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Review: Google Chromecast, Low Price, Low on Functionality

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In StreamingMedia.com's breathless announcement of the Google Chromecast in July, we enthused that its functionality would "expand quickly as services rush to build in Chromecast support." Well, it's now late September. Where are other services?

The answer is that Google hasn't released the final SDK (software development kit) yet, and has asked that the temporary one now available be used only for testing, not for production apps. Google isn’t saying when the final SDK will be ready, but here's hoping it's soon.

Chromecast, for those who haven't heard, is a smart set-top box alternative, a dongle that connects to an HDMI port and uses the owner's smartphone or computer for the user interface. The $35 price tag makes it an impulse buy, and we found that using it couldn't be easier. Installation took only a few minutes with the iOS Chromecast app. Chromecast shows that Google has learned much since the launch of Google TV, and is thinking creatively about streaming entertainment.

After living with Chromecast for a month, we're anxious for new apps. The device still only streams content from Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play, as well as the Chrome browser when using a computer. Using those apps is a pleasure, though. Selecting and sending content to a TV is easy and quick, and YouTube and Netflix content looked great on our set. Web pages don't come through with the same high quality.

Netflix on Chromecast is a better experience than on Roku, we found, because the Netflix iOS app supports profiles while Netflix on Roku doesn't yet. Since Roku doesn't have a YouTube channel, Chromecast wins in that area, too.

But Roku boxes have vastly more content than Chromecast, with over 1,000 streaming channels. Once developers start adding Chromecast support to their apps, however, Google will have a new problem in creating a unified experience. Will it add a central interface, so that users don't have to continuously switch apps? Will it create a central queue for content?

Some developers are sure to block Chromecast support -- the major networks, for example. Many in the industry will be watching to see if Google can pull together enough support to make Chromecast a real platform and a rival to Roku and Apple TV, or if it's doomed to be the next Boxee, a good idea that never quite takes off.

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