Monday, April 07, 2014

Chromecast review - the media revolution

I finally got one. After weeks of patient and quiet negotiation with my wife, Alice, I got a Chromecast. My wife was worried that, like the Rasberry Pi before it, I would have to buy accessories that would bring the total price up to $100. I won't have to this time.

Chromecast is like a thumbdrive, but it's bigger than that. Chromecast plugs into an HDMI port on your TV and connects to your wireless network to bring your favorite media to your TV.

I had been reading about it for the last few months and my curiosity grew by leaps and bounds over the last few weeks as I learned of an ecosystem that Google is cultivating. The number of applications for Chromecast is growing quickly because Google has created a software development kit to help developers make use of it. This is a revolution in the way we view and listen to media.

Chromecast is a $35 HMDI dongle - for lack of a better word - that turns your TV, any HDMI TV, into a smart TV. It's a little computer that fits in the palm of your hand. I found one for $30 on sale at BestBuy, in the store and there were plenty in stock for sale.

Setting it up is a dream and you do not have to be a nerd to get it done. first, plug it into an open HDMI port. The Chromecast needs power and comes with a USB cable that provides power to it. What is really cool about this is that you can use a power outlet with the provided power adapter, or you can plug the USB cable back into an available USB port on the TV for power.

Then bring up the TV and select the source HDMI port for viewing the Chromecast. If nothing else is powered on, the TV will automatically select the right input. If you have a cable box or a DVD player that is already on, you will have to manually select the right port to view Chromecast.

Once you have Chromecast in view, find any Android phone, tablet or ChromeOS computer and install the Chromecast app. Follow the prompts on the TV to connect to the Chromecast with your device and connect the Chromecast to your wireless network. Once connected, the Chromecast will get the latest updates and reboot. Then you're ready for your first cast.

I started with YouTube and played a few videos just to see how it works. It works well.

I started to get excited about this because I know I can do the same thing with my Samsung DVD player. Yeah. The slow to boot, slow to move anywhere DVD player. Before I got the Chromecast, I could "cast" videos to my DVD player. This was nice because moving around in the DVD player was slow and clunky. I hated it. Using the phone gave me much more freedom and latitude to get to where I wanted to go. The phone is the remote control for the Chromecast. Or you could use a tablet to do the same thing.

But there is another problem with the DVD player, and this applies with almost any DVD player that has some smarts built in. The DVD player manufacturers are in the hardware business, not the software business. They have little incentive to keep their devices up to date. They can use slower hardware and still get the job done, but maybe not as fast as consumers would like.

Google is in the search business. They want people to use their products because when people use Google, advertisers find customers. Google uses software to make the search business work. But Google isn't content with just the PC, and they know who rules the PC for now: Microsoft. So Google went around Microsft and put Android on phones and tablets that could connect to media, cause you know, people like to watch media on any screen they can find. Android is the locomotive that punched a massive hole right through Microsoft's business.

Google has every incentive to make their hardware fast. The Chromecast boots up fast. It found updates on the first boot on my TV. The Chromecast is just getting going and I expect it to evolve quickly into the tool of choice for accessing media on big screens.

So far, I've used Chromecast for Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, Google Play (to access my own music collection in the cloud) and my pictures. In each case, my user experience faster and easier than using the DVD player. Notice that I didn't mention Hulu yet. I won't bother with Hulu because the amount of advertising shown for a "one hour" episode is beyond irritating, it's nauseating. So far, the top 4 remain a great experience and they're even better on Chromecast.

Pandora has made their Chromecast version easy to read, easy to navigate, easy to listen to. Netflix runs pretty much the same way as the DVD player runs, but the phone is the remote control, so it's easier to find movies you want to watch, but maybe a bit more effort to pause, play, and so on. Note that with all media, when the screen is locked on the phone, you can still pause or play without unlocking the phone. Very cool.

I can already see very interesting uses for Google Chromecast. Here's an example. I'm on vacation in a hotel. I'd like to take some downtime after some fun on the slopes and watch the videos we made today with the kids. Why watch videos on a laptop or an itty-bitty phone screen when we have Chromecast? We can use the hotel TV to see what we want to see. We don't have to be content with the advertising laden content provided by the hotel.

When I'm visiting with Mom in California, I can use Chromecast to send pictures of of our kids to her TV while we are there. I can play videos on the TV without any other cables. We can put on Pandora while we're there. Chromecast can go anywhere there is an HDMI TV.

There is even a business case for using Chromecast. You want to make a presentation in your client's boardroom? No problem. You can use Chromecast to receive a presentation of slides from your phone, tablet or Chromebook. You could even use Chrome on your windows machine to make the presentation. But do you really want to risk a blue screen of death in front of a big customer?

These are early days, but I can see the momentum building for Chromecast. Chromecast will make cable TV irrelevant. Chromecast makes TV personal, portable and convenient. The revolution has begun, so grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and watch.
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