Google's new Chromecast HDMI stick is a lot of things: it's a simple new way to bring internet video to your living room after the company stumbled with Google TV, it's a new platform for content creators like Netflix, and it's an interesting extension of Chrome as a platform beyond the browser itself. That's a lot of responsibility for a $35 dongle.
But the Chromecast's biggest challenge is serving as the start of a legitimate alternative to Apple's AirPlay, which has set the standard for quick and easy streaming from a mobile device to TVs and other devices for years. While rival technologies like DLNA and Miracast have tried and failed to compete with Apple's system, it appears Chromecast has a real chance, even if it's not all the way there yet.
So how do they stack up? Let's take a look based on what we know so far.
AirPlay is built into every iPhone and iPad, and works with most newer Macs as well. Using it for audio and video requires that you purchase a $99 Apple TV, or you can just wirelessly stream music to a number of "Made for AirPlay" speakers and sound systems, which range in price. After several years on the market, AirPlay is well-established and understood: consumers know how to use it, and developers have been pushing the boundaries with games that take advantage of multiple screens.
Google is pricing the Chromecast aggressively at a mere $35. (Google says Google Cast, Chromecast's underlying technology, will also eventually be built-in to TVs as well — we'd assume Samsung is involved.) Once you've got the stick, you can send video to it from almost anywhere Chrome runs: an Android device, a Windows or Mac PC, even iOS devices. That's definitely more flexible than the AirPlay experience, but could offer compatibility headaches as well.
AirPlay on the Apple TV is a hybrid of the classic set-top box and streaming from your device: when you first power on an Apple TV, you're greeted with a friendly iOS-powered user interface with easy-to-understand menus and navigation, and you can control the entire thing from the bundled traditional remote without ever touching a smartphone. But open up an AirPlay app on your iOS device, and it's just two taps to wipe all that away and stream video directly from your iPhone or iPad, with all the playback controls remaining on your touchscreen. It's the best of both worlds: a fully-functional set top box and a complete local streaming solution.
Chromecast is focused entirely on the streaming side of the equation. There's no UI or remote outside of your device; everything is handled by the applications that tap into Google's streaming technology and tell the Chromecast what to do. That part of the UI is a lot like AirPlay: you hit a button in an app like Netflix or Pandora that supports Chromecast, and you're streaming away.
What can you stream?
AirPlay's had a long time to sink in, and it's now supported by a huge range of apps and services, like Hulu Plus, HBO GO, and MLB.TV. It's going to take time and effort for Google Cast to catch up: out of the box, Chromecast is starting off with a much smaller list of supported apps that's highlighted by Netflix and YouTube. Google has promised that more partners are lining up (including Pandora) but overall selection favors Apple right now.
The wildcard is Chromecast's ability to stream video from Google's web browser. We've yet to get a sense of just what's possible with this feature and how comprehensive it is, but it's a clever shortcut that could theoretically help Mountain View overcome early weaknesses. Our hands-on demo of this beta feature wasn't perfect, but videos played back with only minor lag. That's a big feature to bring to as many operating systems and platforms as Google wants to do with Chromecast; Mac owners can mirror any application running on their desktop to Apple TV (functionality that will grow more useful with OS X Mavericks), but you have to live in an entirely-Apple world to pull it off.
Note: Windows contains limited AirPlay support within iTunes
Third-party support is everything
AirPlay isn't a new technology; Apple's users have become accustomed to the luxury and often criticize developers that don't include the feature in their apps. Look at any number of popular music and video apps in the App Store, and odds are they've got AirPlay support baked in. It's one of the best features of iOS, and a significant reason users stay with the platform.
Google recognizes the importance developers play in this game, and the company is immediately rolling out an SDK and APIs that let app makers tap into Chromecast. And that SDK is available across Android, iOS, and Chrome OS — again playing to Chromecast's "open" strengths. Even better, Google has said it hopes hardware partners will also incorporate Chromecast in their products. So even if you're not the early adopter type, you may still find Google's streaming technology in your next television or set-top box. But to make that a significant factor, Google will need to round up wider support than it's found with the struggling Google TV platform or with the Miracast streaming standard it began pushing last year with the Nexus 4.
So which is the winner right now? On paper, AirPlay still has the crown simply because it's been around so long and it's so well-supported, but Chromecast has a ton of promise. We'll be getting a review unit soon — we're dying to put this thing through its paces.