Chromecast in-depth review

Product expert and self-confessed Google fanboy, Simon Boice, got his hands on a Google Chromecast when the product first arrived in the US. This is his detailed review - or as we like to call it, his Chromecast diary. Enjoy...

Chromecast review by Simon Boice, Currys PC World product expert and self-confessed Google fanboy

I must confess, for a long time now I have been something of a Google fanboy; has been my search engine of choice for more than ten years, Chrome has been my preferred Internet browser for at least half that time, the Asus-made Google Nexus was my first tablet PC and a little over a year ago now I became a proud owner of, and firm advocate for, a Chromebook. So it was with more than just a little interest that I first started researching the rumoured Chromecast UK release back in July 2013.

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The Google Chromecast is, in essence, an HDMI dongle. A Chromecast allows you to connect pretty well any TV (at least since the digital switchover anyway) to your WiFi network and in turn means you can 'cast' your music, videos and web pages onto the big screen from any device that is both connected to the network and supports the Google Chrome browser. This includes virtually every desktop or laptop PC, any Android phone such as the Samsung Galaxy, Windows phones like the latest Nokia Lumia, Chromebooks, Android tablets and more besides. And yes - it even works on Apple devices; the Chromecast does offer full support for ipad and Mac users, providing an affordable alternative to some of the functionality offered by the Apple TV.

When the Chromecast was first announced as upcoming for the US market the information about its capabilities was scant. I knew it plugged in via HDMI and would allow me to throw content from more traditional 'computing' devices to my audio visual ones but I was at a bit of a loss as to how that would revolutionise my digital life. So I went and bought one anyway... Let's face it, 'Googlers' have a hundred ideas a day that come to nothing but when they hit on an absolute gem that comes to market there's every chance it is going to be a) useful, b) affordable and c) cool. Turns out the Chromecast ticks all the classic Google product boxes then.

Having parted with a few of my hard earned dollars (yes, I know, I probably should have waited until it arrived at Currys PC World and paid in good old fashioned British pounds!) I received in return a tiny little box that proudly sports those classic Google colours on a crisp white background. Already it felt Googly in my grubby little mitts.

Clawing the box open (whilst, I might add, still some 3,500 miles away from the TV it would plug into) I was greeted by a small - about 7cm long - plastic-coated talisman of digital joy, a female to male HDMI extender (to get your Chromecast round any stupid lumps and bumps on the back of your telly) a micro USB cable and a mains adaptor into which to plug the USB to draw power to the Chromecast.

Chromecast 1

I was also greeted by three simple instructions on how to setup a Chromecast: 1. Plug it in, 2. Switch input, 3. Set it up (with a simple web address against the last one: Surely it couldn't be that easy, in spite of Google's much repeated claim for the Chromecast that 'it'll just work' so it was with some scepticism that within an hour of landing back in the UK I unpacked my Chromecast (not my clothes, toothbrush, gifts for the family etc... just my new toy) and 'plugged it in'.

To set up a Chromecast really is simple though. I connected mine, with the HDMI extender, to the back of an LG LM46 Smart TV and since I was using the only USB port on the back of the TV for a media storage device I used the mini USB to mains connectors to power up my Google 'Cast (I'm in with the in-crowd now y'see).

I switched my TV input to HDMI3 where I'd connected the Chromecast, and was immediately greeted on my TV screen by a beautiful beach vista (one of the Google Chrome standard desktop backgrounds) and a simple welcome message with next steps. Much as the Google search homepage does, it put me in mind of Douglas Adams' Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy; Google have always done an excellent line in communicating 'Don't Panic' in large friendly letters on their front covers.

The final step of setting up a Chromecast is to visit the official Chromecast setup page and download Google Cast, the app that makes the magic happen. Once you've got Cast, open it, wait for it to recognise all Chromecasts in the vicinity (unsurprisingly over 6 months before its arrival in the UK mine was the only one... Eat that neighbours!) and when prompted give it your WiFi network password.... Job. Done.

So by now I am back in the UK, my shiny new Chromecast is connected to my TV, my Chromebook, smartphone, tablet and PCs all have Google Cast installed, my poor wife has had all of her devices further violated by my as-long-as-I-can-remember insistence that EVERYTHING has to talk to everything else and I am ready to explore this Brave New World.

