Google's new Chromecast lets you watch video from the likes of Netflix and YouTube on the biggest, best screen in your house.
That is nothing you can't already accomplish by running an HDMI cable from a laptop to a TV - but in this case, it's as if the cable were invisible and simultaneously connected to every laptop and iOS and Android phone and tablet in your house. And you can keep the laptop on the coffee table instead of perching it atop a subwoofer or leaving it on the floor next to the set.
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The $35, thumb-sized Chromecast plugs into a TV's HDMI port (its secondary USB cable gets power from a USB port on the set or a wall adapter), then connects to your Wi-Fi network. It plays content from two sources: Android and iOS apps that have been rewritten to link to Chromecast and pages open in Google's Chrome browser.
The first category isn't that interesting today: Almost any "connected" or "smart" TV, DVD or Blu-ray player already has its own Netflix and YouTube apps, leaving Google's Android-only Play Store as the one outlier.
But streaming from those apps can be faster than waiting for a smart TV's app to launch: Open a Chromecast-compatible app on a phone or tablet, let it detect the Chromecast on your wireless network, select a video and tap the app's Chromecast button to start it playing on your TV.
Once you make that handoff, the Chromecast's software plays the video direct from the Internet. You can switch to any other app - maybe check your e-mail, maybe let Facebook eat up a little more of your day - while in most cases still using the phone or tablet's buttons to adjust the TV's volume. You can even shut off your mobile device, and the video will play on.
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Any other iOS or Android device on your Wi-Fi network can also talk to your Chromecast without a password. So you could have visitors competing to send their favorite YouTube clips to your TV from their phones, or maybe they'd just try to "rickroll" you.
(This guest-DJ option was a feature on the Nexus Q media player Google announced last summer and then never shipped.)
Google says app developers should be able to add Chromecast support easily and cites Pandora - one of the more notable absences from Apple TV's menu – as one upcoming upgrade. It looks like AOL, Revision3, Vimeo, Redbox Instant and HBO Go are eyeing Chromecast too. (Discovery Communications owns Revision3.)
But because Chromecast can also display most pages you're viewing in Chrome, you don't have to wait for those developers to revise their apps. To try this, install the free Google Cast extension from Chrome's Web Store, start a video playing, and click the Chromecast icon at the top right corner of the window. That page and the clip appear on your TV, and then you can switch to any other page or app.
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I tested this on a OS X Mountain Lion laptop and a Chromebook Pixel (lesser Chromebooks aren't supported), and it worked as advertised to put sites like ESPN's WatchESPN and Hulu on my HDTV. But the slow processor on an older Windows 8 ThinkPad made it a poor candidate for the chore of decoding and then re-encoding video in real time.
What I like here is how this feature can route around the unwillingness of some media outlets to make it easy to watch their online services on larger screens. Remember when Hulu and TV-network sites blocked the Google TV browser from playing video there? That seems impossible here unless a company wants to block every current copy of Chrome.
Google's $35 price isn't quite as good as it was during Google's exceedingly short-lived bundling of three months' worth of Netflix. But the Chromecast still costs less than many name-brand HDMI cables in stores, not to mention Apple TV or any of Roku's lineup, which may help explain why it's already backordered.
Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery