Google's latest attempt to muscle into your television set, Chromecast, is only two inches long but it turns your streaming television experience inside out.
Most streaming devices are a gateway between your TV and the Internet. They have their own interface, which often mimics an app store, and usually include a separate remote control. But Google's Chromecast does the opposite: This $35 gadget turns your laptop, tablets, and phones into remote controls for viewing video, photos, music, and websites on your TV screen.
Chromecast, which plugs into an HD television’s HDMI port and requires a Wi-Fi connection, allows you to pick out a YouTube video on a smartphone and press a "cast button" to play it on the TV. As the video plays on the big screen, you can pause it, adjust the volume, or switch to another video within the same mobile YouTube app. Others in the room can control the same television with their own devices, too. The TV is actually getting the content from Chromecast's own Wi-Fi source, not the mobile device (which handily solves the problem of how to scale a cellphone-sized video onto a 50-inch screen).
It seems like an obvious solution to the Internet-on-television conundrum. But it's not the first stick-sized device to try and think outside the streaming TV box. Roku, which was named one of our Most Innovative Companies this year, introduced its Streaming Stick in 2012. But that device only works with sets that have a newer MHL connection rather than simple HDMI. And there's also Plair, a Wi-Fi-enabled dongle that can connect any smartphone to any television (that has a USB port). Both of these alternatives not only have drawbacks compared with Chromecast, but they cost $99, more than double what Google is charging.
The set-top streaming devices on the market, like Apple TV and the Roku 3, still do have some advantages. Notably, you can access content that is not yet available via Chromecast, including HBO Go and Hulu Plus. And Apple TV can easily connect with your iPhone or iPad through an app called AirPlay. But unlike Apple TV, Google's solution works with most all devices—including those made by Apple.
With Chromecast’s smartphone, as Google put it, "If you know how to use YouTube on your phone, you know how to use YouTube on your TV." You don’t have to download any apps (or even open a special Chromecast app). You don’t have to enter any passwords for your accounts. Your smartphone is already loaded.
What limits Google’s solution right now is apps, which need to install a "cast" button in order to work with Chromecast. At launch, only Netflix, YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, and Google Play Music have done so, though a company with 1 million apps in its mobile app store has the developer relationships to stock up more quickly.
And there's another potential shortcut to getting the content you want: Google is beta testing a feature that puts any media you can view in a Chrome browser onto your television via Chromecast. This potentially puts HBO Go within reach, though it remains to be seen whether or not that will pan out.
There are other questions that have yet to be answered about Chromecast, such as whether or not the device supports 5.1 surround sound. We'll know soon enough: Chromecast is already on sale (though it appears to already be out of stock).
Google's previous attempts at TV integration have been failures. But this surprise Chromecast announcement shows that the search giant still has a shot at reinventing how we channel surf. Instead of treating smartphones and tablets as second-screen accessories, Google has created a future where it's the other way around.
Your move, Apple.