Chromecast 2So what do I do? I open my Chromebook, hit the discrete little 'Cast' button in the top right hand corner of my browser window and I start checking two week's of backlogged work emails in an entirely unnecessary 46 inches of high resolution digital glory. Oh the glamour of it all!

It was after about half an hour in the foothills of Email Mountain that I concluded the delay between clicking/mousing/typing on my Chromebook (only about 2 seconds) and it happening on screen was annoying me and frankly this was no way to treat my new toy. So I went off to see how it handled what it was really designed for; getting content off a computer and onto a family friendly shareable screen with big audio to boot. I've not looked back since.

Google's own YouTube site (and app) has Chromecast support baked right into it. Every video window has the cast icon in the bottom right hand side and a single click beams you up. This was especially useful when I got stuck on a couple of levels of Tomb Raider and needed to watch a walkthrough. By Casting it to the big screen several of us could watch it without having to cosy up uncomfortably, meaning the pass-and-play session could continue unabated.

Netflix also supports Chromecast right from the outset with the same idea: a single click on a single icon gets it onto a single screen for all to share. Sadly most of the other popular streaming sites do not yet support this, but I strongly suspect this is just the peril of being an early adopter; now you can get Chromecasts in the UK we just need enough of us to 'plug in, switch input and set it up' to make Google Cast support a complete no brainer for all those sites.

Chromecast 3What probably surprised me most though, were the completely unforeseen uses I have found for Chromecast. Previously when I wanted to watch content from a computer on the TV I plugged it in via HDMI and just sat the laptop (or whatever) on the floor by the TV. Hardly difficult, but a bit of a faff if you just want to show the person next to you a web page you're looking at. Now, however, I have HDMI3 as a shortcut button on my remote so I can share anything I want within 5 seconds (and two of those are spent finding the remote control).

We're currently looking to move house, so popular homebuyers' sites are cast more or less daily as we find possible options we want to run by one another. Most of the time we do this from my Chromebook, but several times, without any additional difficulty, we've used my wife's Android phone when she's found that dream home that is only a mere 5 times our maximum budget. Somewhat inevitably this requires list writing too; pros and cons, areas to consider, recent sale prices and so on. Having put all of that into a series of Google Documents we can now Cast them to the TV too and can update the list or review it together on a big screen from a comfy chair. Increasingly I have found my life moving towards Google Docs anyway given the ease of sharing, updating and creating; the Chromecast has just put a pretty little cherry on top.

Chromecast 4I'm also prone to the odd day or three wasted on online gaming. With the advent of HTML5 (and, to a lesser extent, Flash before it) browser games are becoming more sophisticated and prettier than ever before. That I can now throw a strategy game straight from my Chrome browser at the TV instead of lurking behind a laptop means I can see bigger areas on screen at any given time than before, and can actually see the differences between the combat units (or whatever you may be playing) and modify tactics accordingly. Gone are the days of the immortal utterance 'b***er... I thought that one was something else' as you watch your little on screen chaps getting annihilated.

And it's not even exclusively visual. Much of our music collection is now in the cloud (somewhat inevitably courtesy of a Google product once again!) and I've managed to rig Google Cloud Player to the TV via the Chromecast as well. No more external PC speakers or tinny on board sound. Now I get full 5.1 surround sound glory through my home theatre kit (also an LG creation) and can annoy my Chromecast-less neighbours with tremendous volume and ease.

I have had my Chromecast for about 6 months now, and whilst I don't use it every day I reckon it probably gets an outing at least three or four times a week for one thing or another. I increasingly find myself poring over forums and blogs such as this looking for information on how other people are using theirs. Looking for new apps offering Chromecast support. Looking for rumours of new functionality for Chromecast or changes to the interface. In short, I am now as addicted to my Chromecast as I am to all of my other tech and it has filled a gap in my technological family that I never even knew was there. And to this day I have never abused it again with something so mundane as browsing emails. I am sorry Chromecast... I know better now.

If that tickles your fancy, you can check out more info on the Chromecast at Currys PC World!