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By Adriana Lee
Last Summer, I plugged a Chromecast into my "dumb" television and I haven't looked back since.
When I first heard about Google's TV stick, I couldn't imagine how it could be helpful or convenient. I already had streaming TV boxes, and some could already send online media to my flat screen via a mobile device or computer. But after I received the product, it didn't take long for Chromecast to become my primary streaming device.
I've been living with the compact gadget for six months now, and during that time, I've started to notice a few strange behaviors that go with "living la vida Chromecast." Some of them were expected, while others took me totally by surprise.
I already have a Roku, Apple TV, and TiVo to put online video on my big screen, so I was sure Chromecast would be a redundant piece of tech. Boy, was I wrong. Apple TV, for example, may offer similar features for all-Apple households, but we often have Android gadgets in the mix. And they don't play well with each other. Meanwhile, Chromecast works with Macs, PCs, Androids, and iOS devices.
Another main issue with most streaming boxes is the default remote control. These handhelds must have been designed by a cruel trickster, because few things are more laborious than inputting search terms, one character at a time, with a directional keypad. Of course, some people love standard remote controls, and for most functions, they work great. But whenever I know I'll have to search — which is often for streaming video — I go running to Chromecast. Nothing beats the luscious QWERTY keyboards on my smartphone and laptop. Inputting show or song titles on them is a breeze, and dare I say, flinging stuff at my television is even fun.
[Note: It's worth mentioning that there are smartphone apps for those other devices, which I do use sometimes. But I have to jump from one device to another, switching TV sources, then wait for the control apps to connect. Compared to that, I find Chromecasting to be simpler and more convenient.]
This, along with the recently expanded streaming options, has been fueling my Chromecast use these past few months. During this time, I also noticed a few interesting behaviors crop up:
I listen to music more often: with Pandora, Songza, and Vevo, not to mention Google Play Music, music lovers have a few options to choose from. What's helpful here is that the mobile device controls Chromecast using your home's WiFi network, which means the controlling phone, tablet, or laptop can manage TV playback from anywhere that local network can reach. Therefore, I can play music on my television from the kitchen, or jump to a desired track from the next room or even the front yard, no line of sight required. Chromecast can also plug into a receiver, to make use of those high-quality speakers.
For these reasons, I stream music more often than I used to. And I'm discovering new tunes I wouldn't have otherwise.
I travel with Chromecast, even though most hotels don't work with it: never is my habitual usage more obvious than when I pack for a trip. Even though I know most hotel networks don't work with Chromecast, it's so small, I can't help but bring the device with me "just in case."
I can't stop showing off the casting feature to friends: I now understand why Google calls it "casting," because finding and flinging a video or song to the TV feels a bit like casting spells. You conjure something on your phone (iOS or Android) and make it materialize somewhere else — the TV. Watching pals' eyes light up when they get the hang of it makes me feel like a professor at Hogwarts.
I like imbuing a second TV with web powers: the big screen in the living room may be worthy of a sexy game console or pricey set-top box, but a secondary television might be another story. Dropping a wad of cash for an ancillary or rarely used TV set isn't very appealing. Fortunately, Chromecast is a cheap solution for getting online entertainment in that bedroom, den, or guest room.
I want to slap a Chromecast on every TV — even the one at work: judging by the numerous conference rooms viewable from my city's streets, many companies have picked up Chromecasts. Clearly, they intend to give their workers an easy way to share screens or browser tabs during meetings.
I recently hooked one up in our new ReadWrite office setup for similar purposes. But my colleagues found a few other unintended perks: melodic instrumental music to increase productivity during the week, and dance jams at week's end to blow off some steam. Thank you, YouTube, especially for the latter. I don't know what we would do without our Friday freak-out.
Speaking of the video site . . .
I watch way more YouTube now: whenever friends come over to my house, someone invariably has a YouTube video to share. Thankfully, we no longer have to crowd around someone's phone to watch the action — we simply cast it to the TV, where everyone can see it.
This convenience was expected, though. Here's what wasn't: even when I'm alone, I've noticed that I watch much more YouTube than I used to. I credit "TV Queue" for that: this Chromecast-specific feature lets me put videos in a queue that auto-plays on my television. It's like creating my own custom programming channel. Call me hooked.
I still love and use my other devices for particular purposes. Roku has an excellent selection of streaming apps or channels, and my TiVo DVR is the holding tank for all my recorded shows. Apple TV makes watching iTunes media easy. But when I have the ability to use Chromecast, I tend to hit that first. My smartphone is usually right beside me anyway.
That's not to say all is perfect in Chromecastland. Although it's a popular product, it still tops Amazon's bestselling electronic list — there's no shortage of critics either. At times, that even includes myself.
One downside is that — apart from YouTube — it's not really designed for the modern habit of binge-watching. Netflix, for example, can roll right from one episode to the next on the Roku. On Chromecast, the action stops after each episode. Ditto for Hulu.
This could be one reason for the common naysayer's refrain: "I have a Chromecast. Used it once or twice, but it's collecting dust on my shelf right now." Another has to do with selection: Chromecast only features 14 streaming sources to date. While that limited inventory covers many of the most popular streaming services — including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO GO, Pandora, Plex, and Vevo — it's frustrating to know that more are on the sidelines, waiting for Google to let them into the Chromecast fold.
Unfortunately, those Chromecast apps are still waiting, thanks to the company's reluctance to release its software development kit. Although developers can play with these tools, they're not actually permitted to update their apps and sites to work with the device just yet (although Google has allowed a few special partners some early access). When this policy will change, only Google knows for sure. Too bad the company has stayed mum on the topic so far.
[Update: it appears that Google has just released the software development kit. That means more Chromecast-supporting apps and websites are likely on the way very soon.]
Clearly, Chromecast isn't a perfect device. And perhaps its foibles would be insufferable had I not paid just $35 for it. But for that price, and for the features I do have at my fingertips, it has exceeded my expectations. In fact, it's blown right through them.
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