Smart TV on the cheap with Google Chromecast (review)

18 Jul 20142 Shares

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The Google Chromecast dongle

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A year on from its launch in the United States, the Google Chromecast dongle has finally been launched in Ireland but can it compete with Apple TV and the Roku streaming box?

Perhaps Google’s biggest challenge in trying to sell the Chromecast in Ireland as an alternative to Apple and Roku’s devices is its relatively late appearance on the scene, at least in comparison with its competitors who have spent at least a year on the market. In Apple TV’s case, it's been nearly seven years.

So what exactly is the Google Chromecast? Compared with the other available devices on the market, the Chromecast does not try to sell itself as a high-powered device that will revolutionise how a person watches TV.

What it is, however, is a device that can turn a basic HD TV into a smart TV for €39. The small Chromecast dongle is inserted into an available HDMI port along with another wire attached to the device which powers the Chromecast.

Set-up

The ease with which a person sets up the device is definitely one of the Chromecast’s strong points. Once you have downloaded the free app from either the Google Play Store or the App Store on iOS and followed the few steps to connecting it to your Wi-Fi, you can control everything on the device, from your mobile or tablet.

You also have the option of mirroring your Chrome browser from a laptop onto the Chromecast across Windows, Apple and Chromebook, as well as running the same compatible sites with the click of a button, much in the same way from a mobile device.

In the box there is also a small extension lead for the HDMI connector which is there for when, as many of us have experienced, the HDMI ports are tightly packed against one another making it impossible to insert the Chromecast into the port.

Google also says the extension lead is to help boost signal if the person’s TV is right up against the wall, which could limit the Wi-Fi signal sent to it.

This leaves a messy looking set-up which lets the Chromecast hang out the back of the TV.

 

Interface

The biggest differentiation between the Chromecast and other similar products is that the Google dongle does not contain any native apps or services installed in the product.

Rather, it acts as a conduit to services which are streamed through the stick.

When the Chromecast turns on, you are presented with what looks like an empty desktop with a clock and a slideshow of rather pretty images taken by a host of photographers, but that’s it.

You don’t scroll through a menu system of apps and nothing is installed directly onto it which might seem limited but it has been designed to keep things simple and, more importantly, keep the device itself small and not requiring additional hardware.

For owners of Android devices with KitKat and above, the timing of its release in Ireland coincides with its recent beta release of mirroring what appears on a person’s Android phone directly to the TV, which has been one of the Chromecast’s biggest downfalls when you consider Apple TV has had this option almost from its release.

I was originally sceptical of how it would perform but to its credit it mirrored with no delay, even streaming video played on the phone, which is a massive plus for TV services that have yet to implement Chromecast-compatible apps.

And yet, the vast majority of Android users using Jelly Bean and below are alienated for the moment which, as a Jelly Bean user myself, is rather frustrating.

Review – Google Chromecast

Streaming quality

For the vast majority of its users, at least for the moment, Chromecast will be used to stream content from YouTube and Netflix, which are both supported on the Chromecast.

From my own experience, the two services stream seamlessly throughout, even on even a relatively slow connection of 5Mbps and, after a few seconds of pixilation, will revert to full HD (unless the user is watching a low-quality video on YouTube, obviously).

Having tested other Chromecast-compatible apps, the quality remains highly consistent, clear and easily manageable with your mobile device or laptop with little delay.

However, like many people in Ireland struggling to reach speeds of 1-2Mbps, they may struggle to reach HD quality, which would defeat the purpose of the stick.

Content

Being at the tail end of the Chromecast’s development might actually work in Ireland’s favour, as many of the apps available weren’t there when it was first released.

Following Google’s release of the Android software development kit (SDK) that allows developers to make their apps compatible with the Chromecast, a flood of new apps are now on the Google Play Store.

The question is, are many of them actually worth your while?

Many of the initial release apps are sadly out of reach to Irish users, including ESPN, HBO Go and Hulu Plus, but they can welcome Google Play Movies, which launched this month in Ireland.

I would strongly recommend Android owners to download the Cast Store app from the Google Play Store, which acts as a directory for every Chromecast-compatible app out there at the moment and is broken down into different categories.

From experience however, it’s definitely in a state of “quantity over quality”, with most apps offering little reason to play on Chromecast, bar a novelty factor.

The best I have found so far is Avia, which allows the user to stream any media on his or her device straight to the TV, which is great for large gatherings.

Verdict

While it’s compared with its more powerful competitors, comparing the Chromecast against them is harsh as it’s not attempting to replicate them.

At €39, it is an inexpensive and easy way of turning a TV into a smart TV, which requires little effort to set up – that is, if you’re an Android user.

All those apps being created through the SDK mean nothing to iOS developers who, bar the major established apps, are left with little use of the Chromecast. However, buyers of Apple products are more likely to buy an Apple TV where everything is catered for them.

Another point is that with Roku recently introducing its own streaming stick at just over €60, it begs the question as to whether it would be worth spending that little bit more with dedicated apps and a separate controller?

I would suggest the Chromecast offers Android users a huge catalogue of apps being added almost on a daily basis, as well as its new ability to mirror Android devices straight to the TV.

Definitely worth it if you’re a heavy Netflix or YouTube user with no gaming console. For everyone else it might be an inexpensive method of getting a smart TV on the cheap.

 

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Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com