Google Chromecast UK Review: Eyes Land on the Stream

By Gerald Lynch on at

Better late than never, eh Google? After waiting the best part of a year for the Google Chromecast media streaming dongle to cross the Atlantic, the thumb-sized device is now finally available in UK stores. Has it been worth the wait?

 

What Is It?

A £30 USB or mains-powered HDMI dongle that plugs into the side of your telly, connects to your home Wi-Fi connection and beams all manner of web-based content straight to your living room screen.

 

Who Is It For?

Those that want a simple, unobtrusive media streaming device. Those who value affordability over a wide range of immediately-available video partners. Anyone who had the patience to wait for an official UK release rather than importing one from a US reseller. People who hate having to connect a laptop to their TVs in order to display webpages on a bigger screen.

 

Design

The UK Chromecast is basically identical to its US counterpart. It’s just under three inches long (protruding 2.5 inches once it’s plugged into your telly), with a HDMI port on one end and a USB port on the other. This is used to power the device, and can be plugged either into your TV’s USB port or into a supplied mains charger. The Chromecast is a dinky little thing, with a rounded bulge at one end that also has a status indicator light on it. And while its black casing and Chrome logo is discrete, you may want to get the old tape measure out just to be safe if your TV is wall mounted. A short HDMI extension cable is supplied in the box, should that prove useful.

 

Using It

Set-up is simple — after plugging in the Chromecast to a USB port and a HDMI port, switching over your TV to the right input channel will show the start-up screen. Here you’re directed to a set-up web page which you can access from a PC, Mac, mobile or tablet browser which links the dongle to your Wi-Fi connection. You’ll be briefly booted off of your Wi-Fi network, and then after a few seconds, all supported devices connected to your home network will be able to play with your new Chromecast.

This is where the Chromecast comes into its own — you’re good to go in about five minutes. Whether you’re rocking a Mac or a PC, an Android phone or an iPhone, an Android tablet or an iPad or even a select number of Chromebooks, you can use any or all of them to control the Chromecast. While you may not have access to one of each of those devices, you’ll almost certainly have one, meaning with the £30 dongle bought you should already have all you need to take advantage of it.

In the UK, Chromecast supports streaming from Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movies and TV, Google Play Music, Red Bull TV, Vevo, Plex and RealPlayer Cloud. Here in Blighty don’t get access to HBO Go, but we do pick up full support for BBC iPlayer in its place. 4oD, Amazon Instant Video and Spotify are some of the few notable apps that do not yet support Chromecast.

No matter what device you’re using, beaming content from one of the supported apps to the Chromecast is simply a matter of hitting the cast button, an icon that looks like a TV with a signal emanating from it — sensibly consistent across all apps and devices — and then selecting which Chromecast (if you have more than one set up) that you’d like to send the video too. And thats it — where supported, you’ll be beaming high-quality HD video to your TV in an instant. Multiple devices can be used to control the Chromecast at once, meaning its easy to share a viewing session with family members, while all relevant playback and volume controls can also be tweaked directly from your chosen remote device.

You’d think that this would prove a significant drain on your mobile device’s battery life, but that’s not the case. As the Chromecast is equipped with its own Wi-Fi connection (supporting 2.4GHz networks) all your mobile device is doing is sending commands to the dongle. The Chromecast itself then pulls any content down from the cloud, meaning no streaming is required of your controller device. The only exception to this rule is the Chrome browser computer tab mirroring, feature but it’s a trade off I’m happy to make for it.

Though it’s only a “beta” option at the moment, the ability to mirror Chrome browser tabs from a PC or Mac to the Chromecast is for me personally the dongle’s best feature. Without any wires, you’re able to get whatever’s open in Chrome up onto your telly with just the press of a Chrome extension button. And despite being in the beta stages still, it all works really well — you’ll notice a slight delay between what’s happening on your computer and what’s going on on the telly, but that’s it. Flash video plays back without a hitch. Audio remains in sync. As the feature requires a stream be sent from your computer direct to the Chromecast, your experience will vary dependent on the quality of your broadband connection, but my speedy BT Infinity set-up had no problems.

The beta mirroring feature is also a backdoor way to getting your own locally stored video content up and onto the Chromecast without the need for an app dedicated to the process. It’s a little known fact, but dragging and dropping a video file into a Chrome tab will see the browser act as a barebones video player. Using this technique you’ll be able to get your local videos onto the Chromecast. It worked flawlessly with every file I threw at it aside from .MOV files, which saw the video appear on my TV, but audio playback stuck on my MacBook. Sadly, latency issues will prevent you from using the tab mirroring feature to do any serious gaming.

 

Test Notes

-- While it’s worrying that I should be so surprised, I was relieved to find that the Google Chromecast works perfectly with the Xbox One’s HDMI passthrough function, unlike some other gear I’ve tried recently. Plugged into the back of the console and using one of the Microsoft machine’s spare USB ports, it worked without any hiccups. Due to the ridiculous complexity of my AV set-up, this was a big deal for me, and may be a point worth noting for other Xbox One users.

-- BT Homehub users will have to jump through an additional hoop upon set-up to get everything working correctly. The BT router line’s Smart Setup system doesn’t agree with the Chromecast apps, preventing the cast function from working initially. You’ll have to dig into your router settings and switch Smart Setup options off. It’s not a big deal, being fixed in just a few minutes, but could prove a frustration if you found yourself having problems with no apparent cause. There’s no accompanying documentation with the Chromecast highlighting this issue.

 

Should You Buy It?

Almost definitely. Using your laptop, tablet or mobile device as a remote is an infinitely more intuitive way to access streaming services than delving into the often-arcane world of a smart TV UI. It’s a near-foolproof device too, being easy to set up and get using within minutes, without new control systems or platform quirks to learn.

If however you already have an Apple TV, games console or Roku box, it’s a more difficult sell — those devices have access to pretty much every feature of the Chromecast, and more. But with the Chromecast costing just £30, its rivals are also significantly more expensive, making this worth even an impulse purchase for a bedroom TV. That £30 asking price is worth it for the Chome tab mirroring feature alone — despite being in beta, it’s the simplest way to get a webpage onto your telly without the need for ten feet of cabling.

There’s still room for plenty more app developers to get onboard and support Chromecast, but with the device selling so well I think it’s only a matter of time before the dongle is widely supported. After a number of failed attempts, Google has finally earned a place in your living room.

 

Google Chromecast Specs

Price: £30
Dimensions: 72 x 35 x 12 mm
Weight: 34g
Supported Operating Systems: Android 2.3+, iOS 6.0+, Windows 7+, Mac OS 10.7+, Chrome OS (only Chromebook Pixel is officially supported, but more will be added soon).
Wireless: 2.4GHz 802.11 b/g/n wireless
Maximum video output resolution: 1080p
Minimum broadband requirements: 1.5Mbps for SD video, 3.0Mbps for HD content