October 02, 2013, 3:53 PM —
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Last night's TV episodes are now available Chromecast, now that Hulu Plus has updated its apps to allow for "casting". That means that with a $35 device, anyone with an Apple or Android smartphone or tablet can stream Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, or (on Android) Google Play music and movies to their bigger screen. Google has, in other words, quietly built out a minimum viable alternative to the Apple TV.
You can do more with the Chromecast than just watch and listen to goods from three streaming stores. You can also, from a Chrome browser, send weird and wonderful web pages to your TV screen, and, likely to come, all kinds of stuff from desktops and mobiles through hacker-ish channels. But what keeps Chromecast as the best-selling item in Amazon's electronics store is the price, the minuscule size, and compatibility with any TV with an HDMI port, not the hack-y stuff.
Apple TV and the Roku have made great inroads into what I'll call the Attachment Box market, by offering bucket-loads of content and remarkably simple interfaces and remotes. There are neat extras, like screen mirroring from Apple devices to the Apple TV, but they require buffering on the device and a bit of know-how on getting it set up just so. Still, whenever you sell someone a box and a remote, you're asking them to commit to a new member to their living room family. Some viewers aren't ready, on the tech side or with their wallets, for a $99 gadget.
The way the $35 Chromecast works--and I think the Apple TV and Roku are heading this direction, too--is to take the phone and tablet that many people have and simply use them as remotes. The Chromecast doesn't take Netflix and Hulu streams from your phone and throw them to your TV. It just uses your phone to verify that you have a Netflix/Hulu subscription, to see what you want to play, and then the Chromecast itself starts streaming directly into your TV, for a very smooth experience.
You don't worry about software updates to the Chromecast. You don't have to type anything into a TV with a directional remote. And you don't have to tap and click through menus full of content to get to what you want. You pull up what you want on your phone, as you are fairly comfortable doing at this point, then tell your TV to play it with two clicks. It is, as Chromecast would imply, more like summoning web video to your television than beaming it.
Chromecast isn't exactly a direct competitor to Apple TV or the Roku at this point. For one thing, it lacks entirely for sports, unless you're willing to put up with low-resolution, buffer-hungry Chrome-to-TV direct streaming. But it is leading the way toward a better model of how to get streaming goods onto your TV, without having to commit as much money or time to a new gadget. Keep an eye on this little guy.