When Google announced the Chromecast during their breakfast, the star of the show was not Android 4.3 or the new Nexus 7 but the small, seemingly trivial piece of technology no bigger than a USB thumb drive. One year after the Nexus Q was announced, put on hold, and ultimately retired before officially launching, Google is back in our living rooms with another device. Friendlier than Google TV, far cheaper than the $299 Nexus Q, the $35 Chromecast widget may be their Apple TV: easy and cheap enough for anyone to add to their living room. For under $40, including tax, seeing that units were in stock at the local BestBuy, I figured it was worth checking out in person.
The Chromecast takes a lot of the usability ideas behind the Nexus Q and applies them better to an improved product. Like the Q, media isn’t streamed from your phone or computer, that device acts as a remote control, and the Chromecast does the job from there. So if you open Netflix on your phone and select a show, there is a small TV icon to “cast” the content onto your big screen. While watching a show on your TV, the Netflix app is now a remote control, handling the play and pause functions and the ability to scroll through the timeline. YouTube works the same way, and you can add to your queue from the app, building a playlist that will keep running, uninterrupted. As you would expect, Google’s Play Movies & TV and Play Music apps take advantage of this control scheme as well.
On the Nexus Q, all of this sharing and selecting was entirely done though the phone interface. All you saw on the screen was the result: the music or movie you were playing (and there was no Netflix capability, only Google and YouTube media properties). Adding on-screen controls and information makes the user experience a hundred times better. This is how the Nexus Q should have worked. The idea of our phones and tablets taking over the television as a remote control is a good one, but it needs to be done in a way that makes sense in the television world, and that means on-screen messages and interactions.
With the Chromecast plugged into my TV, this is the first time I have ever considered buying media from a company other than Apple. Even though I’ve been an Android user since joining the smartphone world, I’ve had Macs for a decade. While music files have evolved from being tied to iTunes, movies and shows purchased from the iTunes store are still firmly in the Apple universe. Apple TV is $99 dollars and worst case scenario, I can watch on my Mac and make my own video output solution. In this copyright-burdened world we live in, iTunes, backed by a company very likely to stay in the content delivery business and continue to support accessing that content on a plethora of (their own) devices has seemed like the safest choice. Maybe “owning” digital content is a fad, but if something isn’t available on Netflix and the rental fee is $3.99 or $4.99, “buying” a digital movie for $9.99, if you may ever watch it again, is still a tempting offer. And this is where Google pulls their final rabbit out of the hat: tab casting.
By installing the Google Cast extension on your computer’s Chrome browser, any tab you have open on your computer can be shared to the TV. I’m writing this on the TV right now. Amazon Prime video? Sure, just cast the tab and you’re watching that video on your television. The quirk with tab casting is that tabs are not Chromecast apps. You can share a tab playing Amazon content, but the video continues to play on your computer, albeit without sound. Going to fullscreen means that you can’t do anything else on the computer. If Amazon adds Chromecast functionality to their smartphone and tablet apps, this won’t be an issue. You may not want to have a movie night watching content on the TV inside a browser window, but it’s still on a big screen with more real estate than a laptop, so if you just want to make use of a second screen, it’ll do.
Unfortunately, one of the benefits announced at launch, three free months of Netflix, for current and new users alike, has already been discontinued. That savings effectively reduced the price of the Chromecast to $11. It’s puzzling that Google was prepared to sell so many devices but limit the Netflix perk to only the earliest of early adopters. At least without more clear messaging from the start that it was a very limited time offer.
On day one though, the Chromecast is a home run. We’re starting to see the differentiation between Android (Google TV) and Chrome, which, as Gina Trapani put it on This Week in Google boils down to “Android in an operating system” and “Chrome is a platform.” This definition doesn’t quite cover the Chromebooks, especially the higher-end Pixel, but it does work well to define the interaction between users and devices.
With all apologies to Xfinity, it’s Chromecastic.