Today, Google has revealed two new Chromecasts. One is for your TV. One is for your speakers. Both cost $35. And a new app can suck in all of your streaming subscriptions, search them, and get you watching them in seconds.
It’s the anti-Apple TV approach. Google’s hardware is cheap, and purposefully forgettable. But more importantly, it uses the apps that are already on your phone to juggle all of the things you want to watch.
This is Google’s big play in TV. Rather than have you download more apps, deal with more logins, and wave a remote at the big screen, Google is countering Apple with what Google does best: connecting your world via invisible Google gunk, to make watching a smarter TV as mindless as ever.
Which approach will prove right?
If there’s ever been a metric of Google’s sometimes quiet scale, it’s this: In two years, even though your mom has probably never heard of it, Google has sold 20 million of its original Chromecast–a tiny HDMI dongle that connects to your phone and slides into your TV, to stream movies and TV shows.
AppleTV, which launched way back in 2007 with the full Steve Jobs treatment, sold about half that many by 2013, though sales have accelerated as of late, pushing them to 25 million units sold in roughly eight years.
So Apple TV, once a flop of an experiment, is rapidly gaining momentum. But even though Google’s design traditionally hasn’t been placed on a pedestal alongside Apple’s, it can actually have as great of an impact on the market–and even signal winds of design change. Since launching the Chromecast stick, Amazon and Roku both launched similar minimal media devices. Living rooms, once dominated by set-top boxes, have seen an invasion from discreet, USB-style sticks powered by cellphone guts.
Chromecast’s biggest update is really its app. Formerly just a portal for your Chromecast settings, it’s now a full-blown media hub on your Android or iOS device.
The app sets itself up by scanning your phone for other apps. If it detects that you have Netflix and HBO Go installed, then the content of those apps will simply be added to Chromecast. You’ll see a queue from each service with their own suggestions of what you should watch.
Most notably, you don’t need to log in to these apps again, nor do you need to tell your Chromecast, via your TV, to download them. Google is juggling the backend of all these services, using your phone as your digital thumbprint, to reduce user friction and keep the experience couch-friendly. So all you have to do is tap the thing you want to watch–and while technically your phone will deep link you over to the Netflix app to play the content, and technically the Chromecast itself is running its own version of the Netflix app that’s already buffered this content to make it play smoothly–to you, it just plays.
All of this seamlessness will be Google’s sell for making the phone the hub of its TV experience. Meanwhile, Apple TV with apps will function more or less like another phone, with all-new, separate app downloads and logins. And while developers salivate over the idea of Apple TV showing a path to true interactive content, there’s no reason Chromecast couldn’t do the same through a phone.
“The real estate from this point forward is the Chromecast app in a device in your hand,” explains Google product manager Micah Collins. “That’s the strategic opportunity that I think is giving us reason to go down this path.”
In terms of its industrial design, the new Chromecast is, notably, no longer a stick. It’s a Beats headphone-like puck that hangs, like one long wire, off the back of your TV or near your speaker. Why a puck? Michael Sundermeyer, hardware design lead on the project, calls it “uniquely Google,” a visual play off the Chrome logo that can be more of an icon than a glorified USB stick could have been.
Functionally, the round shape allows the Chromecast to fit several antennas with different orientations to capture floating radio waves with dependability. “Having multiple antennas with different orientations and purposes is a way you make Wi-Fi reception reliable,” Sundermeyer explains. For the Chromecast Audio, the puck features a 3.5mm jack, RCA, and optical jack for plugging into any speaker you like to stream services like Spotify, Pandora, and Google Play Music.
For the video version of Chromecast, which streams HD (not 4K) content, Google designed what it believes is the thinnest magnetically shielded HDMI cable in the world to connect from the puck into the TV, even within the tiniest gaps of a wall-mounted set.
“It was a lot harder than any of us believed. HDMI cables tend to be really thick, rough things. They barely bend at all,” Sundermeyer explains. “We wanted something that just the weight of the puck would make it drape a certain way . . . [and it] had to fit with the design, strong enough to withstand shoulders of twists and bends.”
To get the mix of shielding and flexibility, Google enlisted its own mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and designers, who spent months sandwiching materials like kevlar and molded plastics until they got the cord just right. And, if you really think about it, maybe it’s not so crazy that Google spent so much time on the wire. Because when you actually install the Chromecast, it dangles from the back of your TV, hidden in the shadows of wiring, rather than featured like a sleek trophy of capitalism on your media shelf.
The Chromecast is, in essence, a wire, a symbolic product that’s almost mocking Apple’s prominence on your shelf, while reinforcing the idea that Google’s value–and what really matters–is really the information piping through the line.
When you consider that the Chromecast is really just your cellphone identity playing out on your television, it’s easy to see what Collins meant by the “strategic opportunity” at play: The cellphone could scale Chromecast to handle other services in your home. Apple TV isn’t just an entertainment device, after all. It’s Apple’s trojan horse for Homekit and the greater Internet of Things hub in your home. (Notably, Microsoft had the exact same play planned for your Xbox One, though it will probably never come to fruition at this point since the Xbox has been repositioned as a gaming machine to tackle the PS4.)
It seems that the Nest thermostat will be Google’s Internet of Things hub. But when you think about just how challenging it will be to control a whole home of lightbulbs with a remote aimed at a 50-inch screen, the solution seems simple: This would work so much better on a multitouch screen that’s always in your pocket, but could be easily extended to any shared screen in your home.
Of course, Apple won’t go that route. It makes too much money off hard products to leverage the true power of its own preeminent smartphone–leaving Google just the “real estate” it needs to take over your TV, your home, and maybe even your future, starting at just $35.