Chromecast: It’s about time.
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Finally, after weeks of waiting and delayed shipments from Amazon, the lab has a Chromecast. And we have it thanks to Leslie’s pal Ryan Petty, who loaned us one of his – thanks Ryan!
I’ve been putting it through the paces for the past couple weeks, and it’s left me intrigued for future applications (and a bit frustrated with the current limitations).
What it is: Chromecast is a streaming dongle that plugs into the HDMI port of your TV, so that it’s barely visible (much less taking up precious shelf space). It’s similar in form factor to the Roku Streaming Stick, with one big difference: Roku uses MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) to power the device, so it only works with a small subset of newer TVs. But you don’t need to find power for it.
This isn’t true for Chromecast – you need to find power for it. It uses micro USB, which means it plugs in to the USB port on your TV, and then to the included wall adaptor. Then you need to find another hole in the power strip.
So, while MHL devices like Roku’s Streaming Stick have the advantage of being completely cordless, with no powering requirements, Chromecast has the advantage of transforming any TV set with an HDMI port into a connected TV. But it needs power.
How it works: Chromecast receives signals from smartphones and tablets, and from computers using Google’s Chrome browser (with the Chromecast plugin installed). It can mirror any web page or video from the computer’s browser, on the TV screen, and it also works with a few mobile apps to play optimized video. The mobile apps work by sending a URL to Chromecast, which then retrieves the video, rather than streaming directly from the device– making for much better video quality.
The premium video content is limited — just Netflix and YouTube were available initially, and Hulu Plus just joined the crowd yesterday — but HBO Go, Redbox, Vimeo, and others have expressed intent to porting their apps to Chromecast as well.
So assuming those Chromecast-optimized apps arrive soon (and there’s no telling, since the Chromecast SDK isn’t even finalized yet), this device will likely be a real contender for the holiday season.
Chromecast setup involved me going to a URL on my mobile device, which then directed me to install the Chromecast app (on both my iPhone and laptop.) From there, I connected to the Chromecast from the WiFi settings on my iPhone (as if it were a wireless network) and gave it the name and password for our local network. Then, it was just a matter of connecting my phone to the home WiFi network again, and then opening an app on my iPhone (i.e. Netflix) and selecting a piece of content. A new button within Chromecast-compatible apps allows you to select the Chromecast dongle as your output device, so whatever you select from your phone or tablet automatically starts playing on the TV.
Bonus: Chromecast doesn’t tie up whatever device you’re using to control it – so you can start a video from Netflix, and then go back to checking your email and browsing the web on whatever device you’re using. Likewise it won’t keep calls from coming in, though I think it would be nice to see it integrated a bit with the phone features – I’m thinking of Boxee’s remote control app, which automatically paused the video when a call came in. Allowing the viewer to select options like “Do not disturb” or “Pause video when phone rings” at the start of a session might make for a better experience.
The Netflix app worked quite well, with no noticeable lag in picture quality or streaming performance. The quality was a bit diminished when I tested it on my slow (~4 Mbps) connection at the farm, as expected.
I did notice that the Netflix app on my iPhone frequently forgets that it’s connected to a Chromecast, especially if I’m using it in areas of my house where the WiFi signal is weak. Then, I’m unable to control the Chromecast or pause the video, and I have to scramble to mute the volume if a call comes in.
I didn’t notice the same problem with the YouTube app, which was somehow able to maintain a connection with the Chromecast as my phone dropped off and on the WiFi network.
Streaming from my laptop, I quickly learned why it might not be such a big deal that people are able to mirror Hulu’s free web content up to the TV using Chromecast – the audio skipped almost constantly, and the reduced picture quality and large frame around the video made for a truly sub-par experience. Fortunately, Hulu finally released a compatible app yesterday so we won’t have to suffer through it any longer.
Chromecast does a lot for $35, but still lacks content – however, it appears that the content situation might get a lot better. If we get apps like Spotify and Amazon Instant Video down the road, this might be my go-to device. I really like being able to browse on a mobile device, rather than using a remote control to browse on my TV screen. Could it really be that Google TV finally got it right?
