I’m no Chromecast expert. But I have written an eBook about it. Ok, that does make me a bit of a (self-titled) Chromecast expert. Plus, I use it every day. It’s my only streaming stick, streaming puck, whatever you call it. And yes, I’m glad to have bought it. I was amazed by this $35 streaming stick that plugged into the back of my TV and let me streaming anything on the web or in my local collection, right from my phone!
But two years in technology land is a long time. Chromecast needs an upgrade. Badly. You see, I have this perfect wireless media center fantasy (as one does) that I’m now realizing might never come true. I want to sit on my couch, use my phone to play something on my TV. And it works. I don’t need to fiddle with settings or restart or curse. This, of course, is a fantasy.
Chromecast is Underpowered and Slow
And Chromecast is far from the perfect fantasy. Casting YouTube from my Android phone is unreliable and buggy (don’t even get me started on the troubles of casting from an iOS device). Streaming a video file from my Mac using Videostream (which I love to do), usually takes at least 2 attempts. It was the same with Rdio. For God’s sake, mirroring Chrome tabs to Chromecast is still in “beta”!
Google released a $15 ethernet accessory recently that would help cope with internet issues. But to me, the problem seems to be clear. Chromecast is underpowered. The 512 MB of RAM and the 1.2 GHz dual-core Marvell processor are clearly not enough. Let the endlessly spinning loading GIFs and the “unable to connect” errors serve as proof of that.
And it’s not just me. In an article titled “The problem with Chromecast”, Bryan Collman wrote “That is the problem with Chromecast, it does not function as advertised. One can excuse some bugs and hiccups because of the price. But the problems that exist with Chromecast are so debilitating that it is not worth one of your precious HDMI ports”.
But it’s Not Like the Alternatives are Doing any Better
While it’s not exactly a Chromecast alternative (at $69, it’s double the cost), Apple TV is the other most successful streaming puck. And for a family deep in Apple’s ecosystem, Apple TV is usually a no-brainer. It gives you access to all your iTunes movies and TV Shows, Netflix, HBO Now and more. And in addition, it has Apple’s version of casting built in – the AirPlay. That’s all great in theory. But Apple TV suffers from the same problem as Chromecast – age.
The current 3rd Gen Apple TV was released in March 2012. It’s been in the market for a whopping three plus years. Its hardware is not that much different from Chromecast. It’s rocking a 2011 era A5 processor and just 512 MB RAM. And it has to run a modified version of iOS on it. The Apple blogosphere was desperately waiting for a refresh in this year’s WWDC. That didn’t happen. Now we’re hoping it will be at the iPhone launch event in September. It has to happen. Right? Right?
Macworld updated their Apple TV review this week and Jared Newman had this to say about the performance “The apps themselves are visually quite plain, and can be slow to load as you move through their menus”. He goes on to say that “The current Apple TV hardware lacks modern features such as voice search and a full app store. Think long and hard before making it the anchor of your living-room streaming experience.”
Apple TV’s problem is that it’s trying to do a lot of stuff while running on the same meager hardware as Chromecast. But if you’re only using AirPlay, the Chromecast equivalent of Apple TV, things aren’t as bad. Harpreet Singh, who runs the popular Twitter handle, Deals for Geeks, seems to be happy with his Apple TV. “I’m not really a power user when it comes to Apple TV. I mostly use it for AirPlay mirroring, and streaming local videos at times. Personally, I’ve never had any lagging issues”, he says.
Other than Apple TV, I’d say the two most talked about to Chromecast alternatives are the Amazon’s Fire TV Stick ($39) and Roku Streaming Stick ($49). Both have a similar form factor, plus they come with a physical remote. They don’t have much to offer other than compatibility with a wide range of streaming services and some form of local streaming (via Plex). But then, both of them have better hardware than Chromecast. For casual streaming use, they’re at least more reliable than Chromecast. CNET ranked both Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick higher than Chromecast.
To me, the problem is that they just can’t do as much as Chromecast can.
What if Google Doesn’t Care Enough?
When you spend as much time using and writing about technology, you develop some theories. And my theory is that Google doesn’t care enough about Chromecast (among other things). Google is an advertising company that also runs the world’s most popular mobile OS and is working on automating transportation. But you see, those are the other things Google does. Last time I checked, close to 90% of Google’s revenue still came from advertising.
And of course, Chromecast is a great tool for advertising. Because it puts those YouTube ads on the big screen. But the question is how important is that to Google? Not that much, I’d bet. Which is why we still haven’t heard a peep about Chromecast 2 from Google. There have been no concrete leaks either.
Plus, there’s the thing about cost. The reason why Chromecast is so cheap is because it uses cheap-ish components that become cheaper as the product life cycle continues. There’s a clear incentive for Google to stretch Chromecast out for as long as possible.
I Still Believe in Chromecast
I was a fan of the idea of Chromecast and I still am. Why else would I keep using it despite all the issues? Which is why I’m not asking for a radical departure from Chromecast’s core values of streaming. I really think a beefed up Chromecast 2 with twice the performance (maybe even an increased price tag), would go on to solve most of its current issues.
But at the same time, I’m going to keep an eye out for the new Apple TV. Because for my specific use case, Apple TV is the only other viable alternative. That’s still a couple of months out though.
Till then, I’ll just keep dodging Chromecast connection error trying to stream the latest episode of Mr. Robot while my dinner gets cold.