The recent Chromebit announcement raises questions regarding Google's strategy to establish living room dominance. Alas, the Google ecosystem has become more complex. Between Android TV, the Chromecast, Android Mini PCs, and the recently announced Chromebit turning on a TV and viewing content has become a much more complex endeavor than the channel surfing days of old. Has Google shot itself in the proverbial foot by flooding the market with too many products that have similar form factors and functions?
At least on the surface, it seems. Yet upon closer examination these products are wildly different, each with varying advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately this is good for consumers. No single device can suit everyone's needs perfectly. Having a plethora of options gives consumers the ability to find a device that truly suits their usage. Does this introduce complexity into consumer's lives? Absolutely. Is this a bad thing? Possibly. However, so long as products are clearly differentiated from one another consumers can make simple, well-informed decisions. Has Google and device manufacturers done a fantastic job of differentiating their products? Not exactly, which is why we will be reviewing their ideal uses so you can decide which is best for you.
Let's begin with the Chromecast, Google's first successful attempt at bringing content to larger screens. The Chromecast is an HDMI dongle that is connected to a display; it is essentially an oversized USB thumb drive with an HDMI connector rather than a USB connector. Content on a device such as a smart phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop can be "cast" to the Chromecast via Wi-Fi, which will grab the content from the web and display it. The Chromecast is an inexpensive (around $35) means of transmitting content from a small screened device to a large display, it is not "smart" or functional in and of itself, unlike the other options we will be reviewing.
Prior to the release of the Chromecast manufacturers began producing devices called "Android Mini PCs" or "Android Sticks". These devices generally come in two form factors; set-top boxes and HDMI dongles. Unlike the Chromecast these sub $100 devices run full-fledged Android. When paired with an input device, such as a keyboard and mouse, they transform a TV or monitor into a functional Android computer. These devices are very flexible because they have access to the entire Android ecosystem and are quite capable as computational devices. However, the Android UI has not been designed to be used from a distance, making them less ideal for a TV/living room style experience.
Android TV is a custom version of Android that has been designed with the living room in mind. It can be built right into a smart TV or run to a TV from a set-top box. It features a "lean back" interface, which means that it is perfect for viewing at a distance and navigating with a remote or gamepad. Thus, Android TV is meant for content consumption and gaming, unlike an Android Mini PC, which can be used for everything from word processing to web browsing and watching YouTube videos. It also has Chromecast functionality built-in, yet comes at a significantly higher cost ($100 or more).
Last but not least the very interesting and recently announced Chromebit. The Chromebit is a sub $100 HDMI dongle that is very similar to an Android Mini PC; the differentiating factor being that it runs Chrome OS. Connect the Chromebit to a display, connect an input device, and you have a fully functional Chrome OS computer. Pretty awesome, right? While the Chromebit can certainly connect to a TV it by no means competes with Android TV for a spot in your living room. The Chromebit, like an Android Mini PC, is a computational device. Sure, it can be used for viewing content. Yet, as you well know, Chrome OS is meant for tasks that are typically performed on a computer. It has nothing in common with Android TV, and, other than its form factor, nothing in common with the Chromecast.
In conclusion. The Chromecast is ideal for getting content off a small screened device and onto a large display (for a very low price). Android TV powered devices are ideal for watching media or gaming in the living room. And, finally, the Chromebit and Android Mini PCs are ideal for converting a display into a fully functional computer. While it may seem like Google and its manufacturing partners are adding unnecessary layers of complexity to something as simple as watching TV these devices are obviously very different. Some, to be perfectly frank, are not ideal for the living room whatsoever. Hopefully Google and manufacturers will do a better job of communicating this to consumers in the future.