I returned my Chromecast. I played with it for about a week but I found its Achilles’ heel the moment I casted my first video. This is how it happened.
I have a secondary TV where I wanted to be able to watch Hulu and other media channels without spending too much money. After some investigation, I found that one of the cheapest solutions was Chromecast, at only $35.
Two features in particular caught my attention: Chromecast is a small dongle that connects to the HDMI port of any TV, and any device with Android, iOS or Windows can be used to stream a video to your TV. Since I normally stream videos to my Xbox 360 using my Dell Venue 8 Pro (the Play feature included in Windows 8.1 is awesome), I thought it would be very convenient to do a similar thing with Chrome and its Google Cast extension. I didn’t need anything else!
By the way, Chromecast can play videos using two different methods: the Google Cast API used by third-party apps and the Google Cast extension. The Cast API puts Chromecast in charge of the video playback, granting a smoother experience. The Cast extension is in beta and makes Chromecast load the website from the Chrome tab using an HTML5 standard (if you’re interested in more details, you can read this article).
Since Netflix and Hulu apps for Windows 8.1 haven’t been updated to use the Google Cast API (according to the development platforms listed in Google’s sign up page I think Windows Store apps cannot even use it), the first video I used to test Chromecast was embedded in a HTML5 website. I was surprised to see that the playback was stopping approximately every 3 seconds, so I immediately jumped to Hulu.com, hoping for a better performance. The experience was better: the video only stopped every 10 seconds or so… and then I got a warning of low battery.
“Ah!“, I thought, “I bet the playback is having a bad performance due to the low battery“. I recharged the tablet and with a full battery, the Hulu.com video played mostly without issues. And I say mostly because the video still stopped from time to time while the audio played in the background, and the experience slowly degraded as the battery was consumed by a really hot device.
Interestingly, when using a powerful laptop, Chrome’s performance was good enough for Chromecast, but it was too late for me: I realized that Chromecast and the Cast extension only work well together when using powerful (and often more expensive) devices, and what is worse, Google has no control on the experience whatsoever; Google cannot update third-party apps to use the proper API and cannot ensure Chrome has the required resources to work without choking.
We could argue that Android and Windows suffer from the same problem: Google and Microsoft don’t have control on the devices that other manufacturers make, therefore cannot completely control the user experience. But the reason why that comparison is invalid is that Android and Windows behave good enough on low-end devices. Chrome’s Cast extension, on the other hand, simply does not, so now I understand why Google placed the ‘beta’ tag on it.
My experience was with a Windows device, but The Verge tried the Chrome tab casting feature with similar results: “performance on my older Samsung Series 5 Chromebook was so terrible it was unusable, and I occasionally got performance warnings on my Core i7 MacBook Pro as well“.
Having all that in mind, did you know that Roku sells also an HDMI dongle without this limitation for only $15 more? And for the same price ($50), Roku also offers a set-top box that it’s even faster than the HDMI dongle. Oh, and they both include a remote control (just in case you don’t want to add the free apps available on iOS, Android or Windows) and many more channels/apps than Chromecast. More quality and quantity for almost the same price? Shut up and take my money.
Perhaps Google simply wants to repeat Android’s story: make something cheap, gain a huge user base, and only then worry about quality. Perhaps we will see a Chromecast Box in the future, removing the middle man, cutting dependencies with other devices, but this is today’s reality: I returned my Chromecast and have spent $15 more on a Roku 1.
I’m not sure about who will win the war for our TVs but Chromecast definitely lost the battle in my house.