As the price has now dropped to only £18, which is less than I’ve paid for a couple of drinks in a London bar in the past, it seemed like the right time to try out the Google Chromecast – connected TV in a device little bigger than an old school memory stick.
I’ve watched for some time the battle for the connected living room, and no pair of vendors owns the TV in the way that Apple and Google have conquered mobile devices (or Apple and Microsoft the PC before it). To an extent I think that mobile devices have conquered the living room.
I’m currently not short of options when it comes to consuming content on my TV, although we’re not a family that consumes masses of paid-for content. Alongside the free-to-air Freeview channels, we have access to BBC iPlayer on our early Samsung SmartTV. I bought a Roku box a couple of years ago, so also have iPlayer available there alongside 4od, Five on Demand and recently ITV Player. On the occasions when Watford are on Sky, I also watch games via the Roku box on NowTV where I can pay per-game.
Both of those options can be controlled via dedicated remote controls, or controller Apps that make some of the navigation a bit easier (especially when it comes to typing text). The App is just a controller, though. The device (either the Samsung TV or the Roku Box) is the centre of attention, and Apps have to be built for those platforms to be available.
Here’s where Chromecast is different. Although some of the logic sits on the device, some of it is in the app, and it’s function varies from being similar to that of a Roku box (or AppleTV or the video features of XBox), through to being little more than a wireless video connection.
What that means is that whilst there are some apps that have been developed explicitly for Chromecast (iPlayer, YouTube, BT Sport, NetFlix and then a bunch of crud), it’s possible to beam your Android device or Chrome browser tab onto the TV as well.
Whilst the installation process for the device was very slick (plug in, point a browser on a device that’s on the same Wifi network to http://chromecast.com/setup, follow instructions), in using the thing it became fairly obvious fairly quickly that a lot of Chromecast is in Beta, despite the product now having been a year in market.
Switching between devices (from Chromebook to Android phone) caused crashes. New functionality within the Slides part of Google Apps to present to Chromecast gave about 5 seconds of presentation before reverting to the home screen. Bringing up iPlayer in a browser and then pressing the “Google Cast” button in Chrome (interesting lack of consistency of naming there) got iPlayer on Chromecast terribly confused.
Marketers for years have been portraying a world of inter-connected devices (this one for example) where we can flip content from one device to another. The reality is somewhat different, because the reality includes buffering time. Of all of the major players in this domain Google are the ones who get “everything in the cloud” better than others (because their entire business has only ever really been in the Cloud). But the Cloud involves (at the moment) nasty matters of physics and network latency and ropey ISP routers and contention ratios and marketing myths where “sequences have been shortened“.
Chromecast feels like a work in progress. The Apps for it are OK, but no better than those on the Roku box (and there are fewer decent ones available). Wirelessly transmitting the screen from a phone or laptop is OK, but a little bit laggy (and for high-bandwidth content, very laggy). It’s twice the price of a Slimport cable that would connect my phone much more reliably (but much less conveniently).
But it strikes me that, putting aside the issues of how phones and tablets are the interactive channel and device for the living room, the “flick a bit of content from my phone to my TV” vision (if we ever actually want it) is going to be a disappointing experience for as long as it takes more than a few microseconds for any device to begin streaming a piece of content from the Internet. And that’s not something that the TV, the dongle, the laptop or the smartphone actually has within its own control.