 audio files work great.) The only real incompatibility is with Apple’s QuickTime — you’ll see the video on your TV just fine, but the audio will still come out of your computer. That means Apple’s movie trailer site doesn’t work, and .mov files you drag into Chrome won’t either.

Once I had the ability to throw anything in my browser onto a TV with the press of a button, I found myself doing it all the time, for seemingly no reason. Having a button in YouTube that lets you play a video on a TV is particularly great; I use AirPlay in the iOS YouTube app all the time, but search and discovery is still so much better on a laptop that it makes for a whole different experience. Same with The Verge’s video hub — I spent a few hours catching up on everything we made in the past week while writing this review and going through my email, and having control of everything from my laptop was far better than my usual system of having an iPad next to me just for streaming video over AirPlay. It’s kind of like using your TV as a gigantic second monitor.

Should I get one?

If the Australian release price is anything like the $US35 it costs in the US, you really can’t go wrong with one.

Especially if you use YouTube or Google Movies on an Android device, or would like a simple way to view web pages on a TV, Chromecast is an excellent way to get digital content on your TV.

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