05.03.14

Letter from America: Is there Gold in Chromecast?

Michael-Heiss

By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. When it comes to software and software-driven products and services there is no question that Google ha...

Michael HeissBy Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. When it comes to software and software-driven products and services there is no question that Google has been one of the most successful companies there is. A simple indication of general agreement with that, is the fact that the company’s stock has gone from just over $100/share to over $1,200/share during the past ten-year span, and up only a paltry $600/share in price from where it was at this point a year ago. Looking at it another way, the company’s name has almost become a common verb when someone asks you to search for something on the Internet. Think about it: when was the last time someone asked you to 'Yahoo that' or 'Bing that' to find something. [caption id="attachment_4524" align="aligncenter" width="317"]Google has been one of the most successful software-driven companies there is. Google has been one of the most successful software-driven companies there is.[/caption] Yet, for all of its market leadership on the software/search side of things and the resulting financial success, Google’s track record with hardware has been decidedly mixed. On one hand you have its Nexus line of phones and tablets. Generally recognised as among the leaders in Android devices (as they should be, given who developed Android!), I can attest with first-hand knowledge as to the great value proposition that is the Nexus 7 tablet I have for testing Android applications. On the down side, the Nexus 'Q', also known as 'The Q Ball' due to its unique industrial design, was a major failure that never even saw any paid sales as the units were simply given away for free to those who pre-ordered them after the project was scrapped. In the middle is GoogleTV. Not all that bad an idea, but something that, for a variety of reasons, never got the marketplace traction needed to compete with the increasing array of 'smart TV' products and less-expensive streaming STBs (Set Top Boxes) such as those from Roku and AppleTV. [caption id="attachment_4523" align="aligncenter" width="600"]The Nexus Q was a media streaming entertainment device produced by Google that never made it to market with paid sales. The Nexus Q was a media streaming entertainment device produced by Google that never made it to market with paid sales.[/caption] Then, in the middle, we have Google Glass. Everyone is talking about this and it is the latest 'in' thing to be spotted with, but it is still much too soon to see if it will be a true commercial success, a real-world failure or something in the middle along the lines of GoogleTV. [caption id="attachment_4525" align="aligncenter" width="600"]The Google Glass wearable computer with built-in GPS, camera, display, speakers, battery, microphone and wireless connection. The Google Glass wearable computer with built-in GPS, camera, display, speakers, battery, microphone and wireless connection.
[/caption] Chromecast And then there is the subject of this month’s Letter: Chromecast. When it was first introduced here in the US this past July, the response was so successful that it was sold out in a few days. An even better indication of the initial success was that a 'Netflix for free for three months' promotion to early purchasers was called off just 24 hours after release due to very high demand for the product. Things have calmed down a bit and the device is available here in the US through both online and traditional retail for US$35, although it has been promoted at times for less than $30. [caption id="attachment_4526" align="aligncenter" width="400"]The compact Chromecast simply plugs into an HDMI input on the TV with the power coming from a USB port on the TV or via a standard 'wall wart' power adapter. If there is limited clearance behind the set or if it doesn’t fit next to other HDMI cables, a short HDMI extension cable lets you have some flexibility to bend the unit around 90 degrees. The compact Chromecast simply plugs into an HDMI input on the TV with the power coming from a USB port on the TV or via a standard 'wall wart' power adapter. If there is limited clearance behind the set or if it doesn’t fit next to other HDMI cables, a short HDMI extension cable lets you have some flexibility to bend the unit around 90 degrees.[/caption] With Chromecast due to hit the UK market - and perhaps beyond - imminently, you may see the same sort of launch press coverage as on this side of the pond, along with enquiries about it from your client base. Thus, this seems like a good time to take a step back and see what all the shouting is about. Just what exactly does it do? How is it different from similar “'streamers'? And most importantly, what, if any place does it have in the custom world? Good questions, and, as is usually the case with things of this nature, the answers provide a mixed analysis. Chromecast Versus Apple TV and Roku It’s worth saying up front that if you expect Chromecast to do everything a Roku or AppleTV does, as they say where I grew up in New York, 'Fuhhgeddaboutit!' The Chromecast is good at what it does; it’s just that it doesn’t do all that much at least for the moment. [caption id="attachment_4614" align="aligncenter" width="600"]As the packaging indicates, Chromecast is fairly easy to install. As the packaging indicates, Chromecast is fairly easy to install.