Smart TV on a Budget

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Getting Internet-based video onto our HDTVs in a straightforward and comprehensive way is proving to be one of the more elusive holy grails of the digital era. There’s certainly no shortage of ways to watch streaming video already: home theater PCs (HTPC); connecting laptops and PCs via cables; using built-in apps found in so-called smart TVs, Blu-ray players, video game consoles, and other components; and an ever-growing host of promising, yet still not mainstream, “over the top” boxes, like Roku and Apple TV, among many others. And the sad fact is that not a one of them is the all-encompassing, foolproof solution we’ve long hoped for. Google’s new Chromecast isn’t a perfect solution either – not yet anyway – but it’s such a nifty and economical stopgap that we already consider it a must-have.

Google’s recently announced bit of hardware is a flash drive-sized dongle that plugs into your TV and receives video and audio wirelessly from your pick of Android, PC/Mac, or iOS devices, using your home WiFi network. The idea is that you plug it into one of your HDTV’s HDMI ports (and a USB plug for power, either from your TV or via a wall jack with an included adapter), update some software on your device (or devices) of choice, and within a couple minutes you’re able to “Cast” a video/audio signal right to your TV – that even includes the desktop version of services that aren’t yet available on Chromecast, such as Hulu Plus and HBO Go, as well as streamed games on ESPN, online galleries, Flash games, whatever. It’s stupid easy and a kind of oddly obvious fix for the media sharing dilemma, which is what makes it so appealing. If the whole explanation were that simple, then Chromecast would win the Nobel Prize for Domestic Peace. However, it’s a little more involved, which is where a few modest pitfalls creep up.

We love that Chromecast is almost OS agnostic, which means that it’ll work with Windows, Mac, Chrome OS, iOS, and Android (but not on BlackBerry 10, Windows Phone, or, ironically, most Chromebooks, which aren’t powerful enough). How it works on each of those devices, however, and what kind of content you’re able to Cast, is different. For instance, using a laptop or desktop computer requires installing and using Google’s Chrome web browser. To Cast content onto your TV, you click a button in the browser and that tab is mirrored on your TV screen (you can even have multiple tabs going). For an iOS device, though, you’re restricted to using specific apps that have been enabled, currently just Netflix and YouTube. For Android, you get those two plus access to Google’s Play Movies and Music stores for renting or buying media.

That’s a pretty limited list and ordinarily would makes us consider this device a pass – especially considering that the Roku Streaming Stick has been providing a similar service with way more channels, though no screen mirroring, for over a year. (Similarly, Plair already offers more channels and the ability to stream content from your laptop onto a TV, but no Netflix.) But Chromecast is only $35 versus the Streaming Stick’s $80 price tag (or Plair’s $99 price tag), and Google has made it possible for other companies and developers to enable their services on the device. No surprise, then, that Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Vevo, and other majors have already committed to jumping on the bandwagon. So we expect Chromecast to get vastly better, very quickly. Meaning that soon our cord-cutting dream of accessing the effectively infinite resources of the Internet on our HDTV may finally be a reality. The only issue, then, is actually getting a hold of one: Since being announced Google hasn’t been able to keep Chromecast in stock. [$35;]

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