Design & Build Quality
The unit itself looks like a traditional Wi-Fi dongle and is small, compact and utilitarian: just what it needs to be. In the box you'll get the Chromecast itself, a USB charger and a female-to-male HDMI adapter which serves as an extension cord if there isn't enough room on your TV to fit the Chromecast alongside other attached cables. There's not much to say about the looks of the device, but it certainly feels well built and has a little more weight to it than you might expect. There isn't a persistant Chromecast interface when the device is connected though, which makes it feel a little less polished than I would have expected. In this respect the Chromecast feels more like a tool than a product. A dedicated interface is rumored to be in the pipelines though.
Installation and Use
Installation is a breeze: you simply download the Chromecast app to your smartphone or tablet and plug the device in to your TV's HDMI port. Launch the app on your portable device and it will locate the Chromecast via your Wi-Fi network, walk you through the pairing process and then show you the app itself, where you can browse the available Chromecast apps in the Play Store, check out your connected devices, cast your screen, learn more about the Chromecast or enter the settings menu.
- Check out our Chromecast tips and tricks.
When you cast your screen through the app your screen content will be mirrored on your television, but if you cast through one of the apps then you'll get a Chromecast interface instead. Casting via the apps themselves rather than by simply casting your screen content actually means your device is then removed from the mix and the connection is made directly from the Chromecast to your Wi-Fi connection instead of being routed through your device as a middle man. This can be a little odd the first time it happens as all of a sudden your screen is no longer being cast if you back out of a native app [Edit: What I mean by this is that your cast content will continue streaming, but your phone will be disengaged, so what your phone screen shows no longer matches the content on your TV]. The benefit of this is increased speed and a dedicated interface.
The list of Chromecast apps is still relatively short but all the major services are on offer in the US, as mentioned above. Other countries in Europe have some pretty serious limitations on what content is available, but this will undoubtedly grow over time, especially as the device gains traction in the US market. App developers have also been encouraged by Google to make use of the Chromecast SDK to add a cast feature to their apps, effectively making them a native Chromecast app, but in the meantime you can do the slightly less streamlined screen casting of your mobile apps. As Google expands its Material Design UI across all its screens, you'll start seeing more Chromecast apps looking more unified.
- Check out some of our favorite Chromecast apps.
Speed is another issue. Obviously there's a bit of lag in the transmission from your device content to the Chromecast, depending on the speed of your Wi-Fi connection and the amount of traffic on it, but I found the lag to be entirely acceptable. At some times the Chromecast responded near instantly, so it's not something that will always bug you. Unfortunately the unreliable connection speed means that you couldn't really use the Chromecast to cast games to your screen and use your phone as a controller, unless it was more of a slow-paced puzzle game. Of course, you need to be pretty familiar with where your fingers need to be on the device, but if you're good with this then it is at least a possibility.
As mentioned above, when you remove your portable device from the connection triangle things get noticeably faster. In much the same fashion if you are casting from your laptop the opposite is also true: you are then getting a Wi-Fi connection from your router, through your laptop, back through the router and then to the Chromecast. Of course the more apps that build Chromecast support in as a default option, the better it is for the end user experience.
Also, if you have a spotty or heavily-trafficked Wi-Fi connection you might not be as happy with the smoothness you see: adding an extra layer of streaming to the viewing experience is going to come with certain drawbacks. All things considered though and on a good connection, the Chromecast is a speedy little gadget that does exactly what you expect it to and could become indispensable if you have friends over that want to share photos, music videos, movies or other media content.
Price vs performance
The Chromecast's 29.95 USD price tag puts it well below Apple TV or Roku, but there is a definite lack of native apps for the service, even this long after its initial launch. There is no doubt that many other alternatives exist with more options, but with Google at the helm you know that Chromecast isn't going anywhere and the available services are only going to grow over time. The Chromecast is available anywhere that Google products are sold, but the services and apps you have access to will be country dependent.
I found the installation process and use of the Chromecast to be really good. It was easy to set up, reliable and worked as advertized. It's definitely something that could work its way into my everyday Android usage and become a default replacement to always pulling my laptop out when media content is involved. The experience is intuitive but there are some issues: the relatively limited use cases, lack of widespread services, irregular streaming speeds and availability of free apps that do much the same thing are all issues that one should consider before purchase.
At such a low price tag you really can't go wrong with the Chromecast and as a gift I doubt anyone would be disappointed with the available features. If you are already subscribed to Google Ply Music All Access, Netflix, Pandora or other streaming services, then you'd be crazy not to add this great little tool to your entertainment kit. If you're not part of these services then you might find a lot fewer use cases for the device, and it is for this reason that I think the Chromecast is a great start, but not quite the finished product I had hoped for.