Chromecast: You get what you pay for

Value

I’m having a bit of trouble “getting” Google’s Chromecast – or more to the point, why it’s getting so much buzz. In this case, beauty does indeed appear to only be skin deep.

This isn’t a post to hate on Google. Rather it is one to point out that you have to look beyond price tags and really get into the meat of the experience. There is a balance to be struck, and I am not sure that Chromecast – in its current incarnation – hits the mark.

Disclosure

While I am not an “Apple fanboi“, I surely have added my fair share to their coffers. That said, I do call them out when they fall short of my expectations (which are pretty high given what their stuff costs relative to their competition).

I am also a long-time Google user. I’m writing this using Chrome (Safari is dead to me), have had a Gmail account back when it was invite-only, cried when Google Reader went the way of the dodo, and have many of my pictures on Picasa.

So, know that I’m not here to hate on Google. Actually, it’s because I respect them so much that I feel they’ve fallen short of what that are truly capable of.

Also, I’m basing this totally on what I have read in the press, demo videos I’ve seen, etc. I haven’t seen the thing in-the-flesh.

OK, with that out of the way, let me get into my asbestos suit here and we’ll get going.

First Impressions

I have to admit that the initial news about Chromecast sounded quite impressive. A mere $35 for a dongle that more or less allows you to AirPlay from Chrome, stream Netflix, etc? [ Of course, my coffee maker can stream Netflix, but that’s besides the point ;) ]

I was wowed by the implementation. Very compact, complete, and hit that sweet spot most people were looking for on price and functionality. The target market doesn’t want to mess with a media center, wrangle with the sub-par “apps” found on most TVs, or deal with a ton of cables being strewn about. Just plug and stream. Pretty kick ass!

Ignore the Cables Behind the Green Curtain

Then, as well reported across the Interwebz, we find out that the reality of “no cables” is a bit different. Here’s something like what we saw in the PR photos:

(via readwrite)

CC-Clean

No muss, no fuss. Plug and stream away. What’s not to like?

Then, here’s what we saw in the reviews:

(via CNet)

Google_Chromecast_35823617_05_1_610x436 Google_Chromecast_35823617_02_1_610x436

(via AnandTech)

Chromecast-9563

Wait a sec. WTF are those extra cables?

Also, I didn’t think about this at first, but what if – like many people – I have my TV mounted to the wall? Do I have to have this thing (and its power cables) hanging out of the side of my TV? That is definitely a low spousal approval factor (SAF) item!

Turns out standard HDMI can’t supply the juice Chromecast needs. Yeah, if you have a MHL-HDMI-enabled TV then you might get it to work. But, if you have a TV like that, then you likely already have apps for Netflix, etc. At that point, you’re just gaining an AirPlay-like capability…and only things visible within Chrome.

At the end of the day, I get that it’s a technical limitation for which there isn’t a great solution. That’s cool. Just don’t show me pictures of the product in a state it can’t run. Just seems a bit bait-and-switch to me and I expected Google to have a bit more class than that.

Chrome as a Spigot

Then there was the reality of how you get content to the device.

The product is named Chromecast for a reason. Want to do that cool streaming business? Then hopefully the content you want to stream is available via Chrome – or it’s from one of a limited set of Apps: Netflix, YouTube, Google Music, and Google TV and Movies (at the moment). Anything else is in the Land of the Unstreamable.

I am sure that list of content providers will grow over time, but that’s not exactly the same thing as AirPlay, where you can stream any media from your iDevice to and AppleTV.

True, you have to drink the Cupertino KoolAid, which – as a former “Year of the Linux Desktop” chanter and XBMC user – I can fully understand isn’t for everyone. But, in my “advanced” age, I’ve come to find that I like spending less time dicking around with my tech to make it work and more time simply just using it. Getting much fewer (read: zero) calls from the missus for TV tech support makes the $65 delta between Chromecast and AppleTV a true bargain in the long run.

Command and Control

In order to use Chromecast, you have to commandeer a device (Android, iOS, PC, Mac) to control the thing. There is no “normal” remote, thus no ability to use a Universal Remote to control it.

I don’t know about you, but Logitech’s Harmony line of remotes have saved me countless hours of tech support and frustration. My family has no idea that we have different HDMI inputs, what’s on which one, much less how to switch amongst them. For me, lack of an IR- or RF-remote is a non-starter.

