Last week Google announced a new Smart TV product, the Chromecast. Immediately this generated a great deal of interest among the tech-enthusiast community. Having received one and set it up, preliminary conclusions are that it is not a Smart TV device, and is far less capable than an Apple TV or Roku or any of the major Smart TV platforms; however, it is a very simple and effective device for streaming content from a smartphone, tablet or even a PC. This usage scenario (limited functionality, functional streaming, low-price, easy to use) is probably just fine with most consumers, and may have a significant impact on the future of connected TV.
The setup of the device was very easy, but some owners of older TVs may have trouble. The device relies on external power from a USB connection, although there is some speculation that HDMI 1.4 or MHL enabled ports could supply direct power. Also, the Chromecast is able to use CEC functionality to turn the TV on if it is sent a signal, but ONLY if it is power by a wall adapter. On-board USB ports on the TV are switched off if the set is powered down.
Connecting over WiFi and downloading setup software was very straightforward with clear instructions and minimal steps. Chromecast was somehow able to determine the network password … which was a bit unnerving.
The functionality of Chromecast is essentially identical to Apple’s Airplay technology. There are no native applications on the Chromecast, as there are on other Smart TV STBs and TVs. It is only used to stream content as directed from another device. This is also why the package is so small (the size of a large USB memory stick) and cheap at just $35.
For mobile devices, the YouTube, Netflix and Google Play apps have an icon that when pressed, direct the Chromecast to start streaming the same content stream. Support from other apps is forthcoming, such as Pandora and Vimeo. The device is not streaming peer-to-peer (P2P), but rather accessing the same stream over the Internet. The advantage of this is that you can switch applications on the mobile device and not disrupt the stream. It also does not consume smartphone or tablet resources to stream the content, but rather leverages the mobile device to search, select and control the content.
While the mobile device operation is very similar to Apple TV, the ability to send content from a PC via the Chrome Tab Casting feature is unique to the Chromecast and extremely useful, only requiring an extension to the browser, which allows emulation of any tab on the screen, in fairly high resolution, and in full screen mode on the TV.
Some websites do not have apps for streaming on other Smart TV platforms, so there is no option to stream this content aside from directly on the PC, or via a PC connected directly to the TV. Even some applications like Hulu do not offer the full selection of content on their apps. With Chromecast, almost ALL web content is viewable via tab casting, and since the PC is vastly easier and more familiar for consumers to use to find content, the familiar experience eliminates confusion found on most Smart TV platforms.
One limitation is that ‘tab casting’ from the Chrome browser to the Chromecast sends the full signal through the home WiFi network. As a result, there can be performance limitations (buffering, resolution, lag, jutter) from network or PC performance.
Implications for Smart TV
For $35, there is no equal in terms of function, form and value for streaming web content to the TV. This could be the future of Smart TV: the intelligence to find and play content resides on mobile devices (or PCs) and the TV is just a playback screen streaming content from the Internet.
Our research indicates that the percentage of TVs which are connected will increase to 23% in North America, though this is well below the global average of 36% and behind expectations. The low adoption rate of connected TV in the US relates to the proliferation of other devices that can duplicate the function of Smart TVs for little or no money. Gaming console owners already stream from web apps. Roku and Apple TV are relatively cheap at $60-$100. The Chromecast, at $35, significantly devalues connected TV functions (and may be followed up with an Android game console).
For smart TV makers, this is a big challenge. To date, their solution has been to increase the functionality, complexity and componentry of the Smart TV to compete with other devices in the home. However, this increases the cost while consumers see decreasing value in Smart TV hardware (and set makers struggle with Smart TV obsolescence). The Chromecast will widen this gap further, and appears to be a hit among tech enthusiasts.