Google's new streaming device is different for two reasons: its diminutive size, and its similarly small price. Instead of a box or console, Chromecast is a small dongle that fits in the palm of your hand and plugs directly into an HDMI port on your television. This eliminates one wire from your setup (from device to TV), though you'll still need a connection to power your Chromecast through an electrical outlet or — if your TV has one — a USB input.
At $35, it's roughly one-third the cost of Apple TV or the Roku 3 (Roku also offers a dongle streaming stick, and it retails for $69.99), and its July release was an immediate sellout. Supply is no longer a problem, but there's a bit of a you-get-what-you-pay-for caveat. The Chromecast is a nifty little device, but for now it streams only a few apps from your device or PC: Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. That's a far cry from the streaming options found on Roku, and far short of even Apple TV's inventory. You can also play movies, videos and music from the Google Play store, and unlike Apple's proprietary device, the Chromecast integrates with both iOS and Android. It allows those using a Google Chrome browser to mirror content to the TV screen — which it touts as a workaround for nonsupported streaming services. But my experience with mirroring from Chrome has been frustrating, with lagging, blurry video. Apple TV's AirPlay is far superior.
Google may debut Nexus Play, a set-top streaming box of its own, in 2014. Meanwhile, the Chromecast, given its low price and Google's promise to add apps and services, is an easy device to recommend despite its limitations.
Many Blu Ray players now double as streaming devices, offering a range of features, including a majority of the most popular services and apps. It's a great option for people who have already invested in Blu Ray and DVD collections, or who simply still like watching films, TV shows and other content on disc. You'll pay more for a Blu Ray player with streaming capability than for one without it, but it's possible to find streaming Blu Ray players for under $100, and it's an efficient way to bundle two devices into one.
If you're a gamer or have kids or grandkids who like video games, most gaming consoles — including the recently launched Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — now include streaming services, offering the standard lineup of apps and channels including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube. These are pricier options, though, as the Xbox One retails for $499, and the PS4 goes for $399.
Austin O'Connor covers television, film, gaming, gadgets and all kinds of entertainment for AARP.org. Follow him on Twitter: @austinjoconnor.
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