Google is making another foray into the living room with the Chromecast, a small $35 dongle that allows users to stream videos from a phone or tablet to their TV using Chrome. Essentially, it turns every TV into a smart TV, but it lets you control it through whatever device you're on rather than providing a new interface. "Everyone loves their phones, tablets, and laptops," said Google. "Unlike other solutions, we will not force you to have the same operating system on all your devices." It connects over HDMI and is powered by USB, and can be plugged right into an A/V receiver if your TV doesn't have an extra port. Google says that future devices from partners — very likely TVs and set-top boxes — will also have Chromecast built-in.
The Chromecast doesn't directly mirror your screen to devices a la AirPlay, though the two concepts are pretty similar. After what Google promises is quick and painless syncing, it turns your phone or computer into a remote, allowing you to queue up and play videos, control volume, or even turn on the TV; from there, you can use other apps without interrupting playback. It will also continue playing even when your phone is asleep, and unlike Google's failed Nexus Q, it will work the same on Android and iOS — Windows Phone, at least for now, is not supported. Speaking of the Nexus Q, it appears that the Chromecast is the true successor to that device.
On the traditional PC side, it supports Chrome on recent versions of Windows and Mac OS X: users can stream the contents of tabs directly from the browser, including HTML5 and Flash content, though Silverlight and Quicktime video aren't supported. Somewhat ironically, the only currently supported Chromebook is the high-end Pixel, though wider support is coming. Google says this particular feature is in beta, but will be finalized with the release of Chrome 30.
Besides YouTube, we've also seen it play back video from Netflix and audio from Pandora, and Google is releasing a developer preview and SDK that will let other apps support streaming. Developers will either modify their websites or build web apps that the Chromecast can access via the internet. The Chromecast is currently available for order on Google Play in the US, though inventory appears to have quickly sold out; Google says it will also be available through Amazon and Best Buy, appearing in Best Buy's retail stores on July 28th. For a limited time, it will come with three free months of Netflix, and international expansion will be coming "as soon as possible."
Update: Already, third-party developers are taking advantage of Chromecast's SDK and API. One of the first to hop aboard may surprise you: The Washington Post. The DC-based newspaper and news outlet said in a statement to reporters that it would begin "integrating The Post’s upcoming new video offerings, PostTV, with Google’s Chromecast." The Post said it worked with Google engineers to optimize PostTV for Chromecast, and the channel is due to launch later this month.
It should be noted that The Washington Post is no stranger to experiments with new developer platforms: it was one of the first and only news companies to launch a Facebook "social reader" app back in 2011, along with the rollout of the Facebook Open Graph, though its initial popularity quickly fizzled and the company later pulled it off Facebook entirely, making it into a stand-alone offering. That is to say that: just because it's going to be on Chromecast doesn't guarantee PostTV will find an audience there.
Update 2: Chromecast is now available to order on Amazon.com, with one- and two-day shipping options currently in play. If you're itching to try it out as soon as possible, this is probably your best option. Amazon Prime members will even save money over the Google Play version and its comparatively expensive shipping.