Back to the commandeering:  I don’t know about you, but my wife rarely just “watches” a TV show. She’s part of the growing demographic that often taps away on her phone and/or tablet as she watches shows. Having to flip back and forth from her games, chat clients, etc to control Chromecast would certainly have a low SAF. Again, the old school remote wins here again. Sometimes it’s OK for a device to have only one purpose in life.

The Web is the Only Place Content Lives, Right?

Chromecast does not currently ship with a way to consume other media you might have lying around: photos, videos, movies, music, etc. Again, this is another deal-killer for me. My kids are barely aware that physical media exists. Any movie I buy gets Handbroken, saved to an external drive, and streamed via iTunes to AppleTV. The DVD gets safely tucked away from my filthy-mitted, scratch-inducing offspring (whom I love very much… I just don’t trust them around my media ;) ).

On a side note, this setup also comes with a very high SAF. No shuffling for disks, etc. Point and shoot.

Being able to beam video of my son’s 4th Birthday the TV so my Mom can watch – all at a moment’s notice – is another rarely-used, but highly-valued feature I love. No such luck with the Chromecast.

Yes, there are hacks to stream local content, but the sales pitch here is plug-and-play. Anyone who cares to dabble with hacks likely already has a Boxee box, HT PC, AppleTV running XBMC, or any one of a host of options that offer a significantly better experience at a minimally higher cost. This is supposed to be the working people’s streaming device, right?

“It just works…”

You’re likely expecting this section to be a homage to all that Lord Steve has brought us. I’ve already made my comments about Apple’s solutions to these (first world) problems, but that doesn’t mean Cupertino is the only game in town for simplicity.

My Mom – always one to be on the cutting edge – has be a “cord cutter” for years now. What enabled her to make that leap? The Roku.

For a mere $15 more than the Chromecast, the entry-level Roku offers a time-proven platform that can stream media in about any way you’d like and has Apps for pretty much any streaming content provider that is worth watching.

I bought Mom one a few Christmas’ ago and never received a Tech Support call from her. In fact, she’s rocking 3 Roku’s in her house now – all without any drama (pun slightly intended). Proof positive that Cupertino doesn’t have a monopoly on “It Just Works.”

If you can stomach spending a whopping $100 (that’s sarcasm, folks), you can get a Roku that does 1080p, has a USB port for media you want to plug right in, and even plays Angry Birds (I think “Does it play Angry Birds?” has replaced “Does it play Crysis? as the new bar for gaming prowess). That, and it’s not obnoxiously purple, but I digress…

Release Early, Release Often

Is all of the ranting above to say that I think Chromecast will always be 2nd fiddle? Not at all.

This is Google’s first stab at this. I, like probably every Google employee and shareholder, am choosing to forget GoogleTV, Orb, etc. Google have vast resources and a large media library of their own – something Roku doesn’t. As such, even though they are still working on content deals, there is a fair amount of stuff to consume Day1. The Roku was basically a Netflix box for it’s first year or so.

I fully expect Chromecast to become a player in this space. I am just not convinced that it will look the same in a year or two than it does now – at least if they want it to be successful with the masses

Being able to control it and stream from Chrome is a cool feature. Making it the only way to control and stream is likely to keep it from crossing the chasm.

Google’s problem of being an Engineering-led company has bitten them yet again with this product. Sure, nerds like us are totally all over this. But, imagine buying one of these for your parents and saying,

“All you have to do is plug this into the back of your TV… and then get your laptop, install Chrome, install the Chromecast App from the Chrome store, navigate to the content you want to watch on your TV, then click the “Cast” button in your browser. Easy, right?”

In this way, Chromecast is a little too cool for its own good. Once they add features to make it more self-contained and controllable via normal means (e.g.: a remote with nice squishy buttons that any Bubba can understand), I suspect more people might hop on. At that point, you can use Chrome and/or Apps to make it easier to search for content vs making it the only way to get content.

The question will be, when that happens, how will they compete with Roku’s entry-level box – which I suspect might shed a few bucks meet or beat Chromecast’s price?

I applaud Google for a great start, but in competing on price at the cost of ease-of-use, I think they’ve started a race to the bottom… and they might find themselves alone down there.

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