Don’t look now, but Google has beaten Roku’s Streaming Stick into Canada with the international expansion of Chromecast, its own streaming dongle for HDTVs. The device, which has been popular in the United States since its release there last year, became available in Canada for $39 through Amazon.ca and Google Play as of Tuesday evening, as well as 10 additional countries.
Roku announced earlier this month it would be launching its device in both Canada and the United States in April but with Google getting past the post first, the battle to control the living room streaming experience is now most definitely on. The third participant in the fray is, of course, Apple, but more on that in a second.
In assessing the combatants, it’s hard to deny that Chromecast has a lot going for it. Like the Roku Streaming Stick, it’s tiny. The dongle plugs into a TV’s HDMI port and sucks power from its USB port, so it’s basically invisible behind the set. Alternatively, it can be powered via a regular electrical plug, but one of the great things about these sticks is that they can eliminate one cord from the nasty spaghetti mess found behind the typical home entertainment system.
Chromecast also has a big price advantage. Even with a $4 Canadian premium to make up for the weakening loonie, it’s still a veritable bargain compared to all other comers. Roku’s Stick, for example, will sell for a comparatively whopping $59 when it hits, although realistically that’s still pretty cheap.
Setting up the Chromecast couldn’t be easier. I popped it onto the back of my TV, switched to the proper input and connected it to my wi-fi network. Next up, I downloaded the free Chromecast app to my tablet and phone and, when I launched them, they immediately found the dongle. Boom – connection made and it was off to the races.
I fired up YouTube on my phone and played a music video, only to find a new “cast” icon on the interface. Pressing it passed on instructions to the Chromecast to retrieve that same video online and start playing it on the TV. In this way there’s no actual streaming going to the device from the phone, which means the phone isn’t using power and is free to do other things like check email or surf the web. The only communication between the two devices are instructions, where the phone (or tablet) is acting as a remote control. It’s actually an ingenious setup based on some impressive technological gymnastics.
Pretty much every app works the same way. I fired up Netflix next and also found the cast icon which, when pressed, directed the Chromecast to start streaming my selection. My tablet, however, was free to do other things.
This all works with multiple users across different platforms, including Android, iOS, Windows, Mac and, of course, Chrome OS. Any number of people in the same household can “beam” to the Chromecast from any number of devices, but the last one to go gets control of it. In other words, if you’re streaming a YouTube video and your wife starts up Netflix, she’ll boot you off the TV. It’s the modern-day version of hogging the remote.
If there’s a downside to Google’s device, it’s that there aren’t yet a huge number of apps available for it. The product page lists only 13 officially endorsed apps, including the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Songza, Plex and the ever-popular Red Bull TV. However, the company recently opened up Chromecast to all developers and the apps are starting to flow. If sales really have been hot—Google hasn’t disclosed exactly how many units have been sold—then that trickle will doubtless soon become a wave.
One other arrow that Google has in its quiver is the ability to cast Chrome web browser tabs to the dongle. The feature is only in beta right now, but it lets you beam photos, music or video from a Windows, Mac or Chromebook computer. The possibilities here are intriguing, with Chromecast eventually being able to deliver any browser-based content, which would include games too.
For now, Roku holds the advantage with apps. Even in Canada where the selection is smaller, the company is still offering about 750 of them (Americans are getting about 1,200). Roku’s higher price point also stems from the remote control that’s included with the Streaming Stick, which is either a selling point or a hindrance. Some people would still rather control their TV entertainment with a proper remote, while others are seriously opposed to adding yet another one to their existing collection on the coffee table.
The ball now seems to be in Apple’s court. As the other big streaming device player, the company is selling what looks like an increasingly anachronistic product. The puck-sized Apple TV isn’t just relatively huge compared to competitors’ sticks, it’s also fairly pricey at $109 (in Canada).
With the company riding out iterative improvements in iPhones, iPads and Macs over the past few years, it’s overdue for something new. It’s a veritable certainty that something is going to happen with the Apple TV, and probably sooner rather than later.
There’s a virtual cottage industry dealing in rumours of just what that might be. I won’t feed into that, but it’s pretty clear that Apple won’t be able to ignore its competitors’ smaller and cheaper devices for much longer.