Google has released and is shipping a new device called Chromecast, which is designed to take video from your mobile devices — such as an iPhone, iPad, Android tablet or phone or PC/Mac laptop — and send it directly to your TV. The concept is nothing new, Apple’s AirPlay has been doing this for years, but can Google make it work for the masses? Let’s take a look at both, and see who comes out the winner.
The beauty of this solution by Google lies in its simplicity, the hardware is comprised of a small HDMI dongle. Simply plug it into the back of your flatscreen TV and you are ready to roll. One catch is you need to power the device, something that is not readily apparent. There are two ways to do this, one is to run the included USB adapter cable to a USB port on the back of your TV set. Most sets have a spare port nearby so it should not be a problem. Google also includes a power adapter in the box to power the HDMI dongle, in case you don’t have a spare USB port free. The unit works over 2.4GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and provides full 1080p resolution. Once it is up and running you need to send it something from a device. Supported minimum requirement operating systems include at least Android 2.3, iOS 6, Windows 7, Mac OS 10.7, as well as Google’s Chrome OS, which includes the Chromebook Pixel laptop. The Chromecast works via your Wi-Fi access point router, so as long as your devices are on the same network you can send your screen from mobile or laptop to your TV.
The unit can either send your TV video from a selected service or send your whole Chrome browser window. Whereas Apple’s AirPlay has a little on-screen toggle to send video from an iOS unit to a device such as Apple TV, with Chromecast you have the button in the Chrome Web browser or within an app on a mobile device. Airplay works in a more universal and open way; you can pretty much send any playing video or your entire screen, from any iOS device. Google is working on support on an app-by-app basis, so far lining up a small group such as Netflix and You Tube. The other option is to use Google’s Chrome browser and send the entire Web browser screen. So, for example, you could fire up Chrome on your Macbook or Windows laptop and send the contents to your big-screen TV. You control everything from the browser including playback and volume adjustments.
Apple’s AirPlay has been around for a few years now and has been refined and easy to use. Most people stream content to their Apple TV, so with the addition of that $99 box you can send content from your iPads, iPhones, iPod touches, iMacs and Macbook Pro or Macbook Air. Ease of use is key here, any video playing on an iOS or OX X device has an AirPlay button for sending, and you can also send your entire screen such as games, desktops and Web browsers. You can have multiple Apple TV units on multiple TVs, and each one can be named on the network individually, so when you click the AirPlay button you can decide what TV you want to send content to. Having years of development under its belt, Apple has made AirPlay seamless, responsive and trouble free. Although Chromecast is just getting out of the gates with version 1.0, Apple’s solution is easy and already on your current devices, so it does have quite a bit of head start. No doubt Microsoft will copy all of this and come up with its own solution, to interact with its Windows 8, WIndows Phone and Surface tablet, so we could see additional players before the end of the year.
Chromecast and Airplay has a few distinct differences that are worth noting. AirPlay excels at streaming audio, in fact many people use it just for that, streaming to TVs but also streaming to AirPlay-enabled receivers and stereo systems. No doubt Google will beef up music playback, but for now Apple makes it easy. Also, Airplay is great for sending games and apps to a TV; with Google’s solution you currently have to stay in the browser. Google could support it on a OS level, but Android is probably far too fragmented, and its Chrome OS has yet to gain mainstream traction, currently residing on a handful of Chromebook laptops from Samsung and Acer. Apple does have a distinct advantage because by supporting AirPlay on OS X (Mountain Lion and Mavericks) and iOS 6 and iOS 7, it covers most all of its hardware currently produced right out of the gate.
Chromecast does have an ace up its sleeve though. With Apple TV if you are for example sending Netflix over AirPlay, you are streaming video from your mobile device and sending it to the TV. With Chromecast, you are using Netflix to hit play on your mobile device but then it is actually streaming content from the Chromecast device. The advantage is direct streaming on the actual device, but the disadvantage is Google has to make direct streaming active for each and every service, a long and challenging chore to be sure. Apple solved this with Apple TV, so most people would not use Netflix on their iPad and send the video, they would just use the Apple TV Netflix app for direct streaming. So while Google is programming YouTube to directly stream with Chromecast, Apple TV already does it.
With all the technical similarities, and common features, what this battle will really come down to is marketing. Apple has had a long history of spending a lot of time refining a product for the market and then making it dovetail into usage with other devices, as well as launch a halo effect of getting customers hooked on one Apple device and then having them advance to more Apple hardware. Google does things much differently, they launch lots of hardware and software options and see what sticks, often abandoning things after years of development or, such as the case with technology like Google TV, spending months or years stumbling in the marketplace. Apple has the cool factor and the “I want it” aspect that is a huge hit with consumers, but Google, aside from Android, has yet to ignite that mass market appeal. Google has high appeal from geeks and nerds, I’m sorry I mean technology evangelists, and that has the unit currently sold out most places, but that is a niche, although admittedly a large one. Google will need to sweat and work to get Chromecast to appeal to the masses. Its low price, ease of setup, and getting into national chains could be a very good start to gain the traction it needs. But Chromecast currently has several limitations on the software side that could take the wind out of its sails. Of course that is what software updates are for.
With two players, streaming video content via mobile devices to TVs is now a market, and it could get crowded. Google has its work cut out for it.