Personal Technology by Troy Wolverton: Chromecast might be incomplete, but it’s still pretty cool

Troy Wolverton, Silicon Valley personal technology columnistAugust 27, 2013 

  • GOOGLE CHROMECAST DIGITAL MEDIA ADAPTER

    Likes: Very low price; simple to set up; easy to use; allows users to stream videos unavailable through apps from Chrome browser on a computer.

    Dislikes: Very few compatible mobile apps; lacks ability to play content stored on a PC or mobile device; lacks ability to duplicate what’s on the screen of a PC or mobile device; isn’t compatible with Chrome for mobile devices; Wi-Fi radio only works on 2.4 GHz, which can be congested and cause choppy video.

    Price: $35

    Web: www.google.com/chromecast

Google’s Chromecast is not the first device to allow users to watch Internet videos on big-screen TVs, but it might have the most potential.

The new digital media adapter is cheap, small, simple to configure and easy to use. It’s also flexible enough to work with Android smartphones and tablets, Apple’s iPhones, iPads and Macs, and Windows PCs.

But it can’t do things that many of its rivals can, such as allow you to watch on your TV pictures or movies that are stored on your phone or computer.

In short, it feels like a great beta product. It has a lot of potential and a low, low price, but it’s not yet fully developed.

Launched by Google in July, Chromecast costs just $35, making it one of the least expensive digital media adapters available. It’s also one of the smallest; it’s about the size and shape of a USB flash drive, which allows it to plug in discreetly behind your TV.

Unlike rival devices, Chromecast doesn’t have a user interface of its own, or run any apps itself, or link to any Internet channels. Instead, everything you watch on it has to be sent to it from either the Chrome browser on your computer or from an app on your smartphone or tablet.

When you “send” a video from your smartphone to Chromecast, the video is actually streamed directly from the Internet to the digital media adapter, rather than getting relayed from your phone.

By going the direct route, Chromecast avoids draining your mobile devices’ batteries and allows you to watch other videos on your smartphones or tablets without interrupting the one on the TV.

I found Chromecast easy to set up. You plug it into an HDMI port and then power it up by connecting it to a USB port on your TV — if you’ve got one — or to a power outlet.

You then connect it to Wi-Fi using the Chrome browser on your computer, which, once you download a plug-in for Chrome, automatically detects the device.

That’s a lot easier than the process on rival devices, which typically force you to type in Wi-Fi passwords and account information using a remote control to navigate an on-screen keyboard.

Once you’ve installed the plug-in, you’ll see in the upper-right corner of Chrome a button that allows you to “cast” whole browser windows or Web videos to your TV. That same button shows up in compatible apps on iPhones, iPads and Android devices. If you tap the button while watching a movie in the Netflix app, the app will send that video to your TV.

The process isn’t instantaneous, but it’s simple and works fairly quickly. Even though the mobile apps don’t actually stream videos to Chromecast, they can still control them.

Buttons and progress bars in the app allow you to pause, restart, fast-forward and rewind videos or songs.

One cool thing about the way Chromecast works is that you can jump from one device to another to control it. You can start a Netflix video on your Galaxy S4 smartphone and then pause or rewind it on your iPad.

Unfortunately, Chromecast is limited by having few compatible apps or services. On mobile devices, Chromecast is compatible only with Netflix, YouTube and Google’s movies and music apps. And on computers, it works only with the Chrome browser.

Because of those limitations, there’s no way to use Chromecast to enjoy content stored on your computer or mobile device.

You can’t use it to watch the home movie that’s saved to your PC or view the pictures you just took on your smartphone.

Nor can you use it to listen to the songs you’ve stored on your PC. And you can forget about using it to watch anything you’ve bought from Apple’s iTunes.

Unlike Apple TV, Chromecast can’t beam to your TV what’s displayed on other nearby devices.

So you can’t use it to play mobile games on your TV or to display a PowerPoint presentation you’ve stored on your laptop.

While Hulu, Pandora, Spotify and other popular entertainment apps aren’t yet compatible with Chromecast, you can use the device to access some of those services by pulling them up on Chrome on your computer (but not your tablet or smartphone) and beaming them.

But beaming from a computer isn’t an ideal experience.

A slow computer or a poor connection between it and Chromecast can result in choppy video.

And if your computer is located in a room other than the one that has your TV, you might find yourself wandering back and forth to queue up videos. Even if you have a laptop in the same room, a computer makes an unwieldy remote control.

Many of these shortcomings are so obvious that they’re likely on some Google engineer’s checklist for the next version of Chromecast, and they are what give the device its “beta” feel.

I wish Chromecast were a more complete product now, but with its low price, simple set up and ease of use, it’s still pretty compelling.

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twolverton@mercurynews.com, @troywolv

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