Tech Talk: Google for goggle box

The Chromecast plugs directly into a spare HDMI socket on your TV
The Chromecast plugs directly into a spare HDMI socket on your TV
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NEARLY two years after it launched in America, Google’s “smart TV stick” has finally made it over here. At £30 on the high street or £25 online, the Chromecast is a bargain if you want to turn a regular telly into a smart one – though just how smart is still open to question.

A smart TV is one that receives programmes from the internet as well as your aerial. All you need to convert yours is a spare HDMI socket on the back, and an active broadband connection in your house. The Chromecast comes without a remote control – so to operate it you need to have an Apple or Android phone or tablet about your person.

The device itself is barely distinguishable from a USB stick. It plugs directly into your HDMI socket and hides itself completely behind your TV. There is no graphical interface when you turn it on; it simply waits in the background to receive content from your phone or iPad.

This content can come from one of the “built-in” sources – YouTube, Netflix and the BBC iPlayer chief amongst them – or the internet at large. In theory, you can visit any web page containing video, music or pictures and have them beamed to your TV – but in practice, many sites are incompatible.

There is also no support for the catch-up services of ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5, nor for streaming movie services from Amazon and elsewhere – all in stark contrast to the US, where a raft of content suppliers are now on board. Google’s business model depends on it taking a cut of all content sold through the Chromecast, so we can expect more to become available here given time. But it’s not likely to happen in time for the upcoming present-giving season, when a Chromecast will be on many people’s wish lists.

It isn’t the only smart device on the market, nor even the cheapest – but it is the neatest. Its biggest rival is Sky’s Now TV box, which retails for just £10, complete with remote control, and allows access to all the main broadcasters’ catch-up services, though not YouTube. The device is made for Sky by Roku, which also markets its own boxes, sold on the high street.

There’s also the Apple TV box, which has a much broader spectrum of content than the Chromecast – but a significantly fatter £99 price tag. That may tumble in the new year but at the moment it’s hardly an impulse buy.

The Chromecast, on the other hand, falls firmly into that category. The rule of thumb with new devices is generally to delay buying until they’ve had time to mature – but this one is so cheap that with even its presently limited functionality it’s actually one stick worth sticking with.