Testing: Google Chromecast Streaming

By Norman Chan

Even though $35 isn't a lot of money to pay for a media streamer, there's plenty you should take into consideration before deciding to buy Google's Chromecast.

On paper, Google's Chromecast sounds like such a no-brainer to buy. It's being sold--if you can find it in stock--for $35, and the early bird three-month Netflix subscription bonus effectively lowered its cost of ownership to $11 plus tax and shipping. Compared to $100 media streamers, $250 tablets, and $600 phones, that's a low enough price so you don't have to think of it as a serious investment. But though it may not leave a dent in your wallet, the Chromecast requires a real commitment on your part as a user. As unique as this small dongle is, it's yet another living room device in a very crowded room full of game consoles and dedicated media players. The cost isn't monetary--it's opportunity. Just by plugging Chromecast in, Google is laying claim to an HDMI port in your home entertainment setup. And firing up Chromecast means that you're not using another one of its competitors, whether that's the Roku (no YouTube support) or Apple TV. The low price of Chromecast is Google's investment in your living room, and that's why you shouldn't take its purchase lightly.

I've been using the Chromecast for the past week and a half, testing its features and competency as both a substitute and complement for existing media streamers. The results have not been world-shattering.

Here's a refresher on how Chromecast works. It's a small dongle with a male HDMI plug on one end and a micro-USB port on the other. The box comes with the dongle, a really short HDMI extender, and a micro-USB cable with 5V wall wart for power. Chromecast needs to be plugged in to your TV or receiver--I had to use the extender to get it to fit on my receiver's front-panel HDMI port--and it needs a small amount of USB power from either a power outlet or even your TV's USB port. According to Anand's tests, the dongle consumes about two watts of power when decoding video, and one watt at idle. Receiving power from a TV's USB port is the most cable-efficient physical setup, but most TVs don't deliver USB power when they're turned off, meaning you then can't use Chromecast's CEC capabilities to switch the TV on. CEC only works if your TV supports it, and Chromecast currently doesn't have the ability to turn off TVs--you still have to use your remote for that.

Once plugged in, the initial setup is very straightforward. You download a small Chromecast app that detects the device and lets you directly connect to it from a laptop to configure your home's Wi-Fi network settings. Chromecast only remembers one Wi-Fi network at a time, so you have to set it up every time you bring it to a new location. Once Chromecast is connected to your Wi-Fi network, other devices with the right software on that network will be able to see it and send video streams. Right now, those devices/apps include Android, iOS with certain apps, and the desktop Chrome browser.

With the mobile devices and apps, Chromecast implementation is seamless. On Android, the YouTube, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, and Netflix apps have been updated to include a Chromecast streaming button in the player window. Tapping this button at the beginning or in the middle of a stream will pause the video playback on the app, and send the address of that stream to your TV. With YouTube, it seems like Chromecast is picking up the same stream as mobile devices, and will scale up to 720p depending on the amount of bandwidth available. Some users have noted that streams load at different speeds on their phones/tablets than on Chromecast (even though they're on the same network), so it's also possible that Chromecast taps into a separate hub of YouTube streaming servers that may be less congested than for mobile.

Netflix works the same way, and effective turns your device into a remote control for volume control and video scrubbing. Actions in YouTube and Netflix take about two seconds to go from device to TV, which is comparable to the responsiveness on Apple's Airplay.

Currently, YouTube on mobile has the best implementation, because it allows you to queue up streams to Chromecast. The TV Queue is a brilliant way for Google to get you to stay on YouTube--in which videos are typically shorter in length anyway. While streaming a video to Chromecast, you can go about your regular business on your phone/tablet/desktop, including continuing to search and browse YouTube. When a video is already streaming, YouTube pages you land on show an "Add to TV Queue" button, and tapping that sends the video to the bottom of the queue (you can't queue a video up twice, though). Videos can be removed from the queue, but the order can't be rearranged. This is also how Google is going to make money off Chromecast: pre-roll ads that show before videos can't be skipped on Chromecast. Thankfully, there are no lower-third pop-up ads like on the browser version of YouTube.

