Google's Chromecast media streamer may not look like much, but boy, oh boy, does that $35 stick pack a lot of power.
I've been spending some time using the Chromecast, and I've gotta say: This little gizmo is exactly the solution I've been searching for. And I suspect a lot of folks are gonna feel the same way.
I've used several Internet-to-TV streaming devices over the years -- a Roku, most recently -- and have always been largely underwhelmed with the experience. From the clunky and hard-to-use on-screen interfaces to the lackluster performance and lack of cross-platform syncing, I've always felt like I'm settling for "good enough" and waiting for something better to come along.
With the Chromecast, I'm optimistic that thing has finally arrived. Chromecast couldn't be simpler: It's a 2-in. gadget that plugs into your TV's HDMI port. You plug the attached power cord into a USB port -- either one on your TV or on the included A/C adapter -- and after a quick three-minute setup, you're ready to roll.
The setup, by the way, can be completed one of two ways: You can follow the instructions on your TV to open a specific Web URL or you can use the newly released Chromecast Android app to do the deed from your tablet or phone. Either way you go, it's a quick and painless process that basically involves putting in your Wi-Fi password and then naming the gadget.
From there, all you do is play. The beauty of the Chromecast is the fact that there essentially is no on-screen interface; the entire system is controlled by whatever device you happen to have nearby. You can use any Android or iOS device or any computer with the Chrome browser installed.
With phones and tablets, you just open up the app you want to use -- YouTube, Netflix, and Google Play Music and Movies are currently supported (and now that the programming interface is open to developers, that list is bound to expand fast) -- and then tap a special Chromecast icon within the app to cast the content to your TV. The content goes straight from the cloud to your television; the device basically just acts as a director.
While stuff is playing, you can go about using your device as normal; you don't have to leave the content-playing app open or give it another thought. With Android, you'll see a persistent notification that has the "now playing" info along with controls to pause, progress, or stop playback. Other than that, your device is out of the picture once playback begins.
Any device connected to your network can also hop in on the action. That means if you're on the couch and your significant other is in the armchair, you could start a show playing from Netflix via your device and then she could start something else playing a short time later from hers. Every device around is a remote; as long as it's connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your Chromecast, it'll automatically be linked up and ready to cast away.
Using Chromecast from a computer is where things get particularly cool. First, you just install the official Google Cast Chrome extension; it puts a small Chromecast icon in your browser's toolbar. Clicking the Chromecast icon lets you see and control what's currently playing via Chromecast -- and, best of all, beam your current browser tab right onto your TV.
Tab beaming works with anything you might have loaded -- a website, photos, videos, whatever. The feature is technically still in beta, but it's worked brilliantly in my experience thus far. The only catch is that there's a slight delay -- the TV image seems to lag about a second or two behind the computer -- but that hasn't proven to be a big problem for me.
As you can imagine, the implications of this feature are enormous: Since all you're doing is casting a regular browser tab from your computer, anything you can play on your computer can also be played on your TV. That includes video from often restrictive services like Hulu and HBO To Go; if it plays on your computer, it'll play on your TV. And if you make the video full-screen on your computer, it'll look just like regular video on your TV.
And like with phones and tablets, once content is playing, you can navigate away to other tabs on your computer and do anything else you want. You only have to leave the Chromecast-connected tab open in order for playback to continue.
When you consider the fact that the Chromecast includes a three-month Netflix credit, its actual cost comes out to 11 bucks ($35 minus $24 in Netflix savings). And when you consider how easily you could take the Chromecast with you on the go -- to stream movies while traveling, share photos or videos at social gatherings, conduct presentations at conferences, and so on -- its value and transformation potential is staggering.
[Update: The three-month free Netflix promotion is no longer available "due to overwhelming demand."]
Bottom line: If you already have a media streaming system you're happy with (or are heavily invested in a proprietary ecosystem like Apple's), the Chromecast probably isn't something you need. But if you're looking for a dead-simple, easy-to-use way to get Internet content on any TV, this gadget is an insanely good option to grab.