Dear Lifehacker, I've been debating getting a Chromecast. I like that it's cheap, but is there any reason to get it over a box like an Apple TV or one of the other dongles that are out there? Any thoughts? Thanks, Box Or No Box
The Chromecast has been in the news a lot lately. Not only is it a solid little device on its own, but it's about to get better: Earlier this week, Google finally released the software development kit (SDK) that enables any developer to add casting support to their apps. Within a day, AllCast was updated, allowing you to stream your own local media to your Chromecast. This adds to a group of apps that have incorporated support for the Chromecast since its initial launch. However, app support is only one of the key factors that matter when deciding between a Chromecast and another streaming solution, so let's take a look at the key factors.
Google hasn't officially announced any plans to release the Chromecast in Australia, but it isn't difficult to import one from the US if you're curious. The lack of Australian support does mean it's unlikely we'll see direct support for the Chromecast from local media apps such as the ABC's iview, but that doesn't mean it might not be a useful choice.
Where The Chromecast Wins Out
The Chromecast functions is unique when compared to other streaming media solutions. Other set-top boxes, such as the Apple TV or the embedded software in your Blu-Ray player, tend to use the same directional pad control schemes, blown-up interfaces, and space-consuming hardware. The Chromecast differs from this path in some key ways:
- It's one of the smallest devices around: Unlike other set top boxes, the Chromecast takes up virtually no space. If you have an open HDMI port and a place to plug in the power, you'll never even see the little device. (This also applies to devices such as Kogan's TV dongle, though its feature set isn't identical.)
- Your phone is your remote: While remote controls have been one of the most beloved technological advances of the 20th century, they're also very rudimentary and easy to lose. We tend to be much better at keeping track of our phones. While Apple TV users can download a remote app for iOS, there's a wider range of choices for Chromecast remotes across multiple platforms.
- More importantly, your app is your remote: With the Chromecast, your "remote control" is the native app for whatever you're watching rather than some direction pad and set of buttons. It's an app designed for mobile, and instead of clicking around a menu, you're picking your media from the app's normal menus. It's a much nicer experience. While not every company does this perfectly, the big names like YouTube have done a good job.
- (Some) apps are group activities: It's inevitable: when you have company over, one person wants to play a YouTube video, then everyone wants to join in. One of the neat things about how the YouTube app handles the Chromecast is that anyone can do so, and they can even add a video to a shared playlist to make things easy.
- Tab casting is available as a fallback: While the feature can be a bit wonky, the Chromecast is able to stream video from any Chrome tab on your PC to your TV. It's not an ideal solution, but if you want to play videos from a less popular streaming site (such as an Australian TV network), tab casting is always an option. On an Apple TV or other devices, if a service isn't supported you're generally out of luck.
Where the Chromecast Falls Short
It's not all sunshine and rainbows in Chromecast land. Since Google elected to avoid the traditional model for set-top boxes, there are some distinct disadvantages to using it:
- Many apps are still missing: Tab casting may be a decent solution if you want to pull out a laptop, but not all apps are so lucky. The advent of the Chromecast SDK means that we may see a flood of new options, but for now, there are still some areas where it's a waiting game.
- You have no physical remote: Yes, this very thing was listed as a feature in the previous section, but it cuts both ways. If you have a member of the house that doesn't own a smartphone (for example, your children), it won't be easy for them to use the Chromecast.
- It lacks a native interface: One of the silent advantages to using a standalone streaming box is that everyone can browse together. A big wall of movies is visible to everyone in the room and each person can offer their input as you look for something to watch. With a Chromecast, everyone has to crowd around the phone or tablet to see what's available, which isn't always ideal.
- You might already have a set top box: Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the Chromecast is that it came out in 2013, years after devices like the Apple TV were already in living rooms. For those that haven't bought one already, many Blu-Ray players and TVs also have many of these same functions built in. It's a cheap device, but if you already own technology that does the same thing, the money isn't very well spent.
As we said the last time we looked at the Chromecast, whether or not you need it depends a lot on your particular setup. Do you have a TV, but no existing streaming boxes? Do you prefer browsing on your phone to using a handheld remote? Are the apps you use most already supported? Your answer to these questions determines how useful the Chromecast is to you.
The one thing that has changed is that now, between the apps that have already added support, and the ones that are likely coming, the Chromecast may be worth more than what it costs. The one big question everyone was concerned with when the Chromecast launched was whether or not the app support was coming. In the time since, even without an open SDK, the response has been relatively strong. While it's still early days, we can finally bump the Chromecast from an idle curiosity to a possible recommendation, as long as your personal use case works well with it.
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