As promised: Chromecast.
First, let’s do the obligatory summary of what it does and doesn’t do and the comparison to Apple TV/AirPlay. Grossly oversimplified: with AirPlay, all content is played on your device and displayed on the TV. In other words, your iPhone connects to (for example) YouTube, downloads the video, decodes it, and ships the decoded stream via wifi to the Apple TV box, which then displays it on the TV. For the most part, Chromecast works differently. Your phone goes to YouTube and displays the page locally except for the video. It sends the URL of the video via wifi to the Chromecast, which then establishes its own connection to YouTube, downloads, decodes, and displays the video on the TV. This is why you can start the video playing and then close YouTube or search for another video on the phone. This is also why apps need to be updated to use Chromecast: they need to be modified to send the video URL to the device; in the AirPlay world, the functionality to send the audio and video to the Apple TV instead of the screen is handled by the OS, so the app doesn’t need to be modified to use it.
With that out of the way, let’s move on.
As I said on Friday, the Chromecast is the mysterious “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy” device. Douglas Adams’ guide had the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover; Chromecast does not, but Google’s intent is clearly to take all of the panic out of the thought of getting your phone or tablet content onto your TV. The hardest part of the process is opening the box; if you can do that, you’re pretty much set. Take out the gadget, which looks a lot like a fat USB thumb drive. Plug it into your TV’s HDMI port. Plug in the USB cable for power. Turn on the TV. At this point you have a choice: you can use your computer to go to a URL displayed on the TV or you can launch a Chromecast app on your phone or tablet. Accept the Terms and Conditions (more on this later), choose your wifi network, and confirm that you want to activate the device, and you’re done.
I didn’t have an opportunity to see how gracefully the setup process handles a failure to activate the device (for example if your wifi cuts out at the wrong moment), but there are so few steps involved that it should be simple enough to handle it cleanly. (Usual disclaimers about “should be” in the computer world apply, naturally.)
Once you’re set up, Chromecast works as advertised. I played a few tracks from Google Play Music, which sounded as good as my not-too-spectacular speaker system could make them. I also watched an episode of “Wonders of the Solar System” (a freebie from Google Play Movies & TV). It streamed in excellent 1080p high definition and looked great. There were no dropouts, skips, or pauses throughout the 58 minute show, which is a minor miracle given some of my recent cable internet hiccups.
I also tried out a couple of YouTube videos, which also worked quite nicely. Resolution is, of course, constrained by the source material. An old, low resolution capture of a 70s TV show isn’t going to look good on your TV no matter what, but the Chromecast does a surprisingly decent job of upscaling to 1080p.
There is one area where Chromecast works differently: If you use the Chrome browser on your desktop, you can use Chromecast to display whatever is in your browser on the TV. In this mode, it works like Apple TV: the video is created on the computer and sent to the Chromecast for display. This functionality works very nicely although it’s currently limited to 720p, rather than 1080p. But there is a big red box in the browser interface that says “Beta”, so higher resolution may come later. (A side note: there is also a second mode for the Chrome stream to Chromecast which will send the computer’s entire screen, not just the current Chrome tab. That’s marked as “experimental”, though. I was not surprised that I couldn’t get it to work. If you want to try it yourself, install the “Google Cast” browser extension. Despite the rough edges of the extension itself, installation is as easy as clicking the link and accepting the Terms and Conditions.
Which brings us to the Terms and Conditions. Remember I said earlier I would have more to say about them later? Now is later.
The T&Cs for the Chromecast hardware are pretty much what you would expect. In essence, they give Google the right to keep track of what you’re casting so they can make suggestions and try to sell you more media. Basically the same as what they do with your web searches: track what you do so they can more precisely target their advertising. However, note that the T&Cs for the “stream your browser” and “stream your desktop” Chrome extension give them similar visibility into that stream. I strongly doubt that they’re recording the entirety of your stream–if nothing else, the limited upload bandwidth of most connections would make that problematical, but they could potentially send an occasional screenshot and apply the same image recognition and OCR capabilities that they use elsewhere in an attempt to recognize what you’re streaming. Could they be required to turn that information over if you’re sued by a media company who believes you’re downloading pirated material? Possibly. Could it be copied by the NSA in their quest to ensure that you’re not contemplating terrorism? Almost certainly. Realistically, you’re not any more exposed using Chromecast than you were last week, but it is another avenue of approach. And it does suggest that until we know more about what information Google gets when you do browser streaming, you should probably hold off on using Chromecast to share proprietary corporate information in your meetings.
Which brings me to the final point I wanted to make: Security is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. Once a Chromecast device is on your network it’s visible to every phone, tablet, and computer on your network. There are no controls to limit which devices can send content to each Chromecast and nothing to prevent one user from jumping to the head of the queue. This is the latest version of fighting over the TV remote. And then there are the issues around having multiple Chromecasts on the network. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to accidentally select the wrong device and send your age-inappropriate shows to the kids’ TV. Or for someone to slip an extra Chromecast onto the corporate network and see what gets accidentally routed to it.
Sure, I’m exaggerating the risks a bit, but they do exist. I figure it’s a safer approach than ignoring them.
OK, this is getting long. Let me sum up:
Chromecast is far and away Google’s best effort to date at getting into your living room, miles ahead of Google TV and light years ahead of the never-released Nexus Q. It’s of limited utility until third-party media providers other than Netflix update their apps to support it (Slingbox and MLB.TV, I’m looking at you), but Google picked the right price point: $35 puts it into the “impulse buy” category. I expect that most of the big providers are working on updates now. I’m keeping mine hooked up in the expectation that it will move from “Hey, that’s cool” to “Pretty damn useful” within the next couple of months.