Earlier this week, web search giant Google launched a new portable media streaming device called the Chromecast. The Chromecast is a small device about the size of a large USB flash drive that has a full size HDMI video output, micro USB power jack, and Wi-Fi connectivity. The device run’s Google’s Chrome OS and is able to display or playback any web page or media file that the Chrome web browser can.
The Chromecast is designed to plug into televisions and stream media from the internet. Eventually, users will be able to “cast” embedded media files or web pages from a smartphone, tablet, or PC running Android, iOS, Windows, or Mac OS X with a Chrome web browser over to the Chromecast. The sending device will point the Chromecast as the requisite URL where the streaming media or web page resides along with any necessary authorization tokens needed to access content behind a pay-wall or username/password login. From there, the Chromecast itself will reach out to the Internet over the Wi-Fi radio, retrieve the web page or media stream, and output it to the TV over HDMI. Playback controls will be accessible on the sending device, such as an Android smartphone, but it is the Chromecast itself that is streaming the media unlike solutions like wireless HDMI, AirPlay, DLNA, or Miracast. As such, the sending device is able to perform other tasks while the Chromecast handles the media streaming.
At launch, users will be able to use the Chromecast to stream Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play videos. At some point in the future, Google will be adding support for additional apps, including Pandora Internet radio streaming. Beyond that, (and this feature is still in development) users will be able to share entire Chrome tabs with the Chromecast (some reports are indicating that this tab sharing is done using the WebRTC standard). Users will need to download and install a Google Cast extension, which will put a button to the right of the URL button that, when pressed, will “cast” the tab to the Chromecast which will pull it up over its own internet connection and output it to the TV. When on a website that implements the SDK, users will have additional options for sharing just the video and using the PC as a remote along with handy playback and volume controls.
Alternatively, Google is releasing a Chromecast SDK that will allow developers to integrate their streaming media with the Chromecast. Instead of needing to share the entire tab, web developers or mobile app developers will be able to integrate casting functionality that will allow users to share solely the streaming media with the Chromecast similar to the upcoming ability to stream just the YouTube or Netflix video itself rather than the entire web page with the video embedded into it. Unfortunately, there is currently a caveat that states that developers must have all there apps (using the Chromecast SDK) approved by Google.
Sharing ("Casting") a Chrome web browser tab to a TV from a PC using the Chromecast.
It should be noted that Wired has reported success in using the tab sharing functionality to play back local media by electing Chrome to playback locally-stored video files, but this is not a perfect solution as Chrome has a limited number of formats it can playback in a window and audio sync proved tricky at times. With that said, the Chromecast is intended to be an Internet streaming device, and Google is marketing it as such, so it is difficult to fault the Chromecast for local streaming issues. There are better solutions for getting the most out of your LAN-accessible media, after all.
The Chromecast is $35 and will ship as soon as August 7, 2013 from the Google Play Store. Amazon and Best Buy had stock listed on their websites until yesterday when both e-tailers sold out (though you might be lucky enough to find a Chromecast at a brick and mortar Best Buy store). For $35, you get the Chromecast itself, a rigid HDMI extender that extends the Chromecast closer to the edge of the TV to make installation/removal easier, and a USB power cord. Google was initially also offering 3 free months of Netflix Instant streaming but has since backed away from the promo due to overwhelming demand (and if Google can continue to sell out of Chromecasts without spending money on Netflix for each unit, it is going to do that despite the PR hit (or at least disappointed buyers) to bolster the profit margin on the inexpensive gadget).
The Chromecast does have its flaws, and the launch was not perfect (many OS support and device features are still being worked on), but at $35 it is a simple impulse buy on a device that should only get better from here as the company further fleshes out the software. Even on the off-chance that Google abandons the Chromecast, it can still stream Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play for a pittance.