19th August 2013

Tech Test: The Google Chromecast gets its first outing in Ireland

Brian Herron

Principal UX Designer

It looks like Google has a bone fide hit on their hands.

The Chromecast, the HDMI video streaming dongle from Mountain View, sold out in an hour in Best Buy, and stocks at Amazon and Google play quickly followed suit.

Initial reports have been largely positive. But how will the US version fare with the vagaries of Irish Wifi? And will its plug and play claims hold up?

We asked our team of designers, developers and UX-perts to put the Chromecast through its paces.

 

The install’s no breeze when your machines wheeze

Helen Nic Giolla Rua -- UX Analyst

Lesson one: an old and wheezy machine makes the Chromecast installation tricky. The support pages weren’t great. While the setup website look really slick, there was no help to be had when I needed it.

That said, the experience was pretty good once everything was up and running. YouTube streamed really well. You have to stream from the YouTube video and not from the browser. A subtle difference that had big resolution and speed implications.

Streaming was consistently good from both a phone and a laptop. But switching between the two caused some problems; the TV turned to an error message screen with no advice on how to fix the problem.

The Netflix app worked well, and I watched lots of Portlandia. But some of the nice touches that Netflix has recently introduced – for instance, auto-playing the next episode – weren’t supported.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fix things in the hours I spent playing with it. I can’t see myself investing in a Chromecast (no matter how cheap it is) until the interface and compatibility get better. For me, it’s 6/10. I’ll stick to hooking my laptop to the TV with a cable for the foreseeable.

 

Livin’ the cable free dream (almost)

Owen Derby – Each & Other Creative Director

When you take the Chromecast out of the box your first reaction is to admire the simplicity of it.

Then you realise that it needs a USB power source, which my TV doesn’t have. The US import comes with a US plug as an alternative power source, so my iPhone charger was called into service.

I disconnected the UPC box from my TV to free up a HDMI port. Just the act of doing this got me thinking about ‘cable-cutting’ and how badly I wanted Chromecast to be the thing that would allow me to do just that.

The install was easy and connecting to the Wifi was a breeze. The synchronisation of the installation experience across the TV and the laptop screen was very well thought out.

I started off on Vice’s YouTube Channel and was gobsmacked by the quality of the picture and the sound.  It made me think of YouTube in a new way. There’s massive potential here for Google in home entertainment.

It is a bit strange not having a dedicated remote – instead you use the device you’re streaming from as the controller. The volume control buttons on the iPad and iPhone work perfectly and display a volume bar on the TV, which is a nice touch.  And switching from mobile to laptop, to ipad, is seamless. its just a single tap or click on the device you’re using.

After loving the YouTube experience, I opened a 1080p video file in Chrome and very quickly realised the limitations of playing movie files in browsers. For one, you have no player control over sound. But more importantly, I started to notice some choppy playback on full 1080p. There’s persistent and noticeable lag.

Netflix was also a disappointment for picture quality. I’m not a big Netflix user, so I'm not sure whether Netflix or the Chromecast was to blame. Either way, I could see a lot of banding on my HD TV. (I should note that after 13 years working in film and TV I’m a bit of a pedant for image quality).

Would i buy one? Yes! If only for the thorough upgrade it gave to my YouTube experience.

Overall, it’s not the cable-cutting tool I was looking for but I was hugely impressed with its simplicity and ease of use. However, it’s missing the ability to connect to local media drives. I can’t navigate to pictures, music, or video stored locally and show them on the TV... which is exactly what I love about Apple TV.

Chromecast fail

Colin Bentley -- Head of UX Practice

Poor reports from my side.

Every time I've tried to connect the Chromecast to my home wireless network, it pulled the whole internet connection down. It happened at my place and I got the same result at my folks’ house over the weekend. Same (no) result on both UPC and Digiweb. I tried trawling through a few forums to find a solution. I think the issue is down to the wireless routers involved, but I've failed to sort out what needs to be done. Chromecast needs to be plug and play, and it wasn't for me. That said, the version I tried is a US import.

 

Good (as long as your girlfriend has decent Wifi)

Richey Ryan -- Development Intern

Since the Wifi at my place is pretty poor, the initial streaming experience wasn’t great. YouTube videos would only stream on the second or third attempt. Netflix was almost impossible to watch.

So I headed up to my girlfriend place, where the Wifi’s much better. The difference was noticeable. We were struck by how good YouTube looked - near-DVD quality, and the music videos we watched streamed flawlessly. It really enhanced the YouTube experience, somehow making it much more engaging. On Netflix we had a hassle-free experience watching The Life Aquatic, with great vibrant colours and perfect streaming.

I then tried to stream media from my laptop’s hard-drive. The process is simple - just a drag and drop onto the URL bar in Chrome. I tried an episode of Breaking Bad and a couple of other videos. The videos have to be in .mp4 file format and encoded with the .h264 codec to play. It’s a pretty common encoding standard, but not universal.

Regardless, the stream was very laggy. The Chromecast might not be suitable for streaming from your hard-drive. Or at least not yet.

I'd like to see better integration with web services, local media playing and maybe the ability to select certain windows to stream. You do need decent Wifi, but once up and running Chromecast is a fairly fluid experience. Worth $35 anyway.

 

The Verdict: The Chromecast has a way to go to fulfill its promise of a cable-free TV experience. The US version's poor router compatibility has to be a red flag for Irish folk thinking of splashing out on an import. Setup aside, it seems effective for Netflix streaming provided your Wifi holds up. And it's a possible game changer for how we use YouTube. For $35, what more do you want?