[/caption] With an AppleTV, you can either search for content from internal apps or mirror the screens showing on an iOS phone, tablet or Mac. Control is via the included remote or an iOS app. With a Roku box, smart TV, connected optical player (e.g. Blu-ray), games console, or other streaming products and dongles, you use the remote or a phone/tablet app to tell the device which streaming service or what content to connect to and then plays it. [caption id="attachment_4615" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Second stage of the Chromecast setup process. Second stage of the Chromecast setup process.[/caption] Sometimes there is also an internal browser (as is the case in PlayStation 3 and 4, and also as was the case with GoogleTV and the original BoxeeBox) so that you can surf on a big screen. The key is that you use either the device’s native remote or an app to navigate and control content selection and other settings. [caption id="attachment_4616" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Last stage of the Chromecast setup process Last stage of the Chromecast setup process[/caption] Chromecast is unlike that in that there is no remote or app, as such. Once you have the Chromecast configured to the home Wi-Fi network, you use compatible apps to find the content, let’s say YouTube or Netflix, tap on the Chromecast icon and select the Chromecast as the sink device just as you would use a similar routine on a phone or tablet to select where the audio is routed to. (e.g. internal speakers, a headset, Bluetooth speakers, etc.). Once that is done, the Chromecast goes out and gets the content and plays it. The device that was used to select the content may then leave the room, be turned off, or be tasked to do something else. That is nice because, unlike when you stream audio content from a phone to a 'big system' or external speakers, you don’t draw down the device’s battery or you can use it for something else such as to make or answer a phone call. However, here comes the first downside to the Chromecast approach: without a remote control or app you have no way to pause or scan back/forward through the content. If the dog barks and you are distracted, if someone says 'Go back a bit, I didn’t catch what that character said', or if you want to go to another bit of content when the first one is finished, you had better have that connected phone or tablet available or you are out of luck. Managing Expectations For those spoiled by the increasing array of content services on other connected products, Chromecast may also be a bit of a disappointment. Here in the US, in addition to the obvious availability of Google-owned YouTube and Google Play, we’ve currently got Netflix, vevo, Pandora, HuluPlus, Vudu, HBO Go and a few others. The latter three are US-centric and you won’t see them on your side of the pond, and Google hasn’t said what other content providers will be available at the ex-US launch. Anyone looking for the BBC iPlayer, SkyPlayer or similar, at least at launch, is urged to check before purchase. In addition, some services are available on iOS or Android but not both. True, Google has opened its SDK so that more services and content will be native to Chromecast, but that is taking time, and for the moment, the bottom line is not to expect everything you or your clients want to be available through Chromecast. Mirroring Content OK, you say, if I can’t access the content I want via an app, I can just go to my browser, mirror that, and then who needs an app anyway? Right? Well, again as we said in the old neighbourhood, 'Kinda sorta.' If you use a laptop that is on the same network you can mirror content to the Chromecast. I’ve done it and the image is considerably better than when using the browser in my GoogleTV or PS3. You can also trying loading a third-party app such as Plex, configure it, sync content, pay the extra monthly fee for a 'Plex Pass' and then stream some content. Presuming that both the display or external box (Blu-ray player or similar) and the originating phone or tablet all have the right software and wireless capabilities, you can also take advantage of Miracast or proprietary branding of that technology suite for this. Somewhat acceptable, but nowhere near as easy as using an AppleTV for mirroring from an iOS device or Mac. Going back to our focus on Chromecast, one would think that since the Nexus tablet, the Chrome browser and the Chromecast itself, all come from Google, it would be easy to mirror web content from my Nexus to the Chromecast connected to a TV. Right? Sorry, wrong. At least for