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Long-term review: Google Chromecast streaming HDMI dongle

A new TV media player that launched today in the UK - I've had one for six months

By James Cridland - posted 19 March, 2014

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This morning, the Google Chromecast launched in the UK - an HDMI media player with a difference, for the low price of just £30.

I've had one since September: I got mine in the US. So, here are my impressions from using it for a long time.

What is it?

As you'll see from pictures of it, it's a little HDMI dongle that plugs into a spare HDMI port on the back of your television. It doesn't, quite, look as the photos would have you believe. In reality, you will need to plug in a little micro-USB connection at the other end of the device. It comes with a USB power supply, or a small USB cable to plug into a spare port on your television. I opted for the latter. The result isn't quite as neat as you'd expect from the images, though for most people it'll still end up being invisible.

Unlike, say, the NOW TV box that I reviewed a while ago, there's no remote control. Instead, you control it by using your phone, tablet or laptop. This is a more user-friendly way of sifting through mounds of content.

There are no special apps for the Chromecast. You get a Chromecast setup app, which helps set your Chromecast's wifi details and other things: but you won't use it again. Instead, app-makers enable Chromecast functionality (called Google Cast) in their apps. You'll find this included already in many apps. YouTube, Google Play Movies, Google Play Music, Netflix, and the BBC iPlayer all have it in. More apps will come: Google only opened the device's software API last month.

How does it work?

Other similar solutions make the mobile do all the hard work. It has to get the video, show the video on the mobile's screen, and then mirror that to the TV screen. This is not battery-friendly, and rarely gives you a good picture quality.

Instead, the Chromecast gets told by your phone where the content you want to watch is on the internet. The Chromecast itself then goes and fetches the content itself to display. So, your device is free to do other things: and the Chromecast gets the best quality version of the content for its own use.

Additionally, from the Chrome browser on your laptop, you can also "cast a tab" - mirror that tab on the screen of the television.

What's it like?

I should preface this by explaining that I use Google services a lot. I use an Android phone, and an Android tablet. I have a Chromebook and a MacBook that runs Chrome. I use Google Play Music All Access, the Spotify-like service for music: that's where all my audio content is. I regularly use YouTube (don't we all?). I don't use any movie streaming service; indeed, watch few if any movies.

Google Play Music All Access interfaces with the Chromecast perfectly. Connect your phone or tablet's app to the Chromecast, and it behaves just as it always did: except the music comes out of the television. Albums play flawlessly through it. Artwork on the screen subtly moves every thirty seconds or so to avoid any burn-in. The experience was so easy and simple, the week after I got the Chromecast I rearranged the television to use the hifi speakers.

YouTube, too, works perfectly. Find a video to watch, and it'll start playing on the television. Keep controlling it from your phone; add more clips to a TV playlist, and it'll keep playing. Picture quality is good - it can output at 1080p and uses that resolution video where it can.

I can confirm that Google Play Movies works too, though I've not used it for longer than ten seconds!

There are other apps which you can use. Google+'s photos app can display those pictures on the screen. Pocket Casts is a podcast app which also can play through the Chromecast. The BBC iPlayer also works well, with near-HD quality.

If you have vast contents of your own content, a paid app - Plex - will let your Chromecast access that, too. I don't. Because I use Android, and am bought into the Google content ecosystem, I have found the Chromecast very useful indeed.

From a tech point of view, I've never had the Chromecast buffer while playing videos or other content. It's not far from the wifi hub, though, and I've a 40Mb connection to the web. Occasionally the Chromecast does not appearing on the Google Play Music app; that's rectified by closing the app and opening it again. As with all things Google, it updates itself automatically, and has undergone software updates in the time I've had it.

Would I recommend one?

I recommended the NOW TV box, which - for the price of £10 - was a no-brainer. However, in long-term use, the device quickly loses its initial lustre. Clicking away at a remote control is a slow and tedious way of searching through content. The lack of a keyboard for searching quickly means it's a little irritating to continue using. It is still plugged-in to the telly, but we've not used it in months.

But, I've had the £30 Chromecast since September: and I use it very regularly. I mostly use it for music - whether that's through the Google Play Music app, or finding full-length DVDs on YouTube from my favourite bands (of which there are quite a few). I enjoy YouTube videos through it too. BBC iPlayer's integration also means I prefer using the Chromecast, rather than tapping away at the YouView remote control.

With a few exceptions, Chromecast gives you nothing that you can't already manage with a NOW TV box, a YouView box, Roku, or a smart TV. But you do get a vastly-improved, handheld interface.

I believe that new technology is no longer about the featureset: it's about the user experience. And in terms of the user experience, the £30 Chromecast dongle is impressive. If you're in media, you really can't afford not to get one.

James Cridland
James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.