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Review: Chromecast a cheap, promising device for streaming but buggy

10/30/2013 04:56 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
I really, really wanted to like Google's new streaming tool, the Chromecast.

For just $35, the small device — which looks like an oversized USB key — lets you stream Netflix, YouTube and Google Play content onto your TV. You can also project a Google Chrome browsing session from a laptop onto your big screen, which opens up other types of video content to stream.

The Chromecast, which was first released in the U.S. in late July and sold out immediately, is not yet available in Canada. But mobile apps for the Chromecast have recently appeared in the Canadian App Store for Apple devices and Google's Play marketplace, suggesting that it might be soon.

For households that have decided to cut the cord and forgo a TV subscription service, devices like the Chromecast, Apple TV, the Roku and Boxee Box make it a lot easier to find good content to watch in lieu of channel surfing. And while many newer laptops now have HDMI outputs that allow users to plug their computer into their TV and view content that way, a dedicated streaming box makes it an easier, more streamlined experience.

Or at least it's supposed to.

Relatively speaking, streaming technology is still in its infancy, which means it doesn't always work as well as it should.

The Chromecast certainly did not perform flawlessly during testing.

Setup is easy enough and only takes a couple of minutes before you're ready to start streaming. The Chromecast plugs into an HDMI port and can be powered one of two ways, either via your TV's USB port (if it has one) or an electrical outlet. The USB option is handy since it means the Chromecast can be neatly hidden behind your TV with no dangling wires running to an outlet. A computer program or mobile app (iOS or Android) then sets up the Chromecast with access to a WiFi network. If you plan on using a laptop with the Chromecast, you'll also want to install the Chrome extension that lets you stream the browser window on your TV.

Once set up, a mobile device or laptop becomes your remote to send content to the TV. And Google was smart enough to program the software so it doesn't take over your device. If Netflix or YouTube is streaming via Chrome on your laptop, you can open another tab or do anything else on the computer without interrupting the stream. Same with on a mobile device, using the Chromecast app doesn't mean you can't multitask.

The first time I plugged the Chromecast into one of my TVs it worked flawlessly. I streamed a movie on Netflix, which looked great, and loaded up some YouTube clips without encountering any issues. Had the Chromecast been available in Canada, I probably would've bought another one the next day for my other TV.

I'm glad that's not the case.

The next time I tried to use the Chromecast, nothing seemed to work. First I got an error message on my laptop saying the Chromecast couldn't be found. Thinking it might've be an issue with the WiFi, I checked to make sure the Internet was working. I tried switching to the second WiFi network I have setup in my home but that too caused a problem. It took me a while to figure out that I'd have to again download the Chromecast's setup program to change the WiFi network for the device. By that point, my patient wife was fed up watching me try to troubleshoot the problem and we gave up on the Chromecast for the night.

When I had more time to go through the setup process all over again on my other TV, it worked again as it was supposed to. For a while. On another night, trying to stream something on Netflix looked like I was using a dial-up connection, even though there was nothing wrong with my Internet connection. What was the problem? Who knows? An attempt to use the Chromecast to stream the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" from my laptop's browser to my TV worked poorly, although that wasn't entirely unexpected — the so-called "tab casting" feature is officially in beta.

The Chromecast worked well much of the time. If it worked as promised all of the time, it'd be an A+ product, even at a higher price.

Tech observers were amazed when the Chromecast was launched at just $35. And that price included three free months of Netflix, worth $24. Perhaps the cut-rate price was meant to adjust consumers' expectations.

Here's hoping Google works out some of the bugs so the Chromecast is more reliable — and less frustrating — for cord cutters to use. Until then, a healthy dose of patience may be required to rely on a Chromecast for your streaming needs.