now. Presumably that will come with time, but unless you jump through hoops with the likes of Plex on the mobile or use a laptop in the lounge where people are now more apt to use smaller, lighter and more portable devices, you are out of luck. What's All the Fuss About? At this point you are probably asking yourself what the big deal is and what could possibly account for the incredible attention to Chromecast along with its consumer popularity. You’re probably also wondering if you should even bother to buy one or recommend it once it becomes available in your neck of the woods. The answer to the first question is that what Chromecast DOES do, it does very well and it does it for a very modest price. It is easy to configure, and the video quality is as good as, or perhaps even better than, any of the half dozen or more streaming-capable products around the house and in my office lab. [caption id="attachment_4613" align="aligncenter" width="600"]When nothing is being ‘cast the Chromecast shows a time display and crisp photos for wallpaper to complement the knick-nacks around the TV When nothing is being ‘cast the Chromecast shows a time display and crisp photos for wallpaper to complement the knick-nacks around the TV [/caption] I've used it to facilitate binge viewing of our favourite Korean family dramas, there were no 'buffering breaks' and the video and audio were superb (no, neither my wife nor I speak Korean, but that is a story for another day over a pint at the pub). We have used Chromecast with the TV in the kitchen to watch YouTube to get recipes since the set there is not otherwise connected. For $35 we have given the poor old set there all the intelligence it needs, not counting the tablet used to select and control the streams. [caption id="attachment_4528" align="aligncenter" width="504"]Connecting a Chromecast to an older unconnected TV in the kitchen lets viewers check out recipes on YouTube in high quality. The screen saver plays well-shot images along with a time-clock. Connecting a Chromecast to an older unconnected TV in the kitchen lets viewers check out recipes on YouTube in high quality. The screen saver plays well-shot images along with a time-clock. [/caption] Looking Ahead As time moves on, I suspect that you will see many more service providers add Chromecast integration. I'm particularly interested in that enablement being built into the app for a product called SimpleTV that I’ll be talking about in a future Letter. The combination of Chromecast, SimpleTV and an app may bring interesting capabilities to you and your clients. Another interesting possibility, at least for your more tech-savvy clients, is to give them a pre-configured kit with a Chromecast and a small portable Wi-Fi router to use while travelling. Now that many more hotel TVs seem to be allowing guests to connect HDMI devices, this could well make it possible to watch Netflix or YouTube on the larger hotel TV instead of on a laptop or tablet. Nice way to avoid those pesky in-room movie charges. However, it is the second question above that provides a reason to be a sport and spring a few dollars, pounds or euros to get one of these to experiment with. As programme distribution increasingly turns to IP-based systems, particularly for cable, small dongle-type devices are on the way to replace the traditional STB. There are already many such Android-based products in a similar form factor to Chromecast that perhaps lack its big corporate backing and refinement, but more than a few pundits and experts I've spoken to suggest that that may be the wave of the future. Conclusion At the end of the day, if a TV is already connected and 'smart', or if there is already some form of streaming device connected to it, you probably don’t need to provision a Chromecast. If the user is more techno-phobic and relies on hard remotes and on-screen menus to drive product for content selection and control, a Chromecast probably won’t do the trick. However, if there is a need to bring popular streaming services to an existing TV or installation at low cost with high quality for a reasonably tech-savvy client (or family member), this is a prefect solution that won’t stretch the budget. Either way, if the attention in the general, business and enthusiast press and blogs that accompanied the introduction of Chromecast over here is repeated, even at a reduced level, wherever you reside or trade, it is something you will be asked about. Pick one up, see what it does and doesn’t do, how it works and how to integrate it. Editor’s Note: As we go to press, Roku has announced that it will soon be shipping a new HDMI version of its Streaming Stick product for GB£49. No longer requiring an MHL connection, as is the case with the original version of the Streaming Stick, this presents an interesting competitor to Chromecast. Full details will be here shortly in a 'Special Delivery Letter From America' from Michael. Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, and follow him on Twitter @captnvid. 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