Review: Google Chromecast
There’s this thing Netflix does after you’ve watched three episodes of something in a row. You might have seen it before. You’re just finally settled in, a you-shaped dent is forming in the couch, and a little message pops up: “Are you still watching? Press play if so.”
I see this message more often than I’d like to admit.
On a normal set-top box, it’s not much of a hassle. Just pick up the remote and press play (while saying aloud something like “DON’T YOU DARE JUDGE ME, NETFLIX). With Google’s new Chromecast, though, it’s a serious imposition. I have to grab my phone, unlock it, open an app, wait for the thing to load, and press play. And then, oh, maybe I’ll just check my Instagram.
The new Chromecast is, well, it’s a lot like the old Chromecast. You plug it into an HDMI port on your TV, give it power via a wall outlet or USB port, set it up in about 30 seconds using the companion app, and then you’re off. You tap the Cast icon in any supporting app, or for any tab in your browser, and suddenly your phone becomes a remote and whatever you were looking at shows up on the screen. As long as you’re in the same room, anyone can control your TV. You can cast almost anything from the Internet, plus some local content—but not all, and not at all reliably. It comes in a couple of loud new colors, and thanks to its super-flexible HDMI cable it’s really easy to connect to almost any TV. But it’s still $35, and it’s still basically just a Wi-Fi radio for your television. The work of watching TV—finding shows, buying movies, picking which episode of Friends to re-watch for the 68th time tonight—is on you and your smartphone.
The question at hand is not whether the Chromecast is a good Chromecast. It is. It does its job simply and admirably (though it does lack 4K support, which Roku and the Fire TV have made an important competitive feature). It has lots of content, too; the only big thing missing at this point is Amazon Video. That’s a matter of some consternation, but if you want to watch Transparent or the upcoming Top Gear reboot, you’re going to need a different box.
Being a good Chromecast isn’t a hard thing. The real question is more philosophical: Is your smartphone the best remote control? Or is there still a place in your living room for long, ugly rectangles with innumerable buttons of inscrutable purpose? Google’s working on Cast, while also feverishly trying to put Android TV, a much more traditional set-top box interface, inside every screen on the planet. Which way wins?
There are times where a smartphone is absolutely, unequivocally not a good TV remote—like when I got a phone call while watching something. When I’m using Chromecast, my response is to wait for the call to go to voicemail, go back to the Chromecast app, pause the show, then call my friend/mom/bill collector back and make up an excuse for missing their call.
More generally, dividing the experience up into apps is just kind of a pain. The new Chromecast app helps a lot, especially the new new play/pause button that will control whatever’s on no matter where it comes from. But using a Chromecast requires constantly shifting between different apps with different controls, and trying to remember whether I’m watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on Netflix, Hulu, or FX Now. The beauty of having a million cable channels is that you don’t really care where you are, you just flip until you find something you like. Chromecast is like having a totally different remote for every single channel on the dial.
Someone should just build a Bluetooth remote for the Chromecast that has a universal play/pause button, volume control, and a kill switch—stop whatever’s playing, and mute the TV or turn it off. I’d glue one to my coffee table. Until then, though, the Chromecast channel-flipping experience is just too much work. (I should note that if you have a TV with a new-ish HDMI-CEC port, your TV remote might be able to control the Chromecast a bit. Maybe. It’s not consistent either way.)
But for all the hand-wringing about that part of the experience—in which we all imagine a schlubby guy flopping down on a couch with a bowl of Cheeto’s perched on his rotund belly, a beer in one hand and the remote in the other—that’s not really how I watch TV anymore. I’m in the middle of plowing through a dozen shows right now on Netflix, and I have a big list of movies to watch; the closest thing I do to browsing many nights is checking the Shows You Watch section of Hulu for new episodes that aired last night. And for that kind of focused or semi-focused searching, Chromecast is perfect.
Since you do most of the work on your smartphone, everything happens faster. For obvious reasons, really: There’s definitely more computing power in your phone than your set-top box, plus the apps are probably more user-friendly and have been updated more recently. Oh, and instead of going down-down-down-right-right-right-right-right-right-right, you can just tap on the thing you want. Instead of searching with your d-pad and an unusable on-screen keyboard, you can just type on your phone.
The new Chromecast app is full of ways to find stuff to watch—some more useful than others.
This is where Chromecast feels brilliant. You do all the work on a small screen, where it’s more accessible and more optimized, and then you watch on a big screen because that’s just way better. It’s also where the new Chromecast, specifically the new app, feels like a gigantic upgrade.
Beyond the universal play/pause button, the new Chromecast also has a search bar at the top of the app that searches through all your Cast-enabled apps (at least, as long as the developer enables it) for stuff to watch. Many services still aren’t included, but you’re already getting YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, HBO Go, and more, all in one place. (A section of the app also recommends other Cast-enabled apps you can download, which is handy.) It’s all useful and fast, and has the added benefit of leading me to weird YouTube blooper reels and cast interviews much more often than I expected.
At the front of the app, there’s also a “What’s On” category that could in theory serve as a sort of TV Guide for the Internet. Instead, it’s just a list of Netflix originals, popular YouTube videos, and Hulu shows that were on last night. The page could be super personalized and data-driven, but instead it’s just a bunch of impersonal ads, like the display tables at Barnes & Noble filled with vampire novels you don’t want to read.
Everything packed into the new Chromecast app, which works on iOS and Android, all works with the old Chromecast, too. That’s the whole point, remember? That you don’t have to update your TV or box every time Google dreams up a new feature. Your phone does all the work, and as long as it can run a Chromecast app you can get the newest, best experience.
The new dongle has a couple of internal upgrades, such as support for modern Wi-Fi standards like 5GHz and 802.11ac. There are three antennas placed around the plastic puck to make it your connection more reliable, and a software tweak called Fast Play that will pre-load an app in the background when you open it on your phone to get everything going more quickly. In practice, on my Comcast network with my Netgear router, it does feel a little bit faster. I suspect on sketchier Wi-Fi networks the difference would be even more pronounced. But a two-second gain in loading speed doesn’t necessarily feel worth $35.
What I’d gladly pay that much for is a Chromecast I could actually use in a hotel room. In theory, this is the perfect travel gadget—just toss it in a bag, then stick into into the Marriott’s TV and watch my stories. But Chromecast still trips over the so-called “captive portal” networks that make you sign in with a username and password, which is what virtually every hotel on Earth uses to charge you $14.99 a day for terrible connectivity. It doesn’t do Wi-Fi Direct, either, so you can’t just stream straight from your phone—it all has to work through Wi-Fi. The Cast team at Google says they’re investigating the issue, whatever that means, but until they figure it out, my dream travel entertainment gadget gets left behind at home.
Long-term, Chromecast isn’t the way all TV will be watched. It’s not even really about TV. Cast is a terrific technology with immense possibilities—when you have a way to move content seamlessly from point A to B, whether it’s music or movies or browser tabs or ultimately anything else you can think of, the idea of a world where every device is alive and controlled by your smartphone becomes pretty easy to imagine.
The price kind of tells you everything you need to know: This thing is an impulse buy. The Chromecast is a great thing to have around, even if it’s not your primary set-top box. Even if it’s just for showing the occasional tab or YouTube video to everyone in the room, it’s a solution to a problem. If you have a Chromecast, keep it. If you don’t, buy one. You’ll use it.
As for the bigger question: Is your smartphone the remote control of the future? Well, it’s not the fastest solution, or the easiest, or the most practical all the time. But whenever you’re watching TV, you’re probably holding your phone anyway. And apps, don’t forget, are the future of TV. Faults and all, your phone’s probably the remote control of the future.
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