Hopefully, the YouTube app is the model that other video services will adopt if they choose to support Chromecast. Hulu and HBO Go have reportedly expressed interest in implementing Chromecast support, and I would think that Vimeo and Flickr would be quick to follow too. And while YouTube support is top notch on mobile, it's not as robust in a desktop browser. You have to start playing a video in Chrome for the Chromecast button to show up in the player, and I couldn't find the ability to send videos to the TV Queue.

The performance of Chromecast streaming is heavily dependent on the quality of the Wi-Fi connection where your dongle is located. In my house, all of my set-top boxes are connected to a wired router, and the Wi-Fi signal in my living room isn't great. It's good enough for laptops to browse the web and download files, but at two bars of signal, Chromecast streaming really suffered. YouTube buffering was good enough to get me through five-minute long video clips, but watching a full two-hour movie on Netflix was unbearable with all the intermittent buffering delays.

And that's my biggest problem with Chromecast--it's lack of an wired internet option. Its Wi-Fi antenna connects onto 802.11n networks, but only at the 2.4GHz band (dual-band routers still work fine if your other devices are on 5GHz). With no other devices in my living room that are Wi-Fi only, there's little incentive for me to get a Wi-Fi extender or second router just to improve the performance of the Chromecast.

Chromecast is also not a particularly good desktop mirroring option, either. It actually can't do full desktop mirroring, and instead works solely with the Chrome browser. In beta right now is Chrome tab streaming, which sends to Chromecast everything that can be rendered in a single Chrome tab, including web pages, flash embeds, and even full-screen MKV video files if you have VLC installed. I like that Chrome tab streaming works independently of what's showing on your laptop or desktop's screen--like with YouTube and Netflix, you can multi-task and switch to other tabs or windows while one tab is being streamed. The only thing that matters is the window size and screen resolution. Chromecast will automatically scale the aspect ratio of your window to fill up your TV screen, adding black bars on the sides to avoid stretching. A full-screen resolution of 1440x900 looked good on a large 1080p TV, but streaming from a 2560x1600 monitor at full-screen made the text unreadable on my 70" TV.

I also encountered a bug where chrome tab streaming is corrupted when piping a signal from an 11-inch MacBook Air. The image looked severely interlaced, regardless of the streaming quality setting configured in the Chromecast Chrome extension. This problem didn't exist on any Windows PC I tested Chromecast on, including the 11-inch Lenovo Yoga, nor was it apparent on the 13-inch MacBook Air. And as with the dedicated video apps, the lag between making an action in Chrome and it appearing on screen was very noticeable--reaching up to five seconds in some cases on my connection.

Right now, Chromecast is a good YouTube and Netflix streaming device if you can use it in an area with strong Wi-Fi connectivity. It's a more efficient way of watching pure YouTube on a big screen than Airplay, if only for the TV Queue feature. But Airplay works with all HTML5 video, while Chromecast requires video services to manually add support. With Netflix, choosing between using Chromecast and something like an Apple TV is a toss up. It's faster to search for movies with a phone/tablet/laptop keyboard than an on-screen one, but I also like the Apple TV's independence from my other devices, regardless of how much power and memory are being used by that background process.

Some of Chromecast's features are clearly still in beta, including hidden configuration settings that users have uncovered. Third-party hacks--such as dropbox file streaming and in-phone Gallery streaming--have already been demoed online and are just waiting for Google to lift up SDK restrictions for approval. But to say that Chromecast has a lot of potential is to admit that it's not a good enough product right now. Sure, it's "only" $35, but you should buy products for their capabilities today and not for promises made by their manufacturer. Given Google's resources and how much they want to own a piece of the living room, betting on Chromecast is probably safe. But there's also no downside to waiting until the number of compatible services improve to jump on the bandwagon, especially if that means waiting for a wired option.