Update: Check out our list of devices that work with Google Cast. Original Chromecast review written in August 2013.
Streaming media around your home isn't a new idea, but the rise of internet-based on-demand services like Netflix, Sling TV and Amazon Prime Instant Video 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 products like Apple TV, Roku 3 and the Amazon Fire TV – all of which are designed to take your digital content and get it up on your big screen without fuss or fiddle.
Google's offering streaming in its simplest form: 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.
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On its launch in the middle of last year in the US, the Chromecast wowed with its cheap price and it can now be had for as little as $32. It's similarly bargainous in the UK: just £30 - less than a third of the Apple TV's RRP. That's awesome.
On launch, the services that tied in with Chromecast were limited and very much a work in progress. But 15 months on, the list of compatible apps is impressive.
Most of the big hitting services are now compatible, with Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu Plus, Pandora, HBO Go, Starz and Showtime Anytime etc... all ready and waiting in the US, and BT Sport, BBC iPlayer and more in the UK. You can find a complete list of Chromecast-compatible apps on the Google Chrome Store.
Music is really restricted for UK users, with even the lone Pandora app support no good for us due to licensing restrictions. 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 traveling 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 (around 8-10Mbps down) 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. Recent firmware updates have soothed this problem giving users the ability to use their TV remote to control some functionality, but at the end of the day you'll still need to keep a device running the app within arm's reach.
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 Apple iOS users to display video and photos through the Chromecast. Which is useful since Google somehow neglected to add this feature to Android.
Both major media center apps, VLC and 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.
Sure, 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.