Compatible: All iPads, iPhones + iPods with iOS 6.0 or higher
Google's launch of the iOS- and Android-compatible video dongle Chromecast ($35) made news last week despite sharing a stage with a new Nexus 7 tablet and Android operating system update. Billed as the "easiest way to enjoy online video and music on your TV," Chromecast is the company's new device-to-TV streaming solution, overlapping some of the Apple TV's features at a much lower price point. The small black key-shaped dongle plugs directly into an HDMI port -- an included extender may be necessary on some TVs -- and is powered by either a wall outlet, or a nearby USB port if the TV has one. It allows iOS users to stream content from YouTube and Netflix, with the promise of support for more apps in the near future. It's also compatible with the Chrome browser on Macs and PCs, although our review will mainly focus on iOS functionality.
Compared to the already diminutive Apple TV, Chromecast is significantly smaller. It’s less than three inches long from end to end, and is about half an inch thick. The matte plastic accessory weighs just over an ounce, but feels a little heavier than it looks. One end terminates in an HDMI plug, notably eliminating the need to supply your own HDMI cable, while the other houses a micro-USB power port, as well as an indicator light and a button; we’ve yet to find a use for the latter. Depending on how your television is set up, you may be able to plug the dongle directly into an open HDMI port, or you may have to use the extender. We found that using the USB port on our television worked just fine to power the device, but the meager instructions inside the packaging recommend using the included power adapter.
To set up Chromecast, you must use a browser on a computer or mobile device, although the landing page says that an iOS app is coming soon. We went through the process on an iPad’s browser, and found that it worked just fine. A few straightforward instructions have you toggle your device’s Wi-Fi connection to that of the Chromecast, and then get the dongle onto your home network. The whole process took just a few minutes, and seemed to be foolproof.
Once Chromecast is online, it displays what amounts to a screensaver on your TV. Overlaid on top of some very nice photos, it lists the name you’ve give your Chromecast, the time, the name of the Wi-Fi network it’s connected to, and the phrase “ready to cast.” There’s nothing you can do from here other than send content over from your device.
The only apps Chromecast supports so far are YouTube and Netflix, although Vimeo, Redbox Instant, and Pandora are reportedly looking to add Chromecast functionality as well. When the Chromecast is connected and powered on, both YouTube and Netflix gain an icon that can be tapped to toggle casting. Other than a few seconds of loading, similar to what you’ll find with AirPlay streaming to Apple TV, the process works seamlessly. There is a backend difference through: rather than actually beaming the content from your iPad or iPhone, Chromecast is simply using the device as a remote, and pulling the video from the cloud itself. There’s no option for a hardware remote, but it otherwise works pretty much the same way. Most people won’t ever be aware of how the content is actually making it to the big screen, and there’s no sacrifice in quality as the dongle supports 1080p. Computer users will be able to mirror a Chrome browser tab, even including streaming of Flash-based video content—a trick the Apple TV doesn’t and probably won’t ever have up its sleeve.
Compared to Apple TV and AirPlay, Chromecast is a limited solution, and shouldn’t be viewed as a complete or even substantial alternative to what Apple has developed. Yet it’s set to grow in functionality, and even what it does now is impressive for a dirt cheap $35 accessory. It’s a smart choice for iOS users who are mainly interested in getting specific types of web content to display on a television, and it makes a great iPad and iPhone accessory; the integrated HDMI and small form factor make it ideal for traveling, so long as there’s a Wi-Fi network in range. Google has done a great job with the build quality, set up, and functionality, which all combine to make a surprisingly high quality product for the low price, and one that’s worthy of our high recommendation.