Google (GOOG) has a long history of spaghetti-style product development: throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.
When it comes to television, the result has often been a mushy mess. Now the company is trying again, with a new $35 gadget called the Chromecast. And despite some shortcomings, this one may be around for a while.
The Chromecast is a thumb-size dongle that plugs into your television and, using your Wi-Fi network, connects it to the Internet. At the moment, the programming choices are severely limited compared to competing devices, notably the Apple TV and Roku 3 set-top boxes.
But the Google gadget is much cheaper than they are -- both cost $100 -- and just as easy if not easier to use. That makes it a good choice that will grow more attractive as Google adds more content partners.
Installing the Chromecast is simple, as long as you have a computer or Android device handy to configure it. You start by popping it into an HDMI port on your TV. Because HDMI doesn’t supply power, you’ll also have to plug the included cable into either a USB port (if your TV has one, that is; many don’t) or into the wall with an adapter, also included.
In my case, I used a nearby iMac to download the software, which then scanned the Wi-Fi network until it detected the Chromecast. A few more clicks and I was done.
Unlike the Apple (AAPL) and Roku boxes, the Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote control. Instead, you use an Android phone, tablet, iPhone or iPad. You choose what you want to watch on the mobile device; it sends the instructions over the Internet to the service you want to watch, and the service streams the content to your TV.
Here you run into the Chromecast’s biggest drawback: There’s just not that much to watch yet.
A Roku box gives you access to some 750 programming sources, some of them highly specialized. Both it and Apple TV offer such popular services as Hulu Plus, Major League Baseball’s MLB.tv and Time Warner (TWX)’s HBO Go. And the Apple TV adds iTunes content and the ability to stream directly from iOS devices via Apple’s AirPlay technology.
With the Chromecast, you’re pretty much limited to three sources: Netflix, Google’s own YouTube and Google Play. You also get the ability to view content on the TV screen that’s being accessed on a computer using Google’s Chrome Web browser.
I used two mobile devices in my tests, a Samsung (005930) Galaxy SIII and an Apple iPhone 5, both operating over the same Wi-Fi network as the Chromecast. On each phone, a new “Cast” button appeared in the Netflix (NFLX), YouTube and, on the Galaxy, Google movie-player apps. I located what I wanted to watch -- say, the Netflix revival of “Arrested Development” -- pressed the button and the program appeared on the TV screen.
From the phone apps, I could pause or rewind the show and adjust the volume. I switched back and forth between the iPhone and Galaxy, using one to make it louder and the other softer, for example. The YouTube app, which I used to watch a bunch of music videos, worked the same way.
Best of all, I could still use the phone for calls, texts and e-mail, or even shut it down entirely, while the content continued to play on the TV. I also listened to music from Google’s paid streaming service over the TV’s sound system.
The Chrome-browser feature, which Google labels “beta,” isn’t quite as seamless. For one thing, it requires a laptop or other computer nearby to use for navigation. There’s also an appreciable lag between the action on the computer and what you see on the TV screen, and the video quality isn’t as good.
Still, it’s a way to work around the dearth of natively supported services until more content providers sign on.
I noticed a couple of issues with the Chromecast worth keeping an eye on. It initially had trouble establishing a strong connection with my very robust Wi-Fi network. And it became very warm, almost hot, to the touch when in use.
Citing the weakness of the Wi-Fi signal, the Chromecast issued an on-screen recommendation to use the optional HDMI extender cable that’s included in the package. It isn’t a very elegant solution -- the Chromecast now hangs off the back of my TV like a vestigial tail -- but it improved the connection and cooled off the device somewhat.
Overall, the Chromecast is a modestly priced, easy way to connect a TV to the Internet. In spaghetti terms, this one sticks.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.