The challenge: Over 200 billion videos are watched online every single month, accounting for much of the Internet traffic in North America -- and it’s almost entirely on tiny phone screens. But you’ve got a glorious, high-resolution HDTV you’re using for that content.
Google wants to change that, with a new gadget called Chromecast. It’s likely one of the easiest ways you’ll ever find to pump videos, photos and whatever from a cell phone, tablet or laptop onto that ultrahigh-definition HDTV you plunked all that cash down on.
And at just $35, this marvelous Google gizmo is a steal.
The device, essentially a thumb drive with a big head on one end, plugs into a spare HDMI port on your television. The fat end has a Micro-USB slot: Plug the included cable in and link it to one of the USB ports in back of your computer (trust me, you’ve likely got one) and the gadget immediately powers up. It’s not as elegant as I had first hoped -- there’s now some minor cord clutter behind my TV set -- but it's basically idiot-proof.
Beyond that, set up couldn’t be easier. Switch inputs on your TV and you’ll see a screen that walks you through the set-up process, which involves downloading an app to your phone or tablet and pairing it with your TV via your home’s Wi-Fi network, making sure to match the code Chromecast shows you on TV. It couldn’t have taken me more than 5 minutes.
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Once you’ve installed the app on your device -- it works on Android and will soon be on iOS, meaning your iPad and iPhone too -- any Chromecast-enabled app can beam videos to your television with the press of an icon. At present, that’s just three apps,Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play, but Google swears other content partners are working on it.
To test it out, I played Danny Boyle’s new film “Trance” from Google Play Movies. Pressing the little Chromecast button in the top-right corner sent a signal to the cloud, which in turn sent a signal down to the dongle behind my TV. The app was responsive, and pressing pause and play on my phone almost instantly affected playback.
Quality on screen was great, although that depends mostly on the content you beaming. If it’s a crummy YouTube video, it’ll look even crummier in high definition on your TV.
Content sources are limited at present. Google clearly wants you to buy movies from Play, rather than from Amazon or Apple or any of the wealth of others out there. But Chromecast is built into a new version of the Chrome browser as well (the version for Macs, PCs and Google's Chromebook Pixel), so you can surf to Hulu or HBO.com, fire up a video, and beam that to your television.
Because a simple bit of software and your Wi-Fi network are all it takes to control playback, anyone else in the room is essentially holding a remote control. That's right, their smartphone can also control the playback. Say your friend hates the YouTube video you’re playing. (“The Kardashians? Really?”) he can fire up YouTube on his phone and, as long as he’s on your Wi-Fi network, a banner will pop up offering him info on the show and play and pause controls.
In other words, the battle for the remote control just got crazy.
An entire world of other gadgets offer similar functionality to Chromecast, albeit at far greater prices. The Roku 3 streamer costs $100 bucks, for example, but it builds in a vast array of content sources, from Vudu and Hulu and HBO to Pandora and NBC and PBS and Fox News. And MLB. And music.
In addition, the odds are good you’ve already got some or maybe even all of this functionality. Many television sets come with built-in apps for streaming content from those sources, and if not, there’s a good chance your Blu-ray player does. My Sony BD device has a ton of built-in apps, for example.
So do you need Chromecast? Google’s gadget does just one thing, but it does it incredibly easily, and flawlessly well. I found it easier to surf content in the familiar environment of my tablet than to use my clunky TV remote on those built-in apps.
Getting to Hulu content via the Chrome browser feels like jumping through hoops, of course. But the convenience factor was nice at the same time: Simply press beam and your TV will magically turn on and tune to the right channel.
And at just $35, that’s hard to beat.