On these subjects of audio and video quality there are two obvious criticisms of the Google Chromecast – it doesn’t support 4K and there is no optical audio output to let you separately route the audio to a surround system. However, it’s not hard to counter these arguments.
In its current state Chromecast offers little attraction to 4K TV owners. All its features are built into 4K TVs. And if you have a 5.1 system that doesn’t have a receiver-style HDMI interface it’s either incredibly old or rubbish.
Sadly, lots of these kinds of surround systems are still on sale – those £100-150 systems that incorporate a DVD/Blu-ray player and speakers the size of cigarette packs. They tend to feature a single optical input rather than an HDMI, or no aux input at all. We haven’t reviewed many of them as companies generally aren’t keen to have eyes as critical as ours gaze upon them.
If you have one of these systems, we recommend checking whether your TV has an optical audio output. It if doesn’t you won’t be able to get surround sound from the Chromecast.
There's no audio output here
When not streaming video or audio, the Chromecast displays an array of slowly-changing photos, and there’s a clock to the bottom-right. A 50-inch LED TV is a pretty pricey-to-run photo frame, but it is something that makes this dongle all the more lounge-friendly.
Here's the Chromecast 'resting' screen
However, the Chromecast has one big problem. It doesn’t switch off – ever (as far as we can tell). As long as it is connected to a power socket it stays on.
Not only is this a waste, it can result in burn-in with older TVs. While the picture changes, the clock display stays in the same spot, and high-contrast images like these are the worst causers of burn-in.
It seems odd that there’s no power-off function in the Chromecast too. It is CEC-compliant, meaning that it can ‘talk to’ the TV to turn it on and automatically switch your TV to the right input whenever you start steaming (a very neat feature). This should also mean it knows then the TV has been turned off, but the Chromecast stays running belligerently.
This very useful feature could also prove to be very annoying. What if you accidentally enabled the Chromecast on the downstairs TV while you were upstairs in bed? If you have an older TV it will probably mean you have to go downstairs just to turn the thing off. There's three obvious options to counter this. Either switch your TV off at the wall at night, disable the wake feature via your TV's menu or, if you have the luxury to do so, use a powered USB port attached to your TV.
Never switching of is not a particular safety issue as the Chromecast hasn't got more than warm in our testing, but a manual or auto standby mode is something we imagine many buyers would like.
Netflix playback running off Chromecast looks just like... normal Netflix
The Google Chromecast is pretty easy to setup. With an iPhone, iPad or Android you install the Chromecast app, then connect to a Wi-Fi network the dongle pumps out when it’s not already connected to a device.
A couple of screens from the iPhone setup process
In the various apps that support Chromecast, you invariably do so by clicking on an icon that looks like a Wi-Fi logo. It’s all pretty easy, and much less fiddly than setting up a DLNA streaming solution.
As it was released so much earlier in the US than the UK, we had feared that few of the Google Chromecast’s features would work in the UK. However, the only real restriction is that some Chromecast-compatible services are not available in the UK, yet.
There is a long way to go until Chromecast realises its potential, but there is enough here to make the small outlay worthwhile for some already. However, if you're not interested in the tech and you don’t have a Netflix subscription, you might want to wait until we hear from more UK-centric services about their Chromecast intentions.
Also, if streaming direct from a phone or tablet is what you’re really after, consider an MHL adapter (if your device is MHL-compatible) or a Wi-Fi Direct/Miracast HDMI dongle.
It’s a work-in-progress project, but the Google Chromecast offers simple, reliable, cheap streaming that is 100 per cent in line with the trend for more mobile-centric control.
Next, read our best Netflix TV series feature