There are bevy of devices on the market aimed to allow you to stream content from the Internet to your TV, most notably Roku and Apple TV set-top boxes. Google has officially entered the fray with their $35 Chromecast device (www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices/chromecast), leaving many to ponder how it’s different and whether it can serve their streaming needs.
The Roku (www.roku.com, $50-100 depending on model) and Apple TV (www.apple.com/appletv, $100) are “set-top” boxes that connect to your TV with a cable and connect to the Internet or compatible devices over your home’s WiFi. The initial buzz for Google’s Chromecast is based on its rock bottom price of $35, quick and easy set up, and its small size: the Chromecast is about the size of a USB dongle and plugs directly into any HDMI port. This allows you to quickly stream to a multitude of devices including HDMI-compatible TVs, monitors and projectors.
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Once you plug in the Chromecast and it finds your WiFi network, your Smartphone, tablet or computer controls what it plays. There is no remote and content is streamed directly to the Chromecast from any app that supports it (currently Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube) or from the cloud via GooglePlay.
Chromecast also offers the ability to send content from the Chrome browser on your computer to your TV, an intriguing feature since none of the set-top options include an integrated browser. In theory, this means that any content you could watch online such as NBC.com, CBS.com, HBO Go, or webcasts from your favorite websites, could be seamlessly sent to your big screen through Chromecast “mirroring.” Simply pull up the website in a Chrome browser on your computer and send it instantly to your Chromecast.
In practice the Chromecast’s mirroring functionality is a bit buggy, leading to video lags, audio drops and the occasional crash. Video image quality is poor because it’s converted when sent to your Chromecast. Apple’s AirPlay lets you mirror the screen of your iPhone or iPad to your TV using the AppleTV (audio too with supported apps), but you can only see content supported by Apple – a smaller library of file types than that supported by Chrome.
The Chromecast works best with the apps that support it, but they’re woefully limited (only Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube) due to its recent entry into the market. AppleTv offers those AND Disney Channels, HBO Go and sports channels (including ESPN, NBA, and MLB.TV). Roku is the clear front runner, offering Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video, Redbox and Blockbuster on Demand, PBS, Fox, SyFy and many more.
The one that will best fit your needs depends largely on the platform of equipment you already own. If your home is filled with iPhones, iPads and Macs, you should splurge on an Apple TV. AirPlay sends content seamlessly from your iOS devices and it’s the only streaming device that lets you watch the media content you have stored in your iTunes without a 3rd party work-around. If you have Android devices and purchase video or music content through the Google Play store, the Chromecast offers the best solution to view or listen to it on your TV or home theater.
The Chromecast also wins for portability. While you do need to connect the device to a USB power source with an additional cable (so you can’t just toss the dongle in your pocket and go), the size and quick set up means the Chromecast will be my go-to travel device, whether I’m headed to a hotel or need to project a presentation at the office. As more app developers build in Chromecast integration, it’s sure to get even more useful.
About The Author: Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, a computer repair company that specializes in on-site and online service for homes and businesses. Andrea is the writer of a weekly column, Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight. She prepares TV segments for and appears regularly on CBS, CW and FOX on shows such as Good Day Sacramento, More Good Day Portland, and CBS 13 News, offering viewers technology and lifestyle tips. See Andrea in action at callnerds.com/andrea/.