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Chromecast’s expansion raises streaming stakes

19 Mar

The new Google Chromecast dongle is pictured on an electronic screen as it is announced during a Google event at Dogpatch Studio in San FranciscoDon’t look now, but Google has beaten Roku’s Streaming Stick into Canada with the international expansion of Chromecast, its own streaming dongle for HDTVs. The device, which has been popular in the United States since its release there last year, became available in Canada for $39 through Amazon.ca and Google Play as of Tuesday evening, as well as 10 additional countries.

Roku announced earlier this month it would be launching its device in both Canada and the United States in April but with Google getting past the post first, the battle to control the living room streaming experience is now most definitely on. The third participant in the fray is, of course, Apple, but more on that in a second.

In assessing the combatants, it’s hard to deny that Chromecast has a lot going for it. Like the Roku Streaming Stick, it’s tiny. The dongle plugs into a TV’s HDMI port and sucks power from its USB port, so it’s basically invisible behind the set. Alternatively, it can be powered via a regular electrical plug, but one of the great things about these sticks is that they can eliminate one cord from the nasty spaghetti mess found behind the typical home entertainment system.

Chromecast also has a big price advantage. Even with a $4 Canadian premium to make up for the weakening loonie, it’s still a veritable bargain compared to all other comers. Roku’s Stick, for example, will sell for a comparatively whopping $59 when it hits, although realistically that’s still pretty cheap.

Setting up the Chromecast couldn’t be easier. I popped it onto the back of my TV, switched to the proper input and connected it to my wi-fi network. Next up, I downloaded the free Chromecast app to my tablet and phone and, when I launched them, they immediately found the dongle. Boom – connection made and it was off to the races.

I fired up YouTube on my phone and played a music video, only to find a new “cast” icon on the interface. Pressing it passed on instructions to the Chromecast to retrieve that same video online and start playing it on the TV. In this way there’s no actual streaming going to the device from the phone, which means the phone isn’t using power and is free to do other things like check email or surf the web. The only communication between the two devices are instructions, where the phone (or tablet) is acting as a remote control. It’s actually an ingenious setup based on some impressive technological gymnastics.

Pretty much every app works the same way. I fired up Netflix next and also found the cast icon which, when pressed, directed the Chromecast to start streaming my selection. My tablet, however, was free to do other things.

This all works with multiple users across different platforms, including Android, iOS, Windows, Mac and, of course, Chrome OS. Any number of people in the same household can “beam” to the Chromecast from any number of devices, but the last one to go gets control of it. In other words, if you’re streaming a YouTube video and your wife starts up Netflix, she’ll boot you off the TV. It’s the modern-day version of hogging the remote.

If there’s a downside to Google’s device, it’s that there aren’t yet a huge number of apps available for it. The product page lists only 13 officially endorsed apps, including the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Songza, Plex and the ever-popular Red Bull TV. However, the company recently opened up Chromecast to all developers and the apps are starting to flow. If sales really have been hot – Google hasn’t disclosed exactly how many units have been sold – then that trickle will doubtlessly soon become a wave.

One other arrow that Google has in its proverbial quiver is the ability to cast Chrome web browser tabs to the dongle. The feature is only in beta right now, but it lets you beam photos, music or video from a Windows, Mac or Chromebook computer. The possibilities here are intriguing, with Chromecast eventually being able to deliver any browser-based content, which would include games too.

For now, Roku holds the advantage with apps. Even in Canada where the selection is smaller, the company is still offering about 750 of them (Americans are getting about 1,200). Roku’s higher price point also stems from the remote control that’s included with the Streaming Stick, which is either a selling point or a hindrance. Some people would still rather control their TV entertainment with a proper remote, while others are seriously opposed to adding yet another one to their existing collection on the coffee table.

The ball now seems to be in Apple’s court. As the other big streaming device player, the company is selling what looks like an increasingly anachronistic product. The puck-sized Apple TV isn’t just relatively huge compared to competitors’ sticks, it’s also fairly pricey at $109 (in Canada).

With the company riding out iterative improvements in iPhones, iPads and Macs over the past few years, it’s overdue for something new. It’s a veritable certainty that something is going to happen with the Apple TV, and probably sooner rather than later.

There’s a virtual cottage industry dealing in rumours of just what that might be. I won’t feed into that, but it’s pretty clear that Apple won’t be able to ignore its competitors’ smaller and cheaper devices for much longer.

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4 Comments

Posted by on March 19, 2014 in apple, Google, netflix, roku, youtube

 

4 responses to “Chromecast’s expansion raises streaming stakes

  1. Les

    March 19, 2014 at 9:30 am

    “Smart” TVs and Blueray players already do this, albeit with a terrible UI.

    I don’t see this device category surviving much longer. Remember those dummy cassette tapes with headphone wires that they used to sell in gas stations? They allowed you to connect a Discman or iPod to your old car. This is the same thing, for old TVs.

     
    • Peter Nowak

      March 19, 2014 at 9:55 am

      I generally agree. TV makers really don’t know how to do software and interfaces, which is why so many smart TVs are less than snazzy. Eventually, someone will come along and do it right – the expectation for a while was that Apple was going to, but that hype seems to have fizzled. I liked the Roku TVs I saw at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, which are being done in conjunction with lesser-known Chinese brands TCL and Hisense. Those are coming out later this year and they may indeed raise the stakes once more.

      http://wordsbynowak.com/2014/01/09/ces-roku/

       
    • russellmcormond

      March 20, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      I have a Boxee Box plugged into a Samsung Smart TV. While Netflix is used with the SmartTV, everything else is still Boxee. That “with a terrible UI” is part of the problem, as is all the “partnerships” that Samsung is trying to make with content providers. The first page on the SmartTV is like an old Windows box from Dell or similar : filled with Crapware that is impossible to remove. You seem to be able to add apps, but not subtract.

      Even for the content sites that are “browser” based (Broadcasters like CBC.ca, ctv.ca, etc) they tend to play on the Boxee and my Android tablet, but not the Samsung SmartTV. Some of these sites don’t work on anything but a legacy desktop, which largely means I don’t bother watching those broadcasters any more.

      Then there are folks like HBO which consider YouTube and Netflix to be competitors to themselves, rather than delivery partners. Yet more deliberately incompatible content delivery apps that may or may not ever show up on the devices you own. I expect to see BDUs getting into this silly game as well… Notice the CRTC’s ramblings about an alleged need for a “Canadian” Netflix — something I won’t be surprised if the CRTC and other government agencies throw taxpayer money at, making it lucrative for BDUs to make this even more messy.

      Will Google do better than Samsung? Will we need Canadian specific devices? Will screen manufacturers adopt something cleaner, or will it remain nicer to plug in third party hardware in order to avoid the crapware problem?

      Who knows — but I suspect this category will exist for at least a decade until it all gets sorted out.

       
  2. trixxiii

    March 20, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    i have an old sanyo tv – will it work with that or do i need a flat screen? :[

     
 
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