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Google Chromecast: You Don’t Need One, But It’s Still Necessary

Earlier this summer Google joined the very, very crowded marketplace of internet video streaming hardware devices with Chromecast.

For the average users it’s not only largely redundant— between Roku, Apple TV, smart TVs, Blu-ray players, etc., there’s no shortage of devices that will stream Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. on your TV — but it lacks a lot of content available on its competition.  But the way in which it can bypass content restrictions cable companies have erected makes it a vital addition to the marketplace.

The genius of Chromecast is that it serves as a bridge between your TV and hardware you already own that can stream video, such as your computer, tablet or phone.

That is, unlike Roku, for example, it’s not the device that’s pulling in video from the internet.

This is an important distinction because up until now, cable providers had the ability to block you from using a cable channels’ streaming service on certain devices.

The most notable example of this is Comcast’s prohibition of HBO GO on Roku (they only allow it on Apple TV and Xbox 360). (DirectTV also didn’t allow its users to have HBO GO on their Rokus until this summer). Cable companies get to exert this control because streaming devices go through the cable company to verify you’re a subscriber to a particular channel.

The only way a cable company could prevent Chromecast from being used to watch a service like HBO GO on your TV is to pretty much kill support for it altogether, blocking you from streaming it on your computer, tablet, and phone. It seems highly unlikely that they would ever be that extreme (knock wood). (And the reason cable companies are hostile to streaming devices is that they want you to be paying for a cable box for each TV you want to watch cable content on).

So Chromecast should help put a quick end to cable companies trying to control what we watch on our TVs. While I’m sure Comcast isn’t going to reverse its Roku policies anytime soon, at least there’s a pretty inexpensive way to bypass it (such as spending nearly $100 for Apple TV).

While I expect Chromecast to help loosen up restrictions on the streaming marketplace — especially as more cable channels offer streaming services — for most TV viewers it doesn’t have much to offer.

The video and audio quality of Netflix, for instance, appears no better than other devices (for those with A/V receivers, it streams surround sound). Most problematic is that content is pretty limited: No Amazon Prime, no MLB.tv.

While $35 may seem like a great deal, consider that Rokus start for only $15 more, supports a lot more content, and offers a more traditional TV user experience by being a standalone device, not requiring hardware that can run the streaming apps you want to view on your TV.

The last feature that Chromecast boasts is that it will allow you to display content from Google’s Chrome internet browser on your TV, but it doesn’t work that well. Many video formats are not fully supported — there’s no audio from Quicktime videos — and even for just surfing there’s a big time lag between what’s on your computer screen and TV.

Ultimately I think Roku remains the best available device for streaming, but I don’t think Chromecast was ever meant to supplant it.

My guess is that Google’s ultimate goal with Chromecast is to bring the Google ecosystem to your TV.

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