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Hands on the Chromecast

Hands on the Chromecast

I've written a number of posts about the intersection of the second screen, the mobile lifestyle, and leanback programming. After Google's release of the Chromecast, I've finally had the chance to test my theories on the reinvention of the second screen video experience.

Has the mountain of expectation and inertia crushed the future of the second screen? Or, does the second screen experience see a light at the end of the tunnel?

The definitive answer: Well, kinda...

I received my Chromecast as I was heading on a business trip, giving me the opportunity to test it in different locations and setups. First impressions:

  • Size: The device itself is about the size of a moderate USB dongle. It's mobile, small enough to fit into your pocket, and tiny, especially compared with Apple TV. While one of the blemishes is the power cord, it can connect to the USB port as a power source, a more subtle approach than requiring the standard wall outlet.
  • Cost: $35 (before tax and shipping). It's cheap enough to purchase a literal handful compared to Apple TV and Roku.
  • Set up: Under the hood, Chromecast uses DIAL for device-to-device pairing and communication. Setup is fairly straightforward, but it does require download of a desktop or smartphone app for configuration.

The "Mobile" Living Room
Similar to other companion devices, Chromecast has Wi-fi capabilities built-in, obviating the need for "smart" TVs. The television, in essence, becomes a dumb terminal with only an HDMI port and an available Wi-fi connection. The digital video experience becomes truly mobile. Whether on vacation or at home, users want – demand – access to their content anytime, anywhere and on any device.

Today, pay television is limited to the physical set-top boxes (STBs) that are connected to each television. Adding a new television for a guest bedroom? You will incur an additional monthly cost for the STB (even if it stays unused 99 percent of the time).

Or, buy a Chromecast. The Chromecast is small enough to move it from television to television – from in the house to a remote location, e.g., a friend's house, a hotel - and cheap enough to buy several without needing to worry about whether the television is smart enough.

While the Chromecast supports rendering of the Chrome browser tab, the quality of the Chrome browser from a MacBook Air was good but not great. Playback of media was split: video rendered on the television but audio rendered through the local laptop speakers. However, the ability to render content easily from a desktop browser extends the solution to anyone who’s ever had an issue displaying a presentation on a television due to a lack of cables or incompatible resolution.

For media, Chromecast is really meant for playback from the mobile device via approved applications. A handful of applications are supported today, though the inclusion of YouTube and Netflix effectively represents the largest libraries of user-generated and premium content available to most consumers today. Video quality was good, as the Chromecast requests content directly from the content server (vs. mirroring from the mobile device), and the interaction between the mobile device and the Chromecast was responsive enough.

One of the advantages of Chromecast's use of DIAL is the ability to support content playback on the television even while the application is in the background. It's a subtle nuance; though AirPlay can be used to create great video experiences that extend the mobile device to the television, switching the application to the background to access other apps, check email or respond to text messages will often stop playback.

Aside: This Sunday, my wife and I watched the Video Music Awards, often using our mobile phones to look up artists and songs during the broadcast. When Macklemore won for Best Video With a Social Message, it took just a few taps to search for the song on the YouTube app, play the video and stream it to the television via Chromecast without interruption as I switched to another app to respond to an email.

Chromecast supports a wide range of video formats, containers and DRMs (e.g., Widevine, PlayReady). Its support for High Profile exceeds even Android's base support for Baseline. However, HLS playback remains an obvious exception.

Chromecast support for DRM – multiple competing systems – and MPEG-DASH hint at a focus on premium content. With Chrome OS (via Netflix) support for DRM in HTML5 via EME, MSE and WebCrypto, publishers can begin to see the outline of an overall platform strategy, one that is trying to bridge the boundaries between both form factors and platforms – desktop, tablet and smartphones.

We are Still in Act One, Scene One
The DIAL protocol is still new; Chromecast is still soft clay, its form not yet determined. Users will be quick to point to the lack of applications as a major deficiency with Chromecast (until HBO GO, WatchESPN, Hulu and others launch). The hacks and holes discovered by the developer community are no accident; I believe it is part of Google's intent to ensure that Chromecast evolves as a balance of users, developers and content publishers. By providing the core foundational capabilities, Chromecast has a chance to mature.

Chromecast has brought to the forefront an issue that afflicts many publishers: what is the second screen?

At a minimum, Chromecast has validated the Apple TV model. The disruptive thread is that mobile devices will become the center of the digital entertainment ecosystem and televisions will serve as mere technical extensions for content expression.

And if Chromecast supported HLS (and Android fully supported it) … well, it would happen just that much faster.

This piece originally appeared on 
WIRED’s Innovation Insights on August 30, 2013.