Well, maybe. Enter Sony’s Bravia “Smart Stick,” which breathless media reports dubbed a “Chromecast competitor” as soon as the first FCC filing surfaced — not so. For starters, the “Smart Stick” only works with Sony Smart TVs, and it requires MHL – that’s a very small percentage of the market.
The idea is to unite Google TV features with Sony’s Smart TV features, plus cable or satellite service using an HDMI pass-through. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Sony Google TV device without the same overly complicated remote control that shipped with their last device – surely a big part of the $115 price tag.
We’ll stick with the Chromecast, thanks. And wait to see what Comcast and its brethren have up their sleeve….
An Update on Redbox Instant
A few months ago, I reviewed the latest streaming service to hit the lab, Redbox Instant by Verizon. Back then it was still in the beta test phase, and the experience (and lack of content) made that all too clear.
But the beta tests are over, and Redbox Instant launched publicly on June 3rd. So how is it doing now?
Devices and Playback:
Redbox Instant originally worked only on mobile phones, tablets, and computers, with an Xbox 360 app added during the beta phase. In early June, GoogleTV devices (2nd-generation and later; the Intel-based devices don’t work) got a Redbox app too. What’s more, we’re told we’ll have an app on Roku before the summer’s over.
I tried out the GoogleTV app (which doesn’t automatically appear with the latest update — you have to search for it in the Play Store) and I liked the interface well enough, but the app crashed a couple times during playback. Though to its credit, the app did remember where it left off and was able to resume when it crashed.
Of course, with any new app glitches will be discovered and resolved, so this kind of thing is somewhat expected. You may recall that I experienced a few playback issues with the iPad app for Redbox Instant, back when I tested it during the beta phase. Those issues have cleared up and the Redbox app now performs as well as any other video service on my slow connection. We’re expecting the same from the GoogleTV app, and the Roku app when it eventually launches (don’t disappoint us now, Redbox.)
I also found that the resolution was noticably lower on Redbox than when I streamed the same title on the same device through Netflix — while Netflix and Hulu Plus have some titles at 1080p, Redbox and Amazon Prime top off at 720p. This was especially pronounced on my slow DSL connection at the farm, so I think the way each service handles adaptive streaming plays a role as well (in our experience Netflix seems to be particularly good at this.)
Redbox Instant’s web interface
Last time, I complained about the fact that Redbox Instant has very little subscription streaming content, and that most of what’s available isn’t exclusive – so if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, there’s not much on Redbox that’ll be new to you. That’s still largely the case, though we have seen Redbox’s streaming catalog expand to about 8,000 titles since the beta launch (for comparison, Amazon Prime has about 33,000 titles in its unlimited streaming catalog.)
The latest streaming content from Redbox (on Google TV)
The catalog is still movies only, no TV, and it still combines titles that you can see for free with your subscription with those that you have to pay extra and/or drive to a kiosk to pick up. While they offer the flexibility of unlimited streaming and per-transaction titles, and you can do things from the app like reserve titles at a kiosk, it all starts to feel a bit cluttered. There are filters for each content source – kiosk, rental, and subscription – but I occasionally found myself accidentally browsing everything of just the unlimited streaming content. It’s hard enough to choose something to watch, without deciding on a title and then realizing you have to drive to a kiosk or pay extra to watch it.
Browsing titles to rent or buy on Google TV
What’s next for Redbox Instant?
Like virtually every other streaming video service, Redbox Instant plans to create some original content in the future. According to CEO Shawn Strickland, the primary focus will be family-oriented programming, a genre he claims is lacking in other services. (We’re not so sure – Amazon has three new original childrens’ series planned, and just scored a deal with Viacom to pick up a bunch of Nickelodeon programming. Not to mention Netflix’s exclusive deal with Disney.)
But if you listen to Redbox tell it, they don’t want or need to compete with Netflix and the other services – disc rentals are an important part of their plan, as that allows their customers to get new releases from a kiosk before they’re available to stream. Their plan is to focus on disc rentals and then upsell streaming packages to those customers who are already heavy users of Redbox kiosks. So they’re betting that there’s still enough life in physical media to carry them through.
Us, we’re not so sure. But we’ll be watching to see how this all shakes out.