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Friday, 9 August 2013

Can media streaming with Google's Chromecast pass the Grandmother Test?

Broadcasting media via your smart phone, tablet or computer has never been easier.

It has been a busy past couple of weeks for Google. In early August, courtesy of Motorola, they announced the Moto X mobile phone. And before that, in late July, we were formally introduced to Android 4.3 and an improved Nexus 7 tablet. Sweet. But Google, possibly making up for its discontinuation of Google Reader, wasn't quite finished with its interpretation of an early Christmas.

Without fanfare or ceremony July also saw the release of Chromecast: an adaptor no bigger than a USB memory stick, plugging straight into a spare HDMI socket on the back of a TV, that either pulls audio and video over WiFi via a compatible app on your phone or tablet, or mirrors what's showing in Google's Chrome web browser via its Cast extension.

Chromecast turned heads not only because it went on sale in the USA (and the USA alone) the same day it was announced for a very tempting $35 retail price (around about the cost of a couple of cartons of half-decent quality baby milk formula), but also because it is so trivially easy to use that your Grandmother could get her head around it without any prompting from the family IT guru.


Android MK809-based dongle
At its price point Chromecast is seated firmly in the realm of the impulse buy, but considering the wealth of inexpensive dual and quad core MK808 and MK809 Android HDMI adaptors to be had from Amazon or eBay bringing an actual Android experience to the TV, are we safe from buyer's remorse?

If we consider that the basic idea behind Chromecast is to feed a TV from a mobile phone or tablet, or mirror on your TV whatever's happening in your Chrome web browser, then we can be fairly confident that the magic at play on the inside of the adaptor at the price it is retailing at is probably just about enough to get the job done.

Judging by iFixit's teardown of Chromecast, what we are looking at is a single core CPU with 512 MB DDR 3 and 2 GB flash memory, running a cut-down version of Google's own Chrome OS; the API the OS exposes (a collection of commands that app writers use to communicate with the device) is limited to negotiating connections and streaming media (though this could change overnight were Google to implement and provide additional APIs through an over-the-air update), and the micro USB connector is only for powering the device.

So what does all this mean?

At its core Chromecast is a one-trick pony relying on the ingenuity of app writers to point media its way, which doesn't sound so dissimilar to Digital Living Network Alliance really.  But unlike DLNA apps such as Android's MediaHouse that only stream from existing files, apps written with Chromecast in mind - and we may find a growing list at the Chromecast Wiki page - can hand over, or Cast, whatever you are watching to the adaptor itself meaning you won't need to rely on the phone or tablet any longer. Sure, we can still use the phone or tablet as a remote control if we wish, but catching up with Breaking Bad won't be a drain on the battery any more.

We'd struggle to achieve anything close to casting with DLNA as it stands, but that doesn't mean Cast support can't be added to existing DLNA media streamers.  Indeed, an as-yet unreleased Android version of BubbleUPnP is already embracing the future. And it's pretty likely that the next generation of smart TVs will implement similar functionality - if not Chromecast's API itself.

But why stop at feeding Chromecast with movies, music and the odd web page?

Chrome Remote Desktop allows us to remotely connect to another computer's desktop in a Chrome browser tab ripe for mirroring to the big screen, opening the door to quick and easy streamed presentations and teaching material, less solitary gaming, or broadcast conferencing where the resources may be a world away.  Or we could mirror a more local desktop right from within the Chrome browser by opting to cast its entire screen (though this is an experimental feature for the time being). And I'm sure a dedicate app to stream a phone or tablet's screen to Chromecast will appear on Google Play before Christmas-proper paves the way for repeats of Love Actually.


Chromecast's greatest strength is its simplicity. It promises to do only one job with a minimum of fuss in a pocket-sized package, which is something that should appeal to Grandmother and guru alike. And it seems as though it does it well because both Google Play store and Amazon sold out of Chromecast within 24 hours of its release.

However, even though Android was never really intended to be used on anything other than hand-held devices, TV adaptors that bring Android to the big screen can be found within the same price range as Chromecast and offer far greater flexibility in an equally small package (actual apps for Netflix and YouTube, as well as XBMC, DLNA media streaming apps, and over a million others to choose from). Though that flexibility does come at a price: added complexity.

I know which one I would buy my Grandmother for Christmas.

Simon @pwnd!Tech

Simon @pwnd!Tech


So what's your take on Google's Chromecast? Have you managed to get your hands on one? Would you recommend it to others?  Did Chromecast pass the grandmother test for you?  Or can you think of a use for Chromecast that goes beyond simply streaming media to your TV? Leave a comment below - I'd love to hear what you have to say!


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