Update: Chromecast has finally hung up its hat. Google has manufactured a new Chromecast, and it's faster, smarter and more integrated than the original. Here's our review of the Chromecast 2.
Original review below...
Streaming media around your home isn't a new idea, but the rise of internet-based on-demand services like Stan, ABC iView and Foxtel's Presto means that it's becoming more and more popular as a way to watch TV.
Chromecast is an inexpensive media streaming adapter that turns any HDMI-equipped television into an app-driven smart TV when paired with a phone, tablet or computer.
The total package is Google's answer to the likes of Apple TV – devices designed to take your digital content and get it up on your big screen without fuss or fiddle.
It's a very simple setup that Google's offering: the Chromecast is a small HDMI dongle that plugs directly into your TV, and connects to your Wi-Fi network.
From there, you choose what to watch on another device and then Chromecast streams that content directly and displays it on your TV. But that means unlike the competition, it has no real interface of its own. It just sits and waits for your other devices to tell it what to stream.
On its launch in the middle of last year in the US, the Chromecast wowed with its cheap price, and it's similarly affordable in Australia: just $49 - just under half of the Apple TV's RRP. That's awesome, and you can get it for a bit cheaper too if you shop around.
On launch, the services that tied in with Chromecast were limited and very much a work in progress. But 18 months on, the list of compatible apps is decent, and continuing to grow.
In the US, the Chromecast app list is includes Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Pandora and HBO Go - most of the big hitters.
In Australia, many of the big hitting streaming apps are now available: Netflix, Presto, Stan, Quickflix, are all featured apps, as is Ezyflix.TV and ABC iView on both iOS and Android.
Then of course there's Google's YouTube app and Google Play Movies and Music.
There are a few gaps still to fill. The regular catch up TV services, like TenPlay and Yahoo!7 Plus!7 are still behind, but there's enough supported apps to make the Chromecast legitimately useful for Australians.
Things are slightly more useful on the music front, with Pandora, Deezer and Google Play Music apps supporting the service down under. There's no Spotify or Rdio yet though, which could be a dealbreaker for some users.
The key addition here would be Spotify, but there's a wide range of services that could become available. The truth is that the 'casting' method of getting video onto your TV is simply not very compatible with music.
We're sure that this will change (Google can be very persuasive…), but there are major limitations on built-in support at the moment.
Google's Chrome browser on Mac or PC lets you mirror a browser tab to your TV, meaning that you can theoretically send any of these services to your TV that way, but there are issues with this.
If you stream video via the compatible apps, the content is streamed directly from the internet to Chromecast without travelling via your phone or tablet.
But if you mirror a browser tab, you're effectively streaming video to your computer from the internet via your router, then streaming it back to your router and then streaming it out once more to your TV, resulting in heavy network traffic.
If your network is flaky, this will result in choppy performance. We tested on a variety of networks and found results were variable but a clear network should be able to handle it. Browser streaming options are Extreme (720 high bitrate), High (720p) and Standard (480p).
Using Chromecast, though, it's clear that it's designed for use with portable devices in mind. You won't find a Chromecast remote in the box or a main menu tying all of the apps together like on an Apple TV or Roku 3.
All streams originate from a special "Cast" button that's built into each compatible mobile app - your device is the remote.
Currently, Windows Phone 8 users, who don't have many options among app-filled streaming technology, are totally out in the cold for Chromecast support, with only third party YouTube app TubeCast being compatible. So Chromecast is only really suited to those with Android and iOS devices.
Despite these limitations from the big names, Chromecast has extra potential to it thanks to developers getting creative with the Google Cast SDK.
Apps like AllCast enable Android - and, starting in January, Apple iOS - users to display video and photos through the Chromecast, for example. Which is useful since Google somehow neglected to add this feature to Android.
The Plex app will happily stream to Chromecast, which is perhaps the best way to get your library of downloaded videos up on the big screen. Photo Caster is a free app that enables iOS users to put their photos on-screen similarly.
Media Browser is an app for iOS and Android that streams media content stored on any computer in the house, giving the Chromecast home theater PC (HTPC) granting capabilities. You can even stream Podcasts from a few apps.
The way Apple integrated its AirPlay streaming solution deep into iOS means that it inevitably has better support when combining an iOS device with an Apple TV, but as long as developers continue to use the Cast SDK, we will inevitably see almost as widespread support for cross-platform solutions - iOS, Android and Chromecast all working together seamlessly.
Roku has its Roku SDK, but it's easier for many developers to make their apps compatible with the Android-based Chromecast. It requires a little bit of retooling rather than learning an entirely new ecosystem, as is the case with the Roku.
Between its universal nature, rock-bottom price and ease of setup, Chromecast is massively tempting as a little